Thursday, 9 October 2014

IFLAS public lecture: From political to social enterprise leadership

Laura Willoughby spoke passionately about the power of social enterprise
Politician, campaigner and now social enterprise leader Laura Willoughby has a huge list of "half-baked" ideas she has yet to put into action.

But she's confident that the knowledge and experience she has amassed in her years in the voluntary sector have equipped her well to make these ideas a reality as she enters the world of socially-conscious business.

Speaking at our Ambleside campus to an audience of aspiring local social entrepreneurs, students on the University of Cumbria's BSc Social Enterprise Leadership programme, and Leadership and Sustainability MBA students from the University of Cumbria and Robert Kennedy College, Laura described how her previous experience as a politician and campaigner has put her in a strong position to launch her new venture.

In these times of austerity we're always hearing about what politics can learn from business, but Laura offers an alternative view - what business can learn from campaigning movements and the voluntary sector.

A former Liberal Democrat cabinet member on London's Islington Council, Laura is now using the insight she gained to launch a new social enterprise which aims to help people change their drinking habits.

Club Soda has been created to give people the support they need whether they want to cut back on their drinking or to stop all together. The company organises events for people who want to socialise without the expectation to drink, and is working on creating an online service to support its members.

Describing herself as 'a natural campaigner' Laura told guests at October's IFLAS public lecture to have confidence in their ability to succeed in business using the skills that made them successful as volunteers and activists.

As she works on the Club Soda project, Laura draws on a wide range of experience gained in her political career and in grassroots campaigns like Move Your Money, an initiative that encouraged people to leave the big five banks and invest with smaller, more local and more ethical companies.

Any experienced campaigner will be able to tell you stories about their financial struggles. Conventional wisdom from the business world is that if you want your new start-up to succeed you're going to need cash from somewhere - venture capital funding, or perhaps a bank loan.

But experienced campaigners know that ideas can be turned into reality without having huge financial backing.

Laura said: "If you're from the voluntary sector, bootstrapping is at the core of what we do. Don't underestimate the knowledge that you already have.

"You're also good campaigners and communicators. You are natural community builders, whereas people who come into business afresh are having to learn to do that from scratch."

A background in volunteering and campaigning also builds great leadership skills - both in terms of working with fellow volunteers and in galvanising the support of the community. But this doesn't happen by accident, and it's worth taking the time to work on your leadership as you'd work on any other skill.

Laura said: "I do believe you have to put work into your leadership. You have to take responsibility for making sure that the people around you are the people you want and making sure they're on the same page as you.

"Work out what the idea is. Work out how you can pay for it. Work out how you can package it for your customers. And take time to reflect - don't look at it as wasted time."

Laura with (left) Helen Carter of the Brathay Trust, BSc (Hons) Social Enterprise
Leadership students Joanna Coleman and Andrew Lawson and (right)
University of Cumbria Business School Principal Lecturer Caroline Wiscombe
Although she is still finding her way as a social enterprise leader, Laura is already imagining new possibilities for the future.

She said: "The whole process of setting up a business and doing it in a socially-conscious way is difficult and challenging - and I haven't got everything right.

"But my list of half-baked ideas is getting longer and longer, because I can see there are many ways to create different solutions to problems we see. To me, they're all mini campaigns."

She told the students: "I hope through your networks and the course you're on, you'll be able to find those solutions too."

IFLAS director Prof Jem Bendell said: "It’s important our students hear from social entrepreneurs, so they can consider different ways of approaching their future careers."

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