Waste and the busyness of business

reclaimed cokctailsLooking back, I have been an ‘entrepreneur’ for years.  People have also called me a business woman, leader, mum-preneur (oh, how I hate that word!) and intra-preneur (whatever the hell that is!) but mostly people have called me an entrepreneur and, more recently, a social entrepreneur.

I used to think this title was mainly to do with making money or starting up businesses.  Yet I noticed that it didn’t matter whether I was new to a business idea or place or if I had been in that space for years – people still called me an entrepreneur.  I guess it must be something more than the starting of businesses, it’s a mind-set, it’s written on your face and it’s imprinted into your DNA.

I know now though that being an entrepreneur is nothing to do with making money, being rich or poor, successful or not.  It’s something much more profound, more a way of being.   An entrepreneur sees the gaps between things and makes connections.  Rockefeller and Carnegie reflected long and hard on how they saw society, took an educated guess at where it might be heading and thought that oil and steel might be a good idea.  It wasn’t about their making money…it was about their mind-set and vision.

Social entrepreneurs have eyes to see differently and they’re motivated by things regular entrepreneurs find hard to understand.  They look long and hard at the same problems but in the ‘looking’ and the ‘thinking’ they somehow see something different.  It’s these differences that get me out of bed in the morning and keep me motivated and engaged.

My life is crazy-busy at the moment.  I work ridiculously long hours.  I’m glued to my iPhone and emails.  I regularly travel all over the UK and think nothing of driving 8 hours a day on top of the meetings in my diary.  I have kids and dogs and chickens and a vegetable garden that all need my attention.  But (and this is a really important but) in the middle of all the busyness of my days I discipline myself to take time to look – to really see – and to try to understand where they are and what’s in those gaps.

I have been thinking recently about ‘waste’.  Nothing new there…in my current role we think a lot about food waste.  I hardly ever use that word though because I truly believe that ‘waste’ food is just food which has ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time so that its ultimate purpose (to provide sustenance and nourishment for people) cannot be fulfilled.  I hate the idea of wasting food. I hate just as much the idea of calling food ‘waste’ before we absolutely have to do that.  Most of the time we just have to work harder, to think quicker and brighter and in new ways to make sure that food gets to fulfil its purpose.  That’s what the team at Company Shop does so very well and with such passion and innovation.

But here’s the thought that could fall into the gap.  This week I was in one of our Community Hubs listening to some of our newer members explore a whole range of personal development opportunities.  I hear so many stereotypes of the people and communities where our Community Hubs and Shops are and in that moment I realised that I felt exactly the same dynamic at play then as a do when I hear the words ‘food waste’…there are just so many parallels.

For twenty years, both as a volunteer in my spare time and in my professional career, I have sought to overturn the myth that individuals and communities have gone to waste.  Perhaps there are reasons that they have not been able to fill their purpose.  It’s clearly not as simple as them being in the wrong place at the wrong time…the causes and the consequences of their vulnerabilities are complex and so the social entrepreneur in me looks for the gaps and tries to work out what’s missing from the picture.  Community Shop is all about working that out and working harder, thinking quicker and brighter and in new ways to make sure that people get to fulfil their purpose and value.

Life is busy but it is the chance to spend time with these individuals and communities which inspires me in my entrepreneurial journey…and long may that continue!

Posted in Social Enterprise

My Fair Lady and Grayson Perry

show meWith a title like that then I probably have some explaining to do.  Like most thoughts in life, it began with a stream of consciousness, where one thought triggers off another and leads to a kind of unfolding…

It all began on Friday with a conversation with a colleague about writing a Corporate Responsibility Policy and the general opinion that this task should probably fall to me.  I said no, not because I am work-shy or I don’t want to do it but because I don’t actually think that we should have one, although not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

Looking around, I scoured the web for CSR policies.  The great and the good, the small and local, giant and global, I have now read lots of them.  Many of them are much the same and most express similar aspirations – let’s be honest, the core values that people generally want to be seen to espouse are very similar.  We all want to be seen to be the kind of people and organisations that will be admired by most people.  All the examples were great in their own way, but I was just left feeling – unsure. Those of you who know me well will know of my liking for musical theatre (and my devastation that I am still unjustly undiscovered) and I was thinking of a song from My Fair Lady – “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through; first from him, now from you!  Is that all you blighters can do?  Don’t talk of stars burning above; if you’re in love, show me!”  It’s from a song called ‘Show Me’ and it started me thinking.

