Lauren Shuttleworth On Social Enterprise & How To Measure Social Impact


Lauren Shuttleworth is a social entrepreneur, gender equality activist and a Global Shaper with the World Economic Forum. She is passionate about female education and the economic power of social enterprise.

Since launching Words With Heart in late 2014, the company has funded over 70,000 days of education for women and girls in the developing world. Lauren has been awarded grants with Macquarie and ING Direct, and was a finalist in the Brisbane Young Entrepreneur Awards. Lauren has presented at conferences including TEDx, UN Youth Australia and Women of The World. Recently she won the Australian final for Chivas Venture, a $1 million global pitching competition for social enterprise.


Lauren provides a range of advice for social entrepreneurs, discusses social procurement, measuring impact and where she believes the social enterprise sector is heading.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to starting up a social enterprise? [2:07]

[Lauren Shuttleworth] - I started up Words With Heart at the end of 2014. For me, I didn't necessarily start it with the intention that it was going to be a social enterprise.

To go back to the beginning, I was volunteering overseas at a school in Kenya. I met a young girl in one of my classes called Esther. Esther was super bright and top of her class but sadly at the end of my time volunteering there, one of the other teachers described how she was going to have to drop out of school. This was because the orphanage where she lived couldn't pay for her school fees anymore. [Lauren talks about how she decided to pay for the fees, but how other questions arose about what would happen the year after and what about all the other girls just like Esther.]

I started to do a bit of research around the problem of girls access to education and discovered it was so much bigger than just this school in Kenya, so decided I wanted to do something about this.

I looked up the possibility of starting a charity but realised quickly that it was a problem that fundraising and donations alone wasn't going to solve.

I thought that I needed a business solution for it and stumbled across social enterprise as a concept and thought it was perfect. It was like the combination of charity meeting business and it seemed like the avenue to go down.

Tell us more about Words With Heart. How does your social enterprise operate? [4:25]

Words With Heart is a print and stationery company which funds education projects for women and girls in the developing world. We produce all kinds of business and personal stationary. We produce it sustainably, so it's all made with recycled paper, eco-inks and green electricity and then we build in the cost of education days into the products themselves. [Lauren explains further and how they share the data on the impact of the education days to clients.]

So it's really about tapping into the social procurement space and providing an essential product at the same cost and quality, but with this powerful and measurable social and environmental impact.

What have been your biggest barriers until now and how did you navigate your way around them? [5:55]

There's always so many challenging parts to be able to pick the biggest ones! A lot of people talk about starting as being really hard. I don't think that was ever a challenge for me. I was so passionate about the idea and am the kind of person that just wants to throw it out there and get going and see what happens.

We launched through a crowdfunding campaign. That was a great way to begin because I was able to test the idea and see if it was just me who was passionate about it or if other people thought it had potential. We ended up pre-selling about $20k worth of stationery which kicked us off.

It's always difficult to pull everything together and figure out the bits. I had no idea how to start a stationery company when I launched and I had no background in the print space.

It was about saying, 'I don't know how to do this... let me google, let me chat to someone and find the avenues.'

There were challenges but I think the biggest challenges are ahead of us.

The tough bit was once we launched, maintaining that momentum and being able to juggle something that was a side gig passion project and the demands of that as it grew. Jumping from leaving a full time job to a part time job, to then taking that leap and putting all my energy into it and taking a chance.

You get a bit of buzz when you start something, but to keep that going is really hard.

What advice would you give to other social entrepreneurs who are starting their own journey? [8:02]

Just start.

The biggest learning is what you pick up along the way. You're not going to be able to get everything all in a row and perfect prior to launch so don't even try.

[Lauren talks about the Words With Heart journey and how they pivoted.]

We completely rejigged the business model and that completely revolutionised who we are and our impact now. I would never been able to have pre-planned that at the start.

I think the biggest thing to starting a social enterprise is to begin and pivot as you go.

You’re a finalist in this year’s global Chivas Venture Competition for social businesses which saw you spend a week in Oxford, tell us more about the experience. [9:20]

It was a great experience and it's a great competition that they have. [Lauren talks about the process and how she won the Australian final. She talks about how all the finalists from around the world went to Oxford University for a week at the beginning of the year which was a fantastic opportunity.]

