The Mother Lode

Since stepping down as CEO of Spark+Mettle and starting down a new line, I’ve received a number of encouraging and congratulatory responses. It’s been lovely. Some say that I seem to manage well the balance between work and family and purpose; others that I have achieved good things and will achieve more. Lovely, as I say, but I can’t quite imbibe the compliments: I feel like a total fake.

Why? Because any success or achievements to date are just a thin vein in a large rock of all my many actions (some abject failures, some that are neither here or there, others that are perfectly alright but end up not being pressed into anything worth noticing). I am no geologist, and I am far too keen on, er, mining analogies till they are barren, so you may well not want to read on..,

Mineral veins in rocks—like quartz or copper—come about from a couple of different processes (open-space filling and crack-sealed growth, if you’re interested) and there needs to have been some sort of tectonic action to get it going too. In other words, anything to make a little vein of gold you need some serious pressure, heat and some shifting to appear, and there’s a whole lot more that’s down to luck and circumstance that would result in anything like a mother lode. If there is any little vein in my big ole rock, it’s tin if anything

That sounds about right, in terms of success in life. It’s thin, a tiny fraction of everything, formed out of pressure and changes that are often outside of our control. And if wasn’t for everything else, that hunk of unshiny rock comprising all that we do, that gold vein of success wouldn’t exist and it wouldn’t be worth a dime.

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Step down

laroqueI’m currently in a tiny village in the south of France, not far from the Spanish border. I’m here on maternity leave, which has morphed into a whole family sabbatical. My husband is here to write before he cracks on with training to teach, our four year-old is here to spend a term at the local school, and our baby and dogs are just here to soak it all in and stay warm for a while longer than they would back in Brighton.

While out here I am finishing up some research as part of my Clore Social Leadership Fellowship (http://toteachtolead.wordpress.com). I am also in the process of determining what my next steps will be.  I am stepping down as CEO of Spark+Mettle, and moving to become its Chair. It’s a really good time to be going, and we couldn’t have a stronger team in place to take it through its next phase.

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Spark+Mettle has been on a roll since I’ve been on maternity leave. Thanks to Kazvare Knox and her whipsmart team, it has been developing and running a series of programmes to develop character strengths and soft skills awareness to other youth groups. It’s moved into wonderful offices in north London. And, as recently announced, it’s set up an extraordinary partnership with the British Council and HSBC to deliver skills training to schools in nine countries across the Middle East and North Africa. That’s right, it is going global.

I’ve chosen to step down as CEO for a number of reasons. First, I’ve always been aware of the dreaded “founders’ syndrome” and so had only planned to stay at the helm for just 3–5 years. Second, my delight and my strengths lie in getting things off the ground; Spark+Mettle is now moving into a phase where it needs to level off and with that comes a different leadership style. Finally, my work over the last five years has taken me to London a lot. But Brighton is home and it is where I want to be based.  I love a full working day but I have a young family; time with them is precious, not to be truncated by trains. At the same time, Spark+Mettle needs someone at the helm who is a lot more present than I can be.

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I am thrilled that I will be able to take on the role of Chair and support the strategic direction and growth of Spark+Mettle moving forward, while giving space for Kazvare—someone extraordinarily dedicated, talented and focused—to be in charge. It’s been wonderful over the last few months to watch the organisation flourish and demonstrate its independence. It fills me with huge pride and pleasure to see others achieve so much and evolve what was once a teeny tiny kernel of an idea that I had into something that is so much bigger and better than I could have achieved myself.

This is not the end. Far from it. It really is only just the beginning.

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Simplifying, listening, talking

Last week I was among a number of supercool innovators to speak at the How The Light Gets In Festival in Hay on Wye. I had a few minutes to talk about an error I wanted to fix, and how I went about it. So I put together a little talk. I’ll post the slides below. But beforehand I wanted to moan and cheer.

