GlobalNet21: Recreating Our Futures Message Board › Meetings, Interviews, Articles & Social Action Reports › “Social enterprise is a state of mind”: David Barker, founder of White Box D
What do you do to fight for justice and equality? “Most of us can read the writing on the wall; we just assume it’s addressed to someone else”, said American writer Ivern Ball. But some act differently. Among them is David Barker, a social entrepreneur and a co-founder of White Box Digital, an IT company that helps small charities.
By: Ingrid Ots, 21st C/N Reporter
A Mancuanian who sold his house to do research on poverty, he now manages a growing business that has a commitment to positive change in its core agenda. Founded in 2005, White Box Digital serves a mixture of private corporations and small charities developing their websites and marketing. It also undertakes a number of social projects such as creating 14 work places for “unemployable” this year.
With social enterprises currently contributing over £27bn to the UK economy, David talks about how business can be done in another, more responsible way.
David, where does your dedication to social causes come from?
I came from poverty myself. At 16 I had to leave school feeling like I was predestined to nothing. I knocked on the doors asking for a job and it was a small local business that gave me a chance and helped me and my family to rise out of hardship.
My school friends were less fortunate. After leaving education, they didn’t have anything to build their productive life on, they couldn’t get any employment. I found out after many years that one of them became addicted to heroin, another serves a sentence for murder and another one committed suicide. I’ve read the findings of the research done in the North of England that one in seven 16-24 year old “NEETs” - those not in education, employment or training – died within ten years of falling out of the system. We were all good kids and it’s getting employed that saved me from similar path.
How did your experience of working in private sector strengthen your belief that businesses should be more accountable to the society?
In 1994 I co-founded one of the first Internet companies in the UK. We worked with Microsoft and other business corporations and part of my job was to go around the world and sell their products. I went to Middle East, Europe and Africa and I saw that globalisation leads to more poverty, more financial divide between people. Every time I came back I saw more people on a street, more social unrest.
My objective became to end global poverty but I didn’t know whether I should work for the government or something like Oxfam. I came to the conclusion that at first I have to think how to eliminate homelessness, which is the worst type of poverty, in London. I thought, what right do we have to preach to developing countries if we can’t end poverty on our doorstep?
You did a year-long research on poverty in the UK. Where did you start it?
I went to Shelter and spent nine months volunteering there. After a while I got the trust of some of the homeless I worked with and they started opening up to me. Very soon I’ve discovered that every one of them had a critical point in their life from when their lives went downwards and when social services had failed to save them.
For example, one of the men I met was sexually abused in his childhood. He had had a stable life, family and work but when he reached his mid-thirties suddenly the memories triggered in him and he gradually lost control over his life. Another guy was an ex-offender who found that there were no opportunities for him after he came back from prison. With a basic training given to him after his release he applied for more and more jobs but everybody kept turning him down until he finally despaired and re-offended.
I then sought out 5 other charities such as Survivors UK who work with victims of sex abuse and Start Up for ex-offenders and did further 3 months volunteering with them. I saw that they were incredibly good in what they were doing. They had a small staff of 3-15 employees and understood the communities they were closely linked to. But operationally they were inefficient, mainly to do with multiple issues with their underdeveloped IT. I found, for instance, that all of the sensitive data on sex abuse sufferers was stored on one laptop! They also needed urgent improvements in their marketing and advertising, website design and working on increasing traffic to their online resources.
I’ve found where my expertise could come handy but after all the research and a break from work I ran out of money. I’ve already sold my house to raise £100,000 in order to support my volunteering. Debt collectors were ringing me, I was one week from ending up on the street myself. Then I had a eureka moment to go back to the commercial IT sector again, where I worked for 17-18 hours a day for two years. The money I earned through that became start-up capital for our company.
This is how White Box Digital started taking shape…?
That’s right. We launched it in 2005. Our first clients were Survivors UK. We redesigned their website and improved their visibility to search engines and within weeks they had five times more traffic.The proposition of White Box Digital is to become an IT department for all small charities that will increase their ability to reach out to more people. Small charities can outsource their IT to our company reducing their energy demand.
But it doesn’t stop here. Our core principles are similar to those formulated for sustainable businesses by Caux Round Table in Switzerland. We use our business to create jobs and apprenticeships for people who otherwise will be left out. We recruit people from different backgrounds linking people to jobs according to their aspirations, skills and qualifications. We want our business to grow horizontally, through a network of small offices around the country, not exclusive to people based around Canary Wharf. This February we are opening our office in Newcastle, employing 35 young people. By September 2010 we are planning to open our departments in Manchester, Oxford, Leeds and Birmingham.
Where do you think the funding for social enterprise projects should come from?
Social enterprises should fully sustain themselves delivering the best services and products while the government should support social programmes. We are better equipped to give training than middleman agencies. There are 2.4 million small businesses in the UK and 2.2 million unemployed, so why not to match them together?
What are the obstacles that you face promoting responsible business?
Unfortunately, the ideology in most of the business circles is still about making profit. Executives don’t believe that social business can work. The best we can do is to prove them wrong with our own example of success.
We want to show that social enterprise is business as it should be. We are also setting up White Box Digital Education with an aim to promote responsible business in universities and schools. You have to understand that social enterprise is a state of mind.
Firstly David, let me congratulate you on your success and wish you more for the future ahead.
I totally agree with your concluding statement, it is a 'state of mind' for an entreprenuer and buisnessman are similar companions on the surface but differ that the former puts innovation uppermost before profit, creativity is what drives their wealth creation and their desire to '...reform or revolutionize the pattern of production..' as stated by economist Joseph Schumpeter.
Creative knowledge is what sets the entrepreneur apart, now merge that with a passion to change the world and you get the emerging trend of Social Entrepreneurism - those on a mission to change the ills of the world', not waiting on govenrmental directives to move but moving instinctively, spotting or even MAKING opportunites in the market place,networking with like minds and bridging the gaps for those less fortunate to cross over to their wealthy place.
At a recent Social Enterpise seminar, I heard a keynote speaker announce that this arena is now being taken on board at westminster as a model that should be embraced and partnered alongside. I for one, truly hope that this transpires, for waiting for another to make your difference not only makes the poor languish in their poverty longer but most importantly eliminates the mental drive and momentum they so desperately need from seeing another change things through action, thus mobilising them into action also.
Social Enterprise is not just a buisness model of the modern time, it speaks to and of the season of our times. We are in the era of inventions i.e blackberry,windows 7, ipod etc but yet people renounce these to just a 'gadget' not knowing they are holding creation on their hand. Getting homelessness tackled through IT is bold and showcases how far a thought can transcend!.
Social Enterprise is bigger than we think!
Well done David!