What's your story?

by Tony Colville
25.09.2012

What's your story?

That will be one of the first questions I will be asking of the social entrepreneurs who make it onto the new and exciting Accelerator programme at the Young Foundation. But why?

I've spent most my young life believing I should keep my backstory hidden, that it's something to be embarrassed about. That I shouldn't talk about my tough upbringing. That funders and clients only want to see a business model showing I can beat competitors on cost, that the only social ventures that achieve scale are those who talk of a gap in the market as their unique and only selling point. Well, the young me was wrong. Now, at the grand old age of 28, I’ve worked with well over 100 entrepreneurs, trained thousands of people in various tools of business modelling and have seen my own business ideas fail, survive and flourish and I now get to work alongside some of the UK's most passionate social entrepreneurs in my day job at the Young Foundation and trustee role at Otesha UK.

As you can imagine, I get several emails a week with entrepreneurs sending me their business ideas looking for help and investment, but often it's lacking the story, missing that vital ingredient that excites me and my colleagues and makes me want to know more. I feel like the story is missing the killer introduction, the character development that hooks me in till at least the middle of the story.

The topic of my blog was inspired by recent events in my own life. A few weeks ago my dad found some newspaper reports from the 1990s that showed a number of stories in the local press profiling our story. They talk about the struggles my dad went through as a single parent of myself and my severely disabled brother, coping in a run down council house in one of south Birmingham's most deprived communities with almost no family to support us. I shared some of these newspaper clippings on twitter wondering what sort of response it would get. The twitter responses reminded me how my story began and how little I talk of it when selling myself, my ideas and my enterprises. At a recent work event, our lovely and inquisitive Head of HR asked if I minded being asked questions about the newspaper stories and my childhood.

For the first time in years I felt that not only was it ok to tell my story, but that it was important to tell my story and how it had led to the many enterprises I have created, supported and worked with and why I now work for the Young Foundation. Telling the story reminded me how I built up my skills, how I honed my passion and why I believe the Accelerator programme is something all entrepreneurs looking to make a bigger impact should check out. For those of you who apply for the Accelerator, I am looking forward to hearing your stories. In the meantime, partly to inspire, partly to sell myself, here’s a snippet of mine.

For over 20 years my dad showed an unrelenting commitment, not only to giving me and my brother the best life chances he could and sometimes couldn't afford, but also in standing up for others that suffered from the injustices we faced everyday in life. My dad’s life didn’t really start until his 40s something I only really appreciate now. Our story centres on the difficulties of being Carers in a society that at the time had very little understanding or appreciation of the value Carers bring. My story centres on being a young Carer with the aspiration to do more and to be more, with the good fortune of having a father who went beyond any sense of duty to make my dreams possible.

I spent much of my childhood seeing and hearing my dad working hard to be a voice for Carers, taking on policy makers who just didn't understand the reality of the hardship we faced. I watched as he helped guide and set up numerous charitable organisations from our cramped living room, which empowered Carers to access better services, to get the respite, benefits and respect they were owed and deserved. I can now say my upbringing inspired my life choices, my career path and my passion for social entrepreneurship. As a young adult, I took all the things I had learnt from my dad and started developing my own social enterprises and getting involved with others and getting into roles that enabled me to empower others to develop their stories. Roll forward to the present day and I have the rewarding role of advising and enabling others on how to start, continue or finish their story, something that is better articulated by our social innovation spiral in our publication: The Open Book of Social Innovation.

I sometimes worry that with all the problems our youth currently face, that many won't get the opportunities I took. However, recent reports such as the newly published RSA report ‘Generation Enterprise – the hope for a brighter economic future’, suggest the current generation of young people will bring a thriving and ever growing generation of confident, innovative entrepreneurs. Perhaps the growing injustice of poverty, unemployment and impact of the growing recession will inspire many more to become entrepreneurs, creating their own path in life as I and many others have. In recent years, the growth of social ventures empowering young people like We Do Ideas, Uprising and Start Again Project to name but a few has given me great hope. As one example among many, Enabling Enterprise, founded by Tom Ravenscroft a young entrepreneur who really knows how to sell his story, is exactly the sort of business I hope to see more of in 10 years time; a young entrepreneur working hard to equip the next generation with the aspirations, skills and confidence to go into business, social or otherwise. His story will no doubt be retold by thousands of young people who in later years will talk of the innovative and engaging enterprise education programmes that inspired them as a young person.

The aspiration to empower others, to change lives on a large scale, that's the story that excites me. That's what I hope to see and hear from the Accelerator participants. I can't wait to work with the entrepreneurs that come through the Accelerator and to hear their stories. Together, we will take those stories and add some new and exciting chapters and perhaps for some, the dream happy ending of seeing a systemic change.

Tony is a Senior Associate in the ventures team at the Young Foundation and supports the team to develop partnerships that support our work. For more information email tony.colville@youngfoundation.org or follow on twitter @tonycolvilleceo

Image: From the Birmingham Evening Mail, November 25th, 1994