Moan: what is with the current obsession of simplifying ***YOUR BIG SOLUTION*** into one pithy sentence? Thumbs down. I mean, if your big solution is developing a flashlight app, then maybe it’s okay. But if your solution is about finding a new approach to solving a multitude of issues, a complex muddle of problems? This hyper-simplification schtick we’re now so used to (thanks, TED), means anything that deserves a sub-clause is forced to go against the current.

Cheer: way more fun than talking out loud in front of people (and making them put their hands in the air) was hanging out with a bunch of hellishly-hot brains from across the UK over the course of a day and a night and a morning. In fact, twice last week I got the opportunity to have super inspiring conversations with a diverse bag of folk in cool places. I am the luckiest of lucky. And it reminded me, more than ever, that whatever tech can do to engineer how we can bridge social gulfs, it’s the face-to-face that acts as the cement and building blocks that actually make that stuff real and lasting. Big up to all the people I chatted with (@KatieHDesign, @idrysdale, @saltsea, @JenLexmond, @janeonbike, @KathleenStokes, @amandagore, @suzyglass, @RichardAlderson and @iamrobertwilson among others). But mega big ups to you Hannah@lifespectacularSmith and Cassie@cassierobinsonRobinson for making both events happen. You two need to set up a side business in Curated Conversations. Those sorts of occasion shed new light on life in wonderful, beautiful ways. Especially over great food and wine.

Anyway, here’s what I presented HTLGI; you can check out was I was planning to say by viewing the presentation on Slideshare and clicking on ‘Notes on Slide’ but I forgot half of it and rushed the rest…

 

And here’s proof from @cassierobinson that they took the first command very seriously: hands

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Super entrepreneurs: ditch the ego and don some pants.

What makes a successful entrepreneur?

It would be so great to know the answer to that. And then there was me, being asked to give an answer to that question, in front of a bunch of brilliant young people. Last week. At The Company—a new project run by ever-awesome London youth centre The Winch.

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Man. Me? Answer THIS?

First up, I run a CHARITY. Success has a different meaning in my world. If only I knew more about it in the corporate, for-profit sense. Seriously. My idea of success is not everyone’s, at the same time I need to know more about theirs.

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Second up, I don’t really bill myself as an ENTREPRENEUR. I’ve now been trying to run Spark+Mettle for the last two years, and I’m a bit tired of all the ego-stroking, trumpet-blowing that can go on in Entrepreneur Land. It can get even WORSE when you stop off in Social Entrepreneursville for a while, because there, dotted amongst the helium egos and loud trumpets, are all the very high moral pedestals on which many of these people sit, thinking that having a social purpose makes all their other character flaws okay.

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Awesome Human

I’m kinda over all that shit. I don’t have time. I have time for people who think beyond themselves and see themselves as one dot among many. Not falsely humble, but just aware of what they can do, and how they can fit alongside others. People like Cassie Robinson (see pic). I’d quite like her to run things for a bit.

So, back to me and The Company. What did I say to these young people?

Firstly, that I was ill-equipped to answer the question. I posed a number of questions instead. Classic teacher. And I brought superheroes into play. Because that’s always fun. And likely not all that original. Ah well.

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Here’s the guts of what I said, minus the gesticulations and stupid asides:

