So often we receive images of entrepreneurship being presented as hard edge, commercial, with risk-taking ranking highly in the recognised characteristics of a successful entrepreneur. Meanwhile social enterprises are seldom portrayed as anything other than risk-averse, and while social aims take centre stage, reference to economic gains are often put aside as a topic for the annual report. Amidst these two polarised perspectives, how refreshing it has been to witness first-hand how a Northumberland-based UK social enterprise has demonstrated that taking a risk by simply following your intuition, and focusing on the creation of social capital, can lead seamlessly to economic gains for both itself and its customers.
Growing social enterprise Weave has become the product of nothing more than an early hunch that if makers across the North East region who have the technical know-how and skills to create quality textiles, garments and hand-crafted products were connected to equally gifted people in the field of design, then highly sought-after merchandise and samples could potentially be created locally, and sold globally, as a real alternative to the default position of sourcing from Asia.
The hunch belonged to a long-standing colleague and friend of mine, Jane Shaw, a creative and successful entrepreneur who, as a Director of People into Enterprise, has gained a reputation for developing and delivering pioneering programmes that have inspired, encouraged and enabled people to start and grow their own businesses for almost 15 years. In 2014, driven by her own passion for textile design and making, Jane decided to follow her intuition to test if her concept had legs, and with the help of the RSA Catalyst Programme she held a series of networking events that set out to connect makers with young designers. The response was phenomenal. Point proven.
Recognising that South East Northumberland had a rich seam of skilled textile artisans whose skills were at risk at being lost through a lack of local opportunities, Jane teamed up with with Andrew Gooding, Manager of Northumberland-based charity Lynemouth Community Trust, to start the process of stimulating and enabling new collaborations between local makers, designers and artists which, hopefully, in turn would in some way add value to local people and the local economy. The vehicle to drive forward this social aim was to be Weave.
Despite having the fairly sketchy aspiration of networking potential collaborators, the success of Weave has quickly become very tangible and, even in its formative stages, has exceeded the expectations of even its strongest supporters, having created several jobs, developed physical assets that add value to local area, and provided a platform for significant growth for the future. There are now four distinct dimensions to the business model for this up and coming social enterprise:
A ‘Maker Space’, housed within the Lynemouth Community Trust building, provides access to both domestic and industrial sewing machines. This enables products to be created whilst giving the opportunities for the creators to network and share ideas, and also provides a source of commercial income through the hiring out of space and equipment;
A programme of workshops and events enable local crafters the opportunity to pass on their skills, as well as investing in their own professional development including building the know-how needed to run a successful business;
Support for local designers and artists to connect with local artisans who are capable of bringing their design concepts quickly and skilfully to life;
A textile manufacturing business already employing 5 members of staff and, shortly, 2 apprentices that is able to produce high end quality, bespoke garments, products and samples with small runs that previously would have been imported. With commissions already including the manufacture of costumes for global toy retailer Hamleys, Weave is now setting out its plans to extend its reach to companies and designers across the UK, as well as shortly launching its own collection which will be designed and manufactured locally.
Weave, as now a key strand of the Lynemouth Community Trust’s extensive programme of development activities, is breathing life back into a once dying skills-base through stimulating and facilitating meaningful collaborations. Proud to be a member of the Advisory Board to Weave, it is clear to me that as quickly as collaborations have been enabled, the opportunities have been seized and so the social and commercial gains have become tangible for local people, for the community as a whole, and for the South East Northumberland economy. Weave serves as a fantastic demonstration that a focus on developing social capital can lead quickly and seamlessly to economic gains.