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  • Social Entrepreneur Index

Social Entrepreneur Index Nominee: The Women’s Organisation

We talk to Maggie O'Carroll, CEO of The Women's Organisation about her business, how she got started as a social entrepreneur and her plans for the future.

Maggie O'Carroll. CEO of The Women's Organisation

What does your social enterprise do?

The Women's Organisation is the largest developer and deliverer of training and support targeting women in the UK. We deliver services primarily in Merseyside and Greater Manchester, with a reach across the North West and deliver projects across the world.

We work with women from diverse communities and backgrounds, enabling, assisting and inspiring them to believe in their abilities, to flourish in both new and existing businesses and in employment, and to take a full and active part in their communities. We enable women to access the funding and facilities, experience and expertise that they need to succeed.

What made you start your business up?

When I moved to Liverpool from the States the contrast in terms of gender representation within business was stark. At that time there was mass unemployment amongst women in the Mersey region and attending networking events you would be on first name terms with the only other woman in the room as we were such a rarity.

In the US there was such a different culture. Women entrepreneurs were celebrated, promoted and supported. If I could bring even a tiny piece of that to the North West then I knew the impact would be great.

How do you measure your impact?

As an organisation, we have measured our impact regularly by weaving impact measurement into our programmes and processes. We follow SAN's social accounting and audit methodology, that provides us with a framework and methodology to consider our social, economic and environmental impact.

On an ongoing basis, we consult with our clients and other key stakeholders with opportunities for them to comment and provide feedback on our services at every touch point. For example, when a woman joins one of our personal development programmes we will carry out a diagnostic as she joins that assesses her expectations, current level of confidence in different areas etc. We ask the same questions, after sessions and at the end of programmes so we can see how far (if at all) that woman has moved in terms of confidence and personal development.

We also conduct focus groups for our programmes and gather case studies to help us understand any additional personal and social impact on the individuals that may not have been reflected through our ongoing impact assessment activities.

What help did you have to start your social enterprise?

I had a lot of support from several people from various backgrounds, for example, the women from business, education, community and trades unions that sat on the initial board of directors. There was a small initial team that was crucial to its starting and development Debbie Brown, Colette Russell and Lisa Mc Mullan who was Women's Economic Development Officer at Liverpool City Council. There was support from other leaders in community economic development and academia such as Ged McKenna and Professor Tom Cannon.

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

I suppose in the beginning we didn’t have too much time to consider which structure was best. We’d been made aware of a tender opportunity that sat perfectly with our agenda. Our motivation was that of social good, the requirements of the funding dictated certain business structures and so we ran with it. It worked for us for a long time, though to increase our impact further we decided around a decade ago to set up a charitable arm of the business that runs alongside our social enterprise.

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

Certainly, the notion of creating a social dividend and impact. Many business indexes or publications want to hear about turnover, profit etc. For a social entrepreneur, our real measure of success is when you hear the stories of the people who have used your service. I was reading a case study story our team had gathered just this week of a woman who had come on one of our personal development programmes having lost her job, her relationship and most of all her sense of self and confidence.

She talked about how meeting with other women in a similar situation and being shown tangible strategies for building a positive change have literally turned her life around and taken her back to the confident person she remembered from before. Her story and those like it spur you on, and then meeting people who talk about the ripple effect of how the change for that woman has been a catalyst for change in others. That is what sets apart the third sector from other businesses - the lasting impact that comes in the bucketload.

What has been your biggest challenge when setting up and running your social enterprise?

For us it has been getting the wider world to understand why we focus on women. In the 23 years we’ve operated if I had £1 for the times our team were asked ‘why women’ I’d be a millionaire. The stats are clear and speak for themselves: Women make up more than 50% of the population, yet less than 1/3rd of businesses are owned by women. The enforced gender pay gap data reporting in recent times has evidenced what we’ve long since known – the gender pay gap is real! Yet despite having laws in place that are supposed to prevent such bias it still goes on.

We are daily faced with sad reminders of why gender-focused services are desperately needed. That has to be our biggest challenge as before we can ever open a conversation about our services there is a barrier we first need to address – why women. We’d love there to be a day when there is no need for our service as true gender equality had been achieved. But we aren’t there yet, and so we carry on.

What advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?

Get advice, listen to it and act upon it. Many are attracted to social entrepreneurship thinking it will lead to an endless stream of funding pots. There may be funding you can access, but particularly in times of austerity when funding pots you once relied on are drying up you need to be equally competitive in the marketplace and have astute commercial acumen. You must have a product and service that the market wants to buy.

Building a robust business plan and understanding how you are going to ensure the sustainability of your enterprise are key, so tap into support programmes, build a strong network around yourself and remember you are a business and need to compete in order to achieve those wonderful social aims you have burning within you.

What information sources would you recommend to help someone just starting their social enterprise journey?

  • Social Enterprise in Anytown by John Pearce

  • Linking Social Entrepreneurship and Social Change: The Mediating Role of Empowerment- Dr Helen Haugh

  • Management for Social Enterprise – Professor Bob Doherty et al.

  • The diverse world of social enterprise: A collection of social enterprise stories - Professor Bob Doherty et al.

  • Wise 100

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

We have recently shifted slightly from having a core focus on enterprise and employability to enhancing our personal development offering through entering the health arena. This has enabled us to offer a much more well-rounded service to our clients and connecting with them at an earlier touch point in their journey. This is something we’d like to explore more over the coming years.

We will continue to campaign for gender equality by contributing to research and policy and are hopeful that we will continue to see some impact and development in that area.

We also look forward to the continuing development of our project management work, bringing together less experienced social enterprises in a consortium under our leadership enabling us to pool resources and increase our social impact. We are proud of the work we’ve achieved in this area so far and look forward to seeing how this develops.



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