Stepping Up, Setting Up and Moving on Up in the world of the Social Enterprise

By Pauline Rutter (Olmec Community Manager)

“We know that business with a purpose beyond profit can help tackle some of the biggest challenges facing our country and our economy, from deep social inequalities and struggling public services to the cost-of-living crisis and the climate emergency.”

The UK is caught up in a storm of social, economic and environmental turbulence unlike any we have seen in recent decades. If a looming recession is narrowly avoided in 2023, according to reporting by the National institute of Economic and Social Research, we could still be battling this storm well into 2024 with no certainty that recession will not swallow us up. Adding to the precarity faced by so many, is the widening inequality and the devastation and uncertainty of the growing climate crisis. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Arvinda Gohil,  Chair of Future Economy Alliance,  shares a common concern for how business in general is operating at a time when only a third of adults in the UK feel that there is any positive impact of business on the economy as a whole. As transport, health, water, social care and education services among others, become further degraded across society, Arvinda Gohil points to growing public support for businesses to place social or environmental value at the heart of their operations rather than focus purely on profits and shareholder dividends.

Surely all the political alarm bells should be sounding at a deafening pitch.  People want good quality, reasonably paid jobs in organisations that not only value them but which are beneficial to society. Instead, we see real wages across the UK regions predicted to dip below pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2024.  So many are now questioning business models that deliver adverse social, economic and environmental outcomes and fail to provide the goods and services that our communities really need and want. Now more than ever, mission-led business leaders and organisations are being called upon to step up. Many charities, cooperatives and other social enterprises such as Olmec, are already harnessing the UKs greatest entrepreneurial resource, its people. For Olmec, over its decades long mission, the focus has been to support adults from our Black and minoritised communities. With barriers removed and confidence built, Olmec has proven how people find it much easier to seek out meaningful and fulfilling employment, workplace promotions or even, through the revolutionary initiative Black on Board,  to take up influential board positions in organisations across every sector. In addition, through the holistic, welcoming and participant focused Step Change Programme, Olmec is also supporting the establishment of new socially driven businesses. Over ten sessions of free training and mentoring, people are encouraged to harness their entrepreneurial aspirations along with their skills, knowledge and experiences, to create new and innovative social enterprises. The process is as much about seeding supportive networks as it is about business planning and sustainability. The outcome promises to be so many more, Black and minoritised business leaders joining those who currently run the thousands of successful and vital social enterprises across Britain.


A little history

Social enterprise is not a new business model. For centuries, business owners have been challenging the narrow focus on generating profit as the sole purpose of a business. For some, New Lanark, Scotland of 1799, is considered the site of one of the earliest social businesses.  At the time it was bizarre that wealthy mill owner, Robert Owen, decided to redirect the company’s profits into providing housing, health facilities and education for his 2000 mill workers and even to reduce the hours they worked. Was this more than charitable philanthropy? Other politically active social entrepreneurs remembered for supporting their communities, include the Rochdale Pioneers of 1844, who set up something very much like today’s co-operatives. In, their wildest of dreams, could they have imagined that in 2023 this business model would have grown to become a  global movement of over 3 million organisations and engaging 12% of humanity worldwide? It goes without saying, that one of the most ingenious purpose-led businesses was the Hornsey Co-operative Credit Union, Britain’s first credit union, set up by a group of British-Caribbeans in 1964. I can’t help but be in awe of those individuals who came together to provide much needed practical and equitable financial services across their communities. This was despite being disrespected and discriminated against as citizens of a country that many even described as the Motherland. What originated from the Jamaican style “partner” clubs, became such successful credit unions that in 1974 their membership was 39,000, of which two-thirds had arrived from the Caribbean during the Windrush era. This is now a sector of over 1.44 million people across the UK and still growing.


Supporting social enterprise success

What does it mean today, for there to be over 100,000 social enterprises across Britain including, co-operatives, building societies and employee-owned businesses? Many social value led business leaders have proven that having a diverse structure is the key to providing rewarding and satisfying employment across their organisations. Others are showing how social entrepreneurs are genuine innovators able to address the challenges faced by their communities, varied stakeholder groups and even the environment. For those who remain sceptical about the effectiveness of mission-driven business, Social Enterprise UK cooly reminds us that this sector contributes around £60bn to the UK economy each year.  When we focus in of the actual enterprises themselves, it’s easy to see how this is possible and to celebrate those entrepreneurs who really do have vision and values at the core of their business mission. Kerrine Bryan set up Butterfly Books to challenge stereotypes by featuring Black and brown role models in children’s stories about engineers, doctors, astronauts and many other professions. Impact Brixton , a London virtual office, has also successfully met a local demand for co-working and event space, while the social supermarket and re-use centre Lifeafterhumus founded by Farrah Rainfly, provides everyday essentials for those most impacted by the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. Of course, these businesses are also award winners. Just look at what Abdul Shiil has achieved through Sahan Cares.  So many more are listed in the Social Enterprise Directory and will no doubt, be added to by those who are now completing the Olmec Step Change programme.

Another clear reason why socially driven business models are a sure bet is their resilience. What with the ongoing pandemic and dramatic political, economic and environmental global uncertainty, it is relevant to note that in the UK, social enterprise business health, is in recovery. Research indicates that around 40% of social entrepreneurs are anticipating turnover will grow in 2024 and 77% expect to break even or make a profit this financial year. Social enterprises have been experiencing lower closure rates than other forms of business according to the Federation of Small Business’s (FSB) and in support of the sectors success organisations such as Foundervine and Black Seed Ventures are now also offering guidance and vital networking opportunities.

Legacies, equity, funding and future visions

With all this optimism it is still important not to become complacent in our knowledge of the social-enterprise sector, it is becoming more diverse but is still predominantly made up of people who are white, privileged and able-bodied. So, there is clearly room for many more women, Black and ethnic minority leaders in the sector as recognised by the Black Business Network. Apart from anything else, it is this diversity that produces social businesses with vast expertise and lived experience in tackling societal prejudice. An example is She is You.  This Community Interest Company co-founded by Caroline Odogwu and Yinka Oyebade in 2021, empowers young women in their personal and professional lives.  Similarly, Blue Moon and Partners has expanded the recruitment sector over the last fourteen years, with a focus on diverse talent. With so many forward-thinking organisations in the sector, such as The Black Pounds Project, it is no wonder that The International Cooperative Alliance is reporting on the impact of social enterprise on policy development.

So, it would seem obvious that, if you are looking for a sustainable, values driven business that creates meaningful employment opportunities within its community, then you are looking for a social enterprise. And if you are an innovative, passionate and community minded individual then you may well be the next award-winning social entrepreneur

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