At 17-years-old, Jemma Phibbs and her co-founder, James Lloyd, were driven to help their school to improve its reputation and financial position. From this small acorn of a project, School Space has grown into a mighty oak, now employing 80 people - a feat that Jemma says is her biggest joy. With international ambitions for their social enterprise that benefits schools and communities, we caught up with Jemma about their journey and future plans.
What led to you founding School Space and what was your journey before that?
“We started the company when we were 17, so we were at school. Myself and my co-founder were on the leadership head girl and boy team and our school went into special measures, which was quite a shock to the system. It gave the school a bad reputation in the local community.
“The stories of the school budget cuts were just starting while we were organising a lot of events for the school. We were finding that not only were we bringing people into the school and it was giving the school a good name - because people were seeing all the lovely facilities in a positive light - but it was also allowing the school to make a bit of money.
“We started renting out the school in the evenings and very quickly that became a small business with our school and one down the road, to make the school money and to also rehabilitate its reputation, which is where more of the social side came in.
“Then for three years while I was at university and my co-founder had their jobs, we ran the business. We grew it to a small turnover but it was more of a project at that stage. Then four years ago we decided to make the leap that some entrepreneurs make right at the start, which is to make it my full-time job.”
How did you decide that a social enterprise was the best legal form when establishing your business?
“We were under 17 so we had to form a company limited by guarantee. There's quite a lot of grass roots social enterprises in Oxford, which is where we started, so we learnt about it and decided to put in a social mission log. This meant that we could still raise private investment, which is important for us to develop the technology side of the business, but we could also maintain our social mission.
“We chose to do that with the guidance of Unltd. They help social enterprises and we went on one of their training programmes.
“The tool ‘Purposely’ was set up by Unltd and supported by the government's digital strategy and it allows social entrepreneurs to look through all the different options for legal structures. I think if I was to do it again I would use that tool to work out how we were going to measure our social purpose.”
Are there any other resources that you would recommend to anyone thinking about starting a social enterprise?
“The Oxford Social Enterprise Partnership (OSEP) and Unltd, who do a lot of free courses for social entrepreneurs and have accelerator programmes and grants that you can apply for.
“Also, the Impact Hub, coworking spaces for social businesses - there’s three of them in London - even if you don’t want to pay for a desk they have an affiliate membership that allows you to attend all of their events, including investment readiness workshops, and where you can learn about failure and hear stories, which I think is really important.”
Personally, what have been the highs and lows of your journey as a social enterprise?
“I think the highs for me personally are being able to lead a team. Being able to provide jobs for local people, and knowing that they use that money to invest in their kids or to invest in their own lives and they love their work, is definitely the highlight for me.
“I get so over-emotional sometimes. We have a community messaging portal and sometimes our team members will post things like ‘I love working for School Space’ and that kind of thing always sets me off because that’s what I’m most proud of. I never thought that by the time I was 25 we’d have a team of 80, all of whom have jobs because of the work we’ve done - I’m really proud of that.
“Lows are probably also the team. When you feel like you can’t support someone to be the best in their role and it doesn’t work out for whatever reason. Or also interpersonal relationships which are such a bedrock of business; whether it’s with your co-founder or stakeholders, when it goes wrong it’s very personal as a founder. I think as a social entrepreneur particularly, if we’re not providing the best service to our schools, that’s really hard. It’s all about people for me.”
How are you measuring your impact?
“I’m a big believer in doing it the simplest way first, so we measure money that goes back to schools, which at the moment is totalling just over £250,000.
“The second is the number of community users that come through our doors, which is currently 70,000 to 80,000 a month.
“At the moment we are looking at the next layer of impact, measuring how schools improve before and after working with us, whether it’s their reputation in the local community, customer satisfaction, or the amount of their time that has been relieved by our work.”
Where do you see yourself as a social entrepreneur and School Space in the next five years?
“For me, it’s about furthering our social aims, trying to make money for schools - I want to make at least £10m for the education sector. I want to revolutionise the way that schools engage with their local community and being able to do that on a national and even international level, is something that I’m really going to be driving the business towards achieving over the next five years.
