Camilla Marcus-Dew On Building Competitive Social Enterprises That Create Impact
Camilla Marcus-Dew co-founded The Soap Co. in 2015, as her first consumer facing ‘social enterprise’ endeavour, with big plans to make products that people love. The driving force behind this is her aim to simultaneously reduce the barriers to work for people with disabilities and improve awareness of positive consumer purchasing for social and environmental good.
Having worked for five years as a Management Consultant for global brands such as Disney, Vodafone and Lloyds Banking Group, as well as sustainability for Bon Sucro, Camilla was often drawn towards entrepreneurship projects in Asia and Africa, researching women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship for Voluntary Services Overseas and Livelihoods programmes for disabled youth in India, but was also curious to the barriers people face here in the UK.
Coming from a close family with several disabled relatives has sparked an energy to support everyone who want to work, to have the employment and training opportunities that she had, irrespective of their barriers. Camilla is also an avid environmentalist with aims to bring eco products to market that carefully consider ingredients, packaging, crafting methods and what happens when they are all used up! Camilla has leant on a vast network of market leading experts including award winning designers, the industries foremost innovators and fragrance and formulation experts to bring this new brand to market.
Camilla has recently completed the On Purpose (London) fellowship programme and her attention has shifted to the meeting point of ‘charity’ and ‘business’ where trading Social Enterprises compete with world renowned brands to bring consumers something bold and honest. Camilla is the Head of Commercial for CLARITY & The Soap Co., covering hospitality, retail, corporate and consumer market segments. The Soap Co. is a brand within CLARITY Employment for Blind People, a charity founded in 1854.
Camilla discusses using good business as a vehicle to tackle many of the challenges we face as a society and shares insights into how providing employment and confidence can create strong positive impact.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Rachel Stevens] - To get things started, could you share a bit about your background and what led you down this path of social enterprise?
[Camilla Marcus-Dew] - Yeah, I think maybe the same as lots of people. You finish university and you go, well, what am I good at? What am I going to enjoy? And it seems like such a big path ahead.
You just have to start, right?
So, I joined a management consulting firm as I guess a lot of people do or at least those people that have no idea when they come out of university. So, that probably actually ended up giving me a really good foundation for the future. I enjoyed the five years there. I learned a lot. You learn a lot about powerpoint and excel and so, so much but not really the things I cared about. I think those five years were as much about what I didn't want to do with the rest of my career as the learning skill was to allow me to do what I wanted to do.
Yeah. It sounds like a very important learning experience for you. [04:05]
Yeah. A lot of people make these mistakes, right. But I don't necessarily see it as a mistake. It's something that happened and will make positive out of it, I'm sure.
Sounds more just like stepping stones to the path you're now so it can't be all bad! You're of course the head of Commercial at CLARITY, which as we mentioned, is a UK registered charity. First and foremost, it's a social enterprise employing training, supporting people with disabilities, particularly those who are vision impaired and they're working to create high quality toiletries, soaps and cleaning products. It's also the parent company of The Soap Co. of which you were the co-founder and launch manager of back in 2015. The Soap Co. itself is an ethical, luxury bath and beauty brand that makes products that are good and do good. For our listeners who might not be familiar with the work you guys are doing, could you tell us a bit more about what's going on at CLARITY and at The Soap Co.? [04:17]
Yeah, I think it often confuses people a little bit because we're part of a really, really old charity. So CLARITY Employment For Blind People has been creating jobs for people with disabilities since 1854. It's the oldest social enterprise in England. We found a slightly older one in Scotland that's been making mattresses for I think 12 years longer than us. Queen Victoria was our first patron. Winston Churchill regularly bought products from us and over the time we've made mattresses for Madonna and Tim Henman, separately. We've also made some perfume for Sarah Jessica Parker and some other really interesting things. But we've be making soap for 80 years and it's only been very recently that, that soap’s been with our brand out on retail shelves and that's been a huge turning point for the charity.
Some big names, lots of support there for you guys. Super exciting. [05:42]
Totally. I think we're talking a little bit about branding today and there is a really big difference between being a manufacturer of stuff for other people and being a proud manufacturer of our own brands. Telling a story and challenging and changing perceptions about people with disabilities by influencing the products they buy. You do that with your own brand but it's very difficult to do that when you manufacture for other people and that's been a huge learning for lots of the staff over the last few years.
