Could you tell us a little bit about your background before you joined Belu?
So I consider myself to be a social entrepreneur, I’ve had a portfolio career – I started my first business at the age of 19 and at 21 I opened a retail franchise in my last year of university. That set off a journey of being entrepreneurial and always working in a space where I was advocating for others to have a sense of agency to have an entrepreneurial spirit and think differently about challenges and opportunities.
I’ve worked in charities and often played that role of pushing the boundaries of what was possible. I then moved into more non exec roles so I joined the board of UnLtd and I was on the board of British Council and always there I gravitated towards conversations about strategy and moving the organisation forward. So in 2011, I actually started an agency called A Very Big Company. What we did there was take the conversation that was swirling around social innovation at the time, and apply it to challenges that large corporates were facing but getting them to think about putting people first using human centered design, thinking about sustainability, thinking about diversity, inclusion, thinking about purpose before it was even a topic of discussion. And I had a great time doing that, working with Marks and Spencer, Virgin Media, Channel Four and we really prided ourselves on having long term relationships, but knowing that at some point, we wanted the work that we were doing to be embedded because that for us was impact.
Then just over two years ago I moved to join the Royal Foundation as their Director of Insight and Innovation. What drew me to that role was to build on what I had done at the Very Good Company and that the opportunity was there to do that on a global scale across mental health and so many other areas, including the environment. And then I joined Belu in March of this year. And the excitement for me was going back to the thing that I wanted when I was 15, which was to be a CEO and even at a Very Good Company, I didn’t call myself CEO I was always a founder and I wanted to feel like a CEO. I’m a retail girl, I love products but I only care about doing good, so I get to tick all of those boxes!
So what was it that attracted you to Belu in particular were you looking to move to work at a social enterprises or was there something particular about Belu that made you think I really want to work for this organisation?
It’s specifically Belu I think because there are lots of social enterprises but not all of them appeal in the same way. We forget how important water is to us, it’s a life essential – if you do not drink water you will die. That’s it. And so to be having a product that is a life essential where there’s a clear, direct relationship to doing good in exactly the same space, because we give 100% of our profits to WaterAid – that I totally buy into.
I remember when Belu was starting. I remember Reed Paget (founder of Belu) walking into rooms talking about this this bottled water company that he was starting, being out and about with friends I’d see it on the table. So it feels like a really great mix of a consumer brand that isn’t directly sold to consumers but really is about doing good. It’s the perfect business model to show what a social enterprise is.
So you joined at the start of March and obviously that was just when things were all taking off with with COVID. And I think I don’t think any of us really thought the impact would be so so deep and so profound just even a week before we went into this lockdown situation. Could you tell us a bit about how it felt to be a new CEO at that time and also a little bit about Belu’s response?
So I joined on 2nd March, we went into lockdown, pretty much, three weeks after that. And what I would say is the gift of being new is you don’t know what you don’t know. So I didn’t know how good it was before. So all I’ve ever known is walking into a business where you’re immediately doing crisis planning, where you’re immediately looking at where the business is exposed. So us being exposed to the primary industry we sell to (hospitality) shutting down almost just like that. Walking into a business where I’d only ever met most of my team once in person. I only really know them as sort of 2D figures on the on the screen. But all of the opportunity that that provides is you work in a different way, you engage with people in a different way, you spend more time checking in.
We came up with a sort of mantra, which was, we now have the gift of time, because my first week everyone was saying how busy they were and no one had time to do anything other than business as usual. And so part of the plan and crisis plan, from April onwards was let’s use this gift of time to look strategically at this business and create a vision for Belu 2030 that ensures we are still here and we’re still sustainable and we’re still giving back and we are making an even bigger positive impact on the world than we were before.
And now we’re coming out of that back into business as usual. So it’s how do we now implement the thinking and turn it into a credible long term plan?
Could you tell us a bit more about those long term plans for Belu’s future if you can – how do you take a very successful social enterprise, get it through COVID and then look at new ways to keep on succeeding?
So we’re looking at new product development. We essentially have two products mineral water and filtration systems. And we sell to one industry, hospitality and also workplaces, but that had only just started. The plan now is, what are the other things that we can sell into not just the hospitality industry but other aligned industries that feel right for us as a business? How do we scale filtration as a business, where’s the opportunity there? Not just within hospitality, and not even just within the UK – what’s the international market for what it is that we do and the message that we have?
We went totally blue sky, we looked at completely different product verticals. So we now have a long list of things that we can explore that deliver the business mission.
The other thing is, it’s not just about the product, it’s also thinking about the way we partner. So we’ve gone back and we have re-established our partnership with WaterAid to expand it from looking at a very specific community in Malawi, to looking at the outcomes and what’s the difference that is made because people have access to water wherever they may be in the world. What is the relationship between water and the climate crisis? And what’s our impact when it comes to oceans and rivers and lakes where, you know, a lot of the plastics movement, or anti plastic movement, the single use plastic movement, a lot of it started because of a Blue Planet. And so how do we engage in that conversation knowing that we don’t produce single use plastic – our bottles are 100%, recycled material and 100% recyclable. So we’ve been working with WaterAid on redefining that.
It’s really getting out there and thinking about our impact in a much broader way, which also feels like a core part of the business too. So there’s lots to come, and I can’t share too much now!
