Sunday’s episode of Channel 4’s Secret Millions series focused on a venture supported by RSA Catalyst. Led by Fellows, it aims to reduce reoffending by making offenders more employable: manufacturing and assembling quality furniture during the time that is often spent sitting in cells and being unemployed on release. The venture was selected by the RSA’s Social Entrepreneurs Network to be part of their Spotlight initiative and it also made perfect sense to me that this was the first Catalyst-funded idea to make it onto primetime television:
The size of the problem
Recent figures published by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) (1) underlines the positive impact that securing a job on release can have on reoffending rates – they are lowered by more than 50% if employment is found upon release among those serving short term (less than 12 month) prison sentences. A previous MOJ survey found that 68% of prisoners said having a job was the biggest factor in helping them to stop offending (2).
While some employers such as Virgin, M&S and Greggs have taken a lead in employing offenders, many employers remain nervous, often irrespective of the nature of their crime, their skills-set and real (rather than perceived) risks. This will at some point affect the almost 100,000 prisoners in the UK and the roughly 1.25m benefit claimants and 0.5m JSA recipients who have been cautioned or convicted (3). Their difficulty in finding a job will also increase as the labour market moves online (difficult to access in prisons).
The programme brushed over the difficulty of negotiating the bureaucracy of the prison service when helping prisoners to get employability skills through work in prisons:
- As Kate Welch (one of the two RSA Fellows who co-founded the venture in the programme, Reap & Sow) explained, owing to the responsibility that a Governor has over an individual prison, expanding a social enterprise would take considerable time persuading each Governor;
- There are also problems in that the longest a working day is allowed to be in many prisons is 5 hours long. Even those hours are restricted by staff shortages and emergencies/searches. This Howard League publication discusses some of the institutional barriers in more detail;
- Selecting the right people who have the skills for the job can take time. And getting the data on how they do upon release is also not easy – as a Fellow voiced at a recent Social Entrepreneurs Network event.
Some of these barriers are reducing as government sees it as more of a priority to “Make Prisons Work.”
(Presenter:) It’s a product with a conscience, do you think that’s a selling point?”
(Furniture retailer:) “To have a strong story behind a product is always very good”
(P:) “We were looking to sell it for about £1000…”
(FR:) “I think that’s feasible”
(P:) “How would you feel about having this in your shop. Is that something you would consider?”
Turning problems into opportunities
It was genuinely encouraging to see that some key elements of the social enterprise these Fellows wanted to test appeared to be viable. The furniture retailer interviewed signalled that the £1000 price-tag for the furniture was commercially-viable. The retailer also said that the social side of the enterprise – it was helping turn around the lives of the offenders – was a selling point. This echoed with what I heard from the CEO of Blue Sky Development. They have employed more than 500 ex-offenders since 2005 and 60% of the business is funded by delivering commercial work (4), in which he said firms are keen to take part.
Not only can the “turning-around-lives” line help sell products, but it also helps reduce some of the costs of producing them. Reap & Sow made use of the RSA Fellowship’s cultural partnership with Northumbria University to get students and designers in residence at arguably the top design school in the country to do the designs (helped along by our Catalyst grant award).
One interesting dimension comes in the form of studies that show ex-offenders display more entrepreneurial traits than average. It is this kind of evidence, when combined with problems set out above that has informed the RSA’s Transitions project, which is working with a prison in Yorkshire to test a new approach. It is aiming to provide prisoners and ex-offenders with resettlement services alongside opportunities for work and skills development both in custody employing ex-offenders on site and on release, with the assumption that some people will become ‘sole traders’ but will need support on developing their business, while others will go into employment but will sometimes need additional support. (Here’s a recent post from our Chief Exec on its importance and progress.)
There have already been smaller-scale successes by focusing on self-employment: Startup has supported 230 clients into self-employment and their clients have a re-offending rate of under 5% (5). Baillie Aaron FRSA set up Venturing Out which helping offenders plan micro-enterprises in prison. She now runs Spark Inside, who provide life coaching to young offenders before and after they leave prisons. Spark Inside believes that coaching can help ex-offenders break down long-term goals into small steps; for example how to use what might at first look like a dead-end low-paid job to build up the sufficient skills and capital needed to launch a business.
The RSA as a Catalyst
Many start-ups fail and we don’t expect every project that we support through Catalyst to become a gigantic social enterprise. Reap & Sow has been put on hold because of a breakdown in the working relationship of the two Fellows who co-founded it (which is why you never heard the words “Reap & Sow” and the programme is quite unclear where the idea came from, whether it was via Acumen Trust or Katie Piper herself). But given the success of the first batch of production both for the ex-offenders and the response from retailers the Fellows are looking to make tweaks to the model and set up new vehicles to take it forward.
