Andrea Gamson

London, UK. Capitalist for Good. Design thinker. Explorer.

in London, organizational leader, UK
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Andrea is a lean start-up trainer, design thinker and marketer who is passionate about personal and professional development. When she’s not running _SocialStarters – helping corporate professionals share their skills with social entrepreneurs – she likes to discover new places to walk, sleep & eat throughout the UK around the world.


This nomination sailed into my inbox in April 2020:

“Andrea has worked as a social entrepreneurship advocate for 10 years. In her recent social enterprise, _SocialStarters, she connects social enterprises with professionals to solve business challenges. During COVID times, she also set up grant structures to support social enterprises in need. But more than recognizing her work, I think she just has so many insights into social entrepreneurship and ecosystem building (in the UK, Brazil, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka) that I think people could learn a lot from her!”

Not an opportunity to pass up! Meet Andrea Gamson of _SocialStarters!

“I started out working in media, which was a long held dream. Having studied digital and new media at university, and off the back of growing globalisation at that time in the early 2000s I longed to tell the undiscovered stories of the world. I spent 8 years working for some of the big national newspapers here in the UK as well as internationally in the Cayman Islands as a commercial advertising executive. I was pretty good at it, connecting brands and local businesses with audiences to help their businesses grow – but as I explored the world and travelled myself, I started to question the value and meaning of consumerism which left me questioning if I was making the right type of impact that I wanted to see in the world.

There was this little voice in my head that I ignored for a really long time and it kept asking “How did I end up here?”

I’d actually secretly always wanted to be a humanitarian: journalism felt like the more tangible, amplifiable next best thing – so whilst I worked in the media and it was exciting, selling advertising itself wasn’t the aspiration.

Whilst I did what I could, helping line the pockets of some of the world’s richest media moguls ultimately didn’t sit very comfortably with me.

I wasn’t sure how yet, but I knew that I wanted to make a positive impact in the world; and whilst I did what I could, like running anti-drink and drive campaigns and promoting earth day and sustainable business; helping line the pockets of some of the world’s richest media moguls ultimately didn’t sit very comfortably with me and so to balance that out I started volunteering with a charity that helped prisoners transition ‘through the gate’ and back into society. This was a life changing experience; and so I started countering my career ills with volunteering gains, and in 2013 that led me to Kenya to support young entrepreneurs to help build informal economy micro-enterprises. Whilst there I discovered there was also an informal scene of what we’d call ‘social entrepreneurs’ who were tackling issues in their communities through business, but they needed support to grow their businesses to generate more revenue and thus make a bigger impact. From there, a team of us reached out to a bunch of professionals on career breaks to see if they’d come and join us to share their business skills with these social entrepreneurs, and our first programme pilot of the _SocialStarters Immersion Programme was born.

And here we are, six years later! _SocialStarters is now a social enterprise itself on a mission to support other social enterprises here in the UK and around the world. We’ve operated in five different countries over the last six years supporting 400+ social enterprises and over 350 professionals have joined us to learn more about social entrepreneurship and find more fulfillment in their careers – sharing their skills and supporting the social enterprise movement along the way.”

Here’s how _SocialStarters works: They partner with corporate firms to run their skills-based volunteer programmes providing mentors to social entrepreneurs in the UK, and they reinvest the profits to help grow social enterprises around the world. In 2018-2019 their focus was on female social entrepreneurs from favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and supporting rural aspiring social entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka. 

100,000 social enterprises in the UK generate £60Billion for the UK economy so it’s certainly not a sector you can ignore.

They also run their flagship career transition programme called the Immersion Programme which does two things – helping plug skills gaps in social enterprises by bringing in affordable highly skilled business talent to help with much needed consultancy projects; and for the Consultants, who are marketing, finance and operations professionals on career breaks, they get to join a learning programme that aims to help them transition their careers into one with purpose and impact. The Consultants participate in social entrepreneurship learning and development and get coaching support to help them navigate their new environment. All profits are reinvested back into the organization to serve social entrepreneurs according to their needs whether it be through provision of mentors or bursaries to access these specialist consultants.”

