We’re delighted to announce that our founding director, Jane Binnion, has been nominated for the Women of Inspiration list: The WISE List 2020, where 100 leading women have been nationally recognised for their contribution to UK social enterprise and impact investing during the COVID-19 pandemic, in partnership with social enterprise publication Pioneers Post and NatWest.
Jane has worked throughout the pandemic, supporting women in business and those who were just starting enterprises when the first UK lockdown occurred. She has prioritised mental and physical wellbeing in the network of women within The Growing Club, formulating a strategy around support and techniques to stay focussed and motivated with peer sessions and one-to-one coaching.
Face-to-face courses were quickly transformed to online experiences and offered wider than the Lancashire venues as previously existed. Weekly virtual drop-in Zoom sessions were used as goal-setting and check-in opportunities.
“I am delighted to have been nominated for the WISE List, and thrilled to see so many women making an impact in social enterprise settings.
“COVID has been the most challenging situations we have found ourselves in, with the follow-on effects being devastating on so many people’s business and working situations, let alone the health impacts.
“The Growing Club CIC made it a priority to support and assist our network of women however we possibly could, and from the early days of the pandemic sweeping across the country, we discovered that women would be the worst hit on a business level. Our ethos has and always will be, that women need a level playing field in business, more than ever in a COVID and post-COVID economy. The UN3said that the lack of equality between men and women was still imbalanced before the pandemic, but when COVID hit, it was “layered on top of existing inequalities”.
“Our work at The Growing Club helps us to strive to correct inequality through providing skills and entrepreneurial training, bespoke for women, so that they can thrive and progress sustainably.”
Tim West, founding editor of social enterprise publication, Pioneers Post, said:
“Social entrepreneurs are by no means the only people who have had to face big pressures and make hard decisions during these unprecedented times – but what stands out in so many of these stories from our WISE network is that while battling to keep their own social enterprises from the jaws of the pandemic, their focus has remained on the mission, and their first thoughts have always been for the people and communities they were set up to serve.
“This year’s WISE Women are clearly showing Covid who’s boss. We’re so pleased that our partners at NatWest Social & Community Capital were keen to highlight these stories through our WISE programme this year, and are overwhelmed by the number of exceptional women who have been nominated.”
My name is Wendy Jones and I run WJ Cleaning Company. My journey started in 2013 when I suddenly and unexpectedly became a single mum. At the time, I was a stay-at-home mum who volunteered in my son’s school. It was a very traumatic time for both myself and my son and the will to survive kicked in. So, I got a job as a teaching assistant and set up an ironing service which meant I could work at home and care for my son.
My ironing customers started asking for cleaning services as they knew my standards were high. As my son got older, I took on more cleaning work. I loved working in school but soon realised I could not progress, so I looked at taking on a staff member to help with the cleaning and the rapidly-increasing number of customers.
I put a note up on Facebook asking who could help me grow and employ staff and up popped Jane Binnion! Before I knew it, I was pitching my business ideas (along with nine other startups) to a group of 10 business people in front of an audience who had paid to watch. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to work with a business coach and marketing coach for six months, which gave me the confidence to leave my ‘proper’ job and run the business full time.
I also undertook the Bloom and Grow programme with Jane and The Growing Club, which gave me the foundations and confidence I needed to grow. Since then, my business has grown, albeit in an up-and-down kind of way, but Jane and The Growing Club have been there when I needed them, whether that is just to let off steam in the drop-in or do one of the many workshops around subjects like social media and marketing etc. I was able to sell my house to buy somewhere larger with my mum so she can help with childcare and I can help her which further strengthened my foundations to concentrate on the business.
At the beginning of this year, we had just started cleaning for a large business in Carnforth, as well as all the residential properties we still did. I had a team of around four people who I could offer regular employment to, alongside a couple of self-employed cleaners who helped out when needed.
Like millions of others, I was then halted in my tracks by the global pandemic. My overwhelming thoughts were with my staff. As a result of the timings I was not able to furlough any of them, which was a disaster. I had one cleaner stranded in Kartoum and another who had to shield.
Residential cleaning was not viable and we could not work from home. Again, all through this, The Growing Club and mentor were there for advice and support, having quickly made all their services available online.
