Eighteen social entrepreneurs have just finished a year of intensive social business start-up training at Dartington, culminating in a graduation ceremony at Devonport Guildhall, Plymouth, in October.

The Plymouth Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs have set up a range of businesses in the South West with social or environmental benefit. On the course at Dartington, which is free to participants thanks to the generous support of Lloyds Bank and the Big Lottery Fund, entrepreneurs are supported with peer-to-peer ‘open learning sets’, where the group helps the participant overcome obstacles. They each have a Lloyds Bank employee as a mentor and learn from established social entrepreneurs.

Says Dirk Rohwedder, Head of Dartington Social Enterprise Hub: “We had a fantastic day at the Devonport Guildhall hearing our social entrepreneur graduates wow the audience with their excellent presentations. The School is so proud to have supported the new entrepreneurs over the past 12 months with our programme of action learning and a £4,000 cash grant to set them on their way.”

Recruitment to the next Plymouth Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneur Programme opens in February 2016, and applicants are invited to register their interest (with sam.haydock@dartington.org) to attend taster events and one-day workshops.

Case study: Nigel Bell, Purple Initiative

Nigel Bell, Purple Initiative
Nigel Bell, Purple Initiative

Nigel Bell is a former serviceman. ‘Life in the military can leave a legacy. What’s generally known about is the post-traumatic stress disorder that can arise as a result of seeing friends being blown up and killed in warzones. However, there are also unique problems that can arise from military life, a life where you are provided with housing, reasonable wages and a clear identity.’

Nigel has personal experience of these issues: ‘When I came out after 28 years, I lost my identity. Within a minute I had gone from being a military professional to being Mr Bell. My whole life changed.’

Ex-military personnel can experience unemployment, debt, marriage breakdown and homelessness as well as trying to cope with combat-related stress. Research shows that the difficulties of ex-military personnel returning to civilian life cost the state £5.5m in homelessness and £4.4m in prison services. In addition, alcohol abuse affects 67% of men and 49% of women, compared to 38% of men and 16% of women in the rest of the population.

Nigel, who spent 15 of his 28 years in the Royal Navy in the Social Work Department supporting families affected by the Afghanistan conflict, knows that former service people can find it very hard to find the right person to help them because the agencies providing support on each of these issues tend to work in isolation.

Purple Initiative aims to get agencies to work together to fix people’s difficulties. It will provide support for service families and ex-service families at an early stage to prevent major and often intractable crisis/breakdown which can result in alcohol dependency, imprisonment, homelessness or even premature death.

‘The Plymouth Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Programme course helped clarify my thoughts and business plan, and broke what seemed like a huge job down into quite simple steps. I had a fantastic mentor from Lloyds Bank, who himself had a shift of thinking following his involvement with SSE.

“It really helps having regular times to share the journey with others who are also experiencing the same hurdles or frustrations. The SSE grant was very beneficial in moving Purple Initiative onto another level as it covered web development, bid-writing and travel costs. I wouldn’t have achieved all I have if it weren’t for SSE: I’d still be stumbling around in the dark.”

The project will establish a web-based nationwide network of health and social care practitioners, accredited by the Health and Care Professions Council, who either have experience of military life or in learning about its impact. They will form a directory able to support service and ex-service families in each area.

Case study 2: Jane Williams, Turning Tides Project

Jane Williams, Turning Tides Project
Jane Williams, Turning Tides Project

A second entrepreneur is Jane Williams, an Occupational Therapist and professional musician. For ten years she worked as a freelance music facilitator for people with ‘learning disability’ or ‘autism’ labels but felt increasingly frustrated by the barriers that prevent people from having the opportunity to be involved in artistic expression.

The barriers were often institutional (staff shortages and rotas, funding and contracts) but also sometimes the result of a well-intentioned desire to protect people from failure based on an assumption that they weren’t able. ‘My starting position is that people are entirely able to be creative, to aspire and succeed. We just need to work together to create an environment where they can,’ Jane says.

