(un)Question Time for social entrepreneurs

OK – first bit of live blogging. Am sitting in a session with a panel of four social entrepreneurs, chaired by our own David Dimbleby, Cliff Prior (CEO, UnLtd). The intention is to share learning, real experiences (successes and failures) and genuinely interrogate these practitioners.

First up is Ben Ramsden from Pants to Poverty, whose organisation started on the back of Make Poverty History and has grown from there. Interesting (already) that none of them are comfortable with being called “successful”. Sold 3,000 pairs of pants first up, and then went from there. [Shock news: Cliff owns some]

Second up is Davina Roberts of Punch and Juicy, who runs a healthy-living / drinks organisation. She has overcome homelessness, and chalenging illness, to do this work. She emphasised the importance of networking and “smiling while pushing business cards at people”. Punch and Juicy is a great name; + she has “juice masters” who make and create new drinks.

Third up is Annys Darkwa of Vision Housing which supports ex-offenders to access accommodation. Very interesting model (check the website)….and she felt that service user involvement and empowerment was at the heart of her success (alongside having the boxes ticked: policies and procedures).

Finally, Ben Matthews of Bright One, which provides PR to charities and social enterprises. I met Ben last year, and he is one of our excellent social reporters, and Bright One is cool. Going very well: too well, because they’ve had to put a stop to charities etc coming with more projects.

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Into the discussion, which is (I’m going to be honest here) sliding straight into definitions, much to a fair amount of tedium in the room…but Cliff has put a stop to it (through asking us to vote on whether social enterprise is charity 2.0 or business 2.0; most thought the latter, though I would say both….).

Now talking about how you can effectively marry your product with your social mission. Soc ents feel it is largely about relationships and interweaving them as much as possible.

Q: what skills do you need? Partners, partnerships (being able to identify the right partners) are key. Be clear about your core idea, and innovate within it. Communicate with wide range of people. Choose whatever structure is fit to your mission, finance and governance (not structure first). Also about characteristics and traits, not skills. Get them to learn by doing.

Q: Did you ever consider giving up? And what kept you going? Lack of holiday, lack of sleep, constant stream of e-mails, personal investment etc. all coming across as challenges. Career-changing a challenge. Need to stick at it (“survive enough until you get lucky” to paraphrase Kiva founder). Scale of ambition can depress you, but relationships sustain you through. Joy, passion, impact that work creates. + turn a challenge into an opportunity.

Q: We all go on a big learning journey? Who’s given you support….leading to ‘social entrepreneurs’ are most similar to offenders: “they see something and they go after it”; interesting answer from Davina; Cricklewood Homeless Concern, Brent Housing, Groundswell, Nigel Kershaw, Shine 09, Bright Ideas Trust, and weaving her way through the network….+ family! Quote of the session: “my gran said, ‘finally, you’ve got a good idea’”

Q: Question about plagiarism of your idea; all had some experience of it at different levels…or at least as they interpret it. One had competition set up, another had staff poached, etc. Importance of retaining core value. Need to take it as compliment + tools to protect yourself.

If I’m being honest, this session hasn’t really caught light for me. Nuggets of gold, and good honesty and openness, but crowd seem a little subdued. Maybe they are just taking it all in!

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Summary: synergy between social and business is key; learning and going, not teaching / formal learning; belief and motivation (support + thing that reminds you why); use your support network: easier to be brave in company; using the people who say no to you.

One line advice: take holidays; time for yourself; JFDI management (just ‘*!@ing do it!) and learn how to drive! Don’t wait till you’re ready. Recognition reminders.