Yeah, absolutely. How did you find yourself become so involved in cosmetics and what inspired you to be involved in the launch of The Soap Co.? [06:13]
I'm probably not the only person that has questioned that long list of ingredients on the back of a product and gone, 'I don't even know what that is, and I studied chemistry, and let me Google that one. Wow. I'm not sure if that's safe'. I think this is something that more and more people are doing and people want to know where things are made and what's in them. So from a personal perspective I started doing that a long time ago. I'm sure some of your listeners as well have done these crazy things where they try and stop using shampoo for awhile and try using baking soda and eggs and rye flour and God knows what else that you can use to wash your hair. But yeah, look, I've been on this journey for a long time and you start really questioning everything that’s in something. Is that colour needed? What does that ingredient do? And that's a really interesting journey of discovery as well and I want to be part of that transparency. I want to be able to say, yeah, this is what this is for, and there's a reason for everything. So that got me interested in it. I think I've always wanted to analyse what's in things and what they're for. It's been a nice meeting point of a few passions of mine.
I think there's so many people, like you said, who've tried all those different alternatives or have been standing in the supermarket with an app they download on their phone trying to link up all the different products. I think its really exciting for people to just have a product that has that transparency so they don't have to put all that work in themselves.
Oh my God, yeah, look, shopping is really tiring. I don't do it that much anymore because it just takes up so much time when you're really trying to do the right thing. It's an absolute minefield and where there's an advantage somewhere, maybe there is a disadvantage somewhere else. So for us to just say, hey, here's a transparent brand, we'll say what we're not good at and we're going to say what the stuff were really awesome at, that just makes it really easy for consumers and that's what I want to do. Just a really super easy purchasing decision.
The branding, of course has been a big part of The Soap Co.’s success and a part of your own journey as well. What gave you the idea to start The Soap Co. and roll with this branding? [08:07]
I think there's a huge gap in the market and I hope you agree with that. There's a lot of brands out there, let's call them charity brands. They're just like 'oh, buy from us. We're a charity, you're doing good things'. And then some really beautiful commercial brands and you go, wait, but where does the money go? And it was just so obvious to me that something was necessary in the middle. I personally believe that the luxury segment has the biggest responsibility for being transparent and driving that change, because that's where honestly there is a bit of a profit margin. If you're selling a product for 99 cents, it's really difficult to do anything. I mean, it's impossible for us to even make a product for 99 cents! It makes it easier when you start really thinking about your ingredients. You go, okay, we can sell something to this demographic and we can really think carefully about every ingredient that goes in it and every bit of the design. And that's where it starts getting really exciting.
Was it this that drew you towards establishing a brand specifically for the luxury segment? [09:08]
Yeah, I think so.
I think social enterprise is beginning to infiltrate the luxury segment.
Belu Water might be a good example. It's in five star restaurants, Michelin star restaurants, but they are a social enterprise water brand. There's a load of others as well just really pushing that boundary of what's luxury, but also a social enterprise. So much so that often in places people will just go, oh, that's a beautiful bottle and they'll use it and not even think about it being a social enterprise. That's the holy grail where we win customers because of the product, and the look of the product, and how great the lotion is or whatever. It's exciting when it takes them two or three times of use to turn it around and go, oh wow, this is something a lot more than just a product.
How are you guys setting yourself apart from other organisations in the market and what is it that you're doing differently as well? [09:55]
I might as well just be honest now and say the pump is something we've not solved yet. I'd love to solve the pump problem. In any soap, basically the pump is the problem. It doesn't tend to be recyclable. The market's beginning to shift and I hope that we can lead the way there rather than having to lag behind. But in pretty much every other component, we feel like we're ahead of the game. So that's really good news. We're considering the labels, the material the bottle is made from all of these things have been really, really carefully considered and that's what sets us apart. I think as a brand, that we have the opportunity as a small brand to maybe tomorrow say actually let's change the material of that because we want to really push the eco credentials even more. For example the bar soaps are wrapped in a biofilm made from wood pulp and then they have a paper sleeve that's FSC recycled and recyclable and the contents are readily biodegradable and safe to aquatic systems. And that's what we're going for.
We're going for no compromise and really not giving anyone a reason not to buy it.
