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  • Social Entrepreneur Index

The innovative mind of Dr Asha Patel

Dr Asha Patel grew up above her parent’s corner shop in Barnsley and worked in it throughout her childhood and by the age of 18 she was at the helm of her family business. When she graduated from University as a qualified psychologist, she wanted to bring together her business experience and clinical knowledge to help others whilst building a sustainable business model.

In 2016 she founded Innovating Minds, and now works within schools across three local authorities, helping students and staff improve their emotional and mental health through education, training and employment.

Her team of clinical psychologists work from an early intervention model, delivering specialist accessible psychological support within education and the community. We spoke to Asha about how she got started, her business journey and how she manages the rapid growth Innovating Minds has experienced.

Tell us about how Innovating Minds works with schools.

“One of the services we offer is going into educational settings with a clinician and supporting schools to adopt a ‘whole school approach’ to mental health. We work with their senior leadership teams to look at their systems and policies and see how they can change the environment from a punitive approach to a more therapeutic approach, so everybody’s mental health is supported. It’s not targeting those who have got a diagnosis of mental health difficulties, it's creating a system that includes everybody – students and staff”.

What challenges are you currently facing?

“One of the challenges we're currently facing is that, due to high demand, we need to digitally transform our service to reach more national and potentially international schools. One of the barriers for schools is the cost - digitising our service it will make it more affordable for them and they will be able to access extra materials at affordable costs, which in turn will enable us to reach more schools as well.”

Can you tell us a little bit more about the recognition Innovating Minds gained from OFSTED?

“One of my first contracts was a school in People's Academy that had been a failing school for years. There were high levels of behavioural incidents and students leaving the school, and there was, unfortunately, a student committed suicide just before we were commissioned to go in”.

“By training the senior leadership in our services, we were able to significantly reduce behavioural incidents with a 90% decrease in high risk behaviours. HR expenditure and staff turnover both reduced. Then OFSTED came in and assessed the school and it received ‘good’ across the board, and the mental health approach was mentioned in their report.”

“It was great for us because one of our initial anxieties was that if OFSTED didn't recognise us, then schools probably won't do it, because it's not a priority. It was daring for the headteacher to do what they did at the risk of OFSTED. Now, the headteacher is working across the academy supporting mental health wellbeing and using the tools she implemented from our services to other schools and academies.”

How has the business grown? 

“We're currently working across forty schools in three local authorities - Staffordshire, Birmingham and Hammersmith and Fulham. We also run a lot of conferences which reach many teachers in training. From 2016 up to August 2017 it was just me running the business – there’s now thirteen of us. So, growth has been very rapid!”

Did this pose any challenges for you?

“These days the challenge is no longer trying to sell our services but coping with demand. Currently, we can't recruit fast enough and there are not enough skills within the workforce. This is particularly difficult as we are geographically spread. I'm finding people that gravitate to work with us want close contact with me and the core team, which is difficult to give when you're in Birmingham and they are in London. There's an element of people leaning on you emotionally, but you've got to do your day to day job which has been quite demanding.

“Trusting your team is important as well - you're used to doing everything yourself, and doing it in a very particular way, then suddenly you must let go of some things and that's quite hard to do. You end up having to find your role all over again.”

What about your personal journey to becoming a social entrepreneur?

“From the age of 12 I was involved in my Dad's family business. My parents came over from India and built up their business, starting with a shop which we lived above. At first, I was the one who counted the cash, then my Dad got a warehouse and I began teaching his staff how to use the computer systems. By the age of 18 I was running the business monthly so my parents could go on holiday. I learnt a lot about systems and working with staff. From a really young age I've always been involved in and enjoyed business, but I didn't like how crude it was - it's often all about the bottom line and profit.”

“When I qualified as a psychologist, I wanted to bring my clinical skills and business skills together. I wanted to run a business, but one in which the more money you make, the more good you do in society. That's why being a social enterprise fitted well for me. When I set it up there were lots of people interested and wanting to invest. We set up as limited by shares to ensure we kept the doors open for investment. This set up also enabled me to not become grant reliant. When I looked at what was happening in the market, I realised there was quite a lot of organisations and social enterprises that were reliant on the grant income, which is not sustainable as a business model, whereas limited by shares actually limits how much grant you can get.”

Tell us more about the School for Social Entrepreneurs programme that you attended.

“The School for Social Entrepreneurs programme gave the organisation credibility. The peer support around you and the network you become involved in presented opportunities. I'd already started trading but once I was on the programme it gave me structure in terms of other business aspects such as finance and HR.”

What are the long-term plans for Innovating Minds? Are you looking to grow the company more? Would you want to get to a point where you can take a step back?

“My goal is for the company to outgrow me. I want to grow it to a point and give it to somebody else to take it to the next stage. I'm looking at digitisation now which will take at least 5 years. What we've done up to now is test the concept face-to-face and we've developed a marketing strategy - now we're trying to transfer that over to a digital format – which is like setting up a new business! We’re doing this to expand reach, make it more affordable and to scale the business. There’s been an increase in mental health issues in schools and it’s the right time in terms of market - there's over 23,000 schools and we're only pitched in 40.”

What has been the most rewarding moment for you as a social entrepreneur?

“Growing the team has been one of the toughest bits - I didn't realise how lonely it was until I was coming into the office and people were there. Particularly when you're feeling quite low yourself or you're a bit drained, it's the team that are rooting for and growing Innovating Minds. Also with our profits, we support children of domestic abuse through a programme that I've developed. When I sit in the office, I can hear the conversations that are taking place and I hear the mothers talking about the impact it's had on the children so that's been rewarding. The other rewarding aspect is that I personally invested £7,500 into Innovating Minds and calculated that the money had turned into £1 million, which I never thought could happen when I was setting up.”

What would you say have been your most challenging times?

“I've just been through one probably, sometimes you're absorbed in your business and you can't switch off. That's been really challenging because everything keeps going but you're not necessarily enjoying it and sometimes thinking it would be easier to have a 9-5 job. When we initially set up it was an emotional roller coaster for me because I was constantly getting knocked back. It would take me a couple of weeks to recover from these knock backs but now I emotionally distance myself. The hardest thing is work life balance, because you're addicted to it, especially when new projects come on board. I think what's hard is the more work you put in the more rewarding things come your way as well, so it keeps enforcing working more.”

What keeps you going when you do feel like that?

“I have a mentor with the accelerator, and I take two days out of the business every month and that seems to help prevent me getting into that state of burnout. I‘ve noticed when I don’t take those days, because I can't cram them in anywhere else, that’s when burnout happens.”

Asha’s personal experience, business growth and drive to move forward have seen her awarded as one of the UK Social Entrepreneur Index’s ‘Ten of the Best’. To find out more about the Index and see the others recognised, head over to the website. Keep an eye out for even more in-depth interviews with our other social entrepreneurs.

Announced earlier this year, the UK Social Entrepreneur Index is a celebration of entrepreneurs running businesses with social purposes. Out of the 29 entrepreneurs who made it into the Index, we’ve highlighted our ‘Ten of the Best’ and are bringing you a more in-depth look at their business journeys and lives as social entrepreneurs.


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