The Life of an Intern

Share Button

Hey everybody, it's Ryan the intern!  I just wanted to take a few minutes and write about my experience here at the SSE so far.

From day one, it has been fantastic working here.  I've never had an office job before, although I do have a bit of other work experience.  What I thought was going to be a month of being bored to death, cooped up in an office with a bunch of old people turned into being one of the most inspiring, exciting jobs with the greatest bunch of people I have ever worked with (and they aren't even old, or at least you can't tell)!!  

Business, for me, has always been something I've studied only because it seemed like a practical way to get a job in one of the worst economies that the USA (yes, I'm American so excuse my different spelling of words) has ever seen.  I don't know whether it's the English charm in this office, the fact that I feel like my work has meaning, or just the overall vibe in the office that we are all helping other people, but whatever it is, coming to work is a great part of my day and I'm sad to say I will have to leave at the end of the month to go back to school for my final semester before heading out into the real world.  That said, I must repeat the first thing I learned in this office and that was where the tea is.  How English! 🙂

Specifically, I'm working under Nick doing things like contacting the press, working back and forth with fellows and current students to finish up certain jobs, and organizing/analyzing (not analysing haha) data from evaluations and such.  It's been great fun as every day is a bit different, so it keeps me interested.  

Finally, it's just really interesting seeing how a non-for-profit works; it's neat how we have to go about different strategies to keep things working like obtaining grants and the like because the SSE doesn't rely on its program as its only source of income.  

Well, that's all from me for now.  I'll be back next Monday with another update of sorts, I'm sure.

Cheers! 

Share Button

Environmental social entrepreneurs

Share Button

Nice to see this column by Lucy Siegle in the Observer magazine asking if social entrepreneurs can be green. Of course, many social entrepreneurs do work to a triple bottom line of financial, social and environmental. And a fair number of our latest SSE Fellows from Liverpool SSE all do so; sadly I couldn't be at their graduation, but this video by SSE Fellow org Brava Design, is the next best thing. Enjoy:

School for Social Entrepreneurs – Environmental Programme from Brava Design on Vimeo.

Share Button

Transparency and (green) social entrepreneurship

Share Button

So on Day 2 at the SSE residential, 140 social entrepreneurs packed into the Great Hall at Dartington to hear from Colin Crooks, social entrepreneur and founder of Green-Works, the furniture recycling social enterprise It takes quite an individual to hold that big an audience engaged and attentive for nigh on 2 hours, but Colin made it look effortless. And he demonstrated one of his key values, transparency, in virtually every sentence and every answer.

He split the witness session into four sections: Start-up, structure, people and new developments, drawing frequently and vividly and openly on his own experience. Below are my efforts at a transcript / bullet points of what he covered along the way, and the questions asked in each section. Hopefully it makes some sense, and you can take some nuggets of advice and wisdom.

START-UP
– Hates waste: of things, of products, and of people; used to just rail against it ineffectively before finding social enterprise
– Worked in plastics factory for 40p an hour
– Went to university age 24 + saw wasted talent there…society was wasting that talent
– I pick up things in the street and drive my children mad
– Glad to be in a place that gets environment + sustainability (Dartington)

– Started a paper-recycling business which went OK, but collapsed when the price of paper collapsed. Price collapsed by 35%; margin was 8%.
– Brutal experience, extremely unpleasant, and learned a huge amount.
– Paid off debts (£100,000), got married to an "extremely patient" woman.
– Elected to be a councillor in Lambeth (West Norwood); by accident… (18.9% swing); See things as a councillor (schools, hospitals, charities, residents association) that you would not normally see
– Lots of organisations that had “shocking furniture”; one meeting with 30 people…with no furniture
– Next day, went into major blue chip company that was throwing away 600 desks and chairs
– "Idea was obvious to me: so I rented a van… moved 600 desks over 4 months"; that was the beginning of Green Works: an intermediary role to solve market failure: I will take this furniture off you at a timetable that suits you, and I will provide / sell that furniture to organisations that need it (via a massive warehouse)

– But very hard: steep learning curve; have to take it all within 24 hours….
– £23,000 turnover after year 2…not getting paid; van + volunteers; was it going to take off?