So I think that sets us apart. Obviously there is also the social part, which we haven't really touched on that much yet. Where we really come into our own is the social impact that we create. I think a lot of products that are manufactured are done at scale or maybe there's one person pressing on and one person may be checking that as coming off the line correctly. But apart from that, everything else would be done by machine. We are so different here. The majority of The Soap Co. products are totally handmade. Hand mixed, hand cut, hand stamped, just involving so many crafts people in the process. That creates really meaningful, valuable, purposeful work for 80 percent of our staff that have a disability or a long term health condition. And even in the other 20 percent, there's a lot of people that have made a big career change or maybe that have struggled, having been out of work for a long time. Maybe a mum that wants to return to work after a couple of years. We're really passionate about just doing the right thing across the board or as much of it as possible. That's exciting and so we want to open the doors and say, yeah, we're different here, here and here. We love what some of these other brands are doing and we think they're doing an amazing job. We're certainly not going around pointing the finger and saying, ‘we're better because you don't do this’, but we're trying to really show a better path where we should be transparent and have that sort of no compromise approach, which I think every luxury brand should be doing.
Yeah, definitely. And I think, like you said it's really quite different to the rest of the market being able to have such a high quality blend of that luxury, of that social, of that sustainable. And like you said, again, no compromise across all of those fronts. So that's fantastic. [12:32]
Yeah. I'm really proud to come to work everyday. I honestly think I've got the best job in the world. It's not always the easiest job, but it's definitely something that challenges and tests me.
I think for a lot of people that work in corporate roles, maybe I thought years ago that I wasn't very creative but as soon as you're given the opportunity or you take the opportunity to show that creativity, I think we're all capable of so, so much.
That's been a great point as well to realise what we're capable of. I think when you're really stretched and you stretch yourself, then that's where those tests really really happen.
Yeah, definitely. Like you said, there's a lot of challenges that come with trying to balance all of these elements. For you personally, what is it that drives you forward on this mission? [13:25]
I mean, if you're asking about why I'm doing all this, I guess you alluded earlier to, some of my relatives, but specifically my niece Iesha, who is happy to be named, but my niece Iesha, she's nearly 20 and she's got Cerebral Palsy. We were really hoping maybe when she was seven, eight, nine, we were pretty confident she was going to learn to walk and she was going to get there. Then the growth spurt that happens with all teenagers, it was really difficult for her and so she's really struggled to have that independence that I know she really, really wants. And she struggled with the impacts of that as a teenager of sort of seeing yourself as different and being told you're different. Then mental health conditions tend to cascade in with physical disabilities often. It's been a really tricky few years for her, but she's at the Open University doing a course studying, working really hard. And I really hope that she knows that she will make a valuable contribution to work when she is ready and mentally in the right place to do so. To be honest, her challenges have been a big motivator for me. I really want to prove to her that it's possible to have agency, autonomy, purpose in life. In many ways I believe that that comes through work. It can obviously come through a number of other things, but when you meet someone on the street, the first question is like, ‘oh, what's your name?’ Like, ‘hi, I'm Camilla.’ Second question. ‘What do you do?’ It just, it always comes up. Right? And so we should, you know, if you want something to say when that question comes up, I really want to help people have something to say. So if you want to work, if you're able to work, you should be offered the opportunity to work. So that's what we're doing here.
Yeah. Fantastic. I can see, being so close to home, why that's such a personal mission for you. [15:24]
Yeah. But you know, she's one of over 2 million people of working age in the UK with a disability that are out of work. And I really believe that almost all of those people want to work, but they're not given the opportunity to. It affects confidence and confidence is really the main barrier. Honestly, it's the same for a graduate, or someone that's changing career. You come out of university or you finished that job you didn't really enjoy and you go, oh, what's my value? Where can I fit in, where can I contribute? And especially for women, it often comes up and I think we're doing a lot to address this difference at the moment. But this confidence gap, we've got so much to do and if we can help to build that confidence then the skills will show themselves.
It's the confidence gap that is the biggest thing for us to address.
The way that, that can impact cities, communities, individuals lives just on a whole spectrum, like you touched on already such as mental health issues, but also in a broader sense like our economy and it's just, it's such a big topic that we could kind of tackle so easily if we just changed our priorities a bit. [16:18]
So much so. We often have groups in to visit us at the factory and I love doing a little half an hour workshop about social impact and really getting people after they've been on a factory tour and they've met Ricky or Kevin or Janet and you say, ‘what's the impact of the individual?’ And you just allow people to really reflect on what that impact is. Then you say, ‘well, what's the impact on their family and to their local community.’ Then you hear about the respite care and that, you know, sometimes their parents can just go to the pub or hang out with her friends or whatever they want to do, not as carers but as individuals. And then you think about society and the impact to society. There's a lot of stats that go around, for every one pound spent with a social enterprise like us, it generates two pounds sixty six of financial impact within the UK economy. It's so obvious as to where that comes from.
