Social entrepreneurs, a heart-warming new breed

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In Sheffield, the do-good business brigade is booming.

Passion, vision and resilience... They course through the veins of all who determinedly forge career paths or set up in business.

Sophie Maxwell with students at her social enterprise, the Really Neet Project

Sophie Maxwell with students at her social enterprise, the Really Neet Project

Social entrepreneurs have these character traits in spades - plus one other outstanding personal attribute that sets them apart, says the man who, in the last 14 years, has helped hundreds of South Yorkshire men and women to fulfil their dream of doing good while they are doing business.

“It’s empathy. I think that is the unique thing what is at the heart of every social entrepreneur,” says Neil Coulson, a freelance business consultant whose speciality is working with not for profit organisations, charities and the voluntary sector.

“Social entrepreneurs are amazing. I am totally inspired by their altruism time and time again. Social issues motivate them and usually that springs from their own life experience. They, or someone close to them, have had a difficult time somewhere along the line and they want to make it easier for other people.”

There’s an altruistic streak in Neil himself; he grew up on the Manor and became an estate youth and community work volunteer as soon as he left university. Then he worked for “a really noble cause”, Manor Training and Resource Centre, training the long-term unemployed, before setting up Neil Coulson Associates 14 years ago.

He says social entrepreneurs are booming in South Yorkshire, a reflection of a national phenomenon growing born out of the banking crisis and the credit crunch.

“Traditional ways of doing business caused many problems; it is motivating people to find more ethical business models,” says Neil. “Community credit banks are a great example of this.”

He welcomes a government scheme announced in April’s budget, giving companies and individuals 30 per cent tax relief on money they invest in community interest companies and charities.

“One of the biggest barriers social entrepreneurs face is accessing finance,” he says. “Lenders perceived the fact that the main goal in not to make money, but to help others, as a risk factor.

“Attitudes are changing as social enterprise becomes more mainstream. Councils such as Sheffield are running loan projects, banks are becoming more receptive and the April’s Budget launched a tax relief scheme to encourage lending to social enterprises, officially recognising their valuable role.

“It proves the Government sees social enterprise as a valuable aid in finding solutions to problems faced by both the economy and society.”

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Social entrepreneurs are so valuable to the local community, Sheffield City Council is supporting them as they strive to achieve their vision,

It has just handed out £100,000 of financial loan support to six local social entrepreneurs to enable them to further their work in the community.

The six are Bike Rehab, a cycle repair and daily storage service which aims to get the city cycling, 4Everyone Social, an online recruitment service finding jobs and training for the unemployed, Riverside Live who provide arts and music facilities for disadvantaged communities, Redfern Recording Studios, WOW Academy, a stepping stone for 16-18-year-olds to gain work experience with leading companies nationwide, plus Mobile Power, who plan to supply rechargable mobile phone batteries to the developing world.

John Rigby, local economy manager at Creative Sheffield, says: “We are really keen to make a lasting economic and social impact on the local economy with this £100,000 investment. There are some great social firms in Sheffield that can do even better if we can unlock their potential.”

The entrepreneurs won their investment backing by pitching at a ‘business dragon’-style event organised by the Accelerate project, which is run by Neil Coulson Associates, Element.li, and Groundwork on behalf of the council.

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Award-winning Sheffield social entrepreneur Sophie Maxwell is a shining example to the young people her Attercliffe-based Really NEET College helps to a brighter future.

She has experienced all the lows she strives to help them either escape from, or avoid altogether. After leaving home at 14 she fell into truancy, homelessness and drug-taking. It was after helplessly watching a friend die of a drugs overdose before her eyes that Sophie, now 27, vowed to change her life.

She loved sport and after watching her heroine Kelly Holmes win bronze at the Sydney Olympics, rocked up at Don Valley Arena to learn how to be a track athlete.

A coach became her mentor, sport got her on track and from 16 to 22 she competed for the City of Sheffield Athletics Club. She became a coach and gained a degree in leisure and events management at Sheffield Hallam University in 2009.

The university’s Enterprise Centre, which helps students turn their business ideas into reality, gave her a new goal: a business that would help young people experiencing the difficulties she had once faced.

“I knew first-hand how hard things can be for a young person who falls through the system - and how much having someone motivating you can make a massive difference,” explains Sophie.

She founded an outdoor pursuits company, Adventure Workshops Education, to motivate reluctant young learners. But a special unit working at Chaucer School persuaded her to tutor pupils who not engaging in maths and English. She had no GCSEs and had to swot up before every session, but inspired five out of her eight students to sit their exams five months later.

She set up a number of successful projects for disengaged youth, then launched Really NEET in 2011, a safe learning environment for young people not in employment, education or training (NEETs).

Really NEET now has its own college, at the Wicker’s SYAC Business Centre, and helps 90 disadvantaged young people a year. Funded by an initial National Lottery investment of £3,500, it has won Sophie The High Sheriff of South Yorkshire Award 2013, two national Crisis Changing Lives Awards in 2010 and the Rotherham Advertiser Young Achievers Awards 2013.

She found additional new funding last month, courtesy of HRH the Duke of York.

He gave her a prestigious award that could springboard her college county-wide. The prince met the former homeless ‘pauper’ when she competed in his Pitch@ThePalace campaign to boost entrepreneurship.

Nominated by Sheffield Hallam, she beat off competition from universities around the country to win a place at a boot camp at Google’s London HQ. It’s where she met the Prince - not that she knew it at the time.

Says Sophie: “I was going through my pitch with business mentors when a man perched himself on my desk and asked me to go through it for his camera crew. I just thought he was someone off the telly.”

The Prince was so impressed, Sophie became one of the final 12 to bid at St James’s Palace for a £100,000 funding pot in front of business leaders, venture capitalists and angel investors collectively worth billions.

“I was up against some incredibly talented and ambitious people, all wanting financial backing to help their businesses grow into big money-makers,” Sophie explained. “What I wanted was money so Really NEET can expand and take on 500 students from across South Yorkshire.”

Sophie’s three-minute pitch - which can be seen on The Star’s website - won Most Disruptive Idea, one of only three Pitch@ThePalace awards, plus an immediate donation of £10,000 from the vice chairman of JP Morgan, one of the UK’s largest financial institutions.

“I’ve come back with scores of contacts for amazing high-flyers which we will call on to help NEET expand,” said Sophie. “And I’ve been asked to contact Prince Andrew himself, so watch this space.”