Tom Rippin

Podcast Interview

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BFP: What do you do?

TR: I run On Purpose, a social enterprise I set up just over 2 years ago. On Purpose is a leadership programme for the next generation of high-flyers who want to use the power of business to make a difference in the world. On Purpose identifies high-calibre individuals with 2-5 years’ work experience who are looking to become involved in the social sector, and helps to kick-start their careers by providing paid work experience in cutting-edge, purpose-driven organisations, along with world class training and support and unparalleled access to networks.

During the year-long programme we organise two six-month, paid placements for each Associate in some of the most respected purpose-driven enterprises, including the Young Foundation, Comic Relief and O2, providing real-life experience of large, small, established and start-up enterprises; corporations, not-for-profits and charities; all with a common purpose of operating for good in a commercial way. We also work with current and former professionals from prestigious organisations across all sectors to provide world-class training, and each Associate receives regular mentoring support and career planning advice. This year 11 Associates will complete the programme; next year that will grow to between 15 and 20 and we are in the process of recruiting Associates right now.

I started this business because of the mismatch I observed between the supply and demand of skills in the purpose-driven business space. On one hand, large and growing numbers of young people in their 20s and 30s have ambitions to work in this space and spend time and money obtaining excellent qualifications at business schools and universities – only to find that the barriers to entry into this job market are actually very high. There are not that many great jobs going – even for volunteers – because in fact there are not that many well-established social enterprises that recruit on a large scale.

On the other hand, we have this phenomenon of countless promising social enterprises starting up but very few achieving scale. While the lack and type of funding available to enterprises in the social space is certainly a contributing factor, I believe at least part of the reason for the failure to achieve scale is that many organisations lack the type of people who will drive the scale-up. Many social enterprises are started and run by visionary founders who move mountains to get their enterprises launched. These founders are, however, not always the right people to scale organisations; it takes a different mentality, skill-set and set of motivations to make this happen. In the commercial sector, this type of leader is often referred to as a “builder” or “runner”; because this is a relatively new field the incentives to draw in “builders and runners” are not yet fully in place. Thus a vicious circle is formed where social enterprises don’t grow because it’s difficult to find “builders and runners”, while “builders and runners” don’t get jobs at the social enterprises because they’re not growing. Through On Purpose we’re trying to address both of these problems.

Up to now I’ve been running the business on my own for most of the time – albeit with lots of volunteer help, support from our advisory board and in-kind support from the many companies we work with – so my job includes everything from strategic and budget planning and management to answering the phone. However now that we are recruiting more Associates for 2012 we are planning to grow the team in the next few months.

BFP: What is the best part about your job?

TR: The rewards for me are two-fold. First, I get to work with amazing people – a range of very interesting, talented and driven individuals participate in our programme, and I have the fantastic privilege of helping them find a career which will provide them with the opportunity to make a real contribution and add significant social value. Second, because of the way we work I am fortunate to find myself in a highly networked place, surrounded by purpose-driven organisations that span the social and commercial world. It is very exciting to be able to forge these connections.

BFP: What has been your greatest challenge?

TR: It was tough initially to find the organisations willing to sign up to the programme, pay our modest fees and accept our Associates as paid employees for a 6-month period – very few organisations have experience of working with the kind of individual we place and they therefore don’t know what to expect or how to value it. This is exacerbated by the fact that the social sector is awash with people who are prepared to work for very little or no money for the sake of gaining relevant experience. In a sense we were expecting organisations to take a punt on something they did not know. Now that we have a track record and are able to demonstrate value this part is becoming much easier.

In terms of the process of setting up the business, funding has been a challenge. Although we are now self-funding it took a while for us to get here, partly because in my original planning I had envisaged that we would be able to obtain some grant funding to help see us through the start-up phase and help us scale up quickly – and this has proved very time-consuming and difficult to achieve. Most donors and foundations prefer to support single-issue ventures, and because of the nature of our business we don’t easily fit into their funding categories. As for private capital, the challenge there is that many wealthy individuals made their money in the commercial world and may not necessarily be convinced of the value of social enterprise – in fact they often prefer to give their money to philanthropic causes.

BFP: How have you overcome these challenges? What lessons have you learnt?

TR: I would advise anyone setting up a social enterprise not to rely too heavily on grant funding to get you through the early stages; but to plan from the outset to be self-funding as soon as possible. Even if you do not generate profits initially, the fact that you will not have to chase funding will save a lot of time and effort which you can invest instead in growing your enterprise.

I would also caution anyone thinking about doing something similar to prepare themselves for the roller-coaster ride that is the start-up – you need to be absolutely committed and to remain very focused to make it happen. And don’t be afraid to ask for help during those difficult early days – I have been amazed at the great willingness of so many people to help and support me in this process.

A third bit of advice would be to get a group of trusted advisers around you if you’re trying to get things off the ground on your own. I didn’t have an advisory board around me initially but once this was created I found it hugely helpful to have a group of people committed to helping me succeed and to provide advice and support when I really needed it.

BFP: If someone wants to do what you do, where should they start?

TR: I started in academia; and once I decided I wanted to get into development I chose to get some training and work experience in the business sector by joining McKinsey, a leading consulting firm. After 5 years I moved across to the not-for-profit sector where I worked with Comic Relief and (RED) before setting out to create On Purpose. However, when I started out I had no idea that this would be where I would end up – I think the important thing is to be open to possibilities. Some private sector experience is undoubtedly very helpful.

BFP: Finally: what do you hope to get out of being part of this community?

TR: Although I am not the most frequent user of Business Fights Poverty, I do find it very useful as a place to find like-minded people, who are interested in using business to have a positive social impact. BFP is of course also potentially a very useful source for On Purpose to find potential partners – both in terms of companies that could provide placement opportunities, training and mentoring, or job opportunities to our Associates, and for potential candidates to participate in our programme.

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More information about becoming an On Purpose Associate can be found here. You can also connect with On Purpose on Facebook.

Editor’s Note:

Thank you to Tom Rippin for taking the time to do this interview.

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