An interview with Saeeda Ahmed from Trescom Research and Consultancy Limited – a community regeneration company. www.trescomresearch.co.uk/
Could you explain what your enterprise is?
Our whole ethos is enabling people who may face barriers in participating in economic, social or civic activity to get involved. We achieve this through a whole range of activities including training with individuals, capacity building organisations and communities and consultancy and research projects related to barriers to inclusion.
When did you start?
What motivated you to work in the social enterprise sector?
I have always felt that I didn’t just want to earn money for moneys sake, I wanted to be part of something that tackled disadvantage. I didn’t feel the voluntary sector was for me as I found things weren’t moving at the pace I wanted. I couldn’t see myself working in the private sector either as it lacked ethics, so social enterprise seemed like a good option.
I was an absolute novice when I got started and I learnt a lot on the job. I worked for a social enterprise before founding Trescom and at that time, a lot of things had to be explained to me about the practical application of social values in business. For instance when we were kitting out the office I thought I would just go to Ikea and get all the cheap furniture and then someone pointed out to me the importance of working with local furniture suppliers and second hand shops and supporting community businesses and the local economy. As I was fresh out of University and having done an accountancy degree, this was all new to me as a concept.
Have you used any business support?
Very little, when I was setting up I didn’t feel people understood my business model, we didn’t fit into the Business Link prescribed ‘profit maximisation’ model but they didn’t understand (at the time) we wanted to be sustainable and not grant dependent.
In some areas in the country, enterprise support is well resourced and established, and very sporadic and sparsely resourced in other areas. This means women entrepreneurs/social entrepreneurs can have acute business support needs and can be very isolated. I think there are a lot of people not getting the support they need and we need to address this issue. I personally know women who have set up social enterprises because they are driven by a desire to achieve social good but they haven’t received the necessary support to get the business model in place to make them viable or sustainable businesses.
Some of the support which is particularly targeted at social enterprises takes a kid glove approach they ask about your social objectives and almost assume sustainability will slot into place, it is too focused on collaboration and not enough on the hard business facts that are going to enable to achieve your social objectives.
People need the facts on what makes a business succeed. What really helped me, was undertaking a Masters degree at the University of Cambridge in Community Enterprise, the fellowship with the school for social entrepreneurs and the recent appointment as one of 20 social enterprise ambassadors. This has given me access to networks, knowledge and information and a unique opportunity to make a difference to women’s social entrepreneurs.
What are the highlights of running a social enterprise?
If you decide you want to do something in the morning and you are running the company then you can start doing it by the afternoon. It is dynamic and exciting. At the end of the day you feel you have made a difference to real people with real needs. In the last 6 months, 600 people from disadvantaged backgrounds have gone through skills training and received a qualification through our work. This makes you feel good about what they have achieved. The glow from knowing that these people are those that have slipped through the mainstream ‘net’ and are moving towards achieving their personal goals is really fulfilling.
Have you experienced any particular challenges?
Starting up is difficult as it is with any new enterprise. You haven’t established the credibility you need and you need to be prepared for this not coming overnight. I think there are some problems as some business support providers are not fully understanding the social enterprise model or being as open about the challenges of the sector and therefore they cannot give the full picture to prospective social entrepreneurs.
Do you feel social enterprise is a growing sector?
Yes, not everyone is fully aware of it yet. There needs to be practical support in place. People need to be informed about the commitment involved in starting up and sustaining a social enterprise. Social Enterprise is not the easy option, it is the harder option. People need to understand the risks. I want to do good for the community but I don’t want to lose my house! People need knowledge and support to ensure they are secure and aren’t taking unnecessary risks. If a range of business support measures can be put in place, I think social enterprise could be a very successful sector.
What more do you feel the government could do to support social enterprise?
A national network for social entrepreneurs in needed. More support programmes need to be put in place and we need to ensure that at least a minimum level of support is available in all regions.
I think the government should consider tax subsidies for people who start social enterprises particularly for those periods where they may be dedicating time to the enterprise but may not be earning sufficient income. Some research I undertook suggested some women were earning less than a minimum wage in their social enterprise and therefore I’d suggest that if they are willing to earn less for social good, then the government should try to financially reward them in some way for their efforts so they do not lose out.
The government and business support agencies shouldn’t prescribe what they think people need, there should listen to people who have tried to start social enterprises and not just the people who have been successful. Listen to the people who have tried and failed – find out what would have made a difference to them in terms of support.
Do you have any advice for other people thinking about starting a social enterprise?
Don’t be driven by your desire to do good, be driven by the desire to run a good business to do good. Look at your social objectives and work out how it could be a sustainable business model.
This article is from the Prowess archives 2003 -2008