Musing over a cocktail in the city

September 20th 2011

I have just come back from presenting to the judges of the National Business Awards on the 27th floor of the Gherkin.  It was quite daunting, so afterwards I indulged in two happy hour cocktails with our Head of Finance, Neil Fenton; and calming our nerves among the bankers of the city of London, we mused on the concept of the social enterprise business model.
Presenting to skilled, experienced business people and investors means taking a long hard look at the model.  In our case, the LEYF model combines childcare, training, apprenticeships and community engagement in a way that allows as many parents as possible from all backgrounds to access our nurseries. Profits are pursued, but directly built into improving the impact and sustainability of the business, so innovating to create more and better ways to do what we do.  The judges for the National Business Awards asked us a lot about this and we explained about the importance of social capital, justice and trust.

We were particularly pleased to be finalists in the ‘Transformational Change’ category; and even though we may not win, we certainly gave it our best shot.  Describing our performance as lively and one which kept them engaged, Neil and I were referred to as ‘rigour and imagination’ (maybe more Dangermouse and Penfold). I suspect they were surprised to discover social enterprises were so business focused and interested in making a profit. In any case, we will discover if we are to emerge triumphant at a fancy dinner on November 8th. I am not sure I will need to prepare a Kate Winslet speech (perhaps better adopt the Gwyneth Paltrow model). In the meantime, we continue to seek the investment funds needed to scale up the business in our move towards 40 nurseries.  With more than 4 in 10 children still living in poverty across the capital, the kind of service we provide is needed now more than ever.

Afterwards, while sipping a Mai Tai (nicely fruity), I pondered on a remark in yesterday’s Evening Standard (September 19).  Sam Leith was commenting on gesture politics and referred to Will Hutton’s recent book Them and Us which…

…argues persuasively, fairness –  and, crucially, the perception of fairness – makes the weather in a society. Capital is important, but what theorists call “social capital” – the glue that binds us – matters too.”

He is right: social capital does matter; especially unfairness such as London boroughs being able to wipe off debts of up to £135 million pounds from dodged council bills, overpaid benefits and unpaid parking fines. Westminster City Council lost £19million from unpaid parking fees and other traffic violations from foreign cars with diplomatic plates. Would your average Joe Bloggs get away with this? I don’t think so! What about our peers of the realm such as Lord Taylor and Lord Hanningfield – convicted of large scale frauds and fiddling expenses, but still able to retain their peerages on the grounds that life peerages are not technically an ‘honour under the Crown’, and therefore cannot be withdrawn once granted. As Eleanor Roosevelt says:

Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both.”

So, while I am not suggesting that social enterprises can alone solve levels of injustice and re-establish trust, I feel that we should at least try and show that enterprise, ethics and an expectation of fairness is possible; and some business models build these into their very fabric. All the more important then that we feature in the National Business Awards and other major business events. We need to be centre stage, and able to explain how and why we add value and contribute to social capital.

Incidentally, if anyone needs a CEO and Head of Finance to deliver ‘Rigour and Imagination’ at a conference, our rates are very reasonable.

PS if the above were not exciting enough, it was also announced earlier today that we are one of  only 25 Award Winners in the Big Venture Challenge, which is great news!  Read more about our pitch and watch this space for how we plan to use the initial £25K investment and other non-financial support.