Andrea Gamson On Transitioning From The Corporate Sector To Becoming A Social Enterprise Consultant
Andrea Gamson is a lean startup trainer, design thinker and marketer who is passionate about personal and professional development.
Her time is currently split between helping corporate professionals share their skills with social entrepreneurs through her _SocialStarters initiative and mentoring East London startups through her role as Programme Manager at Allia’s Serious Impact incubator.
Andrea shares her experience having founded _SocialStarters, which enables corporate professionals to volunteer their time as social enterprise consultants, after making this transition herself. She also provides strong insights for social entrepreneurs.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Gary Fawdrey] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you down the path of social enterprise?
[Andrea Gamson] - I spent the first 10 or 12 years of my career working in advertising and mainstream global media. It was my dream to work in the media. I'd always felt like something didn't feel quite right though. I continued throughout my career climbing the ladder, but never really feeling particularly fulfilled or comfortable in the shoes that I'd found myself in. I then found myself, (upon turning 30), on a beach in Malawi having just quit one of my jobs - a job I loved but for a company that was going through a very difficult time, it was 2008/9 so contextually there was a recession and a lot of job losses across the board. So there I am on this beach in Malawi wondering how I'd gone from wanting to be a humanitarian inspired by my own mother who worked for Mother Teresa before I was born, wondering how I’d gotten where I was. That led me to coming back to the UK to start to unravel some of the causes that I cared about, and put myself more on the front line of hoping to understand those problems that the beneficiaries I cared about were going through. That led me to volunteering for a charity who supported offenders. I ended up spending two years visiting and befriending short term offenders in Brixton person, and from there everything changed.
So once you had that shift towards more social impact driven work, could you touch on your next steps? [03:07]
Yeah, absolutely. I had no idea how I'd be able to change a career from a corporate commercial media and advertising career into one of social impact. But upon doing some research, I came across a social enterprise marketing agency in South London who worked with lots of young people, and gave young people opportunities to work in the media. So there was a really nice synergy between what I'd been doing and what they were trying to do. And for 10 years they'd had this community magazine that had always been funded by the government and various different local authorities, but all that funding was coming to an end in 2010. So amidst a landscape of huge funding cuts, I thought, you know what, I've been very good at making money for magazines and newspapers the last 10 years, I understand how advertising works, I can support this magazine to continue beyond its funding. And that's what I did for the next three years. I built up this magazine to a national magazine that became a youth culture magazine, was distributed throughout universities, as well as all the youth clubs and youth centres. We worked with some amazing brands and organisations like Nike and Barclays Life Skills. And it was then that I suppose I was able to make that transition from one career into another.
I realised that, ‘hang on a minute, brands and corporates aren’t these evil naysayers that they're painted out to be, actually they understand the power that they have and they want to do good with it.’
And so that led me to become a social enterprise consultant. Exploring the ways that I could marry up that great work corporates want to do to support young people, with the social impact entrepreneurs who need to gain access to pots of funding to continue their work.
Could you please tell us some information about the organisation that you founded yourself? [05:25]
So continuing that journey, I found myself in Kenya and I think that was the humanitarian part of me coming through. I'd always been really interested in and passionate about international development, but I had a 2:2 Digital Media degree from Bournemouth University and there were people out there with International Development Masters who were still struggling to find work in the sector. So I knew that I was going to have to take a slightly different approach if I wanted to work in an international development environment. That meant volunteering was going to definitely play a role but I didn't quite know what it would lead to or where it was going to go. Youth enterprise was something that was starting to come through as an important theme for me. I could see how important it was that if younger people were not going to go to university, (in the same way that they were and they weren't going to get guaranteed jobs even if they did), that entrepreneurship was therefore, in my mind, the future. And so I went to Kenya to understand how young entrepreneurs out there were leveraging their circumstances for huge moments of creativity and innovation. And that led me to be immersed amongst lots of social entrepreneurs who didn't know they were social entrepreneurs and didn't understand that there was a social enterprise movement around the world - yet they were doing it anyway. And whilst they were really great at making an impact in their communities, perhaps what they didn't have was that MBA or they hadn't spent 10 years selling advertising for large media organisations. And so I was able to see how I could support them with my business skills, whether it was sales or business development or marketing - I could see that I can make a real tangible difference using my business skills.
So then the dots all started to come together, because I realised: well, I'm not actually that special, there are tons of me around the world and there are also tons of people who are reaching that point in their career where they're thinking, ‘hang on a minute, how did I land here?’ And is there something else that I could be doing that's a bit more meaningful, if not a lot more meaningful, and maybe I need to take some time out just to reassess, regroup, reflect, and think about what I want to do in the future? And so with my colleague at the time, we founded _SocialStarters upon a call out, to find out if anyone wanted to come out and join us in Kenya and share their business skills, and then that way we could multiply the work that we were doing. So it was a bit of a crazy idea and we had no idea if it would work, but VSO wanted us to support their young people to create social enterprises, and so these ideas all started to brew into what then became a volunteering programme that we ran for three further years across India, Sri Lanka and Brazil, and here we are now.
