Susan Aktemel On Advice & Tips To Help Social Entrepreneurs Succeed.
Susan Aktemel is Director of Homes for Good (Scotland) CIC, and Homes for Good Investments Ltd. An experienced property developer, she has combined these skills with her commitment to improving people’s lives to create Scotland’s first social enterprise letting agency and social landlord in the private rented sector.
From 1994-2012 she created and grew Impact Arts, now a leading Scottish charity. Since 2014 she has raised over £12 million in social investment for Homes for Good, named Social Enterprise of the Year 2016 in the Scottish Business and Social Enterprise Scotland Awards.
Last year she received an Honorary Doctorate from University of Strathclyde Business School for achievements in Social Enterprise. Susan is also a committee member of Blochairn Housing Co-operative, and a mentor for The Young Foundation, a board and investment committee member of SIS Ventures, and a member of the CACHE Knowledge Exchange Hub.
Susan provides insights into the key factors which created a thriving social enterprise environment in Scotland, shares tips on getting finance and talks about how to create a positive and collaborative work environment.
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 working in the social enterprise sector?
[Susan Aktemel] - I think I started working in social enterprise before social enterprise was a thing. I've been around quite a long time now and what happened for me was that when I graduated, I had quite a lot of choice of different employment options I could go down. It was my work in the early 90's in the deprived parts of Glasgow where I ended up, because of my language teaching experience and qualifications. I ended up working with people who couldn't read and write their own names and addresses in one of the deprived parts of the city.
That made me take the decision that I was going to focus my professional time on helping people change their lives. That was where it started for me, getting involved in social change if you like. And then at the same time I was really keen to create a business of some sort.
When I came up with the idea of Impact Arts, I was able to marry the idea of being a business, being an entrepreneur, but also making a difference socially.
Now that would've been in 1993, '94, and that was really before anyone was talking about social enterprise, so effectively what happened for me was that probably about ten years later, people started to call Impact Arts a social enterprise.
So I'm quite proud that we were there almost before everybody else.
You've certainly done a lot since launching Impact Arts. In a recent interview with Gerry Higgins, Gerry described Homes for Good, the organisation you founded, as 'the first social enterprise letting agency that treats people with dignity', and he spoke of this service you provide, which is 'light years away from service people get from private landlords'. So can you please tell us more about your journey with Homes for Good and how you operate?
Well the first thing is that we are the first letting agency to operate as a social enterprise. I think there is one other in Scotland, and there are some that are emerging across the UK.
But the reason that Homes for Good exists is that I am and was an unhappy landlord who was working with other letting agencies, so alongside the work that I did on a day-to-day at Impact Arts, I was also a private landlord, and I saw first hand the impact of bad service in the letting agency world and the impact it had on tenants and on landlords. So when I decided that I wanted to do something new, I decided that I was going to create the letting agency that I wanted to see.
Why not do that as a social enterprise? Because that's the only way to do business in my view.
So that was really where the letting agency came from.
And then the other side of it was that once I started getting really properly involved in this, I could see that there was such a lack of decent housing for people on low incomes.
So I then decided that I would create my own supply of housing and that was when I started on the journey of raising money to buy property and renovate it and then rent it to people on low incomes.
So that's really where the whole idea came from and essentially what we're now doing today.
You've done a really impressive job of raising the finance.
You're one of the speakers at this year's Social Enterprise World Forum in Edinburgh, Susan, and with the World Forum celebrating its 10th anniversary, what do you think have been the key factors that have created this thriving social enterprise environment in Scotland?
There's a whole number of different things, and in no particular order, the first thing is that Scotland is a small country. So there's what, six million of us?
What that means is that you can get access to who you need to access very quickly. The networks are good. Because we've got devolved government, we have access to politicians.
It's different from maybe working in a part of England with a similar size of population. For example, it could be that somewhere like the West Midlands or the London area or Greater Manchester area has a similar size of population, but is part of a much bigger infrastructure, so it's harder to make things happen or to keep relationships. So I think the size of the country is an important thing.
The government gets social enterprise. And I think we've been through two or three different governments now in Scotland. We had a Labour majority and we'd then gone into a period of the SNP within the government.
And each time the commitment to social enterprise has strengthened, so when government gets behind something, and then puts the resources in place and talks about it, that's when things can start to happen.
So over the last, 10, 12 years, there has been this brilliant ecosystem for social enterprise that has been created in Scotland, where if you have an idea and you need 2,000 pounds, there's an organisation that can help you. Right through to if you need to raise seven figure investment, there's an organisation that can help you. And lots of different organisations in between.
So the whole idea of government getting behind it and then putting its money and its time and commitment where its mouth is has really helped.
And I think, I also have to say that I think Gerry and the work that he's done at CEIS and the Social Enterprise World Forum essentially was born in Scotland, and has grown and grown and has put us on the international stage.
I think it's the best place to do social enterprise in the world.
So it's an absolute credit to the hard work that Gerry and his team have done over the last decade to get us where we are now.
