Six Lessons Learned

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Jul2014 01

Tom Ravenscroft is the Founder and CEO of Enabling Enterprise. Here, he shares six lessons he has learned during his time as a social entrepreneur, building and developing Enabling Enterprise over the past five years.

As appealing a narrative as it would make, Enabling Enterprise was not born in a blaze of strategic insight or vision. Rather it was born out of my desperate attempts as a naïve new business studies teacher to engage a class of challenging 14 and 15 year olds.

Through my time spent with this class I became increasingly aware that there were key elements missing in their prescribed business course: There was no practical element where the knowledge had to applied to a real challenge; there were few opportunities for students to develop their broader employability skills; and the links to the real world were sparse.

As a solution to this I decided to take students to visit some businesses and meet some of the employees who worked there, and law firm Freshfields and investment bank UBS were the first two. Then, back in the classroom, students would apply all they had learned in a collaborative challenge; to set up their own small business.

From such a simple starting point back in 2009, it is exciting that Enabling Enterprise has emerged over the last five years as one of the fastest growing social enterprises in the sector.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been asked to share my experiences with participants on the Young Academy programme and with participants at the School for Social Entrepreneurs. My reflections in preparing for those have turned into six lessons, which I humbly share here:

Students from Cardinal Pole Secondary School in Hackney on a business trip to Forward Internet Group

Lesson 1: Keep a sense of proportion

Nothing is ever as bad as it first seems: The highs and lows of social enterprise, particularly as a founder or leader, can be acute. It’s a sector where it can easily feel that much of the success of the organisation is outside of your control: The world of grant funding is an example of this, where an external views decisions can often appear unpredictable. is We’ve missed out on funding that felt almost guaranteed, lost staff unexpectedly and overstretched ourselves on difficult contracts.

Conversely, nothing is ever as good as it seems either: It’s easy to ride a surge of enthusiasm when something goes well – a great meeting, a successful funding application or a brilliant hire. It’s easy to mentally turn a minor achievement into a break-through moment.

The reality is that building a successful and sustainable social enterprise will be a slog and it’s important to keep a sense of proportion– some days will be better than others, but it’s about each incremental step.

Lesson 2: Be ambitious – for your organisation

Ambition matters. At Enabling Enterprise, since we began we’ve always set ourselves challenging targets – we haven’t just sat back and hoped that success will come to us. It’s these ambitious, and occasionally terrifying targets backed up with a sensible plan that have seen us grow from working with a single class in 2009 to over 35,000 students this year.

However, in the social enterprise world the myth of the transcendent social entrepreneur can lead to a confusion between the success of the individual and that of their organisation. While personal ambition has a place, it is important that this does not take over. And according to research by Jim Collins, high impact leadership is about fully seeing your success as that of the organisation.

In a study by Collins, organisations that did best were not those with high-profile, better paid, or charismatic CEOs, but those where the CEO believed and acted as if their ego was fully invested in the success of their organisation.

Lesson 3: Measure the right type of impact

When looking around at the social enterprises, it’s often the case that the most wacky or unusual ideas get the most attention. And it’s easy to be sucked in to wanting to be the “next big thing”. However, making an impact is not the same as getting the public’s attention. Nor is it the same as winning awards, or how many Facebook likes or Twitter followers you have.

Resources in social enterprises will always be tight – and it is the duty of the social entrepreneur to make sure that every drop of resource has the greatest possible impact. Starting with a robust and honest impact assessment framework is essential. At Enabling Enterprise, we’ve tried to move beyond just counting the number of students we work with to actually tracking how individuals’ skills have developed over the course of the year.

By seeing impact assessment as a critical part of our work, rather than post-event ‘proof’ for stakeholders, we’ve been able to use the insights to constantly improve and upgrade our work.

Students from West Hill Primary creating a new society on another planet in their Moonbase Challenge Day

Lesson 4: Remember your mission, but change everything else

While we’ve tried to finesse the wording over time, Enabling Enterprise has always had the same mission: To ensure that one day, all students leave school equipped with the enterprise skills, experiences of work, and the aspirations to succeed.

However, the way we work to achieve this has changed a lot over time: We started by targeting students about to leave school with our enterprise programme for 14-16 year-olds. Over the intervening couple of years we developed programmes with primary age students, ran transition workshops and summer schools, delivered individual interventions for at-risk students and created a whole suite of after-school clubs.

Some of these worked better than others, and the programmes we use today have evolved over time to combine all the best elements. We could have decided that our initial programme was ‘the one’, but instead, we’ve been willing to learn, improve, and try again. The result has been a hugely improved level of impact for the children and young people we work with.

Lesson 5: Bring others with you

Never forget that all successes are a team effort. At Enabling Enterprise, the organisation would be nothing without a brilliant staff team: teachers who are willing to try something new and deliver our programmes in their classrooms; funders who allowed us to design and develop our work, or the business partners who host our students on school trips every term.

No one can achieve any meaningful social impact at scale without the support, collaboration and hard work of a lot of other partners.

Lesson 6: Don’t lose touch

Finally though, it’s essential as a social entrepreneur to stay in touch with the frontline of what your organisation does. There will always be more work to do than can be physically completed, but the answer is not to step back from the day-to-day of what your organisation does.

Part of that is about really understanding how your programmes work on the frontline. If this doesn’t happen a real gap in understanding can quickly open up between your perception and the reality. For me, that means finding the time to leave the office and join the team taking the students on trips to businesses, delivering challenge days in schools, or supporting teachers to deliver our projects in lesson-time.

Another important reason for doing this is that it will revitalise you. Looking back, the times that I’ve found most challenging, and where my spirits have flagged have been those times when I have allowed myself to focus on the numbers rather than spending time with the individual students. There is limited satisfaction in chasing and hitting a target, no matter how ambitious it feels.

Conversely though, there is real joy in seeing the impact of your work on whoever is benefitting. For me, the happiest moments are always hearing from a student about the project they have been developing in school – whether a radio show, toy prototype or setting up their own small business. Seeing students excited and engaged in their learning is a great part of the job. And it’s important to think to yourself, this is why I started out.

John Perryn Primary redesigning the office workspace on their business trip to Royal Sun Alliance

Enabling Enterprise works to ensure that all students develop the enterprise skills, experiences of work and aspirations to succeed throughout their lives. They do this by working in partnership with 60 top business and 140 schools across England, reaching 35,000 children in the last year alone.

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