What do a pirate themed children’s bookshop, a restaurant (actually two), Russell Brand’s café, a digital media company and an online radio station have in common? This is a slight trick question as there are two answers: one, they are all social enterprises; and secondly, they were all stops on a recent social enterprise networking/inspirational day out to London organised by the Enterprise Zone.
I broadly labeled this as a visit to London, but more accurately we explored just a few square miles of Shoreditch and Hackney, where the number of social enterprises only seemed to be marginally outnumbered by the hipsters that seem to populate the area.
The sheer variety of enterprises that we visited is testament both to the areas that we visited, as hubs nurturing their creation and expansion, and also the broad label of ‘social enterprise’. This isn’t going to be a post about the latter.
Our whirlwind day started on a 7:00am train from Sheffield, and from St. Pancras straight to the Shoreditch Trust; a group that supports a wide range of activities with the aim of reducing social and economic disadvantage in Hackney. Their restaurant, the Waterhouse, is their crowning glory and takes on young-people from the area on an apprenticeship scheme to gain the skills, confidence and experience to work in a professional kitchen. Judging by the smells in the kitchen on our tour, and having the opportunity to meet one of their apprentices, it seems to be working great. Sadly we couldn’t indulge in lunch here, but it will definitely be on my hit list when I am next in London.
On our walk to the Hackney Development Co-operative (HDC) we stumbled across the Trew Era Café, a charity café set up by Russell Brand. After a caffeinated pit-stop, our next port of call was Hackney and the HDC. Here we went on a whirlwind 20-minute tour of 14 (maybe 15 … I lost count) local social enterprises (including the pirate themed children’s bookshop). It was slightly overwhelming to visit the sheer quantity and variety of ventures that were clustered in such a small area. Something that I think Sheffield should aspire too.
Our final stop of the day was to Tilley and Alex, the founders of Voist, at The Depot in Clapton. Both were recent graduates of the University of the Arts London, but maybe two years ahead in the development of their venture. Having the opportunity to share stories with these two was great, as they were in a similar position to most of us visiting: recent graduates, establishing a start-up, and finding our feet. Three years after starting Voist they have gone on to start two other ventures. Their main advice was to be open to opportunities as they arise, and creating a financially sustainable enterprise takes time, sacrifice and a whole lot of patience. We were also given a tour of The Depot which hosts a variety of other business in live-work units, including Danny Easterbrook’s studio which was stunning. The studio was more renaissance style art gallery than home.
There are probably hundreds of learning points from the day, which I don’t have time to go into detail here, or are more specific to our efforts with The Energy Community. However, broadly I would say there were three. Firstly, creating a sustainable venture takes time and flexibility; it took Voist nearly three years to be in a position where they were comfortable, and the business has evolved as new opportunities emerged. Secondly, as much as it pains me to say, don’t under estimate the value of networking; you’d be surprised about what new opportunities that may appear. Finally, London isn’t the epicentre of everything. Sheffield is a great place to start and develop a social enterprise given the great support available (usually free too). You only need to look at the number of social enterprises in Sheffield to see.