Social entrepreneurs follow multiple different routes to achieving their goal. This month’s profile describes how two talented entrepreneurs totally restructured and saved an important social programme that was about to be abandoned.
Fourteen years ago in the run up to the Millennium Year, UK corporations were being urged by the British government to become more socially engaged with the consumers they served. Sky Television came up with an innovative idea and appropriate title: ‘Reach for the Sky’. It was designed to run inspirational life-changing courses for teenagers by helping them to tease out their hidden talents. The highlight of the programme was a 4-day camp on a wide variety of university campuses in the summer holidays. Two of the many teachers recruited to run the camps were Graham Moore and Carlo Missirian. Both were directors of sport in comprehensive schools specialising in sports. A video had been made of Graham’s work in a deprived urban school which had brought him to the attention of the Sports Council.
In the second year of the programme, Graham had become operational manager of the whole programme and Carlo his deputy. By the end of the third year the programme was in trouble. James Murdoch had become the boss of Sky and gave out a clear signal he was not interested in it continuing. Graham and Carlo were most interested in its continuation. “In a way, Murdoch pulling the plug was a godsend. It made us create and develop the programme, which could not have happened under Sky,” says Carlo.
In 2004 the new baby emerged with a different remit and a different title. Like ‘Reach for the Sky’ , HumanUtopia was created to run inspirational life-changing programmes for teenagers but with a difference. First the programmes would be run in schools all the year round, rather than confined to universities in the summer holidays. Second that it would concentrate on the most disadvantaged schools. And third adults – teachers in the schools – would be involved and helped by the courses.
Ten years on HumanUtopia has run courses in over 200 schools, reached 125,000 young people, 20,000 adults, and run 50 Summer camps.But it has not all been plain sailing. In 2011 prospects were dire. It was facing severe financial problems from expanding too fast and then been hit by the cuts imposed by Michael Gove’s education department. In Carlo’s words ‘it was looking more like HumanDystopia than Utopia.’
In Graham’s words: ‘We both knew a lot about young people, motivation, raising aspiration but not about basic business organisation: planning, marketing, finance as well as HR.’ But just at that point Carlo was selected by the Young Foundation to take part in the Foundation’s first accelerator programme. It was designed to help small charities with a good idea to identify the necessary steps they needed to make to achieve greater reach and expansion. Both Carlo and Graham believe the YF programme helped save their project. In Carlo’s words: “It was a second stroke of luck. The Foundation took a punt on us. They could see the potential of the programme and bought into it.” Both the coach and the mentor that the accelerator provided are still serving on HumanUtopia’s board.
The two partners could not come from more different backgrounds. Graham was born and brought up on a troubled Birkenhead council estate. He knew all about life in a deprived community. His own family broke up but thanks to two teachers was steered away from becoming an alienated troublemaker. He was good at sport, went to teacher training college, and chose to return to a deprived Kirkby comprehensive to run its sports programme and guide its disillusioned pupils into more purposeful activities.
Carlo comes from a strong and united family. His parents, both Armenian, emigrated to the UK to give their children a better life. His father became head of music in a state secondary school and his mother a district nurse. They both worked way beyond their prescribed hours instilling a strong work ethic and respect for public services in their son. He went to private schools before university.
What Graham and Carlo share is a passion for education and strong desire to make sport more accessible to children in school.The naturally talented were obviously helped, but the emphasis was on inclusivity with facilities extended to all to find something they enjoyed. They had both served more than a decade as sports directors when ‘Reach for the Sky’ gave them an opportunity to operate on a much larger canvas.
HumanUtopia courses run through a vast range of lengths from a one day ‘taster’; to 2 to 9 day courses exploring ‘Who am I’; to 3-year partnerships. The shorter courses are designed to help young people overcome the barriers that they face in school (peer pressure, conformity, bullying). The ‘Who am I’ sessions encourage pupils to reflect on their own image of themselves and how that could improve. The longer social programme involving both pupils and staff provide safe forums for pupils to express their feelings about lessons and other pupils’ behaviour and to reflect on the detrimental impact of negative relations. Through a succession of stages they are helped to improve their behaviour, better understand other pupils’ behaviour, make friends with older or younger pupils. A key part of the programmes is to select ‘heroes’, volunteers who are ready to be trained to run similar courses for younger pupils and to provide them with admirable role models. Some 10,000 have completed the training courses and run courses.
About 75 per cent of the programmes are in secondary schools and 25 per cent in primaries. The pupils are encouraged to use the charity’s site on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to read or see other children’s experiences and set out their own.
Tributes to HumanUtopia’s programmes have been made in a number of Ofsted inspection reports. They have won the backing of Social Enterprise UK, Business in the Community, and teacher training bodies. They have run courses for a decade at conferences organised by Teacher Leaders, a charity that seeks out potential new headteachers among the young heads of departments in schools. Social impact surveys have recorded extremely high proportions of pupils with improved motivation, better behaviour, seeking higher grades and making new friends. Northamptonshire police were so impressed they paid for courses to run in five local schools for years 9 and 10. This month Graham and Carlo have organised one of their biggest conferences, involving vulnerable pupils from across 30 London schools in which they will have the help of 60 volunteers from City businesses.
Carlo’s advice to potential new entrepreneurs is straightforward: “You’ve got to totally believe in what you are doing. There will be hiccups. It’s obviously not essential, but we have found it enormously helpful in having two partners. When one of us is down the other one lifts him up. We challenge each other and drive each other on. We were sitting together in a park recently and saw two squirrels chasing each other up a tree. We looked at each other and said ‘That’s us’.”