Social Entrepreneurs Network

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This week we launched the Social Entrepreneurs Network at our base The Sjøvoll Centre in Pity Me.  It was primarily an evening of sharing.  Attendees from County Durham and throughout the North East turned out to share valuable contacts, resources, and ideas, as well as their successes, challenges, and wisdom picked up along the way.  Among the attendees were people just beginning to explore social enterprise, social entrepreneurs one year, two years, and further down the line, and more experienced professionals who have managed larger organisations.

After refreshments and introductions the group participated in a presentation and workshop led by SEA Chief Executive Kate Welch.  Kate provided an overview of her vision of the Social Entrepreneurs Network, which is to gather like-minded people who are passionate about social change and build a support network for social entrepreneurs at different stages of development.

While what we now call “social networking” is an essential tool for social enterprise, the Social Entrepreneurs Network relies on the benefits of providing a physical space (the original social networking platform) for social entrepreneurs to come together.  Feelings of isolation can be a barrier for social entrepreneurs but a more personable networking experience can combat this by reinforcing a sense of community.

As the network will grow and change based on the interests and needs of its members, Kate and the SEA team dedicated a good chunk of time at the first meeting to discover exactly what aspects of social enterprise the group would like focus on in future, and to get a sense of what local social entrepreneurs feel in terms of local access to resources and support.

The next Social Entrepreneurs Network will be held on Wednesday, 22 October, 2014, at The Sjøvoll Centre.  All social entrepreneurs and those looking to start social enterprise are welcome! 

Click here for full details and free registration.


Dotforge Accelerator: Accelerating Social Innovation


Accelerating Social Innovation, Dotforge Accelerator’s conference on the role of accelerators in supporting social enterprise and social venture startups brought together leading voices from the U.K.’s social enterprise community and startup entrepreneurs for candid conversation, debate, and valuable networking opportunities.   Panels chaired by RSA Fellow Adrian Ashton, Dotforge’s Tobias Stone, Social Enterprise Acumen CIC’s Kate Welch, and UnLtd’s Steven Leach discussed the role and need for social enterprise, how accelerators can boost social innovation, inspiring the next generation to take on social enterprise and the strategies and barriers to social investment.  Creative enterprising solutions as varied as peer-to-peer postgraduate loan mechanisms (StudentFunder) to integrated Diabetes apps (We Love Life.) were showcased to demonstrate the breadth and versatility of social enterprise and its crucial role in the U.K.  Contributors from Canada, Mexico, and from across the U.K. reminded attendees of the importance of social enterprise across the globe and international partnership and cooperation opportunities.

The conference opened with an address from Dotforge highlighting the key advantages of accelerators for tech startups, particularly social enterprise.  Accelerators foster a culture of participative product development and provide great opportunities for mentorship and knowledge sharing.  Local entrepreneurs who donate time to provide mentorship within accelerators find the experience deeply rewarding.  They draw on the creative spark and enthusiasm of startups to enhance their own ventures while reminding themselves of their own beginnings, core purpose, and values.

Sam Tarff from Key Fund spoke of the long history of social enterprise, monasteries in the middle ages for example, and the shift in perception from a fringe activity to a legitimate form of organization. Social enterprise values are influencing the private sector (think triple bottom line) more and more remind the business world of the importance of risk taking, troubleshooting, and creativity in problem solving.   He concluded by stating that the challenges of the most challenging communities cannot be met with top down initiatives, enterprising thinking must be the driving force for social change.

The opening panel of Kate Ebbutt (Patient Opinion) and Hugh Rolo (Locality) discussed emerging technologies and social innovation.  Patient Opinion is using the changing technological landscape to connect patients with each other and health care providers, helping to shift power dynamics and empower its customers.  A true social enterprise success story, Ebbutt recounted the early struggles, successful expansion and advised on how growth should not mean parting with core values.