My son has additional needs and was being home-schooled and my mum was in the clinically extremely vulnerable group. Left with no alternative, I paused the business.
However, I had had a taste of what things could be like running a business and managing and training a team, and I am confident I will do it again. Customers are coming back but unfortunately, the large commercial clean has stopped for the foreseeable future.
I have spent time training and getting to understand exactly how this pandemic will change the cleaning industry. I feel passionate about providing good employment and training to a workforce who have largely been seen as ‘unskilled.’ Effective commercial cleaning is going to be a vital part of the economy’s recovery. It has made me all the more determined to provide a high-quality, effective cleaning service alongside great employment opportunities for staff.
The cleaning industry is very supportive of one another and I have formed relationships with wonderful people and businesses across the world. This pandemic has made us all think and prioritise what is important for us and our businesses. The Growing Club is one of those things that I would have been lost without, both before and during this unprecedented time.
I am looking forward to recruiting more staff, training and supporting businesses as they open up to this new world – none of which would have been achievable without The Growing Club and the wonderful people I have met through it. We will shortly become a limited company, ready for growth again. We are very lucky in Lancashire to have this invaluable resource!
“Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020) – in addition to the private investment that this money will attract. It promises more breakthroughs, discoveries and world-firsts by taking great ideas from the lab to the market.”
European Commission, Horizon 2020
The aims of the SIMRA project are to examine social innovations in agriculture, forestry and marginalised rural areas across Europe and the Mediterranean region in particular.
As The Growing Club, we have been supported by Lancaster University, which is a SIMRA partner. Since 2017, Dr Sophie Alkhaled at the Department of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the Management School has been observing and working closely with our co-founder, Jane Binnion as the English case study for SIMRA’s Innovation Actions. Jane has guest-lectured on Sophie’s modules on numerous occasions, inspiring undergraduate students with her experiences and resilience as a social entrepreneur and innovator.
On the 26 September, we took part in a SIMRA – Social Innovation Action – workshop at Lancaster University, led by Dr Sophie Alkhaled, where we were given the opportunity to meet other Social Innovation projects like the Sewing Café Lancaster. We heard from the café’s Kiki Callihan, where she talked passionately about the aims of the project – improving sustainability while encouraging community wellbeing and cohesion through skill-sharing. The workshop was a supportive space to share our work so far with Lancaster City, Lancashire County and Cumbria County, along with the Federation for Small Business, Boost Lancashire – as stakeholders.
Through engaging in partnerships with agencies like the above – along with business networks – we’ve reached policymakers, allowing us to advocate for the voices of the many women within our organisation.
Jane Binnion, founder and director of The Growing Club, said:
“It’s been an absolute honour to be the English case study for SIMRA. I have personally felt incredibly supported by Dr Sophie Alkhaled – she’s been someone I can talk ideas and thoughts through with. Through SIMRA, we’ve been lucky to fund Katie Birks, a Growing Club graduate, to design and build us a fantastic new website has been such a boost to our organisation, reaching a wider audience.
“I recently went to a social innovation think tank in Aberdeen. I was made to feel very welcome there and it felt good to be a part of an international initiative. I had never thought of The Growing Club as a social innovation prior to this, but knowing that we are being placed in that category, feels as though we are achieving our goals on a bigger level.”
The project is centred around homemade food, which has been turned into a business opportunity for local women from the village of Deir el Ahmar.
Through selling items like jam, pickles, dried fruits and delicacies, the women are supported financially with a sustainable business model which impacts community cohesion and partnership. It also serves to enhance the confidence and skills of the women, which helps with wellbeing and economic independence for them and their families.
This is a really powerful example of a how investing in women brings a good business return on many levels and links well to a quote spoken on International Women’s Day in 2003, by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan:
“When women thrive, all of society benefits, and succeeding generations are given a better start in life.”
Kofi Annan, 2003
We have retained that quote within The Growing Club as a strong principle in our messaging.
How we help female-led businesses
The Growing Club’s work comes under SIMRA’s ‘marginalised rural areas’ section, with our social enterprise’s mission to support women in business – particularly women who are side-lined from success by a variety of reasons, including through disabilities, lack of funding, in receipt of benefits or low pay and also, not having the correct support infrastructure to have a sustainable business.
