J is for Jump - an interveiw with Liam Black, one of the UK’s best-known social entrepreneurs, spea

As part of his commitment to supporting and developing social entrepreneurs, industry guru Liam Black will be speaking at the upcoming Start Up | Stay Up Social Enterprise Conference, which takes place 25-26 April at the Green Rooms in Wood Green, London. I am thrilled that Liam has joined our roster of speakers at the event and will be sharing his experiences with the audience of social entrepreneurs at all points in their journey.

I admittedly found myself a little star struck as I interviewed him last week at CASS Business School, where we spoke about his career, his Irish Catholic upbringing, on being a social business owner and on becoming a new granddad.

Liam has lived and breathed social enterprises for well over 20 years – long before the ‘social enterprise’ distinction even existed. He helped to create and lead a dozen social businesses including Fifteen, which, he grew into a global brand with Jamie Oliver. Liam also helped establish and still advises on two social investment funds: Impact Ventures UK and Ignite (created by energy giant Centrica) and is the author of There’s No Business Like Social Business (2004) and published The Social Entrepreneur’s A to Z in November 2014.

His current role is co-founder and chief encouragement officer at Wavelength, a company with the mission of ‘changing the world for the better through business’.

Here’s what he had to say:

Q: Liam, you started your social enterprise career in 1998 with the grassroots Furniture Resource Centre and transformed the small, local, hand-to-mouth charity into the multimillion-pound FRC Group, a regional force of social business. How did you make the shift from a fundraising focused charity mindset to an enterprise one?

A: Back then we didn’t use the phrase ‘social enterprise’ at all; I had just grown tired of the flawed model of charity fundraising, so made the decision in the early 90s to take a different approach. We told the foundation behind the charity that we needed £250,000 to set up a social business dedicated to giving work to hundreds of unemployed people and providing thousands of low-income families with the chance to buy good-quality recycled furniture.

After a lot of hard work changing mindsets and ways of working, we transformed the charity which relied on grant funding into FRC Group -- a profitable, sustainable social business.

We were lucky starting out, there was more money around then; people are forced to do things differently now. The lines are also more blurred between the role of businesses and charities, as well. People want to find out more. Hence me being invited to speak at conferences and universities about social enterprise – something that would never have happened even 10 years ago!

Q: What tips would you offer to others trying to do something similar?

With money harder to come by, transforming charities into social enterprises – or building them from scratch – is a lot more challenging now. It can be done, however and here are my top tips for those who want to make a go of it:

• Understand that the social enterprise model is not for everyone. If there is a culture of distrust or hatred of profit (i.e. profit is a dirty word), don’t attempt it. The ideological shift will be too great.

• You need to brutally honest with yourself. Ask yourself if you have what it takes and know where you will go to get your initial investment.

• Surround yourself with the right people, who think in the same way that you do.

• Don’t confuse social need with social demand. That happens a lot.

In my book The Social Entrepreneur’s A to Z, J is for ‘jump’. What separates the entrepreneurs from the ‘wannabes’, ‘tourists’ and commentators is that entrepreneurs are willing to make the jump. People who have an entrepreneurial drive, have it. You either have it or you don’t, I don't think it can be taught.

Q: What has been the biggest learning in your career?

A: If you want to go into social enterprise, you need to learn to live with anxiety and uncertainty. Focus on what you really want to do, stay focused and be on purpose.

I wish that I had been more brutal when I was at FRC Group -- more ruthless in getting rid of people and following my gut. We transformed a charity to a social enterprise, there were a lot of culture wars, a lot of people who said they were committed to the project, but weren’t. There is a big difference being a fundraiser and a marketer and not everyone is up for making the switch.

At the beginning of my book, there is a quote from a friend of mine who died couple of years ago, he said, "every business needs a maniac and a minder.” That is true.

Q: Which one are you?

A: In my early days I was more the maniac, and now am more of a minder. That said I have always been good at knowing when I need a minder to help me get the job done. Its important to hold on to the passion and vision that drives you, but at the same time you still need to get the basics right.

Q: You have helped create and advise on two investment funds: Impact Ventures UK and Ignite Access to finances, where do you seek the right social business to invest in?

A: Networking and connecting with people. We find the businesses through word of mouth, we have dozens of people that work for the fund who get out there a lot and speak to people. We also have an angel investor who brings opportunities to us; speaking gigs and meeting with entrepreneurs at events are very useful too.

Q: How are you spending your time now?

A: I have a dual track approach and my time is split between between profit and purpose. I spend 20% of my time supporting social entrepreneurs through mentoring, coaching and speaking at events, writing books and advising on funds. 80% of my time is spent with big corporate and business leaders. I work with them to help them move beyond the binary view between business and charity. The private sector can an enormous positive influence and although there is still a long way to go, we are moving in the right direction.

Q: What are you learning from working with corporates?

A: Five things:

  1. That, I’m glad I don’t work for a corporate!

  2. There are a lot talented people in corporates

  3. There is a lot of misdirected energy and wealth in corporates

  4. There are a lot of unhappy people who work in corporates

  5. Once corporates decided that doing something socially innovative is the right thing to do, they can do it at a speed and scale that no one can match.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

A: My job title is Chief Encouragement Officer and this is how I see my role. As leading by encouraging, empowering and doing it wherever I can, especially for entrepreneurs. I try to have a leadership style that is inclusive, encouraging, direct and straight forward. I use simple language, am prepared to make mistakes and create space for other people to develop.

Q: You are now a grandfather, what do you think the world of business will look like for your granddaughter when she finishes school?

A: That’s an interesting question. I was in the Silicon Valley last November and ran a session with Marc Andreseson, who is the co-founder and general partner of Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz. I was told in a briefing before meeting him that he would only answer questions about the future.

So I asked him, “What will the future going to look like for my granddaughter when she is 25?” Marc is a technology utopian, so he painted a picture of drones, robots, driverless cars and energy provided by Tesla to every house, for free. I come from an Irish Catholic background, so I’m a little less optimistic about the future.

My own personal story is one of transformation, coming from an Irish immigrant family, my dad was a navvy on a building site, and here I’m a business owner, sitting talking about the future with you, sipping tea in the city of London. If you have asked my dad when he stepped of the train at Holyhead 60 year ago, I don’t think he could have predicted what life would be like today -- it’s very hard to predict the future!

Q: What is the most important to letter for you in your The Social Entrepreneur’s A to Z book?

A: Now being in my 50s, I am not young anymore, so I would have to choose the L. L is for looking after yourself and your time, making the best use what I have: to be a great dad, husband, grandfather, business leader, mentor for entrepreneurs. I can’t do that if I don’t look after myself.

Liam will be speaking on Love & Profit at Start Up | Stay Up Social Enterprise Conference, 25th-26 April 2016, Green Rooms, London. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to meet with him and tap into his well of experiences.

We are delighted to offer 5 aspiring social entrepreneurs who register with the promotional code: LIAM to receive a copy of his latest book: The Social Entrepreneurs A-Z, on anxiety, leadership and getting enough sleep. So hurry, the lucky recipients will receive a copy at the event. For more information and registration for the event please visit here.

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