The professional mystification of language in the middle ages was the preserve of priests and their Latin texts.  More lately lawyers, doctors, academics, economists and entrepreneurs of all types have all played the myth-making game in order to preserve their positions and their jobs.  It is easy really – construct a system and then articulate it in a language that takes years of practice to understand and you have a job for life – particularly if you can manage to convince other people that they will be seriously at risk if they don’t access your specialist knowledge and services.

I think it would be a shame if anyone’s version of ‘doing good’ in this world was wrapped up in this same kind of really complicated language.

Grayson Perry this week gave the Reith Lectures.  He offered the absolutely shocking proposition that sometimes the art establishment and art critics and writers spoke gobbledegook to a slightly stuck up in-crowd and that excluded the rest of us.  #whowouldhavethought

It would be shame if whatever ‘doing good’ you are attempting became the victim of this.

It would be shame if, in the writing of lots of PR-spun policies and reports, the general public became cynical (imagine that!) and suspected that all your organisation was really into was maximising profits and using smoke and mirrors to make that look more acceptable.

So the pointers I’ve taken from My Fair Lady and Grayson (the irony of the juxtaposition of those two is not lost on me) mean that I don’t think we are going to have a CSR policy yet; not because I can’t be bothered writing one but because I’m still looking for a great way of writing one, a way that really works for writer and reader alike.

I’m inspired by the words from Midsummer Nights Dream ‘our true intent is all for your delight’.  I know, I know…it’s been used in other contexts (!) but I really think people can tell if you are genuine in your desire to ‘do good’ for the planet and its people or if your only real intent is profit.  And if your true intent is only to do ‘business as usual’ without regard for impact or consequence then no amount of reports or policies will fool people.

So I am not going to write a document to state simply what we believe, what our values are, what we are going to do and what we did.  People will find other ways to judge our true intent and I can get on with making it happen and listen to musicals rather than writing policies.

Posted in Social Enterprise

What’s in a name?

the naming of thingsI am not a person who is known for my love of high culture. Business, drive, innovation, Shania Twain perhaps – but not high culture. The closest I come to the cultural icon who is T S Elliot is his poem ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’, or probably if I am honest, just the musical ‘Cats’. But in that poem he has a section called the Naming of Cats and in thinking about this blog I discovered that this whole area is usually referred to as ‘nomenclature’ – the study of the naming of things. Anyway, in ‘Cats’ we are told that all cats have not one but three names and if you ever see one in deep contemplation then it because he is consumed in ‘the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name: his ineffable effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular Name.”

Well in the style of the Aldi advert, ‘I don’t like cats, I like dogs’. So why all this talk of cats and their names?

I spend my time looking at social challenges and trying to find innovative, entrepreneurial paths through them. At the moment I am spending a lot of time thinking about food, its supply and production, the oversupply in the food chain and the people experiencing food poverty. In order to find solutions to social problems I think it is sometimes best to look at the problem every single way round, and inside out, until you see something that helps you think about it differently. And here is the reason for my drivel about cats (did I mention I don’t like cats…), anyway.

Naming of Names Part I

I am working with colleagues and one of them has spent decades in the commercial food redistribution business. His business rescues tens of thousands of tonnes of food each year and retails it to people, often low paid, in the food production and supply industry. He does this not as a charity but as a business. The first naming of names. He is part of a business that is proudly low key, proudly down to earth and very northern. Where there’s muck there’s brass. I am blown away by the work they do. Rescuing tens of thousands of tonnes of food from landfill, having a massive positive impact on the environment and people’s lives and providing well paid employment for over 400 people. In any other part of Europe this would be seen as social business and would be hailed for its sustainability. Here in the UK because it’s not a registered charity it is, well, not even recognised for the work it does. It’s all about the naming of names, and sometimes cats have three names.

Naming of Names Part II – the important sequel

But here is my second revelation from the naming of names. The guy who runs this business has a visible strop if people call this food, waste. Because, it is not waste until it is thrown in the bin. Like people who often say, there is no such thing in Britain as bad weather, just the wrong kind of clothes.

And here, in his down to earth passion and protest about food being called ‘waste’, is my greatest revelation about the problem of food being ‘wasted’ while people are going hungry.

Ever since our ancient ancestors gathered together in clans and tribes and hunted and gathered, we have sought to produce surplus, we have longed for a little excess. Why? Because when the tough times came, when the trees were bare and the fields fallow we would have enough stored up from the surpluses we had collected in the good times. This is what tribes did to survive the fluctuation of the seasons. And when times got hard and when some in that tribe didn’t have enough, the tribe would release the surpluses they had carefully acquired in order to meet the need. That food which was over produced was not waste – it was salvation. In the DNA of our human race this activity was our survival instinct. So there is nothing wrong with over supply or over production.