  1. Entrepreneurs are like superheroes [I brought along copies of crummy superhero kids’ magazines]. They have their key strength or power, but they also have their vice. And, crucially, they have a purpose, a reason for doing what they’re doing. That’s them. But then there’s also the world that they are in. They have a sense about the opportunities that they can take, as well as the enemies or threats that exist. I asked them all some questions:
    1. What’s your key strength?
    2. And vice?
    3. And purpose?
    4. Where’s your opportunity to do super awesome stuff?
    5. What enemies or threats exist that will thwart you?
  2. Entrepreneurs, like superheroes, need a utility belt. Different people need different things on theirs. But pretty much all of us need this one thing: insight and understanding into who we are and how we fit and what we can do. My question: what else other than this insight do you want to strap onto your utility belt? Different tools that I suggested might be useful for some entrepreneur superheroes could include [note how I try to make this as non-prescriptive as possible, but still somehow wind up creating a list]:
    1. Energy
    2. Grit or mettle or determination or whaddevveryawannacallit
    3. Vision
    4. Humour [PLEEEEASE]
    5. Self-esteem (not ego)
    6. A pressing urge to do something different
    7. Ability to make lists, and then revise them [I just added this point in, about five hours after publishing the original post].
  3. There are two types of superhero. Firstly, there are the lone avengers—the Supermans—out fighting Bad Stuff all by themselves. They’re into saving people. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how gender neutral/equal rights they are.  They’re pretty combative and competitive. Then there are the teams—the X-Men—all of whom have different strength and vices, but when they work collectively they are rad to the power of sick [stole that phrase from Dil Lalloo]. These guys, they are collaborative, their skills complementary. And, lo!, I asked of the crowd:
    1. What type of superhero are you?
    2. How can you work best with others? What powers do you lack that you could find in others?
  4. And then to my grand, sweeping conclusion: superheroes—and entrepreneurs—aren’t born but made. They are made by themselves, and they are also made by the people around them. The skills and strengths we need to be successful aren’t extraordinary, but just ordinary stuff we’ve worked damned hard to improve. Encouragement and support from others is a bit like the added bonus of a cape: not entirely necessary, but it makes us feel good, look good and maybe even go a bit faster. My final thought? That if there were less ego, and more let’s go figure this out together, then this world would be WONDERFUL. Until then, let’s just go put our pants outside our trousers.

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Eugenie and Gianni by Big Ben

Entrepreneurship and Social (ugh) Mobility

Eugenie and Gianni by Big BenYesterday I had the privilege of joining in a roundtable discussion on entrepreneurship and social mobility, hosted by Chuka Umunna MP. As a long-time Labour supporter—and daughter of a former Labour councillor—it was a thrill to go the House of Commons for the first time, and I really appreciated getting a glimpse of how the political process works. I went to the meeting with Hannah Smith, one of Spark+Mettle’s core team members, currently studying an MA in Social Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths, and Gianni Bolemole (pictured with me above), a young entrepreneur from South London who is a Spark+Mettle co-creator.

The presentation and subsequent discussion raised a number of thoughts. I took the opportunity to speak, and the following is a succinct and better-worded version of what I actually garbled at the time.

“I see that there is a strong link between developing enterprising skills in young people and ‘social mobility’ (or, preferably, social egalitarianism): entrepreneurship is a key route to acquiring the nine soft skills needed to flourish. But I believe that ‘social mobility’ is in fact a crippling goal for Labour’s core values as it perpetuates social stratification and inequalities rather than looking for a more radical solution. There has been much talk today around the teaching of “soft skills” (or “work skills”, “real life skills”, “non-cognitive skills”). Ed Milliband is now countering David Cameron’s happiness agenda with his own resilience agenda, so it seems as though soft skills such as resilience have a place in policy now too. So why limit the measures of success within the prism of social classification? Why not take the impact soft skills to its natural goal—that of human flourishing?”

 

On the train home, I had time to reflect on many of the great ideas and comments put forward during the discussion. Building on what was said by others, I came up with some more practical policy suggestions that I subsequently put forward to Chuka Umunna in an email. This is what I suggested, and I would welcome comments.

