The activists in suits

Meet five types of social business driving systemic change in the UK

Jack Graham
May 16, 2019 · 13 min read

Hear the words ‘changing the system’ and you might picture grassroots activists like Emmeline Pankhurst, Rosa Parks or Gandhi. Maybe mass movements like Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion come to mind. Or perhaps you think of leaders in government like Abraham Lincoln or William Beveridge.

You are perhaps less likely to think of business as a vehicle for changing systems and for winning social justice.

Aren’t the reckless bankers who caused the 2008 financial crash ‘business’? Aren’t the tech titans who dodge tax also ‘business’? Well, yes, they are. But, done right, business can change the world.

In 2019, social entrepreneurs are using business to reshape citizens’ relationships with the state, to redress injustices in our economy, and to tackle market failures that leave us poorer as a society. Think of these entrepreneurs as activists in suits.

Using examples from the Year Here fold, I want to share five types of system-changing social venture.


A training session with Kitchenette Karts, the street food company employing ex-offenders

Distance learning wouldn’t be as commonplace as it is if it weren’t for The Open University’s correspondence courses or The Khan Academy’s online education programmes. In the Global South, the idea of microfinance — making small loans to poor people to start their own businesses — was brought to the world by Mohammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank.

Maverick social ventures can show the world whole new business models that make a positive impact and operate sustainably rather than relying on grants. Success is when the model becomes more well known than the business itself.

In the UK today, we are witnessing the explosion of a new model for social good: the social firm. A social firm is a regular company that employs people who are disadvantaged in the labour market. The epicentre of this growth is the food industry. Our own Kitchenette Karts is a great example. On the face of it, they’re a regular street food business — serving delicious Vietnamese food out of their bright pink food truck. But they also train up young ex-offenders to build careers in the food industry.

Co-founder Cynthia Shanmugalingam wrote in A Steak in The Economy that, with its low formal skills requirements and high levels of social mobility, London’s booming food industry can be a great place for people to find their feet in the labour market. But access to networks is one of the big barriers for people trying to break into the industry. So Kitchenette Karts partners with top restaurants like Ottolenghi, Morito and St John to offer training, interview practice, job placements and mentorship.

Jake Slater, Kitchenette Karts’ Director

There are tonnes of others in London — from Change Please, the coffee company staffed by homeless people, to our own Migrateful, that runs cookery classes with refugee chefs sharing their home cuisines, and Fat Macy’s, a catering company and soon-to-be restaurant in Peckham that helps young Londoners in temporary housing save up a deposit for their first rented flat.

Often these social firms have a blended business model, with government contracts or charitable grants paying for their recruitment and training activities. But it’s their regular commercial activity — feeding us delicious Vietnamese grub, serving up flat whites at the tube station, training punters in Syrian cuisine, or catering corporate events — that makes up the bulk of their income.

One of the broader goals of these ventures is that the social firm model becomes mainstream. The more copy cats, the better.

Kitchenette Karts’ Director, Jake Slater says:

“There’s a real sense that things are shifting. More and more of the food businesses that we work with are trying to adopt inclusive recruitment practices. For now, they help us train and employ people outside of the labour market. But soon they’ll be doing it by themselves.”

We’ll know we have a much fairer and more inclusive labour market when we don’t bat an eyelid in learning that a local restaurant exclusively employs disabled people or people with mental health issues.


Feminist brand Birdsong challenges fashion industry ethics, from worker to wearer.

Activist brands sell products and services like any other business. But they do so while taking a political stance and striving to change consumer expectations and behaviour.

A great believer in the potential of business to offer moral leadership was the late Dame Anita Roddick. She founded The Body Shop in 1976 which, alongside selling ethical cosmetics, has a long history of social activism. Its anti-animal testing campaigns led to a UK-wide ban in 2004 and an EU-wide ban in 2013.

Of course, the line is blurry between authentic activism and capitalist co-option of ethical messaging for commercial gain. Nike’s ostensibly feminist advertising is juxtaposed with its failure to pay pregnant female athletes. And The Body Shop was heavily criticised when it sold to L’Oréal in 2006 (although it was sold again, to an ethical cosmetics company, 11 years later).

Birdsong Founders Sarah Neville and Sophie Slater

Born on Year Here in 2014, Birdsong is a feminist fashion brand that invites women to expect more from their wardrobe — both in terms of the ethics of the fashion industry’s supply chain and its complicity in a patriarchal system that objectifies and commodifies women’s bodies.

Birdsong was conceived after its founders saw the therapeutic benefits of sewing, knitting and jewellery-making projects for vulnerable women — while also seeing how swingeing cuts were decimating some women’s groups.

Co-Founder Sophie Slater’s own experience of modelling and working in retail fed in too. She says:

“I did a very brief stint of modelling when I was 15. I was clinically underweight at the time — but I was told by the agents to stay as I was.”

Despite her negative experiences of the fashion industry, Sophie recognises her own privilege as a slim white woman:

“I’m lucky that I get to see people who look vaguely like me represented in the media. Most women in London see up to 3,500 adverts a day featuring women who look nothing like them. That’s not cool.”

