Tag Archives: social entrepreneurship

“Who Made Your Pants”? asks Becky John

Becky John, founder of Who Made Your Pants?

Becky John, founder of Who Made Your Pants? at the Women of the World festival in March 2015

Who made your pants? Whether your underwear has a M&S or an Agent Provocateur label, chances are, you have no idea where exactly it’s been made, who took care of the stitches and whether the company used the profits to give something back to the community rather than just to its shareholders. Don’t get me wrong, I am very much in favour of developing emerging economies and helping to raise the standard of living in poorer countries, but from now on I’m buying my underwear from a cooperative founded by Becky John. I hope to convince you to do the same by telling you a story.

Becky John has been an activist all her life. At 15, she organised a petition at school against animal testing by L’Oreal; a year later she collected signatures for banning Nestlé’s products sold at her school canteen to protest against their aggressive marketing of baby products. In addition to her passion for fairness and ethics in business, Becky has always been good at sales. Perhaps selling sweets at the Rugby Club at the age of eight had something to do with it.

In 2008 Becky realised that having a decent job in retail and a good social life just simply wasn’t enough. She wanted to make a difference, start a business, which would be fun, make the most of her skills and have a social purpose. Who Made Your Pants? is a lingerie company, with a core purpose of creating jobs for disadvantaged women. The cooperative, which was founded at the end of 2008 in Southampton, employs, trains and supports local refugee women.

Who Made Your Pants? makes gorgeous and comfortable undies for everyday wear buying surplus fabrics re-sold by large underwear companies at the end of each season. The quality of each item is exceptional (my pants have survived an industrial laundry treatment in Colombia!), the designs made from leftover fabrics are unique, but it’s the ethos of the company that really makes a difference.

“I love beautiful underwear”, says Becky “but the products we make are irrelevant. We could be making furniture or cakes, as long as it means creating jobs, investing in training, improving quality of life for the women involved.”

Who Made Your Pants? is still a very small brand, employing less than ten women. Each woman receives thorough training, counselling and general help. Some women are keen to improve their English, others are grateful for advice of how to register their children at school or how to manage utility bills. The profits are reinvested into supporting the staff. While Becky crowdfunded £110,000 last year from the existing fans and customers to help manage the company’s cashflows, she still needs to improve her sales to make the business sustainable.

“I hope that by spreading the word about Who Made Your Pants? I can build a loyal customer base, who would be happy to spend £15-£18 on a pair of high quality underwear, knowing that they are changing other women’s lives.”

WMYP1      WMYP2Needless to say, I am in. I hope that you too can support Becky by treating yourself to a new pair of underwear online.

On resilience “I have never doubted my course, but of course being an entrepreneur isn’t easy. I do think it helps to have a purpose. I always remind myself that I have a responsibility towards the women who had trusted me to help them. It gives me resilience. A failure is not an option.”

On challenging yourself “If you want to pick a challenge, make sure it’s a big one. My challenge is to connect women who buy pants with women who make them.

Asma is from Afghanistan and has been with us from the very start. She’s a very talented seamstress. Batol is from Sudan. Batol did a lot of cutting for us, but she was keen to learn the sewing machines and now she is brilliant at fiddly jobs like finishing seams. Sacdiya is from Somalia and has seven children. She often has beaufitul henna on her hands. Every piece we make has a story. Every piece we sell supports a woman in need.”

Becky is an incredible woman who is remarkably resilient and has a uniquely strong sense of purpose. I asked her about her achievements, aspirations and advice.

What would you advise your 15-year-old self? Don’t be blown off course – you know who you are. Carry on.

What are you good at? I’m good at organising, planning, big picture thinking and looking at tiny details (not at the same time!). I’ve been told I’m good with people and it must be true since I’ve always worked in retail.

What is your greatest achievement? Getting here. It seems I like setting myself deliberately tough challenges but I’m OK with that. I am very proud of what I have achieved with Who Made Your Pants?

If you can do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would you do? I’d launch Who Made Your Pants? in every country, providing jobs and and making ethical products.

Who inspires you? My team – phenomenal women who have been through so much and yet they appear happy and laugh all the time. I feel really privileged to be working with them.

For more details and to get your own ethical pair of underwear, visit www.whomadeyourpants.co.uk.