  • Ringfence funding for schools to bring in self-employed/entrepreneurs to be paid to share their learning with young people (a bit like the brilliant Future First model, but paid, and extending beyond school alumni). This could be an adaptation of the flexi-teaching model that exists in some FE colleges and universities— I understand that teacher-practitioners have a real positive impact on students and their aspirations. With the axing of Connexions, this could be a government initiative that can support your progressive vision on a national scale while reinforcing local and community cohesion and (self-)employment. In fact this would have multiple benefits:
    • encourage schools to be porous,  giving less-privileged students access to a wider network of professional adults
    • provide useful additional income for the self-employed/entrepreneurs/freelancers
    • enhance intergenerational and socio-cultural cohesion and understanding within a community, perhaps leading to a greater array of work placement opportunities with students and the freelancers/self-employed/entrepreneurs
    • allow teachers to focus on their subject rather than struggle over providing careers support that is not their area of expertise (when I was teaching, I would have LOVED more professionals coming in)
    • spot and support the enterprising young at an early stage by having outsiders interact with young people without the traditional teaching lens (academic ability/potential exam grade) — self-employed/entrepreneurs would make great talent spotters
  • Encourage young entrepreneurs to crowdfund to raise seed capital for their enterprise, provide coaching at the same time and offer matched funding for those who achieve their crowdfunding target.
    • crowdfunding encourages the development of soft skills such as confidence, communication, creativity and commitment that are so commonly cited as key in entrepreneurial success.
    • crowdfunding also develops a sense of agency: it’s not being given a handout, it’s being given a platform and clearly defined process through which you have to raise funds yourself.
    • crowdfunding is an early indicator of the committed entrepreneurs: it has a 50% fail rate.
    • putting matched funding in place then incentivises young people.
    • providing a coach during this process would be a great way of motivating and supporting young people.

NB there is now an explosion of crowdfunding platforms (often unregulated). I freelance for a social enterprise called Buzzbnk (www.buzzbnk.org) that is a crowdfunding platform exclusively for social entrepreneurs and charities and has some of the tightest requirements of any, and redistributes its profits among the social enterprise sector, but not all are like this!

I also had four quick philosophical/ideological/pedagogical points:

  • You CAN teach creativity and other soft skills. To ‘educate’ means to ‘bring out’ (NOT to inculcate) and it is always possible to ‘bring out’ creativity and creative thinking in young people. As Ken Robinson points out in his now-famous talk, creativity is there in children from the get-go, schools are the ones that are killing it. It is possible to bring out other soft skills such as self-esteem, agency and resilience in young people too. Leon Feinstein of Institute of Education found that a sense of personal agency at the age of 10 is more important to life chances than reading skills (as quoted in the ‘Grit’ report from the Young Foundation). Then there’s the Henry Ford quote, “Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you are probably right.”
  • Don’t limit research and policy just to the ‘entrepreneurs’: there’s less of a ring to it, but with the rise of part-time and flexi-workers as well as self-employment, it could be an exciting opportunity to openly support all self-employed and freelance and flexi-workers, whether they are the ‘entrepreneur’ or an entrepreneur-enabler (for want of a better phrase). You may have more solid data on ‘self-employed’ than on ‘entrepreneurs’ too, which seemed to have been wrongly conflated. I, for example, have worked freelance for three years, but have only considered myself as an entrepreneur (and reluctantly at that) for one. Many people find stimulating, non-traditional employment and career pathways, the portfolio-careerists et al. Something to be encouraged!
  • Any suggestion of ‘mentoring’ programmes should, in my mind, be approached with caution. If Labour can encourage a less hierarchical, more two-way process to intergenerational relationships then I would suggest this is a progressive way forward. ‘Coaching’ is a better route. On Spark+Mettle we refer to the volunteer professionals as ‘agents‘ and encourage them and the young people to acknowledge the skills and knowledge they have, and how they can share/swap them with each other.
  • There is a positive correlation between social equality and homogeneity that is the less-discussed cousin to the social mobility-equality pairing. To encourage greater social equality, we need to confront the socio-cultural barriers that exist in diverse communities. Creating opportunities for people to interact with those they would not normally encounter on a daily basis is a key route to overcoming these, and out of all we have done in Spark+Mettle so far, one of the most positive experiences for professionals and young people alike.

I hope wholeheartedly that politicians will find ways of supporting the marginalised but enterprising young to find or make jobs that engage them fully and lead to fulfilling, productive, profitable lives—that surely is the optimal end goal (not social mobility…?!).