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Collaboration is the new competition

Social enterprise mentorship

One of the best bits about heading up a business that’s a social enterprise is that I never need to seek or give myself permission for taking time out of the day to invest some energy in working with fledgeling or floundering social enterprises. In fact, when the mission you’re on is to inspire all business that we can do more than make money, I’d go as far to say it’s compulsory.

Profit with Purpose

My latest ‘outing’ was to our British Library to chair a panel on ‘profit with purpose’, organised by the most amazing mentoring program for social entrepreneurs – Expert Impact.

I’ve worked with Expert Impact for a few years now. Most of my mentees stay in touch, some are in frequent contact, and it’s a real delight to see some of them storming ahead – Cemal of Change Please, Max of Dusty Knuckle Bakery, Mursal of Chatterbox among them.

At this particular event, I was joined on the panel by two more, both with businesses celebrating two years of trading – Joanna from Juta shoes and Emily from Aerende. They sat alongside Guy, Founder of collapsible bottle Ohyo, and Thang co-founder of Callaly, the inventor of the Tampiliner. All of them with products worth seeking out, and all of them with very different start-up stories and experiences to share. Our journeys ranged from those with two to almost ten years of experience – a massive 27 years of successes, challenges and learnings to share.

I’m biased of course, but I love this kind of event where the panel and the audience are genuinely purpose-first, with business as a means to achieving that. And what was incredibly inspiring about a panel approach (rather than having the platform to myself) is that each of our panellists could bring to life how they had lived their ‘impact values’ whilst building their businesses.

Bigger is not always better

Almost ten years ago, Guy refined his first bottle invention and committed to UK manufacturing to minimise his footprint over maximising margin, and he is still doing that today. He has also resisted the easy(ish) bucks of putting a steel refillable bottle into the mix because they’ve got a “100 times bigger and unnecessary carbon footprint” compared to the product he’s created (we agree on that at Belu too!). Thang is proudly “not trying to be as big as possible; we’re trying to do it right in a market that’s had almost zero innovation in 80 years”. Emily from Aerande has a brand that insists that true beauty is not just about aesthetics, but is instead about a product that ‘does no harm’. Through her business, she‘s fulfilling her dream, but also building it up in the way that she sees right.

With investment models ranging from ‘self-investment’ to ‘sweat investment’ (receiving work and advice from others in return for equity), to aiming for ‘single-digit millions’ (that Thang is a brave man in my eyes), I reflect on my own journey at Belu and wonder if I’ve been too organic and too risk-averse along the way.

But then I quickly conclude that the key messages from the evening that stand out for me are:

– There is no right or wrong way of doing things, so do it your way.

– Bigger is not always better.

– Collaboration is the new competition.

To all those who attended, best of luck on your social entrepreneurship journeys; you’ll be very welcome to join our community. As summed up beautifully by Juta’s Joanna – “Being a social enterprise is a uniquely inclusive and collaborative experience. Everyone we’ve met has asked how they can help or collaborate. It’s an amazing space”. Which might explain two of her actions. First, that she effectively “started a business with a stranger” (my favourite quote of the night) and why she and Emily have already delivered their first Juta-Aerende collaboration.

Buy Social

And that reminds me, who could not want a pair of those handmade slippers for Christmas? They’re made from upcycled sustainable offcuts and by an inspiring social enterprise that helps marginalised women in London train and work. Or better still, book a workshop and learn how to make them yourself. Either way, please remember to #buysocial this Christmas; there are over 100,000 social enterprises in the UK, and we need your support to continue making a positive impact.

By Karen Lynch, CEO, Belu

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