This is the third in a series of blogs SEUK is working with Westminster University on, through which we explore ways in which social enterprises empower women, and collectively, advance gender equality. 

We want to hear your success stories, in particular, how you navigate the barriers and challenges in advancing gender equality and empowering women. Hopefully, we will inspire as many social enterprises as possible, to strive toward a more equal society. 

I have a particular interest in leadership and in this third blog in the series, I explore how leaders within social enterprises can make a difference and bring about greater gender equality.

When looking through the SE UK directory, I noted that Impact Hub Bradford specifically mentioned Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 and gender equality. Intrigued and wanting to find out more, I sought the views of its Chief Operating Officer, Mandip Sahota.

I’ve always been interested in social justice and global issues,” Mandip says, “spending two decades in the public, private and non-profit sectors before becoming a co-founder of Impact Hub Bradford. In doing this I was motivated to bring my strategic and multilateral experiences to grassroots change and build deeper collaboration across sectors.

“This last point is key for me. In order to tackle inequalities at a local or global level, we need to work together and embrace collective impact.”

Impact Hub Bradford is a locally rooted, globally connected social innovation space based in historic Little Germany district of the West Yorkshire city. Part of the global Impact Hub network, with over 100 Hubs and 17,000 members across the world, its role is to inspire, connect and support changemakers, social entrepreneurs, businesses and start-ups to build solutions that create positive social impact.

In this blog I wanted to focus particularly on Impact Hub Bradford’s commitment to the SDG 5 – gender equality – and what that looks like in practice. For Mandip, gender equality and SDG is foundational to what it does. “That takes deliberate everyday actions… both within our own organisation and how we approach our programmes and services.

“We believe that women, young people and minoritised communities are the most underserved and most promising entrepreneurial voices in the city; and within that, we’re acutely aware of the intersectionality. We have a deep belief that women are a fundamental part of our hometown’s future prosperity.”

Belief is “just one part” of affecting change, she says. “Action and impact are how we understand whether our beliefs are making the desired changes and clearing a path for women in our circles. Alongside myself, our Board is 50% female and our newly recruited Associates network of preferred suppliers is 47% female. Our informal advisory group is 25% female, and in Kersten England and Syima Aslam, we’re supported and guided by two of the most significant women in Bradford’s recent renaissance, responsible for nurturing the city’s civic and cultural conversations. 

Mandip believes gender equity is more than just achieving parity in numbers. She explains, “Our programming is addressing some of the common challenges women social entrepreneurs experience such as access to funding, building networks, storytelling or governance and management. We recently collaborated with another partner to co-design an online leadership programme for women entrepreneurs in STEM as part of our work with British Council’s Developing Inclusive and Creative Economies programme.

“It’s great to see that with our own programming, a majority of applications have been from women; with 81% for our GROW and 44% for our SUSTAIN programmes.

Impact Hub Bradford’s membership – both past and present – is overwhelmingly female at just over 70%. “I love that,” Mandip says. “If we’re going to achieve inclusive growth, we need to include and promote the voices of women entrepreneurs. 

“We’ve seen some wonderful examples of socially impactful enterprises emerge from our members – from Catherine Simes’ digital Bradford Street Market, to Fozia’s Naseem’s Hop On cycling club, and from Madiha Ansari’s Cultural Ecology Project to Asma Elbadawi’s Words & Lenses. Each of these ventures has sought to either create a platform and opportunities for others to thrive, to up-skill others or to overcome structural and cultural barriers in society. 

“Collisions, co-learning and connectedness are wired into how we do things. Essentially, this is about intentionally nurturing the conditions for serendipitous collaborations, peer-led learning and a sense of connectedness amongst our members. This is underpinned by research showing that women entrepreneurs are more collaborative, scale deep and support other women and young people around them.

Asked how she sees their role at Impact Hub Bradford, Mandip replies that it’s about “holding the space not only for the women of our present and future, but as custodians of the stories of women who’ve shaped our city”.

With my particular interest in leadership, how does she see the role of the leader of an organisation in empowering women and contributing to gender equality?

“Leaders at any level in an organisation can have a transformative impact,” Mandip says. “I love that each of the UK’s Impact Hubs have female co-founders. It challenges the stereotypes that entrepreneurs are predominantly male- or tech-focused. As the saying goes, ‘If you can’t see me, you can’t be me’.

“In order to encourage more young people to consider social enterprise as a career path, we need to see more women in these roles; and beyond any single leader, you need persistent and consistent leadership. By that, I mean the call for equity has to become a part of the fabric of an organisation, outlasting any single leader.”

Is leadership within a social enterprise different to leading an organisation in the profit or charity sector?

Mandip says, “In my observations of leadership across many scenarios and across all of these sectors, at its heart human qualities and behaviours are universal and therefore work well whether you’re running a social enterprise, for profit or charity. The principles of authenticity and generous leadership, however, are perhaps ones to aspire to when undertaking work driven by social impact.”

When asked what makes for a great leader, Mandip identifies trust as a hallmark. “Great leaders trust themselves, which takes self-awareness and authenticity. They can inspire trust from others,” she says. “I’ve observed ambassadors skilfully weave together differing opinions into a shared vision and collaboration. And they trust in their peers, colleagues or partners to do their part. When you bring these components together, I’ve seen great things happen.”

At the University of Westminster we are launching a new Social Enterprise MSc this Autumn. I will be leading on a module ‘Leading for Purpose’. Has Mandip any advice for aspiring future leaders in the social enterprise sector?

“I try not to offer too much advice as we’re all on a journey and that’s different for everyone. What I have found is that working in, or leading, purpose-driven organisations can be rewarding, challenging and tiring (all in the same day). At times it can feel like you’re swimming against the tide, especially if you are trying to create change.

“Find people who you can learn from, imagine with or build alliances with… people who share different perspectives… that makes the journey easier and more fun!”