People, Profit, Planet


By Nigel Kershaw - OBE, chairman of The Big Issue and CEO of Big Issue Invest,

The emergence of the social entrepreneur

Back in 1991, when The Big Issue was set up, the idea of a 'social entrepreneur' was completely foreign to most people. There were a few pioneers out there involved in 'ethical business', such as The Body Shop, and one or two you might call 'social innovators', like Lord Michael Young, who helped create the Open University and the Consumers Association. But social entrepreneurship itself was largely uncharted territory.

Now, in 2012, the term social entrepreneur is much more widely used, and we are seeing many social enterprises doing business in ways that create a positive social impact.

One of my heroes in life, Thomas Paine, a radical involved in both the American and French revolutions, once said, "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right." Paine was talking about the need to always challenge the status quo, and not accept things as they are. This underlies the story of my life, the story of social enterprise and the story of The Big Issue.

The Big Issue is born

Gordon Roddick and A. John Bird launched The Big Issue in 1991 in response to the growing number of rough sleepers on the streets of London. It addressed the problem by offering people who were homeless, or at risk of homelessness, the opportunity to earn a legitimate income, thereby 'helping them to help themselves'. Created as a business solution to a social problem, it has gone on to become one of the most instantly recognisable brands in the UK and a powerful blueprint for social change.

The organisation currently works with around 2,500 homeless and vulnerably housed people across the UK, and circulates over 105,000 copies of the magazine every week. Now comes the really good bit – the vendors pay £1.25 for each magazine and sell it on for £2.50. What we've done here is create 2,500 entrepreneurs and given them a self-sufficient alternative to begging, stealing, prostitution and street crime.

It sounds simple, but this idea really challenged business norms and we came up against a lot of resistance both from charities and business. For example, bank managers just couldn't get their heads around the fact that we might want to use our profits to solve homelessness rather than buy a yacht in Marbella!

Tackling the root causes of homelessness

But our social impact doesn't stop there. When The Big Issue makes a...

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