Birdsong T-shirt printing at Mohilla, a group of low income migrant mothers based in Tower Hamlets.

Every woman in Birdsong’s supply chain, from Bengali seamstresses to octogenarian knitters, is paid a living wage. Models are streetcast, diverse and never digitally altered. Put simply, Birdsong’s policy is ‘no sweatshops, no photoshop’.

Birdsong has grown 3-fold each year and has sold to customers in over 20 countries to date. In fact, the whole ethical fashion industry is growing. Last year, Lyst, the fashion search engine reported a 47% increase in shoppers looking for ethical clothing. Big brands are following suit with their own sustainable lines (although their ethical credentials have been questioned).

It’s tough to nail down the causal links between changing customer preferences, big brand behaviour and ethical entrepreneurship of the Birdsong kind. But things do seem to be moving in a positive direction.

Sophie writes regularly on fashion industry — from the ethics of Beyonce’s Ivy Park brand to greenwashing — and she does so from a position of legitimacy. She can explain what’s wrong with the fashion industry and, with Birdsong, show how it could work better.

Other ventures in the Year Here portfolio are using business as a vehicle for activism too. Split Banana are trying to drag sex education into the 21st century to include discussions about consent, toxic masculinity and LGBTQ+ identities. And a crew of immigration and refugee-focussed ventures — including Routes, Chatterbox and Pomegranate Workshops — are aiming to change public perceptions of refugees and lift the ban on asylum seekers undertaking paid work.


Students participating in a Career Accelerator session with LinkedIn

Often, systemic social issues are so intractable that it takes an army to move the needle on them. Some social businesses recognise this and cooperate with others to work under a shared collective impact strategy. Collective impact, a term coined by non-profit consulting group FSG, is a simple concept: a group of actors working together towards a common goal using structured collaboration methods, like shared measurement systems.

In the US recession that followed the global financial crisis, Strive Partners, a collaborative of 300 leaders of local organisations in Cincinnati, managed to drive up high school graduation rates — bucking national trends. Rather than focussing on a single point in young people’s educational experience, Strive recognised that ‘cradle to career’ attention was needed to achieve lasting outcomes. All partners worked towards a shared set of goals, used consistent measurement standards, and met regularly to share notes and align efforts. Collective impact strategies like Strive’s run counter to the dominant narrative of a heroic single charity, business or government policy independently solving a problem.

Here in the UK, Year Here startup Career Accelerator is part of a growing wave of social enterprises aiming to tackle educational inequality. Career Accelerator helps 13–15 year old students from diverse backgrounds prepare for careers in the digital sector. Their partners include LinkedIn, Just Eat and the Government Digital Service. Tech is booming in Britain but it has a diversity problem. Of technical roles in the industry, only 19% are filled by women and 1–2% by black people. The problem is, in part, driven by the disproportionately low take up of STEM subjects by minority students.

Clearly, the scale of educational inequality in Britain can’t be accounted for by tech’s diversity problem alone. But it’s part of the picture — and that’s what collective impact strategies recognise.

Others aiming to eradicate educational inequality include The Access Project and The Brilliant Club, who promote university access for bright students from poor backgrounds, and Enabling Enterprise, who lead project-based learning programmes, that prioritise skill development over memorisation and regurgitation of facts, with 100,000 students across the country.

Many of these were birthed or supported by Teach First, the charity that’s aiming to end educational inequality in Britain, most well known for its 2-year leadership programme placing top graduates in schools with disadvantaged intakes. Teach First effectively plays the role of the ‘backbone organisation’ that FSG see as one of the five conditions for effective collective impact.


Appt, a HealthTech startup using behavioural economics to reduce health inequality

Constrained by siloed budgets, a risk averse culture and innovation skills deficits, the public sector is not always the best Petri dish for innovation. In this context, social enterprises working in deep partnership with the state can act as the public sector’s outsourced R&D department.

This isn’t new. The Meals on Wheels model, today funded by local government, was pioneered by the Women’s Volunteer Service during the Blitz. The National Citizen Service, approaching its tenth year of delivery with nearly half a million young Brits participating, was developed and piloted by social integration charity, The Challenge.

In 2016, Year Here Fellow Hector Smethurst was placed at a GP surgery in Bow, one of the most deprived parts of the country with sky-high rates of Type II diabetes, and came face-to-face with health inequality on a daily basis.

As Hector explains:

“If you come from a low-income background you are 60% more likely to develop a long-term condition in your lifetime. It is likely to develop 10–15 years earlier and likely to be more severe. And to magnify this disadvantage, people from a vulnerable or deprived background are less likely to exhibit help-seeking behaviour.”

There is broad consensus that preventative healthcare should be prioritised but that’s not happening on the ground. Hector explains why:

“In a GP surgery, there is this tussle between urgency and importance. Demand for urgent appointments, and the admin burden of dealing with this demand, crowds out the important (but less urgent) work of actually creating demand for appointments that allow people to self-manage, stay healthy and avoid moments of crisis.”