Kresse Wesling MBE, co-founder of Elvis & Kresse

Elvis & Kresse_024

Kresse Westling was born in Edmonton, Canada. She studied Politics and Chinese in Montreal, before travelling to Hong Kong where she worked in venture capital. Kresse has always been interested in environment, and her first own venture was a start-up, producing biodegradable supplies for the catering industry. Kresse met her now fiancé James Henrit (nicknamed Elvis) and moved to the UK.

In 2005 she attended a course on sustainability where she came across the London Fire Brigade. She learned that after 25 years of service, fire hoses were scrapped, rather than recycled. The couple came up with an idea to ‘upcycle’ discarded fire hoses into high-end lifestyle accessories. Elvis & Kresse was born.

On politics… Elvis & Kresse is based in Kent, and I thought that we lived in a constituency of Nigel Farage! I told Elvis I was going to stand as an independent MP! It turns out Farage’s constituency is further away, and realistically I do not have time to take politics seriously with all the projects we are taking on at the moment. Still, I get very passionate when someone mentions UKIP!

I needed a new challenge… My first business, producing biodegradable supplies for the catering industry, was successful and profitable. The trouble is, it became boring, I needed a new challenge. When I heard a story about fire hoses being simply dumped into a landfill after use from the London Fire Brigade, it bugged me. I got home and told Elvis we had to do something about it! Elvis is a product designer by background. We thought long and hard about possible ways to recycle the hoses: we brought a heap of them home, cleaned them up; we considered using them for roof tiles, but the cleaning process is too laborious to be cost-effective.

Our ultimately successful idea was to create a range of luxury accessories: belts, iPhone, iPad and laptop covers, washbags and wallets. Each product is really well made – I can guarantee a wallet won’t fall apart a year later. The business took off. Cameron Diaz was photographed wearing a white dress and our red belt in Vogue. Consumers are after unique accessories; they want quality and they want a story.

We also give 50% of our profits back to the Fire Fighters Charity which tells you something about operational margins of luxury products!

We are ‘designers backwards’… IKEA has recently approached us about helping them with creating a range of products from their customer returns. I’m immediately thinking: what’s the best possible way to re-use this or that element? Designers are not trained that way – sustainability is an optional module in most design schools. I am not a designer, of course, I read the New Scientist, not fashion mags.

I want to change the whole world into a circular economy… I want to change how people think about their clothes, furniture, houses, food, waste, etc. There is a story to every product: if you no longer need your garden table, what can you do to write the next chapter of its journey? I love rescuing discarded materials. Elvis & Kresse HQ is built using many upcycled products. I want to inspire the whole world to do just that and find the best possible way to recycle things.

On MBE… It came out of the blue really. I got a letter from Her Majesty, which got my future in-laws very excited. I was awarded MBE for the services to corporate social responsibility. I am pleased, of course, because it helps me to get my sustainability message across to schools and universities, business forums and professional networks. There is not enough being done for tackling waste problems in the UK, yet alone, globally. I want to change that.

Elvis & Kresse is a social enterprise, providing employment, looking after the environment and giving back 50% of their profits to charity. If you’d like to support Elvis & Kresse, please have a look at their range of sustainable, beautifully crafted products. I am a fan!

KresseWestling_landscape copy

Meet social entrepreneur Elisicia Moore, founder of Petit Miracle Interiors

Elisicia Moore

I must confess, I love people with genuine smiles – people who ooze energy, positivity and goodness, whose enthusiasm is contagious, and I just want to stay in their aura forever. Elisicia Moore is just such a person, and it is my absolute pleasure to tell you her story.

Elisicia grew up on the West Coast of Canada. Her mother was an interior designer, and Elisicia recalls herself pretending to be sick just to “stay at home and help mum with her work”. At first she did not follow her mother’s footsteps and instead got involved in the social sector, looking after vulnerable people. In 2005 she came to London for a short stay. Feeling restless, she got in touch with Thames Reach, a charity, working to help homeless and jobless people in Britain.

The charity was looking for a decorating manager to teach vulnerable people valuable skills. Elisicia did not realise that in Britain “decorating” meant “painting”, rather than “interior design” and applied for the job… The interview did not go well, but she did not give up. Elisicia called up her would-be boss and said: “Hire me, you won’t regret it.”