As well as supporting the success of individual ventures, we hope that Catalyst-funded ventures offer lessons to others trying to tackle a similar social problem. Getting the venture’s concept out to a primetime audience of at least a million will inspire others to run something similar and increase the demand for products made by ex-offenders.
There are some fascinating stories in the programme, not least the attitudes of the presenter who was herself a victim of serious crime. You’ve got 26 days to watch it and if I haven’t persuaded you, I’ll let Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”
If you want to get in touch with Kate Welch, you can do so via firstname.lastname@example.org
RSA Transitions is doing a feasibility study to deliver a site next to HMP Everthorpe. If you are interested in finding out more see here or get in touch with Rachel O’Brien RachelO.email@example.com
Every government wants entrepreneurs in its economy. They’re the innovators, the leaders, the job and wealth creators that any modern nation needs to compete and grow. The UK Government is no different: all sorts of initiatives and reforms are underway to encourage people – particularly younger people – to set up a business.
But the UK has a problem: there isn’t the same appetite for entrepreneurialism here as there is in other countries. For example, a recent study found that while 1 in 17 young people in the UK are actively involved in early stage entrepreneurial activity, the figure is 1 in 12 in Germany and 1 in 10 in the US.
Bring together a group of young entrepreneurs (as the RSA has done a lot recently) and pretty soon the conversation turns to the cultural barriers that exist in the UK to entrepreneurial activity. There just seems to be a greater fear of risk and maybe a whiff of moral doubt about going into business. Unfortunately, the conversation tends to stop there because while we can all dream up government policies on tax and regulation no-one really knows how to change culture.
no-one really knows how to change culture
So here’s a modest proposal (suggested only half in jest) to start breaking down the barriers: abolish the use of the word ‘entrepreneur’. This is why:
1. ‘Entrepreneur’ is associated with the wrong types of people.
From my own highly scientific straw polling, the word seems to conjure up two sorts: either the highly belligerent types seen on The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den or the money-grubbing untrustworthy characters that make regular appearances in soap operas such as Ian Beale in Eastenders. The underlying message being that unless you are very aggressive or morally dubious, the life of an entrepreneur is not for you.
Not only is this hardly a great incentive, it’s also untrue. The dozens of young entrepreneurs I have met in the last few months have (what a surprise) displayed a wide variety of personality types. A fierce commitment rather than a boorish aggression seems to be the only common feature.
2. ‘Entrepreneur’ is too closely associated with money.
I think many people probably believe that personal enrichment is the key motivation for entrepreneurs. Most all of us would like to be well-off, of course, but the young people I have met have their eye on a mission not money. They may be attracted by the idea of being rich but they seem to recognise that money flows naturally from the fulfilment of the drive to solve a problem or seize an opportunity not from the pursuit of wealth itself.
Those I have spoken to want greater literacy, more renewable energy, superior delivery of mental health services etc. etc. And they are convinced they have a better way of achieving those things. That’s what drives them, what gets them out of bed in the morning not the possibility of a bigger bank account.
In fact, a view of entrepreneurialism that captures this spirit far better than existing TV portrayals can be found in the rather brilliant Moo.com adverts.
This issue is important because it goes to the essence of those British concerns about the turpitude of the entrepreneur as a money-grubber rather than someone who has the wider good of the community at heart.
3. ‘Entrepreneur’ is associated with a narrow business model.
I think most people probably see the entrepreneur as someone who runs a limited liability company with the main eye on generating profit and maybe ultimately the sale of the firm to a bigger player. It’s a view which reinforces the belief that being an entrepreneur is about technical stuff like cash flow projections and company accounts. As well as reinforcing the view, once again, that entrepreneurs care more about the money than the mission.
But again based on the people I have met this seems a simplification. The young entrepreneurs I have spoken to value a diversity of forms including social enterprise, non-profits, co-operatives, charities, loose networks, partnerships as well as the more conventional limited company. And the diversity of legal forms speaks to a diversity of motivations and goals for young entrepreneurs that goes well beyond the standard ‘build it up and sell it on’ approach we are told afflicts the UK economy.
Of course if we do ban the word ‘entrepreneur’, we need to know what to put in its place. But ‘business person’ or ‘company director’ certainly don’t cut it.
