Career counselling for aspiring social entrepreneurs

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paid work placementsTom Rippin, CEO of On Purpose - which helps professionals who are transitioning into socially impactful careers - speaks to the British Council about supporting budding social entrepreneurs

On Purpose is a UK-based social enterprise that runs a one-year leadership programme for experienced professionals looking to transition into careers in the social enterprise sphere, and to build life-changing networks.
Associates on the programme undertake paid work placements, weekly training and regular one-to-one coaching and mentoring.

In doing so, On Purpose aims to develop social enterprise leaders beyond entrepreneurs who can enhance the capacity of social enterprises, help charities become commercially savvy and discover socially and environmentally rewarding activities for business.

The British Council has hosted several On Purpose associates, one of whom, Dimitra Tzigianni, spoke to On Purpose CEO Tom Rippin.

Dimitra Tzigianni: What skills, knowledge and experience do people entering the social enterprise world need?

Tom Rippin: The first requirement is an appreciation of the social enterprise sector. Sometimes people think that having a corporate background and applying their business thinking is enough. But that’s not the case. One of the key attitudes when transitioning into the sector is to be humble and willing to learn new things.

Beyond that, a broad set of skills is needed, such as an understanding of good business practices and especially of how to run a sustainable business.
It is also important to have a clear understanding of the social issues that people are dealing with. By definition, working in the social enterprise space means working in an area where there has been a market failure, so that is going to be difficult.
Prior experience of working in big organisations which can be used to help social enterprises to scale can also be valuable.
Additionally, being able to think in system terms and see the wider picture is very important as it helps you think of unforeseen consequences. This means that organisations should not only focus on the social impact on their own beneficiaries but on their overall impact – including not acting to the detriment of other organisations or beneficiaries.
Other skills include being able to deal with uncertainty, since social enterprises operate in difficult areas, work with few resources and find often untested ways of doing things.

DT: What can the sector teach itself about how to develop social entrepreneurs?

TR: Well, the sector does quite a lot to help social entrepreneurs, but not necessarily so much to help leaders more generally in social enterprises.
You can think of three types of leaders: the starters, the builders and the runners. The starters are the people who have ideas and start organisations. The builders are those who put on processes and scale organisations. The runners are those who “run a stable ship” which often means looking for and creating consensus or mitigating risks.
In the social enterprise world, there are a lot of starters and this is because historically there has been a focus on them. For example, think of all the competitions, prizes and funding opportunities which focus on individual entrepreneurs rather than on organisations. This has led to an increased interest amongst people who want to start things up, which is great. But actually, now people are realising we need more scale and hence investment readiness. And this requires a team of people who have experience of working in or running larger organisations.
Building capacity and investor readiness will require getting more builders and runners into the social enterprise world, which in turn needs to be happy to invest resources in these types of leaders. There needs to be a realisation that it costs money to attract, retain and develop such leaders and that it is an investment that will pay back.

DT: What makes social enterprises and social entrepreneurs successful?

TR: It’s difficult to say, but there are some generalisations that I can talk about.
One is that social enterprises are successful when they genuinely have a good business model and offering. I see many social enterprise start-ups that haven’t really thought through how they are going to make enough money to be financially sustainable. Another common difficulty is that people launch social enterprises without having invested enough time into market research.
Sometimes I see social enterprises that are predicated on the assumption that being a social enterprise will help them make money. But the vast majority of customers buy goods or services because they are either of better quality, cheaper or easier to use than competing products, not because they are sold by a social enterprise. So having a great value proposition and not relying on your social credentials is really important.
Social enterprises also need to make sure that they measure their social impact and that they have good management systems in place.
Lastly and critically they need to be able to get good talent on board and invest in developing that talent.

DT: What lessons have you learned running On Purpose?

TR: When I started, I wrote a business plan and looked for funding, but I rapidly realised that no one would fund what was just an idea. So I decided to test the programme, which we did with five associates in the first year. Thus, one learning was to start small; to have a good concept and pilot it, so as to show that the service or product is one that people want to buy.
Additionally, in the first year we tried to raise money from granting and we did raise some from UnLtd and Esmee Fairbairn. However, it was still difficult to raise the amount that we had originally hoped for. So the second learning was to stop looking for grants and focus on growing ourselves organically. That realisation actually came as a relief. It was nice to focus on our customers and associates and persuade them to be part of the programme rather than having to persuade grant funders as well.
Another learning is that it is never too soon to start putting in processes. The processes do not have to be complicated, but systematic processes and IT systems can help even small organisations save time and generate useful data; and if IT systems seem complicated, you can do a lot with well-organised spreadsheets.
The last learning is a focus on delivering services of high quality and always to keep an eye on the social impact you are aiming for. At On Purpose we hope, for example, that the recruitment process of the associates is a high quality experience and that in turn, the associates work in stimulating and rewarding projects in their placements. Ultimately, this helps attract better and better people and so increases the impact we are striving to achieve in the social enterprise movement.

After some years researching cancer, Tom Rippin started his non-academic career at management consultants McKinsey & Company, where he worked across the private, public and non-profit sectors. He transitioned into the social enterprise space, first advising the CEO of Comic Relief on private sector matters and then working at (RED), the business founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver to help eliminate AIDS in Africa. There he was managing director for Europe and director of business development for (RED) International. As well as running On Purpose, which has recently launched in France, Tom is the chairman of Spice, and a non-executive director at the Shaftesbury Partnership.
Dimitra Tzigianni is an
On Purpose social enterprise associate who worked for the British Council’s 24-country social enterprise programme. Prior to joining the On Purpose Social Enterprise leadership programme, Dimitra worked as financial and CSR auditor for KPMG and Deloitte in Luxembourg and Greece and served as a business mentor for young social start-ups in Switzerland and China.