Our friends at Impact Boom talked to Andrea in 2019, listen to the episode here!

Social enterprise support during COVID-19

“Social Enterprise UK published a report in May in which they predicted that – based on the respondents of their survey – fifty percent of social enterprises may not be around by the autumn. To me, that was absolutely terrifying. We claim to have 100,000 social enterprises in the UK generating £60Billion for the UK economy so it’s certainly not a sector you can ignore.

When it came to governmental financial relief due to COVID-19, social enterprises fell through the cracks of support for both small business and charities since many fit neither criteria 100%.

For the social enterprises which aren’t charity nor social enterprise legal structures (here in the UK that is a registered charity with the charity commission, or a C.I.O or C.I.C legal structure) tend to often miss out on funding and grants as a result of being more commercial. Including ourselves. But isn’t that the point of a social enterprise? To be more commercial? I find it baffling. 

So that put the fire in my belly because even though we’re a humble organisation that supports 75 social enterprises at the moment, the lack of government support prompted us to build a collaboration with another partner who also supports around a hundred social enterprises a year. Collaborating with them is really exciting because it means we can build even more capacity and support even more social enterprises both here in the UK and, eventually, further afield.

Along with Expert Impact and their Human Lending Library, which now has branches in 3 cities in the UK (London, Manchester, Birmingham) as well as their first in the US (NYC) we’re now able to offer a one-hour power hour as they call it, with a successful CEO from a leading company (including hair giant himself John Frieda). This gives a nice early stage touch point for a social entrepreneur – and I used this service myself back in 2015. It’s still in its infancy, but the partnership will be launching in the fall, you can find out more here for the time being.”

Think big, start small

The best way to begin if you’re an aspiring change-maker is not to care too much about the scale of your impact right from the start.

“… Because then you can get stuck in the paralysis of overwhelm. We always say ‘It’s okay if you positively affect just one person’s life!’ It doesn’t have to be a monumental shift, it might just be that a person had a good day as a result of a conversation with you whereas otherwise they would have never met you and perhaps the seed of thought for some kind of change may not have been sown. I felt like this when I was volunteering for the Newbridge Foundation (prison charity).

If you scale back how you create your impact, it will make it more achievable and more likely that you’ll go out and make progress, even if it feels like baby steps at times. 

Working with corporates

We apply this same thinking when working with our corporate partners, especially where the number of employees we support in their role of mentor might sound relatively moderate. We work with 15 senior execs over 9 months with one client (Pernod Ricard UK the global alcoholic beverage company), providing mentor training, support and guidance throughout their term as a mentor to a social enterprise whom we match them with. But overall, with the lighter touch engagements and day long troubleshooter events we run, that impact increases to roughly 25% of their UK workforce which is considerably large. 

Only 11% of volunteering days are being utilised within corporate firms.

The possibilities with skill-sharing and the impact that can have on social enterprise development are huge. There are firms who’ve got thousands and thousands of employees. They have access to talent around the world and sadly this isn’t being fully leveraged for good. I heard a quote recently that said only 11% of volunteering days are being utilised within corporate firms. 11 per cent! Think of all that wasted – and paid for – time that has gone to waste. Much needed time for a social entrepreneur.

Ultimately, large organizations are the ones that are able to create systemic change as they are the ones with control over their supply chains.

Since the biggest challenges social enterprises face is access to expertise, time to get everything done and the finances to afford the best talent, our goal is to find a way to work with these firms to redistribute some of that talent voluntarily and thereby collaboratively convene a greater global impact. Ultimately, these large organizations are the ones that are able to create systemic change as they are the ones with control over their supply chains. That’s where I’d like to focus in the next ten years.”

