Tag Archives: social entrepreneurship

Thinking big

My dear old mum used to say that if all the money put into probation and prisons was invested in nurseries, after a generation prisons wouldn’t be needed. I was reminded of this when learning recently about a social enterprise that I think is simply brilliant.

70% of toddlers and infants aged up to four years in Brazil have no access to nurseries. A 27-year old entrepreneur has set out to change this by organising ‘community mothers’ to provide home-based daycare centres.  Like all the best social enterprises, Elisa Mansur’s initiative MOPI (The Movement for Education) is a simple idea that works at so many levels:

  • It trains community mothers of all ages in best-practice childhood education through play
  • It creates employment for those traditionally disadvantaged in the Brazilian jobs market
  • It provides accessible and affordable nursery places to free-up family members for additional purposeful activity
  • Above all, it gives the next generation the enriched start in life they deserve and need for a fulfilling future and for the wider benefit of society

Whenever I see what I think is a simply brilliant idea, I can’t resist imagining it being replicated in the UK. The need for accessible and affordable quality nursery spaces is real, as is the undeniable benefit of providing training and employment for people who might run them. But I’m afraid I can only see the heavy hand of bureaucracy spouting all sorts about safeguarding, quality assurance, and limited resources. But, given the reward of success, it doesn’t stop me speculating.

And my mother might well have been right about the long-term impact of investing in nurseries, but we’ll never know of course; politicians think they can only think-and-do short term – operating with five-year horizons. But we can dream, can’t we?

Here’s a short film about Elisa Mansur’s vision http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20190307-the-27-year-old-protecting-brazils-hidden-job-economy

What makes an entrepreneur?

Recent research by Innovate UK and YouGov asked 18-30 year olds that were not in employment, education or training about their attitudes to innovation and entrepreneurship. One of many findings suggested that young people have problems with the word ‘entrepreneur’ and only 8% of those interviewed said they would describe themselves as ‘entrepreneurial’.

This got me thinking about the images conjured up by the word ‘entrepreneur’ and why young ‘disadvantaged’ young people might distance themselves from that image.

I think mass media has a lot to answer for here. TV programmes (or ‘shows’ as Lord Sugar once described his) like The Apprentice and, to a lesser extent, Dragon’s Den have long since given up on pretending to reflect real business and typical business people – no doubt in the scramble for viewing figures and the need to edit hours of filming down to a few handpicked moments of high drama, however contrived they may appear in the final cut.

The confrontational format of both those TV programmes probably does nothing to encourage more thoughtful and less gobby would-be entrepreneurs to consider starting their own businesses. This may also explain why 82% of those young people that YouGov consulted viewed the business sector as ‘difficult to access’ (whatever that really means).

But I also think the contrasting portrayal of entrepreneurs – as super-cool, edgy, risk-takers – is equally unhelpful. I assume this portrayal is intended to make entrepreneurship more attractive to younger people, but giving entrepreneurs super-hero qualities can also be off-putting if you’re perfectly capable but low on self-confidence.

Maybe the potentially confusing terminology is also to blame. I’m not sure I could clearly describe the difference between an innovator, an inventor, and an entrepreneur. And that’s just in a business context; as far as I’m concerned all three individuals might have no plans to invest their particular talents in setting up a business, but still aspire to make a difference and change the world.

There are any number of articles defining ‘what makes an entrepreneur’. A Google search with this question gets you 30.7m results and I myself have written about this in the past, in relation to ‘social entrepreneurs’ in particular. There’s a mind-boggling array of arguments about whether entrepreneurship is about having the right mindset, relevant practical skills, or suitable character traits – in reality it’s probably a mix of all those elements.

Sometimes I work in the Entrepreneurial Spark incubator in Milton Keynes – a business start-up-and-grow facility (‘powered by NatWest’ it says on the publicity) and there I’ve seen a large poster with E-Spark’s interpretation of what it means to be a successful entrepreneur. The poster’s list of 22 ingredients in their recipe for success [with my own commentary in brackets] are below:

I focus, focus, focus [yes – procrastination and being all over the place is rarely helpful]

I re-imagine daily [whatever that means… could it be about constantly monitoring progress?]

