Social Entrepreneur Index nominee: School Space
Growing her business from a school project that started when she was 17, Jemma Phibbs is empowering schools to maximise their resources while bringing communities together.
What does your social enterprise do?
School Space helps schools generate extra funds by hiring out their spaces to individuals, clubs, societies, and local businesses outside of school hours. We manage the school’s lettings process from fielding the initial enquiry to booking and supervising the actual events. Our aim is to make it hassle-free for any school in the UK to create an additional source of income for itself through renting its spaces.
What made you start your business up?
Back in 2010, James, my co-founder, and I became part of Wheatley Park’s Head Boy and Girl Team. It was around this time when our school was put into ‘special measures’ by Ofsted. It became our mission to show that our school was about more than just this ‘failing’.
We struck on the the idea of renting out Wheatley Park’s facilities to make the school money, and open its doors to the local community to show them how amazing our school was. Now, we offer the same service to schools across London, Oxford and Berkshire, so they can generate extra income for their school’s initiatives by hiring out their spaces.
How do you measure your impact?
Since School Space’s inception in 2011, we have generated over £1.2m in profit for our partner schools. This metric is incredibly important to us as a business and we track it meticulously. In context, this equates to 430,000 free school meals and 83 teaching assistants to provide additional support. For us, that’s the game changer.
What help did you have to start your social enterprise?
With the encouragement of a teacher, we submitted to Oxford Business X, a competition for young entrepreneurs, which involved pitching to local business ‘dragons’ in the hope of acquiring financial backing. We ended up pitching successfully, paying for the initial startup costs (especially insurance). That was really the first push we had to build out to grow our project into a social enterprise.
How did you decide on what legal form would work best for your business?
We first set up as a company limited by guarantee as we were only 17 and it seemed most sensible. However we are now a company limited by shares with a mission lock - this means we have been able to raise impact investment and take on shareholders, but we are also clear about our mission and only attract investors who are behind putting purpose as equal to profit.
What’s the best thing about being a social entrepreneur?
Getting to witness the benefits from different directions that are a result of the work we do. For example, a single booking can have benefits for the school where it’s hosted, School Space as a business, the community at large as well as the individual volunteers and community connectors who participate in making it happen. It’s fascinating to see!
What have been the three biggest challenges that you have overcome (or that you’re still working on)?
I think my co-founder and I are constantly improving upon our management of people and people’s expectations. We are definitely still working on figuring out how to best run a team when a big chunk of our employees are older and more experienced than us.
I think another big challenge for entrepreneurs is self-belief. ‘Impostor syndrome’ means you don’t believe that you actually achieve what you do. This holds people back in terms of ambition, but also prevents them from shouting about what’s good about what they’ve done.
A personal one for me is managing expectations and managing to say no - I’ve always wanted to be everywhere doing everything, but as the company has grown I can’t give my time to everything I want to without seriously impacting my wellbeing and the growth of the business. Prioritising and knowing when to push back has been a big learning curve.
What advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?
The more I learn, the more I think the key to everything is good communication. Also, always ask for advice. You’ll never know everything and there are always amazing people willing to help.
Why do you think social enterprise is important?
I just think it’s a no-brainer. Why do profit and purpose have to be at odds? I think no matter what the legal structure, a social enterprise is a way of being transparent and that both are important to your organisation. I’m a big believer in the speed and pace of business and the need to raise/make investment to make a return - but I also think that business should benefit society and there’s not much point if you’re not doing good. Social enterprise melds these together.
What’s been your most rewarding experience as a social entrepreneur?
Seeing our partner schools become community hubs, due to the fact that they work with School Space. It has such a transformational impact and the best bit is that they can continue to focus on education whilst we make this happen.
What information sources would you recommend (books, websites, organisations?) to help someone just starting their social enterprise journey?
The Oxford Social Enterprise Partnership (OSEP) and Unltd do a lot of free courses for social entrepreneurs and have accelerator programmes and grants that you can apply for.
Impact Hub is another great resource - they provide co-working space for social businesses - there’s three of them in London. They host some incredible events where other social entrepreneurs share learnings, failures and host workshops. It’s a great community to position yourself in.
What’s been the most surprising thing about creating a social enterprise?
It’s exactly like running a normal business. There just seems to be more at stake because our entire network of partner schools is also relying on our services to continue generating their own extra income.
What are your plans for the next two to five years?
I want to continue being part of the creation of thriving schools at the centre of thriving communities.
Our vision is to revolutionise the way that schools interact with their local communities and generate at least £10m for the sector. Being able to do this on a national level will be our focus as a social enterprise for the coming years.
What is the biggest change you would like to see in the world?
I imagine a world in which all schools should be viewed as community-use hubs. There should be a need for schools to be open to the community, whether that’s to make money or just to run programmes that are self-funded. Schools shouldn’t be closed. Many social issues can be addressed through opening schools up. I also think an equally quality education for all young people - ideally through a fully-funded education sector (through our help or otherwise) - can solve a lot of the world's problems!
What have been your three proudest moments as a social entrepreneur?
hiring the first employee at School Space and building out our team in general
when we hit £1m generated for our partner schools
when we attracted our first investor - which meant that more people were starting to believe in our mission and our vision
What would you say to encourage more entrepreneurs to consider the social impact of their businesses?
I think it should be part of every entrepreneur’s responsibility to do good through their business - whatever they’re working on. In my experience, companies that build positive social impact into their DNA do better in the long-run and achieve even greater successes.