Working with social entrepreneurs: 3 key challenges

“In our experience we found that most social entrepreneurs struggle with three high-level obstacles:

  • Access to specialist expertise (SKILLS)
  • Lack of capital (MONEY)
  • How long it takes to do everything (TIME)

Skills. Social entrepreneurs and their founding team have different skill sets which – ideally – are complementary. But when starting and growing a social enterprise, (co-)founders need to do everything at such an expert level (to do it well), that they often lack critical skills to really make it over that first initial hump. That’s why we believe in bringing in experts with several years of industry experience in marketing, financial modeling, operations, digital etc.

Money. This is a pretty obvious one and not unique to the social entrepreneurs we work with. Getting to the point of proven product-market fit is a capital-intense period and we have few funding vehicles to get social enterprises to that point.

Time. The smaller the founding team, the more responsibility lands on each member’s plate and that can stretch a young startup pretty thin. It can be the difference between life & death of a young enterprise or start-up that you get the expert support required to build your venture and stay sane and functional. That’s what our pro bono mentors and low bono Consultants bring to the table.”

Selfcare

Speaking of running a lean social enterprise and doing all the things, how does Andrea manage her work load and responsibilities?

When it comes to social impact and purpose you give so much of yourself all the time that every now and then, you need to retreat and recover.

“It’s taken me years to get here but I know that when I’ve got a busy week that is gonna be really intense physically or emotionally or mentally, I will tend to take a long weekend immediately afterwards or I’ll plan my annual leave around those busy periods. I admittedly have failed to do it thus far in 2020 given everything going on, but ideally, I’d like for all of us in the team to take at least one week every three months to make sure we recharge.

The truth is, it’s a business. It probably isn’t gonna go anywhere for a week, even though it feels like the world is going to end if you don’t have that meeting at eight a.m. or eight p.m. 

I hope I don’t come across as making taking breaks from the business look super easy, these learnings took a lot of pain and mistakes and discovering what’s needed the hard way. I know many entrepreneurs who feel guilty about spending an afternoon with their children or – for once – putting themselves first, over their business. For most founders the business always comes first because they’ve got the pressure from the investors, their co-founders or other directors. But the truth is, it’s a business. It probably isn’t gonna go anywhere for a week, even though it feels like the world is going to end if you don’t have that meeting at eight a.m. or eight p.m. 

You have to understand that when you’re depleted, you might be present physically, but not mentally or emotionally. You basically show up as a robot, and that’s not doing anyone a favor. We’ve all been on the receiving end of somebody who wasn’t available or they disappeared; we probably think that those people are frustrating and hard to work with but actually, maybe they’ve got their priorities slightly more straight than you.”

I just hope that this crisis has for many instilled the sense of putting you and your family first, and really straightening out your values, because life is short. 

How can we support you in your efforts?

We’re currently recruiting Consultants for our Autumn wave of the Immersion Programme. We look for applicants who have at least 8 years experience in a specialist field in business and you can be based anywhere around the world so long as you can give a minimum of 3 days a week to the process and attend virtual training and coaching sessions during the typical working day on the GMT timezone. Our Consultants typically have a desire to make a positive impact in the world and are in a transitory phase in their life, they’ve probably taken some time out of their career to work on figuring out how to have more of a purpose-driven approach to growing businesses or tackling society’s greatest challenges. And until the end of September we’re running a matching-service for professionals who want to get all the benefits of volunteering with a support framework around them, it’s called The _Assignment and you pledge to do 10 days of pro bono consulting between a period of 2 to 10 weeks and our team will guide you through the journey with career coaching and other benefits.

Alternatively, if none of the above is for you but you want to leverage your employers paid volunteer days for social impact, then that probably needs to run through an employer approved scheme in which case you might like us to help you build the business case for that or put us in touch with them.

Head to socialstarters.org to find out more. 

Andrea Gamson

London, UK.

Capitalist for Good. Design thinker. Explorer.