Over the next few months, Elisicia was instrumental in helping Thames Reach educate and give practical life skills to many vulnerable people. The initiative was funded by the government, which meant there were targets to hit, and decorating classes did not help to engage women. It was at that point that Elisicia came up with an idea to host interior design workshops, appealing to both men and women.

In 2009 Elisicia launched her social enterprise Petit Miracle Interiors, which creates beautiful bespoke furniture, upcycled from hand-picked salvaged vintage pieces and sold at affordable prices. Elisicia teaches furniture restoration, interior design and basic DIY skills to those needing help to get back into work.

ChairsPetit Miracle Interiors is based in West12 Shopping Centre just outside Shepherd’s Bush station. Elisicia’s scouts tell her about furniture pieces, left on the streets of West London, the Job Centre sends unemployed people, who have been out of work for many months. In addition to selling beautiful furniture, they host upcycling workshops, taught by a brilliantly enthusiastic young man, Elisicia helped to start a new life.

At the workshop    My table

I am happy to say that Ladies Who Impress Club did a Saturday workshop with Petit Miracle Interiors – the yellow table I upcycled sold at once! Fear not, I am sticking to the day job, but would encourage everyone to have a go at furniture restoration, if only for therapeutic purposes of having a real sense of achievement, restoring unwanted junk into a beautiful piece.

workshop

Every year Petit Miracle Interiors gives valuable 4-week work experience to c.70 people out of work. Only over the period of last 12 months, they have restored 18 tons of furniture. Recently Elisicia launched a new initiative offering beautiful pop-up space for entrepreneurs, looking to retail their products, championing makers and crafters. The retail space is next door to Petit Miracle Interiors, so if you are interested to find out more, get in touch.

Elisicia at workIf you have been inspired by Elisicia’s story and want to help out, here is what you can do: 

1. Donate furniture if you live locally

2. Sign up for a workshop and/or buy bespoke pieces of furniture from Petit Miracle Interiors

3. Say hello on Facebook or Twitter

4. Spread the word about new pop-up retail space in Shepherd’s Bush for crafty entrepreneurs

Louise Webster – Beyond the School Run

Louise WebsterThis is Louise Webster, an inspiring woman and mum of two (and not the other way round), who once got a meeting at No. 10, but I am getting ahead of myself…

Louise Webster’s background is in PR. She used to work for Fox Kids (now part of Disney) and has always been specialising in kids and family content. Later she launched her own PR company, Rare Communications, supporting family brands. Rare Communications helped to launch Moshi Monsters and grew into a small but successful specialist PR agency.

“I got married, moved into a house in North West London, my son was born and then the story changed.”

Louise talks about returning to her agency after maternity leave, working for 3 days a week, looking after her son but feeling that she did not have any downtime: no space or time window for anything else. Louise thought her life was carrying her on, but it’s as if she had no say in it.

She made a decision to sell her agency, move out of London and spend more mindful time with her family. When her daughter was born, she felt she wanted to be there with her children rather than strive to be a ‘supermum’. It felt soothing, but Louise could not help but notice that suddenly she was addressed and engaged with only as a mother. It was either you were a ‘career woman’ and a master of juggling all those things at once or you were a mother, content to disengage from anything, other than children and family.

“I wanted to engage my brain again so I started looking for jobs and found a freelance role, which required such little experience, I could do it standing on my head. Following an interview, I was told that I had too much experience, which was just so frustrating and demoralising.”

Louise spoke to other mothers and realised there there is such an amazing pool of talent among stay-at-home mums. They just don’t want to choose ‘all or nothing’ but work during the hours they have available. They need opportunities and options to choose from, inspiration, ideas and a supportive community. This is how Beyond the School Run was born.

Beyond the School Run offers inspiration, ideas, jobs and volunteering opportunities for talented and a little bit restless mums who want to reclaim their identity. Louise also wants to help mums start their own businesses, providing educational resources and links to start-up supporting schemes. 

In 2012 she wrote to David Cameron telling him about her project, and, to her surprise, she was invited to come to No. 10 Downing Street to meet PM’s special advisor for women and family issues, Laura Trott. The meeting gave her much needed validation and motivation to persevere with her idea and grow it into a sustainable, inspiring and, most importantly, helpful platform.

You may also wish to find Louise on Twitter to follow her story and news from Beyond the School Run. 