Outcomes rule my day [being effective as opposed to efficient (which is about outputs) makes sense – ‘results-focused’ is another way of putting this]

I am self-aware ALWAYS [if this means knowing what you’re not good at, knowing your limits and how to plug the gaps, that a good thing]

I know my numbers [yes – whether you like or loathe them, you need to understand figures]

I engage my customers [Engage is one of my red-rag words because it’s so vague – so is this ingredient]

I am constantly curious [although they say the best entrepreneurs are not too bright – so they don’t always think about what could go wrong and focus instead on the destination]

My business has vision [I suppose as long as your vision and that of the business are complementary…]

I am humbly confident [yep – I think that strikes about the right balance]

I inspire my team to excel [leading by example is clever, leading from behind is even smarter]

Uncomfortable? I’m comfortable with that [the ability to take yourself out of your much-talked-about comfort zone is an essential requirement when starting a business – be prepared to do it]

I love to collaborate [yes – I believe collaboration (rather than competition) is the future for businesses that matter]

I am aware… Always on [I hope this doesn’t mean you never switch off from being an entrepreneur – that is not a healthy habit]

I make decisions intuitively [gut feeling is important for some people and, if you’re wrong, they also say ‘fail early, fail fast’ to make you feel better about your mistakes]

I take action – ALWAYS [cue old joke – I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure]

I am constantly selling and pitching [interestingly there’s a current backlash against pitching. And a tip – don’t sell and pitch to your friends and family]

I wake up ready to communicate [as long as this doesn’t keep you or your partner awake at night!]

I have a lean work ethic [makes sense for some businesses – particularly those with low start-up costs, as does the concept of a ‘minimal viable product’]

I develop a relevant network [love or loathe networking, it can get you further faster]

I value working with mentors [never stop learning and never think you know it all]

I am opportunity hungry [I think this means being able to spot opportunities and take them]

The buck stops with me [exciting and scary – as is much of ‘going it alone’ in business]

Further reading:

Slowing the spin about social entrepreneurs https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/slowing-the-spin-about-social-entrepreneurs

Age and social entrepreneurship https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2015/04/08/age-and-social-entrepreneurship

Has pitching had its day? https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/15/the-apprentice-pitch-pitching-productive?

Age and social entrepreneurship

An image of ageThe clock is ticking. Not the ‘Help – I’m 60 in August and what have I got to show for it?’ kind of countdown. No, the clock is ticking because we’re four months into a 12-month Repair Shed programme funded by the Innovation in Waste Prevention Fund. By definition ‘innovation’ is unlikely to follow a neatly drawn plan, but I still feel pressure when reality gets in the way of our best intentions.

I’ve been documenting our progress since way before the funding came on stream (not least through these blogs) and I currently report weekly by e-mail to all our Shed members, monthly by phone to the funders, and formally face-to-face to our Steering Group every six weeks. I think this urge to document my progress, and lessons learnt along the way, is a function of my age and stage in life – I want to leave behind something, even if it’s only a list of mistakes; things I’d do differently next time around.

But what I haven’t been reflecting and reporting on is what it means to be trying to set up a social enterprise in my late 50’s. Until now nobody has asked me about this, maybe because they think it would be politically incorrect (age still seems to be a taboo subject for some). But now I’m meeting an MA student of social entrepreneurship researching social enterprise start-ups by people in the 50+ age group, so I’m trying to draw some conclusions about my age-related experiences.

It isn’t going to be easy because I’ve never thought of myself as being a particular age and, even if I did, I wouldn’t know how someone of that age would/should behave! What I do know is this….

My younger self would have advised me not to even consider starting a social enterprise because it’s such a difficult business model to sustain financially. It’s certainly not a level playing field … social enterprises tend to employ people deemed to be unemployable, locate in places others don’t go, and provide products and services others won’t. And why don’t other businesses do this? Because it won’t make them any money or, at the very least, it will involve an uphill struggle just to get to the starting line alongside ‘straight’ businesses. Mix in the ‘triple bottom line’ – measuring performance against people, planet and profit related objectives – and the challenge becomes even greater.

So the drive to take this difficult route to business success at my age and stage in life comes from personal experience – overriding objectivity and business sense.  Just as charitable giving is often prompted by a personal connection with the cause being supported, so my involvement in setting up The Repair Shed is fuelled by an empathy for, and association with, the purpose behind the enterprise – to keep men aged 50+ healthier and happier for longer. I’m in the age group of my target market and I’d certainly have liked to have access to a Repair Shed at different stages in my life to help me through unemployment and mental ill health.

Whether my age and experience make me more credible to others is not for me to say – you need to ask them! I’m keen to avoid the cliché of equating age and experience with wisdom, but I have been around, I’ve built up contacts, and I invite contemporaries to bring their age and experience to the development of the enterprise as well.

I know I have the p-word – passion – and the energy to give the development of The Repair Shed vision my best shot, but I also feel that is tempered by a sense of realism and a self-awareness about my own limitations (managing people being one!) I don’t know whether this is a good or bad thing – boundless optimism can sometimes make things happen.

This more cautious approach to enterprise development may also affect my rate of progress but I’m not convinced this is a function of age. Certainly everything had taken far longer than I had planned and other, high-tech start-ups seem to develop much more quickly. In comparison, our operation is much lower tech (not all members are on e-mail for a start) and I’m the only person getting paid for the time I put in on developing the business.