Ian Beale has never called himself a ‘venturist’
My humble suggestion is ‘venturist’ meaning someone who sets up a venture. The reason is that ‘venture’ better captures the diversity of forms now attracting young people than ‘business’ or ‘enterprise’. It’s also a word that signifies an activity designed to achieve a goal or mission rather than being primarily about money. And, thankfully, Ian Beale, as far as I know, has never called himself a ‘venturist’.
And I realise I’m losing the plot now but ‘venturism’ has a solid teutonic feel to it while I can’t help feeling that that air of French ethereal intangibility that hangs around ‘entrepreneur’ does nothing to endear it to the anglo-saxon ear.
What do you know about autism? Perhaps you’ve heard that it’s some kind of brain condition that is linked to genius. Maybe you have a vague notion that it’s caused by childhood immunisations, or affects children not adults, boys not girls. Maybe you’ve read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and therefore know everything there is to know.
Today is World Autism Awareness Day, so I can’t help but give the topic some attention, especially as the Action and Research Centre here at the RSA is in the early stages of planning a piece of work involving improving opportunities for people with autism.
It feels timely to mention our intention to do this work, not least because of the emphasis in UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message to mark World Autism Awareness Day 2013: “This international attention is essential to address stigma, lack of awareness and inadequate support structures. Now is the time to work for a more inclusive society, highlight the talents of affected people and ensure opportunities for them to realize their potential”.
Now is the time to work for a more inclusive society, highlight the talents of affected people and ensure opportunities for them to realize their potential
A few facts, then. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability – on its own, it isn’t a learning disability or mental health condition, although some people with autism might also be affected by these. Autism is characterised by a ‘triad of impairments‘, which refers to difficulties with social communication, social interaction and social imagination. Importantly, it’s a spectrum condition, which means that the way the three types of impairment affect people varies, and rather than being a single fixed condition, it encompasses many different subgroups of experience.
There’s a lot that is still not known about autism – how it is caused, whether ‘cure’ is possible. There’s also a lot of controversy surrounding how these unknowns should be approached, including a growing movement that advocates for celebrating difference instead of looking for a cure. It can all get quite divisive, especially between parents who passionately believe, for example in behavioural modification therapies and those who prefer to find ways of accommodating autistic self-expression.
Until a few years ago, I didn’t know all that much about autism, and I certainly still wouldn’t profess to have much in the way of knowledge about it. But, I do have a bit of experience, as a result of having had the privilege of being an occasional support worker for children and young people with autism.
Through the independent support agency, Time Specialist Support, I’ve got to know a number of young people with autism and, for fear of descending into cliche, have learnt a huge amount as a result. Many of the important lessons haven’t been about the ‘problem of autism’ so much as the problems created by our social world and the norms we work within. Considering these things from the perspective of a child with autism throws up a gamut of frustrating and bewildering challenges, but when you look at it from the point of view of an adult, the impact of being different in an unforgiving society takes on even greater intensity.
when you look at it from the point of view of an adult, the impact of being different in an unforgiving society takes on even greater intensity
Only 15% of adults with autism have a job, although most are able and would like to work. The challenges involved in getting and doing a job are massive, but not necessarily because of the autism itself so much as the structures we take for granted as being integral and neccessary. It’s these challenges, and how employers can help diminish them that we’re interested in finding out more about at the RSA. It’s very early days, but, the Enterprise team and Social Brain Centre intend to collaborate to examine the processes of change that might need to happen in order to properly support adults with autism to work.
We are currently in early discussions with organisations interested in creating more autism-friendly work places, and helping autistic people realise their employment potential, to address the rather shocking unemployment statistics among this group. One of the options we are exploring is to run a challenge prize on this subject, combining a mixture of specialist expertise, entrepreneurial business models, design and technology.
There are a few examples of trailblazers in this area, but there are also plenty of disappointing and tokenistic attempts to employ autistic adults. As we develop our ideas and plans, we would very much welcome anecdotes, examples, comments and suggestions, so do get in touch with me or Julian Thompson.
Kayte Judge FRSA ran ‘We Are Bedford’, a project supported by RSA Catalyst that used empty shops as creative spaces. In this guest blog she shares her experience of setting up pop-up shops.
The number of empty shops in our town centres continues to grow year on year. For many, this slow and steady emptying of our retail spaces is a creeping portend of doom. And while, no doubt, the changes to our high streets and town centres are inarguable, what we cannot say with any certainty is what will happen next. We simply do not know.
