parlez vous…

that dares to speak its name

It’s been a busy couple of weeks all in all.  After months of preparing for investment and planning the roll out of our business in lots of locations, we are full steam ahead! This is brilliant news and a very exciting time.  There are lots of challenges too though.  Opening a new restaurant, recruiting great news chefs for our food business, working out the mechanisms for managing businesses and people at distance are all ones every growing business wrestles with.  But for me there is an even more important challenge.  Learning to speak in a local accent.  Or perhaps learning to speak in many local accents.

Over the last week, I have been in Liverpool, the North East, the Midlands and London, building relationships with the people who will be our new staff, customers and trainees.  And one thing that I recognise over and over again, on the train or in the car back home, is the strength of the local accent.  And I have to be honest I love it…love the richness and diversity, the things to learn and the way to express things outside my home in Yorkshire.  I have to add at this point that I do not have a strong local accent.  My parents and Miss Witty, my elocution teacher saw to that!

So what’s all this about accents?  At CREATE I have always been passionate about great food and about believing that everyone has talent, especially those who train with us and work for us…those whose journey has encompassed homelessness and lots of other challenges.  I have also been passionate about the fact that the challenges and opportunities are different in different places.  So I have always been committed to the idea that if CREATE was going to develop great food businesses and effective employment training throughout the UK, it had to be a mulit-local and not a national expansion.

So what’s all this about accents?  In the places we are opening, in the opportunities that lie ahead, we need to express our business with a local accent.  We need to speak about our business and our passion for social enterprise in a way that makes sense and has impact in many different communities.

We are not a supermarket chain, we are not a branded restaurant or coffee franchise, we believe that great local food and great local people matter.

I think in all of this the great bard’s line in Hamlet is ringing in my ears – “to thine own self be true”.  This is not wishy washy playing up to some localism agenda. When Polonius speaks these words what he is saying is, stay true to yourself and your passion and, importantly, you will benefit.  This is not altruism but good solid business sense.  Be yourself, be different and it will give you the market edge.  Stay close to your USP and not those that worked for others and you will have the edge.

So I think this learning about CREATE as a business, as a great food business, as a great work based learning business, as a social business, is true for all of us in this exciting, crazy, challenging world of social enterprise.  To thine own self be true and speak your business and passion with a local accent.  If we open in Wales I will tweet you all for extra help!

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Thank you Mr Cameron

pointing left from the right?

I am now officially a fan of the big society, although I think I probably need to add a caveat to that before I am accused of selling out.

This week I received a letter and a certificate from David Cameron to say he had been aware of CREATE for a while and was delighted to announce that we were the second winner of the Big Society Award, a scheme he launched a couple of weeks ago.  Well when I say that I received the letter, I actually found it with some suppliers invoices in our production kitchen where it had been signed for and placed on a pile with the bakers and grocers invoice. Oh the joy of social enterprise.

Anyway I finally got it and it started me thinking again.

I have talked about the Big Society in blogs and conferences over the last few months but as I looked at the letter I realised I was officially a big part of this big thing, and that gives you a different perspective I guess.  So are these Big Society Awards a PR gimmick and whitewash and am I a willing accomplice?  Well probably yes but for very good reasons.  I think the Big Society Awards are a great idea, not because we won one, but because they make the concept real.

Society needs politicians and policy makers, academics and statisticians…but it also needs poets and story tellers. Poets and story tellers in the sense that we need to communicate our aspirations for social transformation in a way that connects with people.  I believe that the heart of the human challenge is the challenge of the human heart; and only when people feel the burning desire for change in their hearts (and not their wallets) will the motivation for change become the determined reality to deliver.

The Big Society or Big Idea goes back further than Alinsky, further than its US precedents, back through collective association, mutuals and co-ops, back through Tory Victorian philanthropy. Even back beyond Aristotle’s Ethics and Plato’s Republic… 

The problem with all of these is that it is hard to see what the theory means, what it looks like.  The Big Society Award doesn’t diminish our ability to debate the issues, to wrestle honestly with the problems, but it does hold out a picture.  It says that this is what this concept looks like in practice; these are the communities and people who are supported and are flourishing when social enterprise, local and national government and big corporate business act together.

I think that might be called PR, but it works, it gives real flesh on the bones and challenges society to think again and act.  I think that is good, really.

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Bridewell Taxi’s

Bridewell taxi anyone?