With age, I suspect you don’t get so easily seduced by the hype around social entrepreneurship and social enterprises – a subject about which I’ve written other blogs. Suffice it to say that I don’t see this development stage in my career as being a route to fame and fortune! A life in the not-for-private-profit sector has taught me that the return on investment of blood, sweat and tears is the personal satisfaction, if I’m lucky, of seeing how people benefit from what I’ve created and leaving a sustainable set-up for others to develop and improve. Which would require a whole new blog to define ‘sustainability’…

Further reading:

For blogs on slowing the spin around social entrepreneurs and social enterprise, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/slowing-the-spin-about-social-entrepreneurs  and https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/slowing-the-spin-about-social-enterprise

An A – Z of social entrepreneurship: A – D

As a contribution to Global Entrepreneurship Week (17 – 23 November) Chris Lee blogs his personal and highly selective reflections on what increases the effectiveness of social entrepreneurship to mobilise resources of all kinds for positive change and social impact in and beyond local communities.

A – Accountability

Even when you’re spending your own money you’re not truly free to behave as you might wish. You have a responsibility to guard against your actions having a negative impact and to be aware that a poorly executed plan may harm the credibility of those who follow you. When you’re working with vulnerable people, as clients or employees, their welfare should also be your concern.

 B – Balance

Rarely are there right and wrong ways of doings things, even when applying a proven model in a new situation. For all the online advice and training manuals, social entrepreneurship is about testing new and different ways to bring positive change in society and seeing ever obstacle as a new opportunity. Ultimately the ‘right way’ is likely to be a compromise – balancing conflicting needs and interests.

 C – Collaboration

It’s too easy to stereotype entrepreneurship as being competitive (and aggressive if you believe ‘The Apprentice’…) and social entrepreneurship as being about collaboration. In reality, entrepreneurs of all varieties know the value of networking and building mutually-beneficial alliances with others. Indeed, with growing need and shrinking resources, partnership may be the only answer in some cases!

 D – Decision-making and democracy

When asked, four years on, why he’d not consulted the community when setting up a (very successful) social enterprise, the entrepreneur replied “They’d still be trying to decide what to call it if I had.”  

Consultation and involvement are our watchwords, but they can make decision-making more cumbersome. Business decision-making tends to be more streamlined. But, ultimately, which brings better decisions?

Routine or innovation?

 

Chris Lee (left) receives voucher for 10 free swims from North Herts Council Director John Robinson

Chris Lee (left) receives voucher for 10 free swims from North Herts Council Director John Robinson

At the end of September I won a North Hertfordshire District Council competition organised to celebrate ‘Waste Less, Live More’ Week (22 – 28 September – put it in your diary for 2015).

To cut a long story short, I can now call my pallet table ‘prize-winning’ and I’ll be swimming in our local leisure centre for the next ten Fridays for free!

I’m more of a runner than a swimmer, but this week I learnt from a great little British Heart Foundation booklet on physical exercise for the over 50s* that 30 minutes ‘moderate intensity’ swimming burns the same number of calories as 16 minutes running’.

So ten free swims is a valuable prize.

This Friday was my first free swim. I hadn’t been to the pool for a couple of years (it’s not cheap) but happy memories soon came flooding back. I go early and it was the usual 6.30am crowd – older swimmers standing in the shallow end chatting and the ‘speedos’ ploughing up and down the lanes, power drinks lined up in bottles poolside – very intimidating.

I am neither a chatterer nor a speedo – I did my 20 lengths in slightly fewer minutes – but it gave me the time to reflect on the joy of some routines, such as chugging up and down a swimming pool. In fact I got so carried away I lost count of how many lengths I’d swum so I might, in fact, have done 18 or 22 lengths.

How different from the world of social entrepreneurship – in which I’ve been immersed over the last 12 months – where we’re urged to constantly innovate and, more recently, be disruptive (whatever that means). It’s as if doing things differently and being creative in always a good thing. My wife works in the NHS and, like in education, she works in a world of constant change, re-organisation, and energy-sapping disruption. She suffers from people trying to ‘innovate’!

Yes – there’s a need to find new solutions to enduring problems, and urgently, but maybe we should also value the idea of ‘sticking to the knitting’ (as a now notorious ex-government minster suggested recently), doing what we do well, following tried and tested, reliable routines and – like my plodding up and down the swimming pool – allowing ourselves the time to slow down and think.

*Be active for life http://www.bhf.org.uk/publications/view-publication.aspx?ps=1001242 download for free from the British Heart Foundation website.

Waste less, live more is at www.wastelesslivemore.com

Reflecting and sharing will be the theme of an early November blog post