Through the delivery of our unique training programme, which was created to address the gaps in small business training and education for women, our peer-support network of other women business owners has been transformative.
We’ve been running successfully as a not-for-profit organisation for three years, with over 80 women from across the north-west of England joining our business training course, Bloom and Grow, where women learn the business skills required to build their business to a sustainable level.
But we’re not just interested in women who are already running their own businesses. Our organisation is rapidly making a difference to other groups of Lancashire women.
Our pre-start-up programme is called The Sowing Club, where we help women who are deemed to be socially disadvantaged. Our course initially ran across Lancaster and Morecambe, inspiring 40 women who were in receipt of benefits or in low-paid work, to re-engage with their skills and dreams to create a better life for themselves and their children. The women had incredibly varied backgrounds, all ages from the mid-20s to early 60s, with women taking part who had disabilities, women refugees and women who have escaped domestic violence. A new cohort of this programme is currently running, funded by the European Social Fund.
Roots and Shoots is our start-up course, which follows on from The Sowing Club, where women will be ready to start their own business. This course is a 12-month funded programme, focussing on how to start and grow a business that is sustainable.
Our organisation has worked with nearly 300 women so far.
Women’s economic empowerment
In 2013, the MP for Basingstoke, Maria Miller, wrote:
“To secure the recovery, we need to do more to maximise our competitiveness and harness female talent, both for the benefit of the UK economy and for the financial security of women and their families.”
Maria Miller MP, 2013
Similar findings were identified in a 2016 Deloitte report, which showed that an increase in the rate of female-led new business to 10% would contribute £180bn to the UK economy by 2025.
A March 2019, a parliamentary briefing looking at women in business and their participation in the UK labour market found that 19% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK with employees were led by women in 2017.
It also showed that women were less likely than men to be involved in entrepreneurial activity, which includes owning or running a business less than 3.5 years old.
Encouragingly, figures from June 2018 showed that 29% of directors of FTSE100 companies were women. In the FTSE250 (the next largest 250 listed companies outside the FTSE100), 24% of directors were women.
This is great progress, but we must not forget socially disadvantaged women who also have so much to offer.
How do we help female-led businesses?
We support women in business and women who want to start a business, bridging the gaps in business education and supporting those women who have been left behind.
We use a peer-based support model, using mentors and role models, which is where so many women feel isolated in business due to the lack of support in this way. Our training programmes help women to grow in confidence whilst reconnecting with their existing skills and goals.
An example of how we supported women to reclaim their personal worth is through a recent course that we facilitated at The Growing Club. Sunflowers was a training programme especially for women aged 50+ who are unemployed, unwaged or facing redundancy. Redundancy is a huge challenge in this age bracket for women, due to a variety of barriers they come up against securing further employment.
One of the biggest blocks for us currently, is the Universal Credit system. We work closely with local Jobcentres, however, Universal Credit is still so new and grave mistakes are being made that impact women, including some not being referred to the New Enterprise Allowance scheme, when they are absolutely entitled to be. Helping women with no capital to start businesses is hard enough and this has had the biggest impact on the morale of our course attendees and additionally, on our outcomes.
A crucial aspect for women in business that is often forgotten about is wellbeing. We’ve just launched a new project called Healthy Biz, Healthy You, funded by Sport England. The course focuses on the health and wellbeing of women in business, which is a downfall for so many women.
We researched some of the reasons why women in business neglect their self-care. Responses were varied, but sobering, from women stating they feared failure, couldn’t switch off and feeling guilty for not being constantly available work-wise. This is often because women are still doing the double-shift: working full time and still carrying the biggest share of domestic tasks. This impacts upon health and wellbeing greatly. We address that through a bespoke exercise and meditation programme, teaching women to incorporate our methods throughout their routines.
We’re genuinely grateful to have been part of the SIMRA project. It’s changed our perspective of how we see ourselves. Through continuing our work as The Growing Club – a social innovation – we will ensure that we bridge the gaps in business education for all women who attend our courses, through providing powerful mentorship and quality peer-support. These factors are crucial for women to build and grow sustainable businesses
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