Historically the Bridewell is an interesting place.  I say this partly because the Bridewell Taxis was an under-rated 1980s Leeds band, but I think I also say this for more significant reasons today.

For many years the central police station in Leeds was in the basement of the Town Hall and on a Friday night revellers who were getting out of hand were gently assisted into the back of a police van and given a lift in the Bridewell Taxi.

The name of the Central Charge Office of the Leeds Central Police Force is important because it takes its provenance from the small prison for vagrants and petty offenders in London, which was near the church of St. Brides, and also near a well, hence the name Bridewell.

Under the Bridewell Charter of 1864 (the same year the largest commercial retailer in Leeds was the Leeds Co-Operative Society) each prisoner was given “half a loaf of bread and a pint of ale together with sufficient straw for bedding”.

So why do I tell you all this. Well…not to put my head above the parapet at all, but here we go.  It was not long after the opening of the Leeds Bridewell that people realised it was a really bad idea to treat people who were out of work and out of a home (vagrants) and people who had committed criminal offences (offenders) in the same way.  Over the last few hundred years we have come to understand that homelessness, worklessness and criminal behaviour aren’t always the same.  I think that if people are made to do community service for the wrong reason that might muddle the understanding it has taken us three hundred years to appreciate.  So, in the light of the government’s announcement this weekend…I am passionately committed to any support or strategy which helps people find dignity through work.  I think that when people don’t have a job that reality harms them and damages society but I think mandatory work offers as many problems as it offers solutions. 

1864 was a good year in Leeds, the Bridewell Charter was fair, the Co-operative was transformative.  I hope we learn the right lessons from history and don’t confuse those ideas it took us years to work out.

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on this day in 1512

please release me

I am not a big fan of the on-this-day-in-history-inspiration-and-motivation-start-to-the-day thing but today seemed different.  The first of our graduates from Create’s pre-employment training academy started work in the new Morrison’s store in Leeds AND there was a national announcement that Morrison’s would commit 1000 jobs in its stores to people who have come through the CREATE training programme.

So great news on two fronts.  The first wave of students starting their first day at work and the promise of an anchor retail partner to encourage other retailers to come on board as we expand our work around the UK.  A story very personal to those who started work and to me but also exciting to consider the scale of what Create will achieve in the next few years.

So the day did feel momentous in many ways.  Any way back to the on-this-day-in-history-inspiration-and-motivation-start-to-the-day thing.  As I say I am not usually into this kind of thing but I always say, don’t knock it till you have tried it!  Any way it turns out that on this day in 1512 Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were first exhibited to the public.  This made me think of the story of Michelangelo, when he was first commissioned to create the magnificent statue of David.  It is reported that he walked into the quarry and beheld a huge rock in the middle of a pile of rubble.  Embracing the rock he shouted “I must release David from this stone!”

I think the inspiration of this story is that the great, gifted, visionary Michelangelo didn’t feel he was creating anything, he was just releasing something that was trapped but was, in its own right, beautiful.  As a social entrepreneur, I believe that change is good, both change in people and change in society. I also believe that homelessness like many other problems is a trap and that a great job brings more rewards than just a pay packet.  I felt today, standing with them in the fresh produce section, like our Create lads had been released not by us or the training we’d given them, but by themselves.  We just helped along the way and it was bloody brilliant.  In related news shower gel is on two for one in Morrisons, so a good day all round really.

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a passion for justice

where's the balance

I once heard the story of a vicar of a small country church who stood up and started his sermon one Sunday morning.  “Every six seconds a child dies in Africa and most of you this morning don’t give a fuck.  And what is really worrying is that most of you are more offended by the fact that I just said fuck, than that  two children have just died in Africa”.

I’m not quite sure if the story is true or indeed how the rest of the sermon went although I can guess!  I thought of this story last night when I was asked to be on Channel Four News.  The debate was about the lifting of the cap on student fees and I was asked to be present as a social entrepreneur with experiences of employment and training.

During the broadcast a group of student protesters broke in shouting, handing out leaflets and throwing bottles.  Their passion and commitment to the injustice of their fees being raised by an average of £2,000 per year was obvious and I thought of the story of the vicar and his sermon and wondered if that energy for justice was entirely focused in the right direction.

That’s all really, just a thought.

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Minority Report

size seems to matter

Last week I won an award in the Yorkshire region as the Outstanding Business Woman of the year and ended up doing an hour long broadcast on the local BBC…a kind of Desert Island Discs.  I say this not to show off, but because this week I seem to have gone mainstream. 

