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  • Social Entrepreneur Index

Meet Tom Rippin, the social entrepreneur developing leaders for the impact economy

After achieving his PhD in cancer research, Tom Rippin focused his attention on curing what he believes is an equal threat to people’s lives – the cancerous economy which currently dominates the corporate world.

Now he runs On Purpose, a non-profit organisation which trains professionals who want to re-evaluate their careers and contribute to a global economic shift, from an economy for profit to an economy for purpose. Here is his story. 

In the present world of business and finance, economic success is synonymous with the continual growth of monetary profit. This strive for mass revenue often encourages companies to seek the lowest production costs possible, sometimes resulting in detrimental effects on the environment and the exploitation of workers. The yield of which commonly benefits only founders and shareholders, rather than the whole of society. But Tom Rippin believes that’s all about to change. 

“The world is on the brink of the next industrial revolution that will transform our economy,” he explains. “Humans have developed the abilities to fundamentally change – for good or ill – our planet, our societies and even ourselves, at a rate not seen before.” 

He continues: “Over the next 10 years, we can lay the foundations for an economy that works for all: an economy that produces and delivers all the goods and services everyone on this planet needs to live a dignified and fulfilled life, within the means of our planet and in a just and equitable way.”  

His goal is certainly ambitious, but one of undeniable importance in our current climate. Concerns regarding global warming dominate our daily lives, and employees are growing ever-conscious of their employer’s social and environmental commitments. 

To understand Tom Rippin’s role in all of this, let’s start at the beginning of his story.  

After graduating from Cambridge University where he had studied chemistry, Tom returned to complete his PhD in cancer research. It was during his postgraduate studies when he began to think his chosen field perhaps wasn’t quite where his passion lay, and he began to reconsider his path. 

He pondered careers in academia and international development, but ultimately decided he would benefit from gaining some private sector experience first. Tom joined management consultancy firm McKinsey, where he worked for five years, across both the private and public sector. But it was his experience working with non-profit organisations that impacted Tom and ultimately inspired his future path. 

He confides: “Through my work with non-profits, I became really interested in this idea of being able to use commercial dynamics for social and environmental good. By the time I left McKinsey, I was specifically looking for the kind of area where I could integrate these different dynamics.” 

Inspired by the work he had witnessed from non-profit organisations, Tom left McKinsey and joined Comic Relief, where he advised on various projects. Following his time here, Tom moved on to direct the European team of (RED), the organisation founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver to fight the global AIDS epidemic by partnering with some of the world’s most well-known brands. 

But it wasn’t big brand names like Nike and Armani that intrigued Tom; rather, it was the people he met who consistently wanted to know how he had done what he’d done. How he had made the transition from corporate consulting to a more socially-engaging role? 

“I had a stream of people coming to me and wanting to understand how I’d done it,” Tom explains. “They were also interested in changing their careers in the same way and it made me realise that there was a supply of people who want to do this. 

“I’d already realised that this integration of social and commercial ways of working and intelligently thinking about how our economy works was really important. Through having worked at McKinsey, a place that has a big emphasis on talent and attracting and developing good people, I was aware of the power of talent and of what can happen when you get someone who is good, give them training and experience and then send them out to do amazing things.” 

Tom knew there was a need for change, and now he understood how he could instigate it, so in August 2009, he founded On Purpose. The aim of the newly-established social enterprise was to attract and develop leaders for the impact economy. A decade later, On Purpose has trained over 500 Associates and shows no sign of stopping. 

Originally set up in London, On Purpose established its Associates Programme, offering a 12-month long training course and placements to those wanting to transition into a career with purpose and impact. 

Tom talked us through the journey of someone applying to the Associates Programme, which hasn’t needed many alterations and remains largely the same today: 

“The programme is competitive, so people have to apply and in London, for example, around 10% of people get on. The next step is, they quit their jobs. Then we organise four things for them. The first is two six-month paid placements in a very wide range of organisations. We work with the likes of RBS and Ben and Jerry’s to social investors, smaller social enterprises and charities. It’s always about integrating social and commercial dynamics. 

“The second part of the programme is every Friday we get together and train together. We bring in expert practitioners who will teach them, partly about what you might learn on an MBA - like strategy marketing or finance – but then they also cover the things you don’t learn on an MBA – systems thinking, impact measurement and legal structures for social enterprise.

“The third element is a fortnightly meeting with an assigned mentor who helps you add as much value to your two placements as possible, like having your own private consultant.

“The fourth element is a coach you meet with once a quarter. They're there to help you with your own personal transition and prepare for what comes after On Purpose.” 

So, what does come after On Purpose? Of the 500+ associates who have trained with the programme, 85-90% have continued to work using business as a force for good. 

Some alumni find employment with the companies they worked with during their six-month placements. Others become directors in mid-sized charities and communications, operations and finance directors in a range of organisations

Several Associates, for example, who were placed with carpet manufacturer and sustainability leader Interface, developed a social enterprise in Interface’s supply chain. Net-works, as the scheme is called, offers payment to fishermen in the Philippines for their used nets, rather than having them thrown into the sea where they pose a threat to the ecosystem. The nets are then upcycled by Interface which uses the nylon nets to create carpet tiles. Through doing so, Net-works creates employment and revenue for fishermen in the Philippines, as well as reducing oceanic waste and providing a valuable raw material to Interface.

Another former On Purpose Associate has set up, through the programme, Deciwatt, where they developed a product called GravityLight, which does pretty much what it says on the tin. The award-winning scheme creates light from nothing more than a bag of rocks, providing clean and affordable light without the use of kerosene. 

What unites all the alumni and their continuing journey after the programme, Tom says, is that they are all working to bring about a new, better economy by thinking more intelligently about how people integrate social, commercial and environmental ways of working.

What Tom’s contributing to is a movement. It’s not just about the people On Purpose trains, but the wider impact they have as leaders. 

“I think the biggest issue that we face as a society is how we organise ourselves and our economy to produce everything we all need within the boundaries of our planet,” he says. “This is really critical and it affects so much more than what people might think of as being economy. It affects inequality, poverty, international development and how engaged people are in society, politics and much more. Being able to ensure that everyone can genuinely live a dignified standard of life within the means of this planet is, I believe the biggest challenge of our times.

“Social enterprises are like mini-experiments around how can we run our economy differently. If we were all able to take a bit more notice of those and take inspiration from them, then transitioning into the kind of economy that genuinely works, is going to go faster than we might think.” 


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