Appt is a HealthTech startup that puts patients at the centre of the booking process for preventative healthcare screening and management — from cervical cancer screening to annual asthma reviews. Appt uses behavioural economics and targeted messaging to create the motivation to book and attend these preventive healthcare appointments. It reduces cost for the GP surgery and helps them reach the most vulnerable patients.

Appt is now working in 42 surgeries across two London boroughs and has just received a £410,000 development grant from Innovate UK. All of this happened in just two years. It is Appt’s status as an independent social business, working in partnership with GP surgeries and care commissioners, that enabled this rapid development. Operating outside the NHS has given Appt the chance to experiment with small scale tests and the freedom to pivot to new operating models, developing a prototype that was six times more effective at booking patients into appointments, at one fifth of the cost.

And by selling to individual surgeries and regional commissioners of public health services, Appt has a route to scale that could fundamentally change the way that we, as patients, interact with our doctor.


Supply Change — co-founded by Aoise Keogan-Nooshabadi, Verena Wimmer and Beth Pilgrim — is trying to get more social enterprises into public supply chains.

Markets, whether public or private, often don’t work in a way that benefits society as a whole. Market fixers are ventures that tackle the obstacles that hold markets back from behaving in a way that benefits all of us.

A great example of such a market failure is the tiny proportion of the £284 billion government procurement market that is served by organisations with a social purpose.

There are amazing social enterprises in Britain that employ disabled people, ex-offenders or other disadvantaged groups and offer cleaning, catering and construction services — exactly the kind of work that government procures. But the vast majority of these contracts go to large suppliers who focus on low cost — and don’t have a social mission at their heart. Social enterprises struggle to win the work they need to grow and have an impact on the ground. Social Enterprise UK found that Community Interest Companies, which represent around 20% of the social enterprise field, won only 0.3% of all public contracts in 2018.

It’s seems like a no brainer. If a local authority can commission its park maintenance services from a social enterprise that trains and employs disadvantaged young people in the area, why wouldn’t they? After all, it is the local authority that would incur the cost if those young people’s life circumstances deteriorated and welfare to work programmes, anti-social behaviour teams and social services had to get involved.

In fact, the public sector is actually obliged by law, through the Social Value Act, to look beyond the price and the detail of the service to be delivered to consider the knock-on social and environmental effects of any commissioning they do.

But it’s not happening. Public sector procurement teams are often risk-averse and have negative perceptions of social enterprises. They are seen as small, inefficient outfits without the capacity to deliver high-quality work at scale. Even if the will to ‘buy social’ is there, awareness of specific social enterprises among procurement professionals is low. And for social enterprises, who are indeed often young organisations, the demands of a complex, opaque procurement process can be overwhelming.

Supply Change is trying to fix this problem. Supply Change is a digital platform that connects social enterprises to public sector procurement contracts. They’re aiming to demystify the often opaque and intimidating procurement processes of public sector bodies while also playing match-maker, helping local authorities see the possibilities of getting the job done and having a social impact.

Supply Change’s CEO, Beth Pilgrim, explains:

“With austerity, public sector buyers have gone for lower-risk options — or what they think are lower-risk options. Too often, this means large single suppliers from the private sector. But we saw with the example of Carillion’s collapse that bigger doesn’t necessarily mean safer. A more diverse supply chain, including local and social enterprises, is actually lower risk. We’ve got to keep educating procurement people about this.”

It’s early days for Supply Change but they’ve already won investment and support from Orbit Housing — itself a big purchaser of outsources services — and Deutsche Bank’s Social Tech accelerator.


Ambitious idealistic people in every generation are moved to change the system they are born into. There are enormous and burning issues facing society today — from unyielding economic inequality to the impending climate emergency — and many people are considering how best to tackle them.

Campaigning and politics are perhaps the obvious career routes for aspiring changemakers — but entrepreneurship is often overlooked.

Of course, it’s not either-or. Community organising, digital campaigning and progressive politics can all be incredibly effective tools for change. We are perhaps best placed to drive real change when the activists in suits work together with their placard-waving, Westminster-dwelling and viral campaign-starting comrades.

Business presents a window of opportunity to make progress where moving things forward at all can feel doubtful.

There are many reasons to be glum about the state of modern society, not least the rise in extreme poverty, the increasingly divisive nature of our politics and the UK government’s failure to meet its own targets for carbon emission reduction. But there are also glimmers of hope.

Perhaps if more people picked up the tools of business to fight injustice — donning their metaphorical suit — we could start reforming a system that is so thoroughly broken.

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Year Here

test + build smart solutions to social problems.

Year Here

Year Here is a platform for professionals to test and build entrepreneurial solutions to inequality in London. This is a collection of writings from our Fellows and Faculty on their experiences with social issues and innovation.

Jack Graham

Written by

Founder of Year Here.

Year Here

Year Here is a platform for professionals to test and build entrepreneurial solutions to inequality in London. This is a collection of writings from our Fellows and Faculty on their experiences with social issues and innovation.