The only thing our ancestors would have puzzled at is a tribe that judiciously over produces and then, noticing that some members of the tribe are hungry, destroys the surpluses.

They would have really scratched their heads at that.

So do I.

Naming of Names Part III – a third way

Well, if cats have three names then I am guessing that I am looking for a ‘third way’;

A way not constrained by having to be a charity ‘doing good’, or even sometimes seeking to perpetuate the reason for the existence of the charity rather than solve the problem.

A way not satisfied to call over supply in the food chain, ‘waste’ and then treat the whole problem as a ‘waste disposal problem’.

A way not happy to sit by and watch food bank use top half a million people this year.

I guess I am looking for a way to look at this problem and perform a kind of social alchemy. So I am working hard in this area knowing that the answer is to be found in naming that food as it is, and not as waste, and working out how together we use it in the best way.

Posted in Social Enterprise

Shared value is not for the tight fisted

how to measure...As readers will know, a social enterprise is “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.” (DTI, 2002).

In the last 25 years, as I’ve moved through my career, I have worked for global companies, volunteered regularly for charity, operated a franchise, founded, run & then sold my family business and started a social enterprise (where, believe me, I got more bouquets and brickbats than for all the rest combined).  Here is an extract from a blog I wrote in September 2010…

I am not always a fan of the big smoke but yesterday, London was great.  Actually, I think London was probably the same as it always was but the day itself was great.

On the train back, with the aforementioned HR Director and a perfectly decent meal, we did some more long journey debrief chatting.  On the back of a napkin, (I think I had lost the traditional fag packet), we did a drawing…

We, as a social enterprise, turn over close to £1M, employ 35 staff and transition 80 trainees a year into employment.  They turn over £15.4B (yep, that’s B for billion), employ 140,000 people and create around 20,000 new jobs each year.  So, if they were to take 10% of their new starters from our academy and if they could get 6 other major retailers to do they same, who then has the greatest impact?  Who is social, who is enterprise?

Is social enterprise about numbers, impact or intention? 

So, here is the question I am still wrestling with.  Is it only charities and social enterprises which can claim the monopoly on positive impact?   Do they have the right to claim the high ground purely because they do the “good” thing without making a profit?  My answer to that is an emphatic no, but then I’m deluged with arguments that only a charity or a social enterprise with no profit for shareholders can have true positive social impact.  I’m struggling with that, to be honest.  It seems to me that the organisations that set out to offer a public service or create social impact are denigrated for making a profit only when the service they offer is crap.  Would G4S or A4E have come under the same scrutiny for their profits if they really had reduced reoffending or got millions of long term unemployed people back to work?  Is there really anything wrong with financially rewarding entrepreneurs for their positive impact on society?  For me, though, the very worst case scenario is when a charity and a commercial enterprise are compared to each other (most often by the charity, to be fair) with a compare and contract dialogue that states outright that charity (even a small, not very effective one) is better than the (impactful, successful, far greater reaching) business…just because one is a charity and the other is intent on making profit.

I was reminded of this debate while watching this TED talk.

Porter’s argument is incomplete and there is much to criticise about those big greedy corporate monsters but the debate is not as black and white as some people, particularly those in the charity world who have a ‘market-share’ to protect, would have you believe.

You see, we all operate in a complex network of social and environmental relationships.  We drive the car, go to work, buy lunch, pick up the phone, write an email, buy some shoes… every interaction we have has both a social and an environmental impact.  If this is true of individuals it is also true of organisations.  Most of us want that impact to be a positive one.  I am not sure now, in fact I never have been, if charities and not for profits have the monopoly on positive social impact.  In fact I would dare to suggest that some of them take more out of society than they give back, and some businesses give more back than they take out.

Last week in the Guardian, David Floyd explored this same question and it left me feeling – it’s a complicated world isn’t it?  But one where I think wisdom dictates we look at true impact rather than the label of the ‘type’ of organisation (charity, business etc.) before we make our judgement…

Posted in Social Enterprise

Mr Jung and me shopping at 2 am

everything all the timeThe eminent Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said that in most patients over forty, the majority of problems were caused by worries about the past and fear about the future. Well, although I would hate to admit it, I am over forty. Not much obviously, just a little, so I think I should take note of Mr Jung’s warning.