Rolo provided wisdom throughout, saying, “we’ve cracked material, the future is in how we look after each other, a service-based space that social enterprise can fill like no other.”  The panelists agreed social enterprise focused on aging, dementia, diabetes, depression, and serving the “underbanked” are needed and areas of opportunity for both profit and social change.  Early warning mechanisms, intervention and cleverer preventative action all need exploration and enterprising thought.  Opportunities can also be had dealing with big data, given the amount of public information that exists.  At present, almost all requests to government come from the private sector.  How can social enterprise mine this data for social innovation?

With a career spanning investment banking and social enterprise leadership, Rolo made an important point in saying that it doesn’t matter what legal form you take, you need a quality product or service.  It’s crucial to have ambition; he stresses the risks of starting too small for a social enterprise.  You need the bulk of your presence on the frontline, customer facing, after all that is the focus.  “If you lose the center of perspective, you’re toast.”

Overall the first panel told the audience that the virtues of social enterprise as a concept alone are not enough, a strong business model, ambition, reading the landscape and smart growth are crucial to success.

Panel number two was equally engaging, with Dotforge moderating a discussion with Juan Gerra of StudentFunder, a social enterprise designed to fill a true void in the postgraduate student loan space in the UK.  It was refreshing to see such a young entrepreneur find success by fulfilling a real need and a gap in the market.  There had been no real support from banks or government in the form of loans to masters and doctorate students, so Guerra developed a very attractive loan system funded by investors and philanthropists, and crucially, did so with the help of an accelerator.  The discussion then veered into comparing accelerators with incubators, the difference being in the name really, as opinion was largely that incubators need entrepreneurs in the building paying rent, whereas accelerators relying on equity want to see their entrepreneurs out the door as soon as possible, making waves in the market.

Many accelerators have entrepreneurs-in-residence, and ideally these would be six months to one year ahead of the startups, who could then visualize their progress and see where they could be in just a short period.  The mistakes and lessons learned would be fresh in the memory of the EiRs, allowing them to help startups avoid repeating errors and see how it’s possible to persevere and overcome initial slipups.

The third panel chaired by Kate Welch OBE, director of Social Enterprise Acumen CIC, centered on youth and technology, the future landscape of startup social enterprise and the associated challenges felt by young entrepreneurs on the panel.  The panel, consisting of Darren Chouings of the University of Sheffield, Johnny Luk of the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs, and David Thompson of startup Yoomee discussed why young people are turning to social business and social enterprise as a form of social action.  Why is it a convincing career choice?  Social action is often a moral choice, but since many young people are not in a place financially to make take other forms of social action are increasingly turning to social enterprise, allowing profit to fund their mission of social change.   The panel praised volunteering as a way to spur young people onto social enterprise, citing social entrepreneurs who found their idea, purpose or important contacts through volunteering.

Lastly the panel asked how we incorporate entrepreneurial training and social enterprise education into curriculums and graduate schemes?  At what level of education should the pillars of social enterprise be introduced?  Opinion varied, some thinking pupils as young as primary school level should be introduced to the idea of using business as a way to combat social challenges, with sustainability and environmentalism crucial to future models.

The day closed with a panel discussing social investment, common pitfalls of entrepreneurs approaching investors, grant funding versus loans, crowdfunding, and more.  Sam Tarff and Dave Thornett of Key Fund, Kevin Lloyd-Evans of The Big Issue Newcastle and Steve Leach of UnLtd began a bit differently than previous panels, with a brainstorming session of investment key terms, including risk, intangible profits, investment readiness, too small or too big, and finding the middle ground as you grow.   The key lesson from the discussion was to know what you need and why you need it, then go shop around.  Going for money because it’s there can seem like a no brainer, but it’s the panels advice was to know what you want it for and how you will spend it in the short term.  A panelist asked “If I gave you a million pounds what would you spend it on on Monday?”  Having a clear answer before approaching investors is the heart of a successful pitch.

Having seen many pitches in the past, the panel articulated what they would most like to see from social enterprise startups.  Have clarity of vision.  Be aware of language.  Avoid business speak, be clear about barriers to success, make sure the numbers match that story, and in terms of cashflow projections, articulate your presumptions. When placing a cashflow statement on the table, make sure it’s not a P&L or mixture.

