Culture and values are vital to the success of organisations whether they are city-based
start-ups in the tech sector or social enterprises in the foothills of the Andes. Here, Laura IH Bennett, one of the newest additions to the board of the Sheffield City Region LEP, explains why. 

From Cuba to Peru – I have been fortunate to live abroad and take a keen interest in learning how business is conducted in other cities in the UK and across the globe.

But what can the Sheffield business community, as a whole, learn from the non-profit and social enterprise sector? Here are my three lessons…

I now work in the digital tech sector with a particular focus on entrepreneurship, but my education and much of my professional background is in non-profits, international development, and social enterprises. A strange mix perhaps, but it has given me a broad insight into diverse business models and different ways of working.

I lived in a small town in rural Peru for nearly four years, where I was director of operations for Awamaki, a non-profit organisation with a social enterprise business model. Awamaki worked with female weavers and knitters from the Andes, bringing their products to market and providing capacity-building training so they could run their own artisan cooperatives as profitable businesses.

A lot of research in the international development field shows that income in the hands of women has wide-reaching positive impacts, both economically and socially, and this was the driving force behind our approach.

My role entailed everything from staff management and developing the organisation’s strategy, to managing community relations and overseeing the finances. The organisation existed for five years before I joined, and, early on, had relied entirely on grant funding.

I was able to flip the balance towards generating revenue, not completely, but enough to ensure we covered staff and operations. This was important from a sustainability point of view, but also as a vital step towards freeing us from restricted grant funding. Many non-profits and social enterprises suffer from ‘mission-creep’, whereby in an effort to win funding, they compromise on their mission in order to ‘tick the right boxes’. It was incredibly frustrating to either not be able to apply for a certain grant, or feel we’d need to shoehorn in an extra programme to qualify. Generating our own revenue as a social enterprise freed us from this constraint.

Despite living in an Andean village, I was becoming increasingly aware of the burgeoning start-up scene in London, the city I had lived in for three years before. There was something intriguing about this new way of doing business and I was getting drawn into ‘Entrepreneurship 101’ with phrases such as, Lean Start-up, Agile Working, and Minimum Viable Product all par for the course. It sounded like there were many useful tips and tricks to getting something off the ground as quickly and as cheaply as possible – my modus operandi working for a cash-strapped social enterprise!

I decided to leave the world of non-profits and social enterprise to get a better understanding of entrepreneurship and get smarter about revenue generation, with a view to take that learning back to the non-profit and social enterprise sector.

Upon jumping into the world of entrepreneurship as a newbie, I soon realised business has an awful lot to learn from non-profits. Sheffield has long been known for its independent spirit and collective belief in social justice so it follows our business community shares similar sensibilities. But there is always more to learn!

One of the most essential things is how important it is to have values. Not glib, one-word slogans picked straight from the “Business BS” bingo card, but values that are rooted in what the organisation does, how it delivers its activities, and where it fits in to the wider strategy – truly embedded values that all staff know and live by. When faced with a potential opportunity (or threat), determining whether it aligns or conflicts with an organisation’s values gives leaders an insight that numbers alone can’t necessarily provide. Having strong values everyone adheres to means businesses are more open to making decisions that might be tough in the short term, but that ultimately will help build a stronger and more sustainable company.

A second essential learning point is having a clearly defined purpose, something far broader than ‘we exist to make a profit’. There’s so much more to business than that. In social enterprises, we often refer to the ‘triple bottom line’, of environmental, social, and economic drivers. There is no reason why every organisation shouldn’t be a social enterprise – if a business operates in a void and pays no attention to the impact on not just its customers but the wider environment, we are all worse off. A for-profit business can be a force for good in society – above and beyond creating jobs and increasing economic growth.

Businesses bring vibrancy to a place, they can share their knowledge and collaborate with others in a city, and, thanks to that triple bottom line, they can also have a positive impact on society and the environment, too.

The third lesson is diversity. Working in the digital tech sector, not a day goes by without reading about a corporate scandal a plea to get more diversity, whether that’s gender, race, or disability. At Awamaki, I had the opposite problem: we had a team of 12, and only two of them were men. We did, however, have a culturally diverse workforce, comprising Peruvians, Americans, and Europeans, and our office language was Spanish. The women in the artisan cooperatives were indigenous Peruvian, and only spoke Quechua. The cultural and linguistic diversity made it challenging at times, but we found ways of communicating, and our shared experiences and different backgrounds made for rich and stimulating discussions. We found new ways of looking at old problems, and weren’t afraid to try something that was initially out of our comfort zone. If you only employ the same ‘type’ of person, your business will have a very cloistered and closed view of the world that does not take into account different opinions, needs, and experiences.

Taking these three learning points through to a purely economic conclusion, the fact that report after report tells us people are increasingly attracted to work in companies that have values and purpose at their core means diverse teams make for more profitable companies. Making sure your purpose and values are clear, and employing a diverse team, is fundamental.

While I might still one day return to the non-profit sector, right now I am entirely committed to the business community of Sheffield. I hope that 2018 sees an increasing and sustained economic growth, led by socially-minded businesses and social enterprises, with a positive impact on our city’s society and environment.