She realised that the solution was to set up her own independently funded organization to involve people with learning disabilities or autism in the arts and music, on their own terms, including ensuring access for those who feel unable to be physically present. She applied to take part in the Plymouth Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Programme, when she found she had lots questions arising from this.

‘Having a Lloyds Bank mentor is fabulous, dead useful. The action learning set challenged me in a positive way. It’s good to be with people who have different opinions. The SSE course also gave me some security. If I’d just been setting up a Community Interest Company on my own, who would I have gone to with my questions? I felt safe knowing that I had people to ask if I got stuck.’

The Turning Tides Project aims to make equal access to music, the arts and life a reality for people with ‘learning disability’ or ‘autism’ labels. The company now pays 13 freelance musicians, artists, dancers, music technicians, film makers and support workers and has worked this year with around 100 people with learning disabilities or autism.

The Turning Tides Project facilitates inclusive community-based music and arts sessions (everything from Pub Jams to a Radio Show). It creates original performances and has just launched a Youth Music-funded project called ‘Jam Buddies’. It also delivers training workshops that are co-designed and delivered by people with and without disabilities.

‘The confidence people gain from involvement in the arts, music and performance often leads to them becoming more assertive about what they do and don’t want from the world: our training workshops and performances provide opportunities for them to share those views.’

‘For me, the things that matter most are the differences we make to individuals: to see people who are often very isolated and excluded actively involved there, smiling and creating amazing work, is a huge privilege. The Turning Tides Project just kicks open the doors to make the space for that to happen. I love being a person that gets to be there and experience what results.’

Case study: Dermot O’Regan, Grow Bristol

(L-R) Dermot O’Regan and Pete Whiting, Grow Bristol
(L-R) Dermot O’Regan and Pete Whiting, Grow Bristol

‘I was becoming increasingly unfulfilled in my office-based job’, says Dermot O’Regan. ‘So two years ago I and a friend decided to pioneer a new form of urban farming’.

Dermot and his friend Pete Whiting went on to set up an urban garden and fish farm in Bristol. They are using recycled shipping containers to create a vertical growing system that incorporates both fish and plants. The system is known as aquaponics, as it combines aquaculture (raising water-living animals in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water).

They produce basil, watercress, kale, radish, broccoli leaf, rocket, mustards, pea shoots and other vegetables on request. They also produce tilapia, a tasty, low-calorie and versatile fish for cooking that is slowly becoming widely available in the UK as a sustainable alternative to species such as cod. The system is based on a symbiotic relationship in which tilapia fish help provide the nutrients for the plants, while the plants provide clean water back to the fish.

They are creating a new kind of market gardening, popular 100 years ago, which enables vegetable and fish production in urban spaces not normally suited to agriculture. Grow Bristol aims to reconnect city people with where their food comes from and reduce the food miles of what they eat. Their system is a way to save water, adapt to climate change, reduce pesticide use and teach horticultural skills. The vertical farming and aquaponic operation is powered by renewable energy.

‘I went on the SSE course because of the £4K grant, to increase my business knowledge and skills and have peer-to-peer support. The best thing for me was access to people with experience of running social enterprises that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. We heard from ‘witnesses’ – those who’d previously been through the SSE course; and from ‘experts’ – who are already running large social enterprises.

‘We registered as a Community Interest Company, partly influenced by the advice of others on the SSE course. When we struggled over what our legal status should be, the course gave us a chance to sit down with a couple of lawyers who gave us two hours for free. We had a strong idea but they enabled us to road test it, and give it a sanity check.’

While Dermot was on the course, Grow Bristol also secured premises and is now busy transforming a disused industrial site in Bristol into a productive urban farm.

‘Overall the Lloyds start-up scheme is really beneficial – it nurtures the idea or person and the focus is on meeting your personal needs to develop as an entrepreneur.’

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