Always wanted to travel with (more) purpose and use your skills to drive social change? Then this young UK startup will certainly be worth a closer look: _SocialStarters offers various social impact programmes for career breakers, freelancers, skilled professionals and even digital nomads in developing countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Brasil or the Philippines. Find out more about their startup story, their programmes and motivations in the interview with one of the co-founders of _SocialStarters.
Interview with Andrea Gamson, Co-founder of _SocialStarters
1. Please tell us a bit about yourself! What do you do at _SocialStarters?
I’m one of the co-founders of _SocialStarters, and our mission is to create the spaces and opportunities to find the social changer in you. We do this by running immersion and inspiration programmes overseas in developing countries that do a couple of things – match you with a local grassroots social entrepreneur (who possibly doesn’t know they’re a social entrepreneur) to help them develop their business and secondly we create a travel experience for you that is very unique and self-reflective.
As we’re still an early stage start-up my role is multi-dimensional but essentially in old school terms i’d be the commercial director – responsible for everything to do with the business side of our social aims, from the finances to the marketing, scaling up and what the future of the business is. I also am the Director of Sri Lanka and deliver the training for our 2016 Immersion programmes there.
2. You launched _SocialStarters in 2014. Was it something you always wanted to do, or how did the idea develop?
I think it is something I always wanted to do but I just didn’t know that it was – does that make sense? When we started to develop the idea, which originally came from Anna, I quickly realised how much sense it made for me to get involved based on her skills and experience and what I could add. It felt very synergetic.
3. What did you guys do before and what motivated you to co-found _SocialStarters together?
Anna’s background was in volunteer programme management, so she went to Kenya with the intention of researching social enterprises who might want volunteers to be provided to support them. I’d just been working as a social enterprise consultant to youth organisations in London, supporting them with business development, marketing and revenue generation. My first career was in advertising working for newspapers and magazines and then I transitioned to a social enterprise youth marketing agency in Brixton, London which then led to me consulting to other youth organisations who were exploring social enterprise as a more sustainable way to create impact over the more traditional funded route.
When Anna asked me to help her work out how to make her idea sustainable, we realised my background complimented hers and so we joined forces. Plus we got on really well and were friends – which I think is the most important thing out of all of it! You’re going to spend a lot of time with your co-founder and you need to love each other. Simply liking each other, possibly isn’t enough. It’s like a marriage.
4. What kind of support (i.e. coaching, co-working space) did you make use of and what helped you to get from the idea stage to actually run your own social business?
We initially created an advisory board of people in our network whom we trusted, and who we thought added value to our leadership line up. We were lucky in that we found Neil Prem and Margaret Smith both highly experienced in both social enterprise and the corporate world at senior management level. Neil coached us initially and helped us work out our mission, vision and values. And Margaret was surmountable in helping us finance our pilot, our first programme in Kenya. We knew if we could then bring some volunteers along with us, people who wanted to also transition into social entrepreneurship, then maybe we might have a viable business model.
5. What kind of people joined _SocialStarters so far? For whom is Social Starters?
Social Starters is for people who are first and foremost, in need of taking some time out and wanting to do something different. They want to travel (with purpose), learn about different cultures, share skills/knowledge with a group of like-minded people and make a tangible difference. They’re curious about social enterprise, possibly know they want to work in the social impact space and want to build their credentials or explore an idea; or on the flip side they simply want to reflect, work on themselves and give back.
6. In which countries are you active?
We’re operational in Sri Lanka, India, Brazil and from June in the Philippines.
7. What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
The future is hard to predict! We will go where people want us to go because we’re a people business. Our mission will remain the same though – its aspiring and existing social changers we’re passionate about. For example, due to demand from people asking us, we’re trying a few new projects for people who don’t have 6 weeks to take out their life later on this year. One is in Rio, the month before the olympics – for people passionate about sport who want to see how sport can change the world (and maybe work on an idea they have bubbling); the second is a coaching programme for corporates who want to find their purpose and have a more meaningful career but don’t know where to start. We’re doing that one in the magical Aurovillian forest in South East India, which is the most beautiful place and will be very conducive to reflection and transformation.
8. What are the main lessons learned from your first year of operation and what advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?
Ah! I think managing people’s expectations in hands down the biggest lesson learned. Don’t tell people something is going to change their lives – the path of transformation and career change is a long old road and everyone’s journey is unique and unpredictable. What we can guarantee is the space to reflect, learn, share skills, travel with purpose and do something truly different – but you get out of it what you put in. I’ve also learned how important it is to shed the old-fashioned corporate way of doing things, to be more relaxed and patient. And that bringing the right people on the journey with you is key – and that finding the right people in the first place is all part of the fun.
9. How can people or organisations get involved or support?
HR & CSR professionals from corporate organisations who are starting to think about how to retain their staff through sabbaticals or ‘headspace’ breaks might like to think about how our programmes could benefit their teams. When you come on our Immersion Programme for example, you learn the tools that mean you can create change within your department back at work, because whether you’re testing a start-up or new project or campaign idea, the methodology is the same. Equally if you’re an individual and you like what we’re doing, are curious about social entrepreneurship or want to make impact in the world either in a small or bigger way then this might be the first place to start.
You can find out more about upcoming programmes such as the Digital Nomad Experience in Hyderabad (India) or a programme focussed on sports and community development in Rio (Brasil) on their website. If you are more interested about the impact, then visit their 2015 impact report. They also run their own blog sharing experiences and introducing their social impact consultants. Contact details can be found in the directory of this website.