– HSBC: invited in to HSBC’s major bank in old City of London; cabinets for sticks, gloves and hats
– Start talking about HSBC’s new building at Canary Wharf (Colin used to be a window cleaning manager)…filling the entire building with 7,000 people + closing down 17 smaller buildings in City of London; and new furniture for Canary Wharf
– Want us to take away 7,000 desks in 6 months; took me 3 seconds to take the risk and go for it
– £500,000 contract for a business turning over £23,000: the original business destroyer contract (if they pay a day late etc…); this is mad, this is too early….optimistic side won: gotta go for it
– Demanded sum up front + water-tight contract to allow him to get bank support + warehouse

–  Peter Weatherstone (@First Fruit) signed and sealed a deal with him; to employ homeless people + get warehouse…on first meeting; his turnover was £75,000
– “That’s why I love being a social entrepreneur and in social enterprise; because we did it on trust, on wanting to achieve the same thing”
– Got pro-bono legal advice from Lovells: and ripped up the normal HSBC supply contract: November 7th 2002: signed the lease…+ first trucks rolled in
– 3,000 tonnes of furniture over the next 6 months; 52,000 items of furniture (including 1,000 hat stands) “The most amazing experience of my life: I’ve never enjoyed myself so much ever”

– Story shows you two things about starting up:
1) If you really believe in what you’re doing, and you believe you have the skills to do it…then do it; (but make sure that it is in line with your mission)

2) You cannot do it on your own; and there’s no reason why you should; huge diversity of skills and expertise needed to make it happen; the sum of the parts greater than the whole

Questions
Is there competition now? Huge, intense competition; lots of people + orgs emerged; mostly delighted (because GreenWorks couldn’t cope with it all); some competition using dodgy tactics

What are your personal key values…and how do you apply them? You can stamp your values through your organisation like a stick of rock as a social entrepreneur. For me, it is never divert to landfill; absolute integrity and transparency; + giving people a chance. Challenge to apply those, but we make them part of the interview, induction and review process in the organisation

How challenging to forge relationships? You do create an energy around you; all you can talk about is the enterprise (breakfast, dinner, pub, friends, networks). Word of mouth got us HSBC. Relationships are the key things, but need to have an authenticity; you have to do a lot of networking, and kiss a lot of frogs…but find some princes on your wavelength who get it. Don’t try and force something that isn’t naturally happening. “If it doesn’t come naturally, you’re doing it wrong”

How do you ensure furniture is re-usable? We collect everything, regardless of its state. And none of it goes to landfill


STRUCTURE

– I really believe in a not-for-profit model…company limited by guarantee: need directors + understand you are no longer the owner.
– First year: £2000; second year: £23,000; at first, friend + wife was enough. Needed more challenge as things went on (not just yes-men).
– Guy from Centrica: instantly professionalised us: get the numbers and know the numbers (disciplines + structures).
– 3 person board grew to 6. Bringing in particular sets of skills. People we knew or knew of.
– Recruited people who are do-ers. No "Lady Mucks and Lord Fauntleroys", but people who open their phone books and help us. And push and probe and challenge me. Advice that I couldn’t buy.
– Decent balance: I give up control of salary and (some of) strategy, but they were recruited to help me achieve my mission. And therefore I’ve found that hugely rewarding….
– Frankness is the key to making that board work; be honest when I don’t know the answers; you can be superman outwardly, but need to be open and trusting to the board. Then they will help you, not beat you up. If I tell them all the answers, how are they going to help?

Questions

–  Is your structure succession-proof? Probably could do with tightening up. Biggest concern with integrity of business + some of those things I hold.