As a small business, you’re making such a big impact in getting access to clean water. What role do you think businesses need to play generally if we’re to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals? And do you think we need like a fundamental rethink in how we do business if we’re to kind of deal with the climate crisis, deal with inequality and achieve these goals?
I would rip up the rulebook on what capitalism is. I often call myself a full fat capitalist, I believe in money. I do not believe in greed. I believe money is an energy and a driver to make things happen to shift systems. The problem comes with money when people get greedy. I would totally rip up the rulebook on business and this is what appeals to me about Belu. We make money and we give it away and we’re still here and we’re still employing people. Yes, I see the challenges of doing it at scale but you’ve got corporates from your Unilever’s to your Danone’s all pivoting saying we are about making the world a happier, healthier place knowing that actually when you look through supply chains, it’s very difficult to do that. Knowing that when you’re not always producing goods that people need, because it’s about making money and shareholder value that some things won’t be as you proposed they are on the fluffy surface.
And so I think the look in the mirror large businesses need to have for themselves is – can you really be an organisation that’s geared up to deliver shareholder value, i.e. make people more money and inherently do good end to end or at some point do businesses need to relook at their structures, how they are funded, and what they do with their money so that they can get a better balance between what they say they’re doing and what they are actually doing? Because the people that are driving the decision making have a totally different framework for making decisions. And that’s what I have at Belu, We make decisions and yes, we want to make money, but we’re not going to make money at the expense of the environment, we’re not going to make money at the expense of our people and the team. We’re not going to make money if it’s going to do harm. And I can make that decision because of the framework of the business. And to me, it’s not about having an asset lock in our articles. The intent of our business is to work in this way. And so if you want to join this party, you have to believe those things.
That’s really good to hear from radicalism, well it’s not really radical is it – it’s common sense.
It is! I was an early adopter of the social enterprise movement because of my role at UnLtd and what I did before. And you know, when you think about Roundtree or the Quakers or Cadbury – the idea that a business existed and gave back to society was ingrained. The two went hand in hand if you had a factory here, you built the houses around the factory, yes, there were other issues, but ultimately, you couldn’t operate and not contribute to a community. I don’t understand how a business can operate and not know who the neighbors around them are, not engage with the local school, not put anything back immediately into the vicinity that they are in. It is madness, to me absolute madness!
Could you tells us a bit about how you navigate that terrain of you being a water company, which makes bottled water which has sustainability at the heart of everything that you do.
So the first thing to say and it goes back to your question about business – people drink bottled water, and even with tap water or access to tap water, people still drink bottled water. And so is it not better to have a bottled water that’s sourced in the UK, where the bottles if they’re plastic are 100 recycled and recyclable, if they’re glass are lightweight in UK as opposed to being flown in from somewhere else in the world, where 100% of profits are given to WaterAid to enable other people to have clean access, that is a much better option.
I will say if Evian disappeared tomorrow, if San Pellegrino disappeared tomorrow and Smartwater disappeared tomorrow and we said, right, everyone must only drink tap water, there’d be no place for us in the market. That’s not going to happen.
And so we have I see a duty to show there’s another way to do business in what I call the life essentials market and there are so many other products that can be applied to it. You know, I think we’re seeing it with women’s feminine care. Why have companies been making billions off something that is life essential for a woman? Surely there’s a more ethical way to do that. Babies nappies, yes, you can make your own, but the convenience of life and you know, juggling kids, if you’re a working parent is that you don’t have time to wash nappies and reuse them. So is there not a more ethical, sustainable way to do it? So I think people should be out there challenging the consumerism on those life essentials to make some things that give back.
Then to the environment, first bit. It really is a principle of us keeping our carbon footprint low. So we didn’t go into aluminum cans because actually the carbon footprint of an aluminum can is higher than that of our recycled bottles. Aluminum is not made here, it’s flown in. So everyone that’s sitting around being like “I’m so good with my can” – no that materials flown in and to recycle it, assuming you put it somewhere that can be recycled it has to be flown back out of the country.
If we were purely commercially focused, we would have flipped to cans because that was the in thing. But actually, when you get the data on the environmental credibility, you realize that the lowest carbon option is to force the industry to use 100% recycled plastic and then make sure that it’s 100% recyclable and every bit of the bottle should be recyclable, not just some of the bottle – that for me is the better systems change. A bit like you know, getting your shareholders to think differently. That’s the better system change than moving completely to a new material because it’s not the old one, because you don’t know if the new ones any good. Like biofuels when everyone’s like, biofuels, new thing. And then when the research was done…
Are there any particular individuals or organisations that you want to give a shout out to that have helped you on your journey to get where you are now or inspired you? Or any other social enterprises that you want to do a shout out to?
So always UnLtd. And that’s because when I was a whipper snapper, I got my first bit of funding to run my first social enterprise when I would have been in my early 20s, and then I joined one of their youth boards and from their youth board, I joined the main organisation board. And so as a business, it was an organisation that was always ahead of its time in terms of bringing the people that it worked with and was there to serve into decision making, into leadership and I had a wonderful 10 years around that table. And in terms of the businesses – I like everyone else, I love Toast Ale and I love Change Please and I love Rubies in the Rubble because they’ve taken something that people want – “I want a beer, I want a really good ketchup and I want to drink coffee.” So I’m gonna drink those things. Then why should I not be able to drink the most ethical, sustainable social, environmentally aware most earth friendly version of that thing? They’re not nice to have it for me in terms of the way they do things. So they’re my shout outs!