What is clear is that retail is changing, and both large and small retailers are leaving town. Those voids offer an opportunity for innovation and playful reinterpretation of our social spaces. Pop-up shopkeepers have emerged, seeing opportunity in the remains of the retail boom and bust, trying, failing, trying again. They have been leaving tracks. Lessons have been learnt and can be shared.
I have been involved in empty shop work since I was awarded RSA Catalyst support in 2010. I applied in order to explore the use of empty shops as arts venues. I knew exactly which shop I would use and what I would do in it. I imagined hot flasks of tea, blankets and incongruous deckchairs, fingerless gloves, hot breath billowing into the unheated shop air and a cellist playing on the raised lino clad flooring where the till used to be. It was going to be beautiful.
What I didn’t know was that the shop was owned by an offshore pension fund, an absentee landlord of the most inaccessible kind. It wasn’t to be. Instead, myself and another Bedfordian, Erica Roffe, were offered, in an almost spooky act of serendipity, seven empty shops in a new development. Seven. Seven unfinished, un-floored, un-heated, un-lit, shops in one area of town. We formed a nebulous ‘thing’ called ‘We Are Bedford’ and 20 cold weeks later the area was brought to life through just £1000 RSA Catalyst funding, an army of volunteers and an almost supernatural amount of willpower. Over 4000 people visited the arts galleries (there were three), audio art installation, burlesque life drawing classes, craft space, live music venues, tours, archaeological sites, buskers, junk modelling workshops and boutique, authors talks, and ticketed performances. It was March 2011. Before the year was out, and via a further Catalyst fund, we would open a Pop Up gallery, a ‘Monster Draw Big Draw’ event, and a six week Pop Up Emporium stocking only locally made or designed goods. We then decided to spend the money in the best possible way: to offer a bursary to others in grants of up to £500. By winter 2012 the money was spent, lessons were learnt and my pop up shop keeping days were over.
Throughout my work I had the support of Dan Thompson, the founder of the Empty Shops Network, author of the Empty Shop Toolkit and a leading light of empty shop work on a national scale. An RSA fellow, Dan, (based in the South East) has since authored Pop Up People, a report which gathers the data and examples of pop up and empty shop work throughout the country, and Pop Up Business for Dummies. Both of these documents feature the work of We Are Bedford as a case study among many and would be a vital first port of call for anyone thinking of treading this path. For me his support was vital and subtle. It wasn’t so much the practical support offered (although that was invaluable) it was the moral support. Pop Up shopkeepers exist in the margins and loopholes of a bureaucracy that is designed to squash innovation and it can be a scary ride at times. They are human, and vulnerable and responsible for everything that happens in those empty shops. Dan listened when I needed to rant about paperwork, or rates bills, or the madness of it all. He came to visit.
We Are Bedford was a temporary project, powerful, but of its time. It had to end. Others have had more staying power. Reading based RSA Fellow Suzanne Stallard is an artist and founder of Jelly, an energetic charity championing the creative arts. Jelly started in an empty shop space due for demolition under a compulsory purchase order in 1993 with a six month lease and, 20 years on, jelly has grown, emerged and changed shape dependent on it’s location and space, occupying and using over 50 properties. Currently they are using a nightclub (as a sound and performance art space), 3-storey office block (as a creative space and studios) and various empty shop fronts for pop-up shop window exhibitions. Since the beginning jelly has played a strategic role in Reading’s cultural life, enabling art to appear in unexpected places and creating opportunities for people to look on and join in. Much of their work now involves working in partnership with emerging art groups, local communities and they believe in the power of the arts to delight, intrigue, challenge and enrich. Jelly is committed to forming creative alliances and partnerships that encourage art and cultural life to flourish, responding to the opportunities with the changes in the High Street. This has been a long-term commitment to empty shop work and is undertaken voluntarily. You can find out more about how they continue to survive on their website.
There is plenty to be done in empty shops. Pop-up shops are a place for playful piloting, quick and dirty prototyping, fast failing, and, sometimes, soaring successes. The town centres of the UK need new ideas. If you have an idea, or have seen an empty shop opportunity there is information available, although beware: while empty shop problems seem universal, the solutions are often hyper-local.
Key points to consider if you want to set up your pop up shop
- Research your target property’s landlord
- Prepare to persuade your landlord to be amenable to pop up shops
- Surround yourself with helpful volunteers
- Be creative – and exciting – this will attract supporters
- Take advice from others with experience – with a mentor for the tough times
- Be flexible, and be resilient
Look for the long term – and remember, fail to plan, plan to fail.