It's certainly a really thriving ecosystem. So what do you find to be some of the biggest challenges then in working in the social enterprise sector in the UK, and how have you worked around them?
The first thing I would say is that I don't see myself as working in the social enterprise sector. So although we're part of it, we support social enterprise as a concept, I work in property. I work in the property industry. The social enterprise sector isn't a thing. The sectors are all the different types of businesses that operate.
And I don't see any challenges in being part of the social enterprise movement at all. What's quite interesting when people ask me about challenges, I always struggle to answer that one, because I just work my way through challenges, so then they don't stick in my mind, because I just find a way of getting around them and keep going.
The one challenge I would say though that has been consistent for me, and this is a personal view, both in my time at Impact Arts and now in Homes for Good is that when you're running a business, that whether social change is involved, that inevitably involves interaction with the public sector in some shape or form. And that is always the challenge, and it's either the speed that they work at, the speed that they have to work at, because of the way that government works, it's not a criticism of individuals, but the speed and the lack of ability to change easily.
When you're entrepreneurial and you want things to happen fast and you see the need and you know that you can provide solutions, having to work at the tempo, and work within the constraints of the public sector is the biggest challenge that I personally find hugely frustrating, and it definitely holds us back.
So when it comes to successfully getting finance as a social entrepreneur, you've had quite a bit of luck yourself [you create your own luck, right?], so what are the top three recommendations you'd make to help organisations on their journey?
Yes, it's interesting that you use the word luck, because I absolutely subscribe to whoever came up with the quote,
"The harder I work, the luckier I get."
There's no luck involved in securing social investment in my view. I think the first thing I would say, and I say this in the context of now supporting start up social entrepreneurs through mentoring, I've got two people that I mentor just now. And I see this time and time again.
They don't understand the finance, they don't understand their business model well enough, so the first thing when somebody has an idea, is they need to think, "Who is going to pay for this? How much are they going to pay for it? And how much is it going cost me to deliver it?"
And then put all of that into an Excel spreadsheet. And that is the bit that I consistently see that entrepreneurs haven't thought through properly or they've not managed to get the guidance to do that.
So once that is all there, the next stage is understanding whether you're going to generate this income through sales, to either business or to consumers, or whether you do need grants.
If you are thinking about taking on social investment, the thing that has to be at the front of your mind is how are you going to pay that investment back?
So it can't be a fairy story of a business plan where you worry about paying it back in three years time. You have to, at the beginning be confident that you have a business model that can pay investment back.
I suppose the second thing I would say about that is if your idea really doesn't stack up, put it to one side. Don't press on with an idea that you really love and you believe in, but everybody is telling you that there isn't a market for it or they don't want to fund it.
So when it comes to successfully getting finance as a social entrepreneur, what are the top three recommendations you'd make to help organisations on their journey? [continued]
That's one of the things that I think that causes a lot of stress and emotional heartache for social entrepreneurs, when they believe in something and struggle to let it go.
I think also, when it comes to talking to investors and grant funders, there's a lot of homework to be done, so particularly with investors, they are different animals from us, and they speak a different language. You have to learn the language.
That was the biggest learning curve I had when I started Homes for Good, because I entered into a world of shareholders and equity and mezzanine finance and all sorts of different things that I didn't understand, and I had to work really hard to get on their wavelength. The successful entrepreneurs that I see who've secured investment have all done the same.
Susan earlier you spoke of this adaptive mindset being one of the important attributes of social entrepreneurs, so are there any other particular attributes you see as absolutely essential for social entrepreneurs?
Yes. I think that there are, but I think that they actually apply to entrepreneurs in general.
The first thing is that you have to have a really good business head. You have to be clear on how to run a business. If you don't know how to run a business you have to learn how to run a business. And also be very clear on how you change lives; what your social impact is.
And the trick for a social entrepreneur is that you have to juggle both; both have to be in sync. You can't have all of the social change and none of the business model. And you can't have all of the business model with no social change. You have to be able to balance both. I would say that's the number one attribute.
The second thing I would say is around resilience.
Nobody owes you a living. Nobody asked you to set up your social enterprise. You have to come up with your idea, make your arguments for it. If people say no to you, think about it and dust yourself off and get back up and try again.
Resilience is one of the key things, and particularly if you're going down the road of trying to get investment, because it's quite a tough world.
And I think the third attribute that I see in all of the successful social entrepreneurs that I know and that I aspire to be like are that they focus on the day job. They don't get caught up in the hype of talking about being a social entrepreneur and going to lots of openings and doing lots of talks and lots of things. They work really, really hard at the day job. And that's what in essence enables them to deliver.
So how might organisations best create a positive work environment of collaboration where everyone contributes their best?
Well, creating an environment of collaboration... first of all, looking at collaboration within your team and how you create a team internally within the business.
What I would say is that as the leader of an organisation, it's your job.
Organisations don't create their own environment. Organisations don't have values. It's people who have values, and that generally will start with the leader.
So understanding what the values are and then bringing people into your team that share them really increases the chances of people getting on and working together well.
