Finding employment for the marginalised in society is no easy feat. Perhaps most challenging is the task of changing people’s perception of the homeless and convincing companies to take them into their workforce. However, Sarah Dunwell is making great headway in her mission to transform the age-old hostility towards those most vulnerable with her award-winning social enterprise Create Foundation. Crowned ‘Social Enterprise of the Year’ at the Startups Awards, Create is spawning a new movement of ‘Fairtrade made local’, having last year persuaded supermarket giant Morrisons to employ 1,000 graduates from its programme over the next three years. It’s no wonder this Leeds-based business has been dubbed a proud example of Cameron’s Big Society initiative.
Launched in 2007, Create Foundation is built on the ethos of providing training and employment opportunities to marginalised or vulnerable people. Most participants in the programme have previously struggled with accommodation issues, drug and alcohol addictions, mental health problems or criminal-related difficulties, which has led them into homelessness. Sarah maintains: “It’s only when these issues have begun to calm and all that chaos has started to settle, that they feel a big hole left in their lives and they wonder what they’re supposed to do. These are guys that need to be taught what work looks and feels like and learning the discipline of work can be tough – that is where Create comes in.”
Typically, people join Create’s academy programme when they are “three-months away from being externally job-ready”. There they spend three days a week working in one of Create’s businesses – such as the catering arm, Create Food, or the more customer-facing Café Create - and two days a week in one of the learning facilities. Sarah explains: “The idea is that they learn customer services and sales techniques that our corporate partners are looking for in candidates, and then they can put those skills into practice in a real business environment at one of our own companies – that is what makes Create unique.”
As a volunteer at her local homeless charity St George’s Crypt, Sarah was no stranger to the plight of the displaced community. It was here that she met Norman Pickavance, a fellow volunteer, and Gary Stott, the charity’s chief executive, with whom she formulated the idea for Create Foundation. “We looked at the people coming to use the drop-in services and out of perhaps 150 people a night, only 10 would actually need a bed. The others had somewhere to go back to, whether they were sofa-surfing or insecurely housed. It was my passionate belief that what would break the cycle of bouncing around different beds and different friends’ houses was getting a job,” she recalls.
At the time of Create’s inception, Sarah was successfully running a family baking-business, supplying products to cafes and sandwich shops in and around Leeds. Her experience in this field led to the launch of Create Food, an outside catering company, which was the first undertaking of the newly-formed foundation. However, more significant in the decision to go down the food-route was the response of corporate charity supporters to Sarah’s initial enquiries: “We asked them, if we stopped asking for money donations, but instead asked for their engagement on a different level, what would they want to buy from us? They replied saying they wanted us to sell something they actually needed to buy and time and again food came up.”
Today, Create Food delivers everything from simple sandwich lunches to corporate canapés and three-course dinners at glitzy award ceremonies, as well as offering its services for weddings and private parties. But it’s the mammoth support it has received from the corporate sector, including big banks such as Barclays and Yorkshire Bank, that has lifted Create Foundation to such heights. The venture has also expanded to include Café Create, which currently consists of two cafes in Leeds and one in Doncaster, with more due to open in Sunderland and Liverpool in the next few months.
In order to fund the venture, Sarah made the bold decision to sell her business. She invested the proceeds into the launch of Create Food, along with a healthy grant of £50,000 from the local authority, and since the initial £100,000 outlay, the business has grown organically through trading - something the founders of this non-profit organisation are immensely proud of.
Central to the initial success of Create was the broad range of skills each founder brought to the table. Sarah’s background in catering provided the team with a good understanding of product-pricing and where to find the best suppliers, while Gary’s experience in homeless charities afforded them a massive advantage within the sector. Moreover, as HR director of Morrisons, Norman’s position certainly facilitated the foundation’s introduction to the supermarket chain, leading to their current partnership, in which Morrisons pledged to employ 1,000 Create graduates in the coming three years. This was a massive breakthrough for the business.
One of the main challenges Sarah has faced is boosting the public’s perception of the brand. It’s easy to imagine the difficulties she must face when people think of the stereotypical homeless person. She explains: “Our brand is hugely important to us but it’s quite tough in some regards because people tend not to see the catering industry and the homeless community as a good fit. However, our job is to advocate for this community and these are guys who get jobs because they deserve them – it’s more about promoting the excellent services they offer rather than the ethos behind it.” Emphasising their excellent services is crucial and Sarah’s efforts to raise brand awareness have not been in vein, if Create Foundation’s impressive trophy cabinet is anything to go by. Last year it bagged a staggering 10 awards, including Social enterprise of the Year at the Startups Awards – securing its prominent position in the sector.
