CEO of pioneering social enterprise the London Early Year’s Foundations, June O’Sullivan celebrates Social Saturday 2017:
In 2009, we launched the London Early Years Foundation with the intention to build it into the largest childcare social enterprise in the UK. We have achieved this now 8 years later but not without a lot of fun, bravery, exhaustion and pain! It’s been worth it though, as the intention was to show that it was possible to build great nurseries for small children using a social business model with a strong well researched social pedagogy. The evidence that great nurseries with strong social and cultural capital can make a significant difference for all children but especially those from poor and disadvantaged homes or neighbourhoods was overwhelming and therefore a “no brainer”. I had to find a way of creating a business model that would prove this was possible. This has resulted in a business where we can subsidise up to 40% of our 4500 children, where we are in the top five groups in the country for quality and where we have disproved the expectation that nurseries in poor areas or serving the poor have to be of lower quality; a status quo which has been far too easily accepted. In addition, like any business we create employment for nearly 700 people and train 60 apprentices as well as increase economic activity in those eleven London boroughs where you will find our 37 nurseries.
“…Child development is powerfully shaped by social capital…trust, networks and norms of reciprocity within a child’s family, school, peer groups and larger community have wide ranging effects on the child’s opportunities and choices and hence behaviour and development”
Putnam (2000) pg. 296
Social entrepreneurs are known for their resilience, passion, energy and sheer doggedness in the face of adversity and I can certainly be accused of all of those things and worse! You need all of those traits to keep the business both afloat and growing while negotiating the complexity of the economy, the market and Government policies which often don’t align and in my experience actually clash to make things even more difficult to achieve an outcome which is designed to make things better. However, the prospect of showing that it’s possible to provide small children with the best early education was too powerful a lure not to step into those murky waters. In fact it would be cowardly not to!
Social entrepreneurs start from a recognition that the environment they work in is complex, fluid and fast moving. They embrace that complexity with a determination to be inclusive and compassionate.
Leadbetter (1997) Pg.31
I was heartened therefore last night to attend an event organised by Pioneers Post which celebrated women in social enterprise called the WISE 100. Within the 100 women listed 10 were put under the spotlight and I was very honoured to be one of those women. This is the second time I have been surprised to find I had been nominated as a female social entrepreneur. In 2014 I was voted Social Enterprise Women’s Champion Award. I was so shocked at that event I was lost for words, a situation I rarely find myself! Women leaders in business are still rare, just 20% but its double in social enterprise and that is a good thing because we have to step up and do something to address and shape the expansion of ethical successful businesses. The event sponsored by Nat West was organised to celebrate women who lead social enterprises but also highlighted the importance of social enterprise as a disrupter within the marketplace. Baroness Thornton, the doyenne of social enterprise reflected on the journey from 2005 and progress so far.
My hope is to have a High St of social enterprises and where the word and its meaning enters into common parlance and people will talk more about how they create social benefit through the triple bottom line ( social, economic and environmental).
What I liked about the event was reading about the range of businesses where social enterprises operate, moving way out of service industries into the commercial fields of tourism, food, fashion as well as more known successful brands such as Belu Water and Divine Chocolate. One of LEYF many successes is to run the nursery for the Palace of Westminster. To win that contract we competed with many other big businesses. Originally, our status as a social enterprise was not a factor but our ability to provide the children with the best learning opportunities and care was noted. However, since then the Speaker of the House, John Bercow set a target to become Buy Social contractors, an example which I hope more Government departments will copy.
One of the comments last night made during a lively panel discussion was that collaboration was critical if we are to build social enterprises. It’s a valid point and certainly one to which I subscribe. It has to be part of our legacies and succession plans. I am a member of the board of Social Enterprise UK, voted on by colleagues which makes it a much more meaningful directorship. This is an organisation which has to have collaboration as a central tenet. If we are to develop and lead new ways of doing business we need to articulate them, share them and connect with each other. LEYF success will be when others copy us and want to replicate what we do. Its our next step and we are willing to share a way of making the world a better place for all children but especially those who have had a difficult start.
If you want to know more about us, contact us, visit or website or come and work with us. Remember, social enterprise is a real alternative to the current global economy. We will be having a big conversation about this at our annual Margaret Horn Debate on 13th November. Look out for an invitation.