You know, getting people up and working and motivated and confident has such a huge impact on the welfare system, but primarily on the healthcare system.
So much better for mental health and just really getting the economy going, which I think is incredibly important.
So outside of CLARITY and The Soap Co. now, you've spent some time working in India, with VSO specifically working with women and entrepreneurship. Can you tell us a bit about your experience and your time there? [17:45]
I was kind of blown away. Most of it was in agriculture working within the sugar cane industry and I mean, I think I learned some really odd but useful stats maybe, but sugar cane I had no idea, but it's the biggest crop by biomass in the world. So it's really heavy and it's grown in a lot places is the general gist. In India it's grown pretty much everywhere. In some parts of India, really poor parts, there's a huge reliance on manual workforces, especially of women to grow and to harvest that sugarcane. I was looking at the impact of aid programs and how they were trying to address training within agriculture and really more and more so targeting women with some of those programs. Lots of these training courses are just basically set up for men and we don't realise it's this small inherent bias in how we design a training course. As an example, if you were to run a five day training course, if it was for a man, you might run it Monday to Friday but no women will turn up. They would much prefer five Saturdays in a row to do that same training course. By the end of it they're just as skilled, if not more than the men that have attended. It just needs to be organised in a different way to enable women. I just will never forget, it was down in in Tamil Nadu and I was talking to about 20 women. They were chatting away in Tamil, which I understood pretty much zilch of and I asked the question, ‘can anyone drive a tractor?’ The automatic response that came back from the interpreter was, no, no women can drive tractors, that's not what women do in Indian culture. And then after a bit of back and forth, one woman put up her hand and said that she knew how to drive a tractor. The laughter and the ripples of conversation through the room just lit it up and you could see this trigger, almost like a domino effect of people's perceptions changing in that moment. Women really could play that valuable role within agriculture, within business, by driving a tractor. That was really exciting that it doesn't take a lot to just get people to maybe reset those perceptions. So there were some really interesting parts, and more and more so,
I do believe that we can solve many of the challenges within society, through good business and that good business is more than just, oh, I'm going to run a business and then give profits away. It needs to be integral to every single step.
Yeah, absolutely. It's so interesting to hear about one such small example like the woman driving the tractors and the impact that can have. For you it's something that stood out so clearly but no doubt the women in that community and in that life as well. So that's always fun to hear about. [20:20]
Yeah, for sure. Absolutely.
It seems like you've had a really varied personal journey across commercial, not for profit and social enterprise sectors. No doubt these experiences have taught you a lot about the differences between these types of organisations. What advice would you give to someone who was looking to get involved in the world of social enterprise? Making that switch perhaps? [20:40]
I mean the first thing would be to just do it.
I think too many people are thinking a bit too much.
I mean I certainly understand there is a very small subset of people that couldn't make that shift because of certain responsibilities, but most people, they can make the shift and they can make it work. I took a huge drop in salary when I first left the corporate world and I mean it affected my life significantly, but you don't have to make that drastic, right? You can move within your company from a commercial role into let's say a corporate sustainability role. Or you can, you can move, and do, and use, your commercial skills like we are here. You can use those commercial skills, but do it within a social enterprise. It doesn't mean just dropping everything and going and working in an orphanage. There's so many things in between that, that you can do and I really believe you can use those expert skills to help. What I've learned the most since I left the corporate world is that everyone wants to help. Maybe not everyone is ready to make a big jump and change their career, but you can help from within your organisation. We now have dozens of companies that support us pro bono with videography, photography, legal services, design work. Honestly the list is endless and especially from a PR perspective, you know, just helping us get the message out there.
There's so many people who want to help and you can do that from within the company you're in right now. You can really become that internal sort of champion, the intrepreneur or whatever it might be called within your organisation, but it's an important thing to do and you can decide that right now without changing really anything major in your life.
You can just go to work tomorrow and inquire with the right people to get something moving or do it yourself if no one is sort of offering you that opportunity. So there's a lot, volunteering, whatever, but make that step, make it really part of your day to day. Don't wait until you retire because God, that's a long time way.
