As part of this journey of muka kids I don’t just write about how fantastic social enterprise is, why I want to do what I do, the changes that need to happen in the clothing industry, and the systems that need innovating in the way we buy and use clothes, I write about when the wheels start to come off. Or as we call it in our house the ”Thomas and the Wobbly Wheels” scenario. This particular wobble relates to the best model to ensure social enterprise or business success.
I know from my life as a researcher and psychologist, good intentions are no indicator of success. In fact good intentions without good planing, research and investment are a bloody terrible thing because they raise up expectations all over the place and then drop them flat down on their face. The question I have had to ask myself a lot in the last few days is – am I well intentioned but not well qualified and not well prepared? These are really good questions to ask, all people should ask themselves this a lot, about lots of things, but especially when they are spending a lot of personal resources (all types) on a project that many other people make sacrifices for also.
In what can only be described as a semi regular occurrence for me, I went to talk to a start-up group. Start-up groups identify and support enterprise (but mainly people) with the potential to take a product idea, start really small, quickly test and retest and redevelop and get it out into the market and growing. The story most of the time when I talk about the way I am starting muka kids is pretty much the same. The model I am following , which looks like me spending as much time as I can outside of work and family (about 5 days a week it all adds up to I would say) to test and launch the social enterprise is not the approach most likely to succeed, in fact if I were a cat hit by a car they would probably be thinking about putting me down about now. It may as they say fail slowly, or it may not, but odds for success are not in my favour. I am a scientist, my life is built on a platform of listening to the evidence and the research weighing it up and usually deciding that good science should prevail. So when someone who has experience in this stuff tells me to rethink my approach I tend to listen, constructive criticism can be your best friend in life I have found. But…. and yes there is a but (some among you may think you recognize this as the ‘but’ of a person who like’s to do things their way and bugger what experts tell me). I like to think of this as the but (small b) of a woman.
Room for Women in Social Enterprise?
The thing that really got me was when I noted that the total commitment, fast acceleration, 12 hour days, 7 days a week, no other paid work model was kind of exclusionary to a large group of people, namely parents, and namely women ( I have mentioned this before), I was told that people that were really committed to an idea reorganize their life to do it this way because this is the way that works. I somewhat feebly suggested (why am I always a better feminist in my mind than in person?) that perhaps this was the only way that is explored, measured and supported because in a male dominated industry they don’t see the need for another model… Well that went down like a cold bucket of sick and I was left with the impression that women (including me) just needed to get sufficiently committed to enterprise building and the problem would be solved….you know that massive problem with women not being represented in the higher levels of industry and business, apparently its a commitment issue not a structural one. I do feel that I should point out that many enterprise incubator programme do receive public money and or support of some nature to build business, and I have to wonder what if any measurable impacts they have in relation to helping build a more representative business sector.
There were during this conversation a lot of points that were very valid and I would be silly to ignore advice freely given. I needed a team, I needed a wider range of experience to bring to the table, and I needed big funds to throw at it. All these things are absolutely true, and if I could get them right now I would. Trouble is in the kids social enterprise space there are loads of other parents interested in this stuff, not so much the footloose and fancy free young male tech savy types. And so we get back to the model of development issue (ie. more people in the team who are not ”sufficiently committed”). It is not impossible to find people, but it will take time, and relationships don’t get forced to any great degree of success in business or in other places.
So I am at this moment in a slightly akward place. Am I being too naive, am I not “sufficiently committed” and would the sensible thing be to regroup, refocus and try to follow the model that those with start-up experience tell me will give muka kids the greater chance of success (though in all honesty at this point in our lives it would probably break us). The alternative being to stop before I become a slow fail, and let loads of people down.
Is it that we are not sufficiently invested in finding other ways?
I have to wonder though is there another model that works out there? Am I only getting part of the picture? What does the evidence say on this? In the UK and Europe for example there are specific social enterprise programmes for women. Wow they recognize that as part of gender equality work the system might actually need to change to support women into the system…. now there is a novel idea. Francesca from Sewing Circus (fantastic unisex clothes for kids in the UK ) shared her story with an accelerator programme for women, you should give it a read. It was very uplifting. In New Zealand Akina has a social enterprise accelerator programme called launchpad which does take a different tack, though not explicitly to support women at this stage, this may come in time perhaps as they measure the results of taking a different model of support forward.
I am not saying that what I have been told is wrong about the likelihood of success if I continue with my organic growth approach, though that may depend a lot on how you measure success (For me success looks like serious social and environmental impact, a workable solution for parents with regard to sustainably dressing kids, and financial viability that offers me and a team of others good employment and then hopefully world domination….). I guess I am questioning whether in the absence of evidence to the contrary (because no one is looking for it) this only appears to be the best pathway to success? I will admit to not having done a full evidence review on this!
What I will get a little grumpy about is the idea that women (and indeed parents) need to change to meet the needs of the system. It seems kind of ironic in an area of human industry where innovation is king, the system itself is totally unwilling to innovate to get more women in social enterprise or other enterprise and succeeding. At the heart of it appears to me, to be a deeply entrenched male world view that is just very happy thank you very much with the system that works for them (though given the number of blokes who are no longer with their partners working in the area perhaps it ain’t working so well for them either. Just saying).
Squeezing Sustainable Business in a Square Hole?
Perhaps in the big picture this is all about what we define as a successful and sustainable business? Do we as a society honestly believe that business success can come only when people forsake all other types of success in their lives, compromise their relationships and their families, or only do it when none of these things are as important (ie. you are childless or single or perhaps just a psychopath?). If we want to move to a world of more sustainable enterprise based economies, is it really that appropriate to apply a model of business which has a single bottom line focus and a model of development that compromises so much? The parallels with muka kids’ approach are not lost on me – trying to change an unsustainable clothing system by sticking to the existing model and telling people to change their own behaviour first is a kind of a nonsense. Perhaps building social enterprise and sustainable business in the existing system and hoping the outcome will be different for economic development is just as nonsensical?
At a systems level, a proposal that the Morgan Foundation has made is a universal basic income. It is pointed out that a number of values based business (essentially social enterprise) could start-up more quickly if their founders were able to commit more time to an accelerated start-up. This of course would potentially benefit all of NZ, as more social enterprise ideas could be tested out and given a chance of success not first reliant on a very narrow set of personal circumstances. I would suggest it may have quite an impact on gender representation in business also.
While none of this solves my immediate problem of how best to proceed, or would even mean that muka kids (or me) would be the beneficiary of such changes (lets face it may not just have what others think it takes!), it gives me some context at least to ponder the nature of what I am trying to do. In the meantime I will do that uniquely female thing and have a cry in the loos and just so you know I am totally cool with that.