In Australia I think the social enterprise sector is still a little bit immature.

A lot of the focus and attention is around how to start a social enterprise and there's very little expertise in how to scale a social enterprise.

Whereas, in the UK they have billion dollar social enterprises that have been around for over a decade. For us that's our vision of where we want to go and where we see ourselves and being able to ask direct questions to people who have been able to achieve that was pretty exciting.

What do you think are the most effective ways to measure your social impact? [11:51]

The measurement of social impact is so important.

Really think about and question the value of the social impact you're creating.

For us when we first started, I wanted to fund girls education and had the idea of doing that through a stationery range and products. But I wanted to make sure I wasn't shifting the problem of access to education to deforestation by printing lots of paper unsustainably.


What do you think are the most effective ways to measure your social impact? [11:51 continued]

When you're measuring your social impact, you have to look beyond the obvious.

The one-for-one model is very popular, but if you're creating a one-for-one model, what is the social impact of what you're creating and does it really have a long term impact?

For us what is important was the impact model of building in the cost of education days into our product. That was important rather than saying we give 50% of our profits to a social cause because sometimes it's really hard to understand what 50% of profits is from a consumers perspective.

Being able to have something tangible and meaningful keeps us accountable and helps us measure our impact easily.

[Lauren talks about how she's set up some strong partnerships.]

What exactly is your change helping to create long term beyond the initial feel-good factor? Moving forward, as social enterprise becomes more and more popular (and it's growing so much!), that will be something that separates the true social enterprises from a marketing focus from a traditional business.

Where do you see the most potential in Australia for social innovation? [14:48]

I see social procurement being really big. 

We're already seeing it in a few areas. The Victorian Government for example has just designated a whole bunch of funding to procurement from social enterprises. That's what's so powerful. I love the concept of businesses, governments and individuals being able to make a choice that doesn't cost them any more or sacrifice quality in any way, but they're able to create social and environmental impact through that choice.

I'd like to see it become a norm for businesses to look at the social measurement side when they're making decisions around procurement.

The combination of technology tackling age old social issues in a new way is fascinating. I've seen some great things overseas in that respect so it'll be interesting to see how that applies to Australia.

I'm passionate about girls education because it has such a ripple effect across some many other areas of development. I think that will be key to social impact; looking at areas where you can create a change not just in one space, but how that one change will create further change... and being really smart about leveraging social impact in that way.

Looking at social enterprise from a policy perspective, what do you believe are the key steps government need to take to help foster and support an innovative social sector? [16:57]

I think something that the UK has done well is to create an actual third sector. Not just charity or business, but we could create something from a legislation point of view that can account for this emerging space. Some kind of body that recognises what a social enterprise is as the industry grows and evolves so much.

The lines are going to blur a little bit as business becomes more socially minded and as charities become more business focussed.

It would be great if there were incentives for business and governments to procure from social enterprises.

Looking at how valuable that social impact is to government in many ways; that social impact creates savings for government in health or whatever that may be.

It's definitely a language that's still quite foreign to a lot of people. It's not unusual for people to ask 'what is social enterprise?'

Are there any countries you believe are really leading the charge when it comes to social innovation? [18:58]

The UK is a standout as far as I'm aware, but I was heartened by the Chivas Venture of the incredible innovation that's happening in every country. Everyone's got their own unique challenges. There's still a separation of the innovation and social spaces and in how people are leveraging those spaces individually. People might be tapping into funding that's happening in different countries. China has so much funding for entrepreneurs and innovation whereas other countries are looking more at funding available to solve social issues. People are cleverly managing to play both sides, so it'd be great if there was more focus on pure social enterprise.

What other inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently which are creating positive social change? [20:20]

A friend of mine called Roslyn Campbell runs a social enterprise called Tsuno, which sells female hygiene products that are made sustainably and profits go to fund education and health initiatives for women and girls. [Lauren talks further about Tsuno, how they operate and how they are expanding.]

I love the simplicity of being able to choose a product that women buy everyday with the same cost and quality but with a significant and measurable impact socially and environmentally.

To finish off, what are the top 3 books you’d recommend to our listeners? [21:52]

[Lauren discusses the two books listed below in detail and how they inspired her.]


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Lauren on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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