The other day I found myself in the strange place of realising that I was giving myself some good advice in public. I was chatting to a friend about some incident and I found myself saying “I may have regrets about things that happened in the past, but I sure as hell don’t have to live there”. And then it hit me. Talking about something completely unconnected, I was giving myself some words of advice. As my Gran would have said, ‘bugger that for a game of soldiers’.

So this year has been about endings, new beginnings and taking stock. I have always been driven by seeing a social problem, a challenge perhaps, and wrestling a solution out of it. Looking at that ‘problem’ from all sorts of different angles and trying to work out if there is a way to achieve a better outcome. I have always been inspired, and a little challenged, by the saying attributed to Albert Einstein that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. I see myself as an innovator, as someone who looks at a challenge, mulls it over and tries to come up with a different way of seeing it and therefore a different solution.

During this year I have been amazed by the weekly barrage of stories in the press about the rise of food poverty in Britain and the increasing use of food banks. We are led to believe that this rise is rather like an iceberg and at the moment we have only seen the tip. Each week at least three new food banks have opened and nearly 400,000 people have had to resort to using them. The response to this from the government and media has been a combination of sensationalism and silence.

At the same time we also know that the UK food industry throws away (a conservative) 500,000 tonnes of food before it even gets to the shelves in the shops. People throw their arms up in the air and blame the super markets but I am not so convinced. I lead a busy life and sometimes I need to shop at strange hours. When I get to the supermarket I want to be able to have a full range of apples on the shelves or bread at the bakery section, even if I turn up at 2 am. If the shelves are half empty I will go to another supermarket which can offer me better choice, the choice I think I deserve. So I wonder if it is the supermarkets fault for knowing what I am like, my desire for choice and my desire to shop and strange times and have everything there all the time, or is it mine? Either way it is where we are in Britain in 2013. I, and lots of others, have grown used to shopping in a particular way, the shops have responded and the system has produced over-stock. Enough, as it seems, to mean there is about a tonne of food left for every person who goes to a foodbank.

You’ve got to wonder though, how have we got ourselves into a place where we have oversupply on one hand, and food poverty on the other.  There is great work being done by food redistribution charities and foodbanks to try and plug the gap, but the scale of the problem means we have to do more, and fast.  So that’s what I’m looking to at now.  I’ve spend the last six months working alongside experts in commercial food redistribution to bring to the fore a new project that will provide a sustainable, long-term solution, with lasting social impact.  More to follow.

 

Posted in Social Enterprise

In the Arena

I have to say that I am usually a pretty up-beat and positive person. As a team we discipline ourselves to use positive word sets, to speak as optimistically as we can in any situation in order to build that positive culture throughout our business.

This last month I have felt bad, sad, tired, frustrated, angry…the list could go on. All in all it has been a rough month. I don’t need to dwell on it but save to say it is has been the hardest month since I founded the business five years ago. Cash flow challenges, HR barriers, testing relationships with external partners and investors, tough conversations with the board, and a pressurised senior team who have sometimes snapped at each other. All those things you would expect in challenging times. A kind of 360 degree bummer.

Good times too, though. In just over a month Create has been listed in the Good Food Guide and the Michelin Guide and won the Observer Food Monthly Ethical Restaurant of the Year. A roller coaster really. The problem with a roller coaster is that it is fine doing 50 miles an hour on a track 100 meters from the ground and fine doing the same speed on a track 10 meters from the ground. The movement down and back up again from low to high and back again, is the bit that really churns your stomach.

I have done two things to survive this time. Gone away and dug deep.

Gone away in the sense of short weekend times away. I have a small place in North Yorkshire. Don’t misunderstand, not a massive country pile, I haven’t done that well from government contracts. Just a very very small bolt hole to relax. Dug deep in the sense of re-connecting with why I started this business five years ago.

These two have come together.

When you are in North Yorkshire you are steeped in the culture of the countryside and the traditions it brings. The gentle flow of the seasons and the ancient arts of those who tend the land. I guess it was thinking about those things that helped me to dig deep. In the old days (as my kids would say, about Now That’s What I Call Music 3 time) people would plough the field using a team of cattle all yoked together to draw the plough. Perhaps three or eight cattle drawing a plough. The challenge with this is that each animal wanted to go its own way and the ploughman had to create a straight furrow. Well I have to say in the last month I have felt that the yoke had gone, the cattle were just going in whatever direction they damn well pleased and the furrow was all over the place! I am reliably informed that in circumstances like this all you could do is hold on and fix your eyes on a point on the horizon. Not the plough, not the furrow, not the cattle, fix you eyes on the horizon and head there.