To get you started visit the following sites and take a look at the documents below
- The Empty Shop Network
- The Pop Up People Report
- Pop Up Business for Dummies
- Meanwhile Space
- Meanwhile Project
Get in touch
For those of you in the South Central region Suzanne and myself are happy to help where we can. We are working women who juggle a number of things, children included, so please allow us up to five days to respond. You can contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
If you are located in the South East region, then Dan Thompson would be willing to help – again via email firstname.lastname@example.org
Good luck planning for your own pop up shops!
Kayte Judge and We Are Bedford also feature in the RSA Catalyst video
I often leave Fellowship events with every intention of blogging about them, but time slips by, my inbox beckons and the moment passes. But last week I went to an event that has inspired me to pull my finger out for three key reasons – it showcased a brilliant and practical FRSA project, is a great example of ideas being shared between different groups of Fellows in true RSA collaboration style, and (most importantly) it taught me something new about how RSA Fellowship enables people to provide unique approaches to today’s problems.
RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children
Sue Child, Headteacher Oakwood School
Driving Ambition is a project that has been running in Banbury since early 2012. It brings together RSA Fellows, schools and industry to attempt to raise the ambitions of students in the local area.
Fellows in Surrey, keen to hear good ideas put into practice, invited project lead Peter Jordan FRSA to share his experiences with a room full of forty-odd professionals, including three local head teachers.
I won’t try attempt to précis the entire Driving Ambition project (you can read more about it here), but Peter made some pretty common sense points for anyone wanting to bring together the worlds of industry and education in their area:
- Work with your local schools. You need a key point of contact at each of them, and success depends on the quality of these relationships. Also, be patient and prepared to work around busy school timetables. In Banbury this paid off – the North Oxfordshire Academy (where the original contact was a brilliantly innovative Head of Catering) has now employed someone to work full time on student career development partly as a result of the Driving Ambition project.
- It is hard to involve local business. Do everything you can to attract them – attend local working breakfasts, send letters, pitch to companies – but don’t expect too much from them. This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.
- Use your RSA network of local Fellows. In Banbury local MP Tony Banbury spoke at the launch event. A local vicar is now working closely with the ethics teams in two schools. National Grid (a Director is a local Fellow) are running one and two-day workshops on energy use with props, including a model town. A local photojournalist is working with students who find it hard to express themselves verbally, documenting local work life to share across school. And Peter, with his 15 years at Unilever and 20 years at Kraft Food HQ, knows an awful lot about supply chain – he’s running classes for year 11′s on turning raw materials into consumer goods. He’s called them ‘a day in the life of a cheese slice’.
- Only do what you feel comfortable doing. When starting the group felt under some pressure to do something unique or radical, that their idea wasn’t ‘innovative’ enough. But their aims were simple – just open the eyes of the students to the industry that already exists in the area, particularly beyond working in retail.
Which brings me to my own learning point. When asked what Fellows could offer that the many excellent charities and enterprises out there could not, Sue Child, Head Teacher of Oakwood School in Horley in Surrey said what excites her most about the prospect of it in her school “is that RSA Fellows aren’t just providing a template – they’re listening and offering a bespoke package responding to the needs of the school and individual children”.
We spend a lot of time in the Fellowship team trying to think about how we can standardise our support for Fellows, and ways we can share universal experiences and good models for up-scaling. Whilst this undoubtedly has value, what Driving Ambition has taught me is the key power of the local nucleus, of forming those key relationships (school/business) before building your model, and of being flexible to the community need where you are.
This is what strikes me about Driving Ambition, why I feel so enthused about it – it is modest but it is working. It is not a registered company (or even a CIC), it doesn’t have a snazzy website (or even a blog), it isn’t promising global expansion anytime soon. It is local but scalable, deliverable, and has a clear impact. Whilst I’m not about to use this blog to contribute to the debate around localism (or even an area-based curriculum), I think there is something to be learned from this project about the value that groups of passionate and flexible Fellows can add to their communities.
This year, the students are taking an active role in recruiting businesses, and Peter is going straight to the head office CSR teams.
What next? Well the Driving Ambition team in Banbury have just been awarded Catalyst support to help them reach more schools and more businesses in the area, so they will be (modestly) scaling their project in 2013/14. And the Surrey Fellows group are in talks with three local Head Teachers looking to replicate and drive ambition in their area.
All this model takes initially is a group of committed RSA Fellows to get it going, so if you want to launch something similar in your area then get in touch.