And I mean properly mainstream.  The award was not for social businesses only but was for businesses, straight forward, big, real world business and all of a sudden I feel very mainstream.  But mainstream isn’t normal for me and it makes me think.

When we were at an event in London earlier in the year, Doug Richard encouraged all the social enterprises there to aim higher.  Not to be satisfied with the Social Enterprise 100, not to celebrate only our success but also to aspire to transform all businesses into social businesses.  I clapped like everyone else there, party because I was really impressed and partly because I was sitting in the same row and it seemed impolite not to.

I always arrive at the office early each morning and while it’s quiet I get myself set for the day, often listening to Thought for the Day, not out of spiritual hunger, more routine I think.  Last week the Chief Rabbi was on talking about the problems that beset religions when they try to persuade others of their validity and point of view by getting into power.  He argued that when religions try to hold power, civic, military or political power, as a way to change to world things go badly wrong.  Oppression wrong or terrorism wrong.

When religion functions well and transforms people and societies it does so by being a creative minority.

Anyway, as I collected the award I thought about this.  Do we have greater social impact when we seek the ground where business operates or when we see ourselves as a creative dissenting minority?

I’m not sure what the answer is really, but I do know that next week we are up for the regional Employer of the Year award and we are up against Morrison’s Supermarkets.

I guess that will be a good time to try to work out the answer…

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Outcomes and intentions

intention - a sliding scale

I am not always a big 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!

After two meetings with potential investors, I went along to the national Retail Skillsmart conference at the Grosvenor hotel.  There was lots of talk about retail being the fastest growing sector, about it being the largest sector employer in the UK and about its resilience to downturn and capacity for impact and growth.  After all the glowing stuff the HR Director of one of the Big Four retail employers stood up and spoke about their commitment to skills and training.  After some great slides about the 100,000 NVQs delivered to staff and the 20,000 apprenticeships completed we were coming to the big finale.  Then there it was…CREATE’s logo on the screen and an announcement of their commitment to offer 10% of the jobs they create to people coming out of the CREATE Potential pre-employment academy.

Even doing the calculations on the back of a fag packet, that seemed like the sort of impact that makes my heart race.  Then came the closing ‘sell’.  They love working with us, because the partnership delivers impact and (from a very commercial operator) reduces attrition, provides them with well trained and highly motivated staff and reduces their bottom line HR and recruitment costs.  So why (here was the sell) are you CEO’s and HR Directors of all the other major national retailers not a part of this too. Come and join us in a retail consortium designed to make a difference.  

Good sell.  Good day all round.

On the train on the way 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 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 (that’s B) and 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?  Our mission statement says we exist to see people who have been homeless secure in a sustainable job and theirs says ‘good shopkeeping’ or something similar, so is it the intention or the outcome that makes the real difference.

When we won the Trailblazing Newcomer at the SE100 award this year, Doug Richard said (very nicely) “so what”.  If social enterprise only seeks to applaud itself we will be the poorer for it and so will the world.  If we use our skills in enterprising multi-sectoral networking to transform the opportunities and to change major retailers and employers is the win not bigger?

So is it about numbers, scale, impact or intention?  Well I am not sure really, but one thing of which I am very very sure: I will never ever buy a round of drinks at the Grosvener Hotel and I adjure you strongly to heed my advice on this.

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1316 and all that

Networking - consultation or compromise

There seems to be massive concerns about the rapid level of environmental change and irreparable environmental damage.  Those who lend money secured against property have suffered the largest scale losses in human history.  There is a sense that the government must do something differently in order to illicit social change.  Yet still, in the face of economic cataclysm, the returns on the trading figures of the top companies evidence higher profits in this year than in the previous decade.

These were the lessons I learned reading a very interesting article about Britain in 1316.  Perhaps it is true that there is nothing new under the sun.

On or about this year one of the most important texts in medieval England was published.  Piers Ploughman continues to be one of the most significant and challenging of the canon of English literature.  The text is shot through with reflections on the meaning of life and was sewing the seeds of uprising against the powers of the church and of the state.  It is used by John Ball, a revolutionary priest, only a few years later as part of his inspiration for the Peasant Revolt.