Meet Shona Mitchell, Managing Director of Headspace

In the recent Ladies Who Impress stories I have been praising entrepreneurs, freelancers, academics and architects, focussing on their ideas, creativity, tenacity and courage. It is time to introduce you to a Lady Who Impresses, who is inspiring in her achievements as a talented manager, who has been instrumental in helping founders of a small London-based start-up achieve worldwide recognition and success.

Shona Mitchell

Meet Shona Mitchell, Managing Director of Headspace, a meditation app, which demystified the ancient practice and introduced simple and effective means to engage mindfulness, reduce stress and anxiety, improve health, productivity and relationships of over a million of Headspace users worldwide.

Shona read Law at Oxford University, but did not pursue law as a profession. Instead, she built a successful career in events management.

“I loved the high pace of my job, especially the thrill of winning new business, putting together amazing events and living off adrenaline of the admittedly stressful but satisfyingly challenging environment. I was in my 20s, I worked hard and played hard, I hardly noticed long hours, frequent travel and stress, eventually taking their toll on me.”

It was fortunate that at some point Shona discovered meditation and found that regular practice genuinely helped her to reduce stress and anxiety. It occurred to her that meditation would be of tremendous help to business people, it could make a real difference to the most stressful of working environments and would make the world a better, more empathic place, if it became common practice.

“And then I suddenly came across the Headspace website, and I could think of little else until I sent its founders an email and told them they ought to hire me.

Headspace was started by Richard Pierson, a creative and marketing genius, and Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk, who after 10 years in the Himalayas returned to Britain with a mission to demystify meditation and make it an accessible common practice. Together they created simple, yet deeply authentic content to teach meditation. 

Andy and Richard agreed to meet Shona and asked her to joined them. Perhaps Shona got lucky, but in reality she came across an opportunity and made it her own. Her experience in project management, track record in the events industry, expertise in working with corporate clients and a network of contacts made her the ideal candidate to complement the creative ingenuity of the business founders.

“Andy and Richard are incredible in how they spot opportunities and come up with extraordinarily good ideas. I then pick those ideas up, bounce them around and help mould them into projects. And then it is just the case of making them happen.”

When Shona joined the company, Headspace ran one-off events and offered free 10-minute meditation downloads. Today it offers monthly and annual subscriptions to a wealth of content, including guided meditation, books, team workshops and other resources for people on the go. The app has been downloaded by over 750,000 users in 150 countries. The company has 22 employees, and has ambitions to change the world.

“When I joined Headspace, I had no experience in managing people, accounting or finance. I did not know how to grow a digital social enterprise but then who does? With Andy’s and Richard’s support, I took each day as it came, focussed on tasks at hand and just got on with them. It was not easy and I still have to pinch myself sometimes, but I am incredibly proud of what we have been able to achieve as a team.”

It seems the trick is to recognise your own strengths and use them. In Shona’s case it is her empathy, resilience, ability to get things done and make ideas happen that made her exactly the right person to lead Headspace.

Recognise your own strengths and others will follow suit.

Job swap at the Borough Market

This morning I took my mum to explore some of my favourite “pockets” of London, including St. John Square and Smithfield market in Clerkenwell, the Southbank and the Borough Market.

Having sampled delicious coconut pancakes and bought some fresh produce to cook at home, I found the stall of Rubies in the Rubble, selling lovely chutneys, including my favourites: red onion, pear & walnut and nutty plum. Alicia behind the stall was running out of crackers, so I offered to fetch some or look after the stall…

…There I was greeting passers-by, encouraging them to taste chutneys and telling the story of Rubies in the Rubble. The company’s founder, Jenny Dawson, spotted an opportunity at London’s night wholesale markets discarding fruit and vegetables at the end of the trading hours. Rubies in the Rubble take and preserve discarded ingredients, making chutneys and relishes with the help of disadvantaged women. This is an inspiring example of social entrepreneurship.

Now, I’ve got to be honest: in the 5-10 minutes of “trading”, I have not sold any chutneys (sorry, Jenny!) but the experience was interesting, to say the least. I was smiling, bubbling with energy and chatting away, which is not exactly how I normally feel, stuck in the office in front of my computer screen. It’s not that I am applying for a market stall license this minute, but there is something about letting my personality show and thinking of a calling which would match it rather than trying to hide myself behind the job that isn’t really me.

That’s some food for thought, isn’t it?