Where do you recruit trustees/directors from? Advertise some vacancies on NCVO, SEC, SEL….and they are people who are looking for this kind of thing. It’s also about being networked, and networking your networks. [we are a charity and a company limited by guarantee; so the directors are also trustees]


PEOPLE

– I’ve made a lot of mistakes and got a lot of things wrong; and some right
– Sometimes you know instantly if you’ve got it right (Chris); just got on with it; applied himself intelligently…etc. for 4 days; then took him on when I dislocated my knee
– Best single recruitment I ever did: and it was backing enthusiasm and intelligence and attitude
– You have to be direct and clear with people (which some people find tricky)…you have to call the line, otherwise people cross it

– Recommends Good To Great (section on there: get the right people on the bus) by Jim Collins; get the right people on the bus and make sure they are in the right seat; and the bus journey may change…so the people may need to change (or change their seats). Need to know what skills you need, what part of the journey you are on, what skills you don’t have and what skills you need to get in…

– I’m out of my depth a lot of the time…and I don’t always know how to do it; I freely admit that.
– Brought in a load of more experienced people: didn’t get the dream, didn’t get the mission… didn’t get it in their belly, even if they did on their spreadsheets; and it nearly destroyed us. £200-300k spent on people taking us nowhere. Very much harder to get rid of them.
– Learning is: Do not recruit in a hurry…if you don’t think the person is right, go round again. Frustration of getting the wrong person in is infinitely worse than taking time getting the right person. 
–  Regular feedback from day 1. Direct, straight and true.
– If it’s not working out, the sooner the better in terms of getting rid of them / parting company

Questions

When did you draw up an HR plan? When we got to around £1m. Intensely different business then and at £2m. But before that, keep the momentum going; do stuff. Instinctual.

What was the problem with the ‘wise heads’? Was it about the money primarily for them? Yes. Not just about the money; it’s also about doing what’s right. They knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

How did you start to dismiss these people or agree to part? A frank conversation, normally. Pointing to history + some examples. Ask them "What do you think we should do?"

Who are the key players in the business? Changes all the time. Depending on circumstances and what stage of the journey the organisation is at.


NEW BUSINESS / DEVELOPMENT

– You have to keep revitalising, keep developing, keep it new.
– Done some of the biggest ever contracts for recycling furniture in the UK. So looking also for some new things
– Went to Sierra Leone; met an MP starting a library there; offered her furniture; most amazing place I’ve ever been…most amazing people; so we are working to revitalise a whole community by providing them with furniture etc.
– Needed: nowhere to store books (mud floor, palm roof). So sent out a load of metal cabinets. Quadrupled them number of books in Sierra Leone; and all are stored in metal cabinets by age group. 
– Also, back in the UK, have set up a fully computerised joinery workshop. Taken four years to get right. Because we are a warehousing business, not a manufacturing business. Finally turned into profit in the last 6 months.
– About the right people, the right partnerships and taking the opportunities
– Keep refining and revitalising the model…and to do all of that against the odds. And, to some extent, at times, against the opinions and advice of trustees + directors.
– Seeing the benefits of those two things has given me another level of energy for the future

[cue APPLAUSE]

Share Button

Consumerism gone mad

Share Button

Recently, after coming back to SSE as an intern for a few months (info at the bottom), I came across The Story of Stuff, a 20 minute web documentary hosted by "American critic of excessive consumerism" Annie Leonard. In the video Leonard goes through the process of consumption in five steps from extraction, production, distribution, consumption and then disposal. Though the video at times seems meant for younger age groups, perhaps a straightforward approach is what we all need; mixed in between the jaw dropping statistics Annie's message is clear and obvious: ever-growing consumption has become a dangerous force in human society.

As Leonard explains, this didn't just happen. In the 1955, economist Victor Lebow prophesied a version similar to our contemporary environment: "Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption
our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into
rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction,
in consumption…. we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and
discarded at an ever-accelerating rate."

What does this have to do with social entrepreneurship and our current financial environment?
As Leonard amply points out, environmentalism affects us all, in all sectors. It is a timely reminder that while 'going green' has become a fad of its own, there is still much to be done. Here SSE Fellows like Becky Barrett at Love Eco and Dave Miller at Bikeworks play crucial roles. That being said, they are continuously dependent on you, the consumer, to purchase products strategically. It is no longer about finding the cheapest price, but rather the locally produced, environmentally friendly, and sustainable product.

That's easier said than done, particularly with the economy down the tank. Thus, we must not only buy smart, but also defy Victor Lebow and his theory of an ever-accelerating rate. Here is where the economic crisis may help us all, by forcibly slowing down our rate of purchasing. However, as we have seen such a change will lead to a slow-down in production, higher unemployment, higher prices. So what do we do? Leonard is brilliant in her analysis, but not so much in her aim. Next time I would like to see a video where she debates and convinces a parent who is fighting to keep his or her job, to shop more sustainably. Until then I won't hold my breath for a new type of consumerism.


