Earlier this year I realised that life is far too short not to be following your dreams, pursuing your passions and waking up everyday to do something that means something to you. For me, this has meant leaving a career in private equity real estate in order to move out to Uganda to manage Opportunity Africa, an NGO focused on promoting sustainable development through education and social enterprise.
The first day of my new role was spent at the inaugural 2015 Social Enterprise Conference, described as ‘an all-encompassing program of interactive speaker sessions, panel discussions, workshops and networking opportunities to equip you with the knowledge, insights and valuable contacts on how to kick start and grow your social enterprise.’ Having only discovered the term ‘social enterprise’ (‘SE’) recently, I had no idea who or what the day would involve; would it mean listening to idealistic hippies who exemplified ‘all talk but no action’ or would I gain practical knowledge on how to build my SE, make some worthwhile contacts and be inspired with new ideas? I’m happy to say that it was very much the latter – Lily Chong did a fantastic job at creating an insightful, pragmatic and interactive agenda resulting in a conference which really did deliver.
With my open lack of knowledge as to what exactly ‘social enterprise’ means, I was reassured when one of the first questions thrown out to delegates was ‘what is SE and how is it defined?’. Despite there being c. 70,000 SEs in the UK, contributing £18.5bn to the UK economy and employing almost 1mn people, surprisingly there is no widespread definition of SE. It is defined by UKTI SE UK as “a business with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners” or in short, “trading for social purposes.”
As someone who is at the very early stages of setting up a SE, the ‘Legal and Governance Frameworks’ session was invaluable in terms of understanding the different legal structures available and the respective costs, liabilities and tax implications associated therein. A session on ‘Measuring Social Impact and Reporting’ followed, which highlighted the importance of measuring impact in order to grow a successful SE and provided practical advice on how to best implement valid reporting systems to do this.
Anyone with any form of commercial acumen is aware that one of, if not the main challenge to building any form of enterprise is financing, a challenge which is arguably exacerbated in the field of SE by its very purpose. The panel on ‘Understanding Financial Readiness to Unlocking Social Finance’ was the day’s eye-opening session for me, firstly because it highlighted the range of capital providers in the market from the traditional senior lenders to VC firms, government bodies, grant makers and venture philanthropists. Evidently, there is an abundance of both debt and equity available, it is more a question of how one taps into and unlocks these capital sources. After working in finance for 5 years, it was refreshing to hear panellists speak so passionately about what they do and I can honestly say that the panel comprised of some of the most impressive and intelligent speakers I’ve heard.
Rather than lunch involving useless small talk around a buffet table, attendees had the opportunity to partake in constructive roundtable sessions where ideas were shared on the social impact in education, health and social services, international development and the environment and climate change. The afternoon then began with the story of Divine Chocolate which demonstrated that SEs can and do operate successfully alongside some of world’s largest corporations in the most competitive of markets. Zoe Amar’s session was very helpful in offering practical advice on how to best use social media which was then followed by the benefits of using the SE Mark and a second panel discussion on ‘How can businesses collaborate with Social Enterprise?’. The day was then rounded off with an insightful and thought provoking outlook from the British Council on the global outlook of SE.
For anyone who is currently working in SE or has a general interest in the sector I would definitely recommend attending the event both in terms of content and contacts. Whilst I walked away from the day having gained a huge amount, I also realised that there is a huge amount more to learn and I have a long (but very exciting) road ahead of me. I don’t feel that what I’m embarking on is a ‘job’ in that it isn’t ‘work’, it’s as a lifestyle in which I’m pursuing my passion within a very inclusive and supportive community. For anyone that is considering starting a SE but has reservations about its viability all I can say is just go for it. From experience, reservations and concerns tend to be born from the doubts and scepticism of others and as Ghandi said ‘first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’