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  • Social Entrepreneur Index

Nominee: Heartwood Skills

We meet Dave Anderson, Founder of Heartwood Skills and one of our nominees for the Social Entrepreneur Index 2020.

What does your social enterprise do? We transform the life chances of vulnerable young people and impact their communities. Our focus is the most vulnerable students, who are often excluded or at risk of exclusion from schools. 

We work in schools to strengthen the support they can offer and also provide opportunities for alternative education and youth work. We have a community hub that reaches out to families. Through all this young people can raise their self-esteem, build resilience, and find that they have something to offer back to the world. 

What made you start your business up? In a previous role in a 3rd sector setting I was working with vulnerable adults. Each week we would have to turn away a 17-seater minibus full of under 18s. I recognised that these were young lives who had a chance – if we could find a way to stop them entering the same system, being swallowed up and spat out years later with the kind of damage I was trying to help undo. When I researched the issues in that age group, I realised the issue of exclusion was key and that there was an opportunity here to make a difference.

How do you measure your impact?

We use a range of measures. Within each session we include reflections and plenaries so we can check how much has been understood. Over weeks or months of involvement there are various tools to measure young people’s wellbeing and we also ask them to record reflections of what they have learned and how they are feeling. We can track progress towards qualifications, attendance rates, and behaviour data too. Feedback from others involved like school staff is important to us. It depends on the situation. 

What help did you have to start your social enterprise? Initially I relied very much on my own research. I bounced ideas off early collaborators and found people with expertise so I could ask lots of questions. I attended entrepreneurship wherever and whenever I could find it and learned a lot by chatting to others who were also just getting started. Being selected for the Durham City Incubator was fantastic for developing business readiness.

How did you decide on what legal form would work best for your business?

A major influence was again through chatting with other people – a local food rescue business had chosen the CIC model and I could see the benefits. I did look at the charity setup but felt that this was too unwieldy for a model that was built on enterprise, where decisions have to be taken quickly. The advisory board model allows us to bring in experts in various fields but still to retain the ability to pivot and seize opportunities as they arise.

What’s the best thing about being a social entrepreneur?

It’s got to be working with like-minded people to make a difference. And that’s not just a difference now - it’s about having future impacts. Essentially, I’m a bit of a culture monster, what I’m trying to do is change the culture in my town. I want to break the hereditary reliance on what the state can provide whilst also helping people to recognise that they are worth something, and it’s them that can make the difference to their community.

What have been the three biggest challenges that you have overcome (or that you’re still working on)?

Do I have to just choose three?!

The first is managing the team’s expectations. People who get involved in something like this always have strong reasons, visions, and they want to achieve something - but then you have to marry all those ambitions into a viable team, and move forward together. That’s inevitably going to mean managing constant frustrations! Motivations are complicated things – we want to be true to our own values, to leave a mark on the world and to feel good about what we’re doing and those are really powerful drivers.

Secondly leading in this sector can be pretty lonely and alienating. You share a lot, share the vision, share the heart, which takes emotion and courage – I’m really sharing a piece of myself - and most of your audience will always have other priorities. It’s a vulnerable place to put yourself and you have to watch your reactions, don’t get jaded.

Then I guess the other obvious areas is the constant battle for funding. I really wanted to make a statement by doing this on a shoestring, to prove to others that you don’t need a hedge fund to be able to make a difference. Lots of CICs stay reliant on grant funding for years but I want us to reach sustainability. Which means a LOT of applications and rejections at the moment!

What advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?

Stick with it. But you’ve got to work out what is at the core of your mission. I mean a particular product might fail, but if you’re trying to offer a service to help someone it’s never a bad idea; you’ve just got to work out how to achieve it. The heart motive to make a community better is a good motive, so we should always pursue it; products may need to be adapted.

Why do you think social enterprise is important?

Fundamentally this is about helping your neighbour, about being family to those who don’t have their own. We’re all in this together and an enterprise like Heartwood Skills can help people feel as if they don’t have to tackle things on their own. We’ve all faced challenges - we all know what that feels like.

I think as well that social enterprise gives people the dignity that they deserve and helps skill them in order to better their own situation – it’s not a charity donation or a handout, but a hand-up.

What’s been your most rewarding experience as a social entrepreneur?

There’s a 15-year-old lad we worked with who had all sorts of challenges going on. He said to his school once that he loved Thursdays, the day we were in, because “there are two hours when I know I’ll actually be happy”. There’s nothing that beats the knowledge you’ve been able to provide a safe space to support and validate someone, whatever they’re going through.

What information sources would you recommend (books, websites, organisations?) to help someone just starting their social enterprise journey?

For me the main resource has been people who are a few steps ahead down the journey. I use LinkedIn a lot to find those I need to talk to next and I’m always looking for examples I can learn from online and in my communities. The Durham City Incubator also gave me loads of tools and connections. 

A couple of people I find really inspirational are Simon Sinek and Johann Hari – their TED talks are great.

The other important thing is to keep your own personal sense of mission strong, to fuel whatever it is that drives you. That’s going to look difference for each of us but you can’t ignore it.

What’s been the most surprising thing about creating a social enterprise?

How long it takes! I guess I’m learning to be patient – I certainly haven’t got there yet.  The resilience needed to keep plugging away day after day, and to keep your vision clear, and bring people along the journey with you.  It really isn’t much like Dragon’s Den…

What are your plans for the next 2-5 years?

I’m always dreaming so I’ve got a plan for 10 years… I want my own academy. There was a reason why the old polytechnics worked. We can do something exciting with vocational skills, where young people are validated for what they can do and are supported to turn that to the benefit of the wider community.

To answer your question though, in two years I want to have a vibrant flagship community hub that’s genuinely reaching into the local area and seeing lives changed.  And in five years’ time that should be happening on multiple sites, always learning from what we’ve done before. I want to see young people who’ve come through our provision, who were at risk in school, coming back and mentoring the next generation, to see expectations rising and a sense of hope.

What is the biggest change you would like to see in the world?

There’s a cycle that needs to be broken. Generation 1 struggle because they’ve not had a good start in life and become reliant on government support. Generation 2 follows because of the hard time generation 1 went through. By the time you get to generation 3 it’s an expectation, and generation 4 don’t know anything else. Change that loop!  I want to see these young people change their own communities; the answers we need are here among us.

What have been your three proudest moments as a social entrepreneur?

Firstly, it’s the enormous change that’s possible. I’ve seen people who would normally fight each other in the street get on and work together for a common goal. That hope is a real driver for me.

Secondly there are the ways that all of us can make a difference. I helped a young person make some practical plans for tackling his school work. It’s ironic because this was never my strength, but I shared a piece of advice that I’d been given and it had a massive impact on that child’s self-esteem, stress, home / work / school life balance.  We can all have an impact.

And thirdly was the night Heartwood Skills won the ‘Biggest Social Impact’ award in a north-east start up competition. It was incredible to be on stage pitching my dream at a room of established business people – but above all it was a validation of what we tell the young people. I’ve never won anything before, but here I was, in a penguin suit, holding the award. Well, if I can, then they can too.

What would you say to encourage more entrepreneurs to consider the social impact of their businesses?

Well, obviously there are the tax breaks for donations and the positive publicity you can get – but I don’t think that’s the point. Beyond that is the truth that it feels good to pass on some of what we have, it’s a kind of emotional profit. And then ultimately there’s the challenge to do something genuinely selfless, that really is about the other person. 

I think we all know that margin isn’t everything. Value, success and profit are different measures. It’s a heart and mindset question.



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