Fantastic. Could you please touch on how _SocialStarters operates today? [08:25]
Absolutely. As you can probably imagine, four years later it's slightly different. What we do, is we bring together business professionals with skills to share with the social entrepreneurs who are changing the world. It's that simple. We tend to match them up for consultancy assignments that are run short term over 12 weeks, or we will marry up corporate organisations who want to lend their skills over a prolonged period of time, say nine months, for a mentoring program. We typically work with social enterprises or social entrepreneurs who are focusing on tackling youth issues and everything associated around that, but we also work more broadly with products and brands who are looking to do things in a more sustainable way.
Brilliant. What do you think has been the most significant impact that _SocialStarters has achieved so far and where would you like that impact go in the future? [09:16]
We've worked with over 200 international business professionals who’ve flown to 4 different countries around the world, including the UK, over the last 4 years, to lend their time either on a career break or in and around an existing job. What I'm really proud about though, is that we've recently won our first ever funding bid to go and re-launch in Brazil. And that's going to mean over the next year and a half, we will run a women's social impact incubator with women from the favela communities. These will be women with lived experience of social problems who are then trying to solve the issues that they've experienced for others in that community. It's a huge project which we're doing in partnership with an NGO from Rio de Janeiro, it's going to be a bilingual project delivery experience, which is really, really interesting, and we're part of the first run of the British Council's Developing Creative Inclusive Economies funding execution, which is a real privilege.
That sounds really exciting. And in case any of our listeners are interested in volunteering as social enterprise consultants themselves, _SocialStaters are in fact currently looking for 15 business professionals from around the world with expertise in marketing and sales to volunteer as part of that Spring 2019 programme.
So in addition to your work with _SocialStarters, you are also currently the Incubation Programme Manager with Allia. Could you tell us some more about that? [10:33]
Yeah, absolutely. So I am probably a good example of somebody that has a portfolio career at the moment and I keep hearing this more and more when I go to talks and networking events and now I feel very comfortable handing out two business cards.
The reality is that when great opportunities come, you can't turn them down.
Allia approached me and I'm such a fan of their work that I had to say yes to the opportunity, and I suppose I am somebody that likes to stay busy! Allia are a 20 year old charity who do a lot of smart things around charity retail bonds, as well as work with large housing care projects. But they also run a number of incubators and accelerators working with impact ventures up in Cambridge and Peterborough and then local enterprises and SMEs in East London, to support them on their journey to make more impact and create more jobs.
So I run the incubator in East London, which is in the heart of Hackney in an area where a year and a half ago there weren't really any other coworking spaces. All the spotlight, funding and investment is in and around the ‘Silicon Roundabout’ and Old Street, which is fine. But you end up with these two huge disparities within one borough. You've got, on the west side, an incredibly wealthy, affluent, growing middle and upper class with all the tech and creative industries. And then in Hackney, on the east side, still huge poverty and unemployment. We exist in order to recognise the fact that there's still an incredible talent pool and wealth of entrepreneurship coming through who often get overseen and overlooked. So we work to support what are often classed as underserved entrepreneurs.
What would you say is the most important part of support that you're giving the entrepreneurs here in East London? [13:38]
A really good question and I think the answer to that depends on who the entrepreneur is and what their needs are. Everybody comes to us with a slightly different circumstance. There is something about the workspace, because the workspace is the hub of any entrepreneur's daily life. So whether they are sat in their kitchen or their living room or in a cafe, or they've gone into a coworking space, either way that's where they are every single day, day in and day out, and it's conducive I think to your wellbeing to be somewhere with peer networks. What we have here at the Future Business Centre in Hackney is this really inspiring, very well lit and creative space that makes everybody feel like they've come home. I know that sounds a little cheesy but a lot of people compliment us on the space. It’s a part of the program as well, so if you are able to get onto the incubator, it's not something that comes at a cost to you. So a lot happens here. A lot of skill sharing happens here, a lot of brainstorming, troubleshooting. I think there's just something about that, that makes the nine months of the time that's spent here more conducive to the work that's being done.
For our listeners who might be considering launching their own social venture, what would be your top piece of advice for them? [15:15]
Finding mentors is probably a really big part of that puzzle, right? Learning from the people that already made the mistakes so you can then share their wisdom, and you'll be surprised how many people want to share their wisdom.
So mentors are absolutely key.
But before you even get to that stage, if you're just sitting on an idea (and I spent a lot of time with people as I'm sure you have as well, Gary, who've got ideas but who spend years chewing over it), how many times have you met somebody who is still talking about the idea, but they haven't actually done anything about it, and that's understandable because actually starting a business, let alone a social impact business, it's hugely overwhelming. Where do you even begin?