With a broad range of topics and panelists, it was clear that attendees left the conference with added wisdom and enthusiasm, inspired by the creativity and determination of their fellow social entrepreneurs.

Dotforge deserves a big thank you from Social Enterprise Acumen CIC for the invitation and allowing our director Kate Welch to chair an exciting discussion.  We look forward to monitoring the success of all of the social entrepreneurs present and incorporating the lessons learned in our work finding, guiding, and coaching social entrepreneurs in the North East.

Social Enterprise Profile: Paula McCormack – Meadow Well Connected


In the first instalment of our new Profile Series, we sat down with Paula McCormack, experienced facilitator, HR professional, coach, and currently director at Meadow Well Connected, a multifaceted community hub and social enterprise in North Tyneside. The purpose of this series is to showcase the people behind the dynamic social enterprise landscape in the North East and inspire other social entrepreneurs to make a similar mark and drive social change.

Please tell us how did you get started?

I started life as a graduate in management and chose a career in human resources. For my first five years in human resources, particularly in the North East, my job really was closures, restructures and reengineering. I saw the devastating impact that had on the NE, and how vulnerable the NE was to external investment. I did 10,000 redundancies in a five-year period. Then I went outside the NE and focused on professional services, returning to the NE in 2003, at which point I set up my own consultancy to support the 20% of the population who were self employed, focusing on considering organic growth. In 2012 I was approached to take over at Meadow Well following the departure of its founder. I guess I was chosen because of my understanding of community and community-led intervention combined with a clear business background.

What does social enterprise mean to you?

On a really simple level it’s delivering services that support the growth of communities and economies that have the capacity to be reinvested into those communities and economies.

How do you see its role in the North East?

I suppose with the demise of local authority services and an incredibly challenging economic environment, social enterprise for me is the only way forward that marries the need for services with the need for economic development. Social enterprise is relevant in North Tyneside because the values that underpin social enterprise enable a different perspective in developing solutions to fit community concerns rather than solutions that fit a government or business agenda. To achieve this, we have to walk our talk. So over the past two and a half years, we’ve made it our business to move away from grant dependency, and into self sustaining enterprise all the while developing business streams and solutions that meet both the Meadow Well community’s needs and the wider North Tyneside residents’ needs.

How does your social enterprise work? Please tell us a bit more about the business model.

In its simplest form we have a two-core function business model.

The first is generating income through our charitable and community activity supporting people with learning difficulties through their Personal Budget to access quality services that develops their independence – working in our extensive gardens developing horticultural and beekeeping skills and our joinery workshop developing products that support the garden, birdcages and chicken coups. We also deliver alternative education provision serving the wider NE, serving 14-16 year olds with vocational education in joinery, horticulture and sustainable renewable energies.

The second function is using our extensive facilities to support many other local enterprises through room hire and delivering training to meet the needs of the care and hospitality sectors. While room hire can be for multiple purposes, profit can be reinvested in core programs.

Both functions generate income, the first very much focused on community activity, the other on generating income, but both serve wider communities.

What are your barriers to success?

On a personal level there aren’t enough hours in the day. I would have said initially it’s finding like-minded people who would support me as a peer in the journey, but having now developed that network, I’m ok. What the organisation faces is just a daily profitability and cash flow management challenge in the transitions. If I were to be really pedantic, we’d like getting acknowledgement through the local authority in what we can deliver. We’re not one of the big boys, and so sometimes we are discounted. Political challenges in bidding for contracts are also a source of frustration. You always have to hold more belief in others than they have in themselves.

What are the main things you’ve learned about yourself by being involved with a social enterprise?

I’m stronger than I thought I was and definitely more passionate than I could have imagined. Having a good peer group around me is essential for my sanity. As long as you’re bringing enough enthusiasm, passion, and belief, it’s easy to have people follow you and then take their own lead. Inspiration from the drive and commitment of others, particularly volunteers, gives me immense strength.

What advice would you give to a budding social entrepreneur?

Get a great peer group around you, invest in yourself, and believe in yourself and then you’ll carry enough belief for everyone else.