“I also think that it’s really important that the business becomes sustainable without me at that time; I would really like to build the business into a highly sustainable organisation with an amazing leadership that I can see surviving into the future without me needing to be there to guide it. And I think that’s a really important aim to have, because until we do that we’re basically going to be dependent on me and it needs to become bigger than me and my co-founder.”
Do you have goals to spread it across the country?
“Yeah, we started the business in Oxford and whilst urban schools can make a lot more money with what we do, rural schools can sometimes need it more. I’d like to try to get to a level of scale that benefits all schools.
“Part of the reason we raise investment for our technology is so that we become slightly more lean, improve our margins and extend our impact to further schools, which now wouldn’t be profitable for us or sustainable, so it’s definitely part of our aims to become nationwide and international.
“I think there are other countries that could benefit from this that are going to go through the same school cuts that we’ve had here. But for us, it’s about making sure we do that in the right way and we reach out to schools when we know that we can offer them something sustainable, so particularly investing in the technology is a key focus for us in order to do that.”
When people book the rooms, what are the most popular events that are held in them?
“It’s an interesting one because people think “events” like weddings or meetings but it’s not - it’s local community groups, 90% regular classes, people that come week-in-week-out to use the facilities.
“Often they’re sporting, we get a lot of crazy sports – we’ve got a Quidditch group using one of our facilities, pogo-ing, Swedish fit, basketball – so you really get to learn some niche sports doing this job.
“But then we also have a lot of supplementary education. We have language schools, drama groups, a lot of kids’ education, summer camps, activity camps, coding class, that kind of thing. And we also have lots of religious groups. So it’s actually quite a diverse network of hyper-local community markets, not what people often think of when they think of events; it’s space hire.”
It’s such an interesting and inspiring business. Is there anything you’d like to say to anyone thinking about becoming a social entrepreneur?
“Ask for advice, ask for help. I think if I hadn’t spent most of the first five or six years doing nothing but asking for help I would never have gotten to where I am now. I’ve never met an entrepreneur that isn’t willing to give their time to speak to people who are where they were two or five years ago, even three months ago, because that’s how fast things move.
“And I think you need a support network because you don’t have them within your own company in the way that you do anywhere else and you should get that from other entrepreneurs. I’m very lucky to have a lot of friends that are other entrepreneurs that I’ve met through programmes.”
And having James there as your co-founder, how does that help? Do you support each other?
“It’s a lot less lonely but I think we have a desire to impress each other and improve, so you can’t offload in the same way you would a friend. So it’s really important to have a network around you because they are your peers, and you don’t have any others in your company. So for me, it’s as basic as asking for advice and support because if you don’t take care of yourself first, you can’t benefit the organisation in the way that you need to.”
What did your inclusion in the Social Entrepreneur Index mean to you?
“I think it’s really great to be amongst such good company. There are some really great entrepreneurs that I recognised and I was happy to be included with them. I also think that as an entrepreneur you never stop and take stock of your achievements; people always say to me celebrate the moment because it’s so difficult to look back and think ‘we did that and that was great’. So, things like this are really important to the entrepreneur community to give that accolade and that time to allow for success. It’s very rare that entrepreneurs get that opportunity, so thank you.”
Jemma’s personal experience, business growth and drive to move forward have seen her recognised as one of the 2019 UK Social Entrepreneur Index’s ‘Ten of the Best’. To find out more about the Index and see the others recognised, head over to the website. Keep an eye out for even more in-depth interviews with some of our other social entrepreneurs.
Announced earlier this year, the UK Social Entrepreneur Index is a celebration of entrepreneurs running businesses with social purposes. Out of the 29 entrepreneurs who made it into the Index, we’ve highlighted our ‘Ten of the Best’ and are bringing you a more in-depth look at some of their business journeys and lives as social entrepreneurs.
The UK Social Entrepreneur Index is a celebration of social entrepreneurship across the UK.
Open to social entrepreneurs tackling a social or environmental issue at any scale, entrants will act as beacons of inspiration for others to encompass positive social impact.
For more info visit www.socialentsindex.co.uk.
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