The best piece of advice I could give to anybody that's sitting on an idea is to start chunking that idea down into something a lot smaller. We call it an MVP or some people call it prototype, depending on what you're building, but if you can find a way to scale the idea down to something really small, even if it's just a discussion with the person whose problem you're trying to solve, then you'll start to assess quite quickly if your idea is actually going to solve that problem in the first place.
And the sooner you get close to that problem and the people experiencing the problem, the further along you'll get in assessing whether this is something you even want to do.
And a lot of the time people come up with fantastic ideas for things that they are so far removed from, that they're perhaps not the best person to go and launch that venture.
Which is why I'm a huge advocate of volunteering. Because it's not until you go out and volunteer and you're on the frontline and you really understand these issues.
It's not until you surround yourself with people who are solving problems of a social impact nature on a regular basis that you'll really be able to fully understand the methodologies and the approaches to launching projects and innovations.
And so there's something about connecting yourself and taking baby steps. And maybe before all of that, sign up to an online course that's free with someone like Acumen or Futurelearn. I've even got an introduction to social enterprise email series that can land in your inbox over five weeks if you want to go and try that, and then there will be all the tips and steps that you need to take.
I think there's some really valuable advice and insight there for our listeners. Are there any misconceptions about the social impact sector or social enterprises that you would like to see changed? [17:49]
Definitely! This is best summed up by somebody, a dear dear family member - I won't name names - who leaned in one Christmas and said, ‘I want to donate to your charity’, and that's the biggest misconception that social enterprise is charity. Misconceptions don't come out of complete nothing. There are lots of charities and nonprofits who have evolved into social enterprises or what we call here in the UK Community Interest Companies (CIC).
So you've got to be careful not to get too muddled in definition jargon because we have so many different types of business model within this space.
But the fact is that we exist at _SocialStarters because we really believe in the commercial side of what social enterprise is all about. And there are many other people out there who hail from this camp.
It's being able to run a business and use business solutions and a commercial mindset that is what is believed to be the sustainability part of social enterprise.
And given that we are in a world where there are a million pound funding cuts, even just within the youth sector in London alone, entrepreneurial solutions are really all that we've got left, and so I think it's really an exciting time.
You've got the B Corp Movement and you've got ‘purpose-driven’ being used, left, right and centre within larger organisations and we will see a merging, I believe, of people wanting to do good with business and that's fantastic - but it's definitely not charity. And so I think the sooner people realise that, the sooner we can probably all start thinking more entrepreneurially about how we sort out social issues.
I'm sure over the last few years you must have had plenty of exposure to great social impact work going on both in the UK and all over the world. Are there any projects or initiatives that you would like to share that you think are doing really exciting work in this field? [19:53]
Absolutely! I love what Step Up To Serve are doing with the #iwill campaign because the more we can get young people to become social action champions and essentially our social impact leaders of tomorrow, the better. But, you know, fast forwarding a little bit, some of the amazing young people I've been working with include Nicole who's launched Disco Dust London in the last year and a half. She's basically changing the world one pot of glitter at a time and has managed to find a way to not just create biodegradable glitter and not just create hugely fun immersive experiences, but she's also creating jobs for offenders in prison to be able to make a bit of extra cash as they package up orders for her. In addition, I’ve worked with a south London youth organisation run by Eamonn Madden called Inspirational Youth for a number of years now. They work with young people who are perhaps going down a slightly trickier path to use Jiu Jitsu and other coaching tools to turn them into the leaders of tomorrow. And his work is really, really, powerful and they are going to expand beyond South London very soon.
At at the other end of the generational spectrum, we've got a platform called Blume who I'm working with up here in the Allia Serious Impact incubator. Alexander is passionate about the gig economy issue and also this huge talent pool who are coming out later stage in their career who are accountants, bookkeepers, PAs and various other personnel who actually could be supporting social entrepreneurs and startups and with their skills at a much lower rate than current options. So he's really trying to solve that problem of how we bring the expertise and talent of the over fifties into startups, SMEs and the charity sector. So that's really exciting.
Lots of great examples there. To finish up are there any books or other types of resources related to anything that we've talked about today that you would really recommend our listeners check out? [22:11]
Yeah, absolutely. Andrew Mawson: The Social Entrepreneur, Making Communities Work. He was one of the founding guys of Bromley By Bow Centre. It's really, really inspirational. This is a social enterprise organisation and support organisation in East London who I think is probably one of the early pioneers in this area in this space. You could go down the more traditional academic route of the David Bornstein series of titles, which are probably a classic, as is Yunus and anything he's written. But then if you want to go a little bit more mainstream, I'm currently reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming book, which is so inspirational because once you get past all the early years of her childhood, and the incredibly romantic getting together with Obama, she leaves her law career behind and moves into social impact. She does a lot of really interesting things with young people and in the community. I've been listening to it actually on my way into work every day, and have been finding it incredibly inspiring.