I had the idea in May 2006 to start a co-operative underwear business and started making formal enquires to CAN (Co-operatives Assistance Network) in January 2008. I quit my job on June 30th 2008, and started full time work on this on July 1st 2008. We were incorporated and registered with the FSA on the 12th December 2008.
We are based in Fairways House, Mount Pleasant Industrial Estate, Southampton, SO14 0QB. Currently just three founder members, with40 volunteers around the country. We are training 25 women who will become members when they are employed by us and complete probationary periods.
Why did you choose to set-up as a co-operative?
I believe in the concepts of fairness, equality, democracy and also sharing responsibilities and rewards.
We set out to empower marginalised women. We basically mean women who have had little opportunity or who have had opportunity taken from them. We define this as women marginalised by their status as refuges or up to 20% may be marginalised by other factors such as being taken out of school as a child due to abuse (at the discretion of the committee).
This came from a number of things. I had become empowered through 2.5 years counselling at Rape Crisis and wanted to share that feeling. I knew there was a huge refugee population in Southampton. And I knew that women are, even within marginalised groups, some of the most marginalised.
Women who have had really hard times, and have very little opportunity offered to them in our society often become isolated and develop mental health issues. It can be hard for people to feel powerful and involved. We believe that supporting the women to feel strong and capable is critical to their real and full empowerment.
How did you start?
By talking to Nathan Brown of CAN, and then Chris Funnell of SACDA. We received support around everything from co-operative structures and how they work to bid writing and registration. We also use the SACDA office as our registered office which was handy as before we had premises I didn't want it to be my house!
What issues have you faced?
There has been constant headaches and waking up at 3 in the morning moments. In particular funding is a nightmare, so many people don't understand social enterprise or worker ownership and the effects of that, ie, that we can't take equity funding.
We never seemed to be at the right stage to get this or that fund and funders all want the same information in a different format. It takes AGES to get grants applied for and decisions made, which is understandable, but it would help to plan ahead a bit more than I did - I tended to be firefighting today's problems rather than planning ahead to prevent the ones coming in 6 months.
Grants being paid in arrears by some funders makes for a huge cash flow problem. As we are a start up, we deliver training up front before we are making pants to sell - so we are spending but not generating income. Cash flow has become a word I dread.
Negotiate with suppliers on utilities - ask to spread bills over a few months. If you don't ask you don't get and they can only say no.
Bureaucracy and paperwork - tedium that is vital
Being REALLY busy means mistakes and cock ups can happen - getting more people involved as volunteers if 1) they are good 2) they don't need micromanaging and 3) they know you can't pay them is brilliant.
Juggling all the balls in the air - project managing everything from finances to supplies to premises to which kettle to buy to which bows to designs to training to recruitment to the day to day stuff like answering emails- it takes huge amounts of time and mental energy. I'm almost constantly exhausted.
But the joy is, I love it. I know I'm doing this because I want to and so, yes, it's a headache and yes it's hard, and yes some days are truly awful - but I still know I want to come to work every day.
What do you do?
To the public - we make and sell gorgeous ethical pants.
To marginalised women -
We provide opportunities for work, learning at various levels, computers, social space, advice space - all in a safe women only environment.
We provide access to a range of advisers from partner agencies on languages, personal finance, safety, computer training, supporting family dynamics - whatever the women want.
Have you had any major achievements or recent successes?
Happily they seem to be coming every day:
- Just been offered an interest free loan by a venture philanthropist
- Got through to last stage of level 2 UnLtd award completion (interview 5/11/09)
- Been approached by a shop locally to sell our products.
- It's a massive success that we are here - we are supported by volunteers working on bookkeeping, web design and build, photography, professional PR, copy writing, marketing materials design, IT suite set up, PA.
- Invited and gave a lecture to a local Univeristy MSc Entrepreneurship course and got 10 willing volunteers out of it - their voluntary work for me is coursework for them.
- Received a bursay from NCVO to visit and learn from the lovely Infinity worker co-op.
What approach have you taken to starting up?
My approach tends to be 'I want to do that, what, who can tell me what I need to do' and then talk to them. Talking to people is vital - they know stuff you don't.
Find people involved in any areas you want to be involved in and talk to them, ask questions, make sure there is always someone you can call whatever you need to know about. DO NOT try to know everything yourself. We are linked with CLEAR, a local refugee organisation, Solent MIND, various community groups, various churches, local Universities, Southampton Women's Forum.
Don't presume anyone is 'not your type' - talk to ANYONE about what you're doing and see what they have to say. If you are passionate people WILL help.
Any pros and cons associated with choosing a co-operative model?
We probably could get more money if we were a charity, but I still think this is the only way we can achieve our social aim. Members controlling the direction of the business democratically is key and I think the women will benefit from seeing their work pay off rather than just getting stuff given to them.
What are your future plans? Loads! whomadeyourbra? in 5 years time. Potential for global expansion, in times of resource scarcity let's look at keeping skills in each country in case there's a day when we can't import everything from china.