What the heck has all this to do with leading a growing social enterprise?  Well probably because I think it is sometimes important to keep thinking and learning because when we stop doing that, we stop inspiring other people to do it, and there is only so much inspiration in Leadership and Management training with wafer thin wisdom!  Also I think that it touches on the agenda that is always present underneath our working days.

I have commented often on the idea that effective social entrepreneurs are fundamentally those with the skills of muti-sectoral networking.  In the last couple of weeks I have been to Big Society consultations, sat in the Boardroom of international investment banks and had a cup of tea with the north east’s most notorious reformed gangster.

Sometimes networking is really good, sometimes to makes things happen; sometimes it transforms the perspectives of those involved in the network.  I think as social entrepreneurs we always need to be conscious of when networking becomes sucking up, when challenge and not co-operation is appropriate.  For Piers Ploughman and John Bull the realities of 1316 were not about consultation but challenge.

Both are appropriate, it is just sensing the when and the how…

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words, words, words

words, words, words

There has been a leak. Well not a very important one I think in the cosmic scheme of things, not compared to a wiki-leaks-list-of-people-we-hate-and-want-to-kill-and-directions-to-find-them face book type of leak.

On Monday, quite quietly, the government had a leak. A leak of their internal advice on the language we uses to describe ourselves and our policies (I get the sneaking suspicion it was one that was meant to be leaked).

It gives advice on the language the government use to talk about things. As I said, in the cosmic scheme of things, not that important but interesting to us in the social business world.

There I go again, language, the words we use to talk about things. I talk about social business and sometimes social enterprise. I know there are technical differences (and we fit into both descriptions by the way so don’t panic) but business often sounds more mature and stable than enterprise, but depending on the audience will depend on the word I plump for.

So after that little deviation I think I have made my point. Language is totally unimportant and all important.

Sometimes it is important to precisely and technically describe the concept or context we are referring to, sometimes it is important to paint a broad brush stroke to create an emotion or an impression.

So the government’s leak talks about ‘outcomes’ not ‘targets’ about ‘volunteers, professionals, people’ not ‘stakeholders’.

Those of us who work in this cross sectoral network with business, government and the voluntary sector need to understand the rules of the language game and play that game well, but it is more important than that.

A century ago we would have given charity to ‘paupers, imbeciles and inadequates’ three decades ago we would have ‘cared for and supported down and outs and alkies’ ten years ago we would have ‘empowered service users’…

Now we just employ people.

That feels a lot better and language is important.

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a game of monopoly

get out of jail free

I have been going to a lot of meetings recently.  With partners, with investors, with Big Society ministers-kind-of-thing and I have started to think more recently…

What should I take?  Should it be the top hat or the jaguar, leaving the old boot behind? Sometimes we seem to play monopoly, sometimes win, sometimes loose.

Why do I think this?  Well it was most notably driven home for me at a recent third sector consultation event where we had some tea and biscuits, a little light posturing and then a jolly good two hours together.  In those two hours we set up a ring and then proceeded to wrestle our agendas and then  glamorously parade our scores in public.

After establishing that we were more unique than anyone else and had more vision and passion and were all round generally good eggs we calmed ourselves down with a gentle chorus of Home on the Range and went home.

I jest obviously, but not completely.

One of the joys of heading a multi-local expanding social enterprise is that you get to meet lots of people and in doing so you get to network across different sectors.  From the third sector to government, from Local Authorities to large corporates, from our staff to high net worth individuals – we learn to speak the language of each sector and, as T S Elliot put it, ‘to make a face to meet the faces that we meet’.

One of the things that constantly amazes me is the fantastic ‘can do attitude’ that I am presented with in the businesses driven by money and owned by individuals.  One mantra from one of my business partners in a FTSE 30 company is always “this IS going to happen, so what needs to be true to make that a reality”.

So often sadly, that same attitude is not present in the traditional voluntary and statutory services sector.

Do you know what?  We are unique in our vision, hopes and aspiration for the world, but we’re not the only ones who can deliver social transformation and (shhhhh! Don’t tell anyone this bit… Shhhhhh) we are not always the best or most efficient.

I guess what I’m thinking is that VCFS, corporates, high worth individuals, investors in the city, local community groups, the government, and local authorities… none of them (or we) have a monopoly on the good stuff.  On offering hope and transformation.  We are all operating on the same monopoly board and before we shout about other people working in silos we have to ask if, at least attitudinally, we are innocent of all charges.

Is that not what the Big Society is kind of all about…?

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