Thor Steinhovden currently interns with the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Bethnal Green, London. He recently finished a BA in Political Science and History at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. This fall he will embark on a MSc in Comparative Politics (Nationalism and Ethnicity) at the London School of Economics.

   

Share Button

Estates of mind: the relationship of place & people

Share Button

Lynseyhanley I finished reading Estates by Lynsey Hanley last night. I’ll admit that it isn’t the most alluring title, but it’s been hugely interesting. I first came across the book when responding to an exchange in Society Guardian between Lynsey Hanley and Andrew Mawson (who wrote the Social Entrepreneur). In a nutshell, she felt that Mawson was claiming that his people-led approach was the key to regenerating areas, whilst she felt that, ultimately, this had to be placed in the context of government intervention and place-based changes to the physical space. My letter, in response to her response, was that grassroots social entrepreneurship was not a panacea, but also that it should not be thrown out with the bathwater…and that it was the combination between government intervention, place-based stuff AND people-powered action that would work best.

[And I’m delighted to celebrate the launches of The Hub at Kings Cross and Shine at Harehills: congratulations to all involved; more on these soon]

I did have some empathy with her words, though. And, having been raised as a good middle-class boy in various semi-detached places in suburbia, thought that it would also give me a level of insight that I wouldn’t (couldn’t) otherwise have. Although, as Hanley points out towards the end of the book, ultimately you can never understand unless you’ve lived / been raised on an estate.

It’s a great book: a mix of memoir, sociology, history, politics and solution-seeking, and I warmed to her authorial voice as it went along. She’s exceptionally good at drawing a vivid picture both of what it was/is like to live on an estate geographically, but also psychologically. Indeed, the central section of the book is the one where she talks of how the physical barriers (poor location, poor quality building, poor transport links, poor schooling on site, poor design) create psychological barriers in the person’s mind. Or, as she puts it (borrowing from East / West Germany), it creates a "wall in the head". It was here that I found myself moved and provoked:

"To be working-class in Britain is also to have a wall in the head, and, since council housing has come to mean housing for the working class…that wall exists unbroken throughout every estate in the land"

Breaking through (or climbing) over that wall is about combating isolation, about gaining aspiration, about learning about what’s possible (or even exists) from the people you know….which chimes hugely with our recent report, Sustainable Paths to Community Development which talks of the crucial need for social ‘linking’ capital, for the connections to different networks to be made. Contacts that are outside of the family or the estate, and that provide knowledge, information, opportunities, resources and role models. Hanley says that "Social capital is more important for people who live on class-segregated estates than for anyone else", and our experience would back that up. Otherwise, the kind of entrenchment and isolation that Hanley details in the book becomes dominant.

What the book has helped me understand, though, aside from how council housing and council estates have ended up being where they are and looking like they do (it’s fascinating to trace the history through various governments right up to the recent housing associations), is the sheer difficulty of scaling the wall. Much of this, it must be said, is to do with the architecture, design, quality, siting, spacing and heights of the buildings involved; there is some evidence here of lessons learned (tenants involvement, high quality, mixed design and so on), but there is vastly more to be done. As Hanley details with passion and frustration, estates are paved with good intentions as well as concrete, but many of the slum replacements have effectively become new slums.

But a central part of scaling the wall, at least for individuals, is about personal support, development and opportunity. People who ask why we need to support people for a year, or why they need high levels of personal support, or why we mix cohorts of different backgrounds and educational qualifications should read this book. Without support, confidence, inspiration (for aspiration) and connections, it remains incredibly hard to make the change….hard, to a degree, frankly, I don’t think I understand or can communicate. So here are the final words of the book from someone who does, and can:

"Breaking out of [the estate] was like breaking out of prison. For all its careful planning and proximity to the city and the country, the estate was ringed by that invisible, impenetrable force field: the wall in the head. That may say as much about the closed ranks of the working class as it does for the failures of town planning. But I know that I will never scale another wall quite so high"

Share Button