The second thing I would suggest is that you work carefully to have the right people in the right jobs.
We do quite a lot of work now around analysing people's strengths. We do that when we recruit people to make sure that the job we need them to do is the job that they're best able to do. Because that then again increases the chances of there being harmony and everybody being successful.
I think that in terms of working with external partners and collaborating with clients and customers and other partners, you have to be really open and clear when somebody is a competitor where they do the same thing, and it's quite difficult to collaborate with competitors unless there are different geographies involved. There needs to be something that makes a good reason for both of you to come together.
It's much easier when you've got partners. We've created some brilliant partnerships in the last couple of years with organisations in Scotland. It's because we do one thing and they do a different thing, but we both need each other. Ans that works really well.
You need to have partners who share your values as well, so like minds. There might be somebody who looks brilliant on paper but if the leaders of those organisations haven't instilled the same values as you, if you don't see eye to eye, it's going to be difficult.
It's around understanding your business, being positive, leading with values, and I think if you do all of that, the right people and the right ingredients gravitate towards each other.
So are there a couple of local social enterprises then that you believe have created that great culture and that you find particularly inspiring? If so, how are they addressing community challenges?
Well I think that it's quite interesting when I'm asked this question because I am so focused on the day to day at Homes for Good that I don't get much of an opportunity to actually engage with everything else that's going on, but there are a whole new generation of social enterprises coming out in Scotland and it's predominantly younger people that are leading them.
They're coming out of university or they're looking at the world and saying, "I think I've got a business that can help change the world." And so there's a couple that I've come across in the last couple of months that I think are absolutely worth mentioning.
The first one is the Glad Café. This is a place that I went to for the first time on Monday night and it's a venue in the south side of the city; a sort of bar café venue in a fairly central part of one of the suburbs. I just was struck by the perfect mix when I walked through the door. There was a mix of it feeling a bit bohemian. I was overwhelmed with the positive atmosphere and the kindness that came out from everybody that I interacted with in terms of the staff. It felt like you were walking into somebody's living room.
The people that were customers there all looked quite comfortable and quite welcoming to anyone new coming in. The food was great. It was reasonably priced. It was just a great night. I was really inspired by that because I'm quite skeptical about social enterprise cafés and things like that, but I was really blown away by what was there.
The second one is an organisation called Real Talk, led by a wonderful young woman Lily Asch, and Real Talk is all around storytelling about mental health. So it's about increasing the awareness and reducing stigma around what mental health means and what mental illness means, but also supporting people who have gone through mental illness, to build their confidence and their skills in talking about their experiences. It's a really beautiful combination of creativity and events and really life-changing interaction with other human beings and I'm very, very, happy to work with Lily and help her grow the organisation in a way that she can.
And then the third one which I just love the idea of, and I'm hoping to volunteer with if I can, given my languages background, is Lingo Flamingo, which is taking language classes into care homes and into groups of older people who are in various stages of dementia.
So it's just taking new language and all of the joy that comes around language and learning about other cultures in a setting where you wouldn't expect it to be, and it's a fabulous, fabulous business.
So these are all very different, very unusual ideas that just say to me there's a new generation of people coming up with endless innovation and just constantly saying, "There's a social challenge, how can we make it better?"
Could you please recommend a few great books for our listeners?
Well this was the question that was the hardest, because I don't read anything hardly (laughs). It made me think that I don't spend enough time on myself. I studied literature when I was at university, so I used to read literally about 40 books a year in different languages, so I had to think hard about this.
But the books that stick in my mind, or the reading that sticks in my mind, and particularly in the context of being an entrepreneur, first of all is the book about Innocent Smoothies. And that book is all about the culture, how the organisation was born, how it came from nothing, and it bootstrapped, and then the culture and the values and the way that that organisation is.
Now, Innocent Smoothies obviously went on to sell to Coca Cola and maybe things have changed, but for me, they are an absolutely brilliant example of the way that you can be informal and friendly and sometimes irreverent but have a brilliant business. So I would recommend anyone who's not read the first book about Innocent Smoothies to read that.
And then I think, what I would say is, when I do read books, they tend to be autobiographies actually, and I think it's autobiographies of people that I'm interested in as leaders or as entrepreneurs. So I've read Richard Branson's books, all of the Dragons on the BBC Dragon's Den; I've read all of their autobiographies. I've read biographies and autobiographies of world leaders, and there's just something about understanding what makes other people who you perceive to be successful or interesting, understanding the experiences they've had and what makes them tick.
And then I suppose the third area; the internet is an amazing thing, and we just get bombarded with information. And one of the things that I do regularly is I read articles from organisations like Entrepreneur, Inc, Harvard Business Review or Forbes. They put out weekly and daily articles that are unbelievably useful around all sorts of aspects of being in business and about social impact. So it's maybe not reading a book at a tie, but just getting a daily dose of those sorts of articles is, I find, really inspiring and helpful for me.
We'll look forward to seeing you at the Social Enterprise World Forum in Edinburgh later in the year!