Year Here, a new movement of do-good brands are making a real impact in East London, nurtured by revolutionary social innovation programme Year Here. Current Fellow Charlotte Tottenham explains more…
The rise of the East London supper club was meteoric and well-documented. An antidote to over-priced food in stuffy venues, the popularity of these rebellious gastro-dens was undeniable, with keen cooks serving affordable local grub from their own homes. Soon these pop-ups were, well, popping up everywhere, but as soon as the Michelin-starred celeb chefs joined in, the rebellious magic seemed to somewhat dissipate. Thankfully, in the midst of all this seemingly-samey gastronomic hype, I chanced across Fat Macy’s: a supper club with a difference.
The catering company recruits Londoners to run supper clubs, with profits going into training and supporting young people living in temporary accommodation, such as homeless hostels. The aim is to help them raise a deposit to rent a flat of their own – and of course along the way offer them invaluable work experience. Trainees clock 200 hours as volunteers, thereby sidestepping the challenges of a system in which working more than 17 hours actually reduces housing benefit payments. Along the way, Fat Macy’s provides two forms of ID, a travel card and some clothes for work, and once the volunteers have accumulated their hours, they pay for a rental deposit.
For diners, it’s three courses of delicious seasonal food, with each trainee chef contributing new recipes and cuisines to the pot. You sit on communal tables, mingling with others as you share good food and stories. And above all, you can be safe in the knowledge that your money has gone to a good cause. As founder Meg Doherty says, “we wanted to appeal to those who want to help but don’t know the best course of action; those unsure about giving cash to someone on the street, but for whom giving money to a large charity feels impersonal. With Fat Macy’s, the people you are supporting are actually there, in the room, cooking your food.”
Until then I’d seen the housing crisis as this vast and insurmountable problem, the preserve of newspaper headlines and policy makers. But Fat Macy’s quickly reminded me how much power I have as a consumer to, quite literally, put my money where my mouth is. That is: into responsible, socially conscious events and products.
Soon after, I came across women’s fashion brand Birdsong, who make gorgeous chic staples in comfortable, long-lasting natural fabrics. Co-founders Sophie Slater and Sarah Beckett source only from women’s charities and organisations and they put the welfare of their makers at the heart of everything they do. They tell me they were frustrated by fashion norms of paying makers a pittance, and equally fed up with the prevalence of airbrushed models. The pair aims to create clothing that lasts and nobly promises “no sweat-shops, no photo-shop.”
These businesses are united by the fact that each is a social enterprise: a company that exists to bring about positive change in society, while earning its income from sales of services or goods.
Another thing they have in common is ‘Year Here’, an East London-based, social innovation Fellowship programme, where both companies were founded. It’s a pretty singular year-long course, like a masters degree only with no classrooms; a sort of practical post-grad with a dash of MBA and a sprinkling of start-up incubator – or, as one current Fellow put it: “Holy shit, I’m on the social version of The Apprentice.” It’s a nightmare to explain to people and I should know, since I’m one of 20 fellows on the latest cohort.
To use its own tagline, Year Here gives its Fellows a year to ‘test and build solutions to society’s toughest problems’. And the UK’s problems are undeniably tough. Income inequality is at Victorian levels; in London one in 59 people is homeless. Facts like this are staggering and it’s easy to become disillusioned, or they can inspire you to actually do something.
Jack Graham, the charismatic founder of Year Here, falls into the latter camp. After experience in international development and working at the Young Foundation, a leading centre for social innovation in East London, Jack noted that ambitious young graduates were struggling to break into the social sector, despite being passionate about change. “In fact”, he says, “they were often snapped up by the bright lights of international development with no heed to the very real problems in the UK”. Year Here was his response: a space where a new generation of social leaders can spend a year tackling social issues in our own backyard.
The programme, which is run from a co-working studio near London Fields, is pretty unorthodox. There are no exams, no campus, no teachers and no fee. Instead, we learn in the real world, which unsurprisingly, I’m finding, is both a lot more challenging and a lot more powerful than being in the classroom.
Divided into three sections over a year, it kicks off with a five-month placement in order to gain some real-world insight into life on the frontline of inequality. With positions ranging from homelessness hostels to GP surgeries, I’m currently placed at the Bromley by Bow Centre in Tower Hamlets, where I’m learning a lot about the daily realities of life in one of the country’s poorest boroughs.
This experiential learning theme continues into the consulting phase where Fellows deliver projects for public and private sector clients, from Sainsbury’s to the Mayor of London. The culmination of this is that we then spend two months working on our own venture, with many going on to nurture this further during an optional further incubation period post-graduation. One such social entrepreneur is Josh Babarinde, who founded Cracked It, a phone repair service staffed by ex-offenders and vulnerable youth. “It’s an exhilarating intellectual challenge to find and maintain the social enterprise sweet-spot, between running a commercial operation and achieving a positive social impact.”
The year is punctuated by five enormously intense week-long ‘bootcamps’ designed (among other things) to spark this entrepreneurial spirit. This is where The Apprentice element comes in, as we complete high-octane challenges and tasks, while racing around London. Exhausting, but very exciting. Alongside all of this there is a very enlightened emphasis on self-leadership and reflection. Self-care is also part of the curriculum and hearing founder Jack Graham actually articulates on week one that ‘mental health has total parity with physical health’ was refreshing. It’s little wonder that the programme is birthing such a wealth of successful social enterprises.
There are now estimated to be 100,000 of these social enterprises in the UK, contributing £60bn to our economy. But can businesses really solve social problems? This new wave of social enterprises coming out of London, not least the Year Here programme itself, suggests the answer is yes. The freedom that comes from sales revenue – as opposed to an over-reliance on dwindling public sector funds and prescriptive grants – allows these social enterprises to genuinely compete in the marketplace. Cracked It founder Josh was on a career trajectory that might have seen him in policy or politics, but he was attracted to the world of social entrepreneurship because of its capacity to operate above politics. “Businesses – in the form of social enterprises – are able to access an alternative source of cash to invest in tackling social problems that’s from a direct consumer need. In Cracked It’s case, we discovered that 29 per cent of smart phones have broken screens, so we’re harnessing the £2bn-a-year phone repair market for the purposes of crime prevention.”
And these businesses are having a genuine transformative impact. Nearly two-thirds of Cracked It’s 160 former trainees are now working or studying, and at Birdsong 100 per cent of the makers have pride in the work they do – with 83 per cent stating that their quality of life is directly improved by working with Birdsong. Meanwhile Fat Macy’s volunteer Emmanuel Bejedi recently qualified for his rental deposit allowing him to plan his move out of his temporary accommodation.
“Social enterprises are empowering consumers to make tangible differences – and if you’re going out for dinner anyway, why not eat at a social enterprise venue?” asks Meg Doherty. As customers and consumers, we are central to the success of these social enterprises; in being choosy about the provenance of the things we buy, or buy tickets to, we can directly do our bit to redress the imbalance of inequality.
Apply now to become part of the next cohort of Fellows: yearhere.org
Deadline midnight 2 December