I guess that is what I have always believed about social enterprises, they are purpose driven and principle centred and always head towards the fixed point of the mission focus. For some people that fixed point is money, or power, or market share or glory. I have to say, all of those are fine motivators. For me the fixed point on the horizon is running a great business that makes the maximum difference for those who have been homeless to get life changing jobs.

I guess this digging deep has focused my vision again on this fixed point to which I am heading to help me orient my journey, and the journey of the business I founded.

One more thing I learned. When you are purpose driven, I think that the way you travel is as important as the destination, the fixed point on the journey. When under great pressure, it is easy to be unkind, to play politics, to skirt around the truth. I think for me if you get to the destination but failed to make the journey with honour and integrity you can’t ever end up where you wanted to be anyway.

One of the things that has encouraged me more than any other are some words delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910 by Theodore Roosevelt. I will leave you with those and tend to my wounds…

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

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My Tipping Point

I have never been a big fan of the cult of the social entrepreneur, the idea that we inspire and initiate great ideas or change by putting all our collective resources into identifying (or worse still, creating) individual leaders who epitomise and drive forward change.  Great ideas, structures, strategies and teams are all as important as the one founder or driver and if we lose sight of this we damage not only the great idea but also the people we place on pedestals to deliver them.

Although I believe this passionately I also know that there is no great social, religious or political movement that has existed without people who in their very being made those ideas, structures and strategies real, became totems of the vision and allowed people to feel, touch, interrogate and interact with ‘the big idea’.

When I started Create I had no ambition to be a social entrepreneur or leader, I just thought it was a sensible idea to try to run a good business that made a positive social impact. Now though, five years on, I realise that I am that entrepreneur and leader that people look to. Five years ago what I did know was how important networking was.  I spent days, evenings and weekends attending events to meet with people I didn’t know. I spent countless hours on trains up and down to London. I drank endless cups of bad coffee in out of the way places and all the time I told the story, the Create story, my story hundreds and thousands of times.

And for most of the time in the early years it felt like all that effort was wasted and I felt I might run out of steam.  Just recently though, just in this year, after gathering together a great team, I feel I am at a tipping point.  I don’t need to scour the internet any more to find out the places I should go, I get invited to them…often as a speaker or a VIP guest.  The people I wanted so desperately to meet and tell the story to, call me and ask to meet for lunch.  And all of a sudden, they’re paying! 

Perhaps that is what is meant by the tipping point?  I’m certainly very glad that I found people around me who could encourage me on that journey so that I didn’t run out of steam just before it all started to really happen.  I wonder how many people with great ideas didn’t reach their tipping point because their batteries just ran flat before things tipped.

This week, I’ve been offered the opportunity to attend a number of high profile events, including one of the large music festivals.  The organiser is an honorary graduate of the same university I am, and it’ll be a great connection to make.  My 17 year old daughter (who bought her ticket months ago) thinks I’m lucky.  Funny, isn’t it…as Samuel Goldwyn said…the harder I work, the luckier I become!

When I first started to think about increasing the positive impact that Create has on communities I sat with a team from one of the biggest investment banks in the world asking them for advice on how to get my business ready for investment.  I had all my plans in my hand and all my slides prepared and you know what, they didn’t look at one of them, they told me that people invest in people not plans.

Now that I feel that interest each day, that passion to take the Create ‘big idea’ or other social enterprise ‘big ideas’ and make it even bigger and I am left with the image of that vessel I have filled tipping and flowing over.

I guess more than anything in the last five years I have learning that inspiring and equipping leaders is really important but not always in the ways that have been tried. Within our Academy we passionately believe that if you come from a background of massive disadvantage the very best way to learn all the habits and cultures of being a great employee is through spending lots of time with people who are great employees. That why every person in my business is a coach. That’s why trainees spend three months in our Academy, not in a training room but in the business. Trainees work every day alongside our staff and lots of time out of the workplace with them. That’s because we become infected with the habits and cultures of people by being exposed to them, not by sitting through a power point seminar about what those habits are! I guess I feel very lucky to have got to where I am in my journey and now I am working out how to share that learning not through presentations but through an immersive coaching experience. I am not sure how that will work yet but I think I have learned all I need to know, as so often, not through some businesses mentoring programme but through learning from our trainees, listening to them and putting that learning into practice.

I guess now I just have two new challenges, not to let the baby be thrown out with the tipping water and not to let myself get poured out either.

I will give some thought to that and get back to you in another five years!

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