Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Striding out for success

It's always great to discover something new especially when that something is making a real difference. Last night, I was introduced to Striding Out, the community interest company which supports young entrepreneurs.

The organisation has been around for a few years and I really wish I'd discovered them earlier! The people behind it are a truly inspiring bunch, no-one more so than Heather Wilkinson, the founder and managing director. I managed to grab a few words with Heather over a beer at London's new Club4Climate, Britain's first eco-nightclub.

Heather has been involved in social enterprise for eight years so is well qualified for all the services Striding Out provides. She has some interesting views on the sector and unfortunately we didn't get a chance to debate them in depth but it's something I hope to do in the future.

Heather works with many of the UK's social enterprise ambassadors and one of them, Liam Black, who founded Fifteen with Jamie Oliver, gives her a glowing reference: "Passionate. Sharp. Highly professional. We need more like her!" Here, here!

I met a couple of Striding Out's coaches who exude the same energy as the organisation's boss. I come across a lot of business advisors, coaches and mentors in my line of work - both from the public and private sector - but those I met last night appeared so much more committed, so much more passionate and so much more determined to boost enterprise in all its forms. It says something about traditional business support services I think. When entrepreneurs support entrepreneurs, the best results are achieved.

I've got my own ideas for businesses but I was disappointed to spot that at 32 I am too old to use Striding Out's services. Fortunately, Branching Out, a spin off group for us over 30s exists. I'll certainly be taking advantage of that one!

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Unrepresented? Become a social entrepreneur

Government and opposition ministers alike continually bark on about supporting unrepresented groups such as women and ethnic minorities in getting involved in enterprise but often their actions don't seem to back up their words. Alistair Darling for instance in his budget earlier this year focused on boosting female entrepreneurship - great - but announced the governnment is investing a paltry £10m to do it. A tiny amount in the scheme of things.

As a result, it seems these unrepresented groups are taking their backs on the authorities' limited efforts and doing it for themselves. Happily, given the subject of this blog, it's social entrepreneurship they are turning to.

New research from the excellent Social Enterprise Coalition shows black, Asian and minority ethnic communities have higher levels of social entrepreneurship than their white companies. In addition, while women are only half as likely as men to be mainstream entrepreneurs, they are equally or more likely than men to be social entrepreneurs, the report revealed.

The findings demonstrate the power of social enterprise and its ability to allow individuals who have struggled to get on the business ladder using traditional methods are able to do so by setting up a company which benefits society.

It is this which ministers should be focusing on. If they really want to promote entrepreneurship among all, boost the way social enterprise is supported and developed. As Jonathan Bland, chief executive of the Social Enterprise Coalition, said: "This data shows the prevalence of social entrepreneurship across the population and re-affirms that social enterprise is a sustainable business model essential not only for positive social change, but for the UK's economy."

Saturday, 26 July 2008

A billion reasons to listen

Ok, I know this post is a couple of few months late but good things come to those who wait! Since my last blog, life in my day job running has been pretty hectic. We got involved in the Bristol Design Festival and ended up running a hugely successful Dragons' Den-style competition called The Pitch. More about that another time.

In this post I fulfil my promise of outlining my experiences at Good Deals, the UK's first conference focusing on financial investment in social enterprises.

The highlight by far was the keynote address by entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter. It's not often I'm in the presence of someone who's worth £1.05bn so I made sure I paid attention!

Listening to his speech, I was struck that the 47-year-old Scot doesn't look like someone who's worth an amount of money I can't even imagine; he's wasn't dripping in bling, he didn't ooze arrogance and he wasn't tracked by a string of staff tending to his every need.

That's not saying he's not hugely confident and he must have a strong element of ruthlessness to reach the sort of heights that he has but despite all that his main passion in life is clear; he wants to give his money away.

He is already well on the way to doing it. Among the millions donated through the Hunter Foundation he set up with his wife in 1998 are £6m to Band Aid, £1m to Make Poverty History and £1m to Children in Need.

All very impressive but that's easy to do you may say for a man who founded the Sports Division chain and sold it on for £290m. However, entrepreneurs running businesses of all sizes have a lot to learn from Sir Tom.

He believes that those who make money have a duty to give something back. The words of Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and a trustee of the Hunter Foundation, were key in sparking him into action. "If you're lucky enough to amass a great wealth, to die with it is a great waste," he told him.

Philantrophy in some circles is a dirty word - it's seen as the super rich writing cheques which while they benefit the causes are really aimed at boosting the public profile of the donor.
Sir Tom is different. He views his giving like a business transaction.

"Treat every philantrophic investment as you would a business investment", he explains. In business you want a return on investment so why should the same not be true for charitable donations?

If your only contact with a cause, campaign or scheme is handing over a cheque how do you know whether it has done any good? How do you know whether the cash has been used wisely and invested where it should be?

Leverage your money, Sir Tom advises. He explains that he takes the flack if an initiative he sets up fails but if it works, it's up to local authorities to take it on. "We are no substitute to the taxpayer," he proclaims.

Sir Tom also believes that it's vitally important key performance indicators are set for any community giving an entrepreneur undertakes. If it's not working, stop, he stresses; there are plenty of other good places where your money could be going.

Finally, one of the billionaire's biggest bugbears is there is not enough collaboration going on. "In the third sector, there are lots of people doing the same thing. In the traditional business world, if that was happening, we'd consolidate it and make sure everyone who should be is benefiting."

A hugely inspirational speech from an hugely inspirational man. Yes, he can afford to say it, of course he can, but put that out of your mind. There are immense problems in local communities all around the UK that aren't being solved using traditional charitable or public sector techniques.

Entrepreneurs hold the answer by approaching the issues with a business-like attitude. Being ruthless enough to halt projects when they're not working, setting people difficult targets and investing money where it should be invested will go a long way to overcoming society's ills.

So next time you write a cheque for the local church appeal or to fund a Scout group's new minibus, think about how you could actually do more. How could you get involved directly so you know exactly where the money's going and who it's helping. If it's not finance you provide, what about giving your time, your contacts, your experience?

You may not have billions to give away like Sir Tom but if every entrepreneur gave something, the world would certainly be a better place.