So nice to hear that, there's so many different ways people can be involved in that maybe is easier than it sounds at first. [22:49]
I really believe so. I think a lot of people want to do it and they're becoming more and more excited about it. I mean in the last year here at CLARITY within my team, someone's joined us that used to be a marketing manager for Red Bull and someone has joined us as well that used to be a buyer within supermarkets. They're taking the risk, they’re jumping ship and coming over to us and they're doing it because they really see a very strong and clear path to us building some great brands and putting them in front of every consumer in the UK. And then maybe we shouldn't just do the UK, let's think a bit bigger, but one thing at a time.
They seem quite big steps at the moment! I mean everyone in the UK uses soap, so it's not like other products where your market size is some subset. For us it's like 70 million people in their homes, in the offices, in their gyms, in the hotels they go to, in the restaurants, they eat that. So we've picked probably the best products they can be for addressing the whole UK market.
Definitely. It's pretty core to most people's lives, that's for sure. [23:55]
Totally. Yeah, absolutely and I think if I'm not wrong, today's global handwashing day, but maybe by the time this gets on air it might not be, but absolutely, it's an important part to wash your hands and, and have good health and sanitation. That's for sure.
So on a different note, is there anything from a policy or governmental perspective that you can see would really support this future picture of social enterprise that you have? [24:13]
I mean, you may or may not be aware of the Social Value Act in the UK. They tried to implement it a couple of years ago and I think to varying degrees of success. It was mostly focused on services and not products. So there's a little bit of work to do to make sure that it's extended and amended. I think a lot of that is in the pipeline and I'm quite excited by what could happen from a legislative perspective to really encourage it. But really I think what the government can do first and foremost is buy our products. A couple of government departments have already purchased products from us and others are sort of in the pipeline to do so and by doing that they can really set a very good example to a corporate or to anyone else and say, you know, this is just a decision that makes sense and they can support us through more transparent purchasing. And this isn't The Soap Co. products necessarily. Before some of your listeners get really confused about why the government's buying luxury soap. But we actually launched a new brand this year called BECO standing for better considered and that's just gone on the shelves of supermarkets across the UK, which is super exciting and it's a perfect product for those governments as well. So, you know, I do believe regulation does go a long way and certainly within the benefits and welfare system for people with disabilities that have been cut just year on year.
We've got a lot of work to do and I think we have a responsibility as a developed economy to treat everyone with respect and fairness with within our society.
And we have more work to do there, without this turning into a political discussion, which I'm really careful not to obviously show any of my allegiances. But we have a responsibility and I'm looking forward optimistically to a time when the government does more. Just in case they don't, let's plow forward with consumers and businesses and everyone making the best decision they can about what products they put on their skin and by doing so they can help people with disabilities that way as well.
Definitely. And I think your transparency that you guys are working on, makes that consumer power, that purchasing power so much easier. [26:13]
Yeah, I hope so.
I'm sure over the last few years you would have had a lot of exposure to social impact work going on in the UK and no doubt all over the world. Are there any other projects or initiatives aside from the ones you've already mentioned you'd like to share that you think are creating some exciting social impact? [26:25]
Oh, there's just so many, right? I really love hearing about all the social enterprises and the variety and you know, just things as simple as like let's say BrewGooder. It's like drink beer, give water or something is their tagline. It's just like, yeah, let's just all drink beer because we liked drinking beer, but at the same time we can do something good. Imagine if everything you bought was from a social enterprise, because it really can be. It can be the stuff, you know, when you're getting posters printed or business cards. It can be the coffee, the chocolate, the chutney, vanity bags, the handbags, whatever, shoes, right? It's just across every sector. The only gap really is maybe the venture capital money to put us on a level playing field with some of the for profits, ‘for profit in someone's pocket’ brands. And that's where it's really different and we need that extra helping hand from a sort of brand awareness perspective for people just to know we exist. If we can keep making those inroads, then I'm sure more and more brands are going to make it to being the sort of favourites in everyone's house.
Absolutely. And to finish up, are there any books related to anything we might have chatted about today that you think our listeners should check out? [27:47]
Oh my goodness. I wish I had enough time to read books. That's so wrong because we can all make time for things. So I take that back. I've actually just come back from holiday and I forced myself to read a few books, but none of them were social enterprise related. I was having a little break. Yeah, no, I'm not one for books within social enterprise so I'm going to have to pass on that question if that's okay.
Absolutely fine. Thank you so much for your time today. I really enjoyed the chat. [28:16]
Oh, you're so welcome. It's been great from this end as well and quite a few members of the team are big, big fans of Impact Boom so I think that eagerly awaiting this podcast to coming out and checking in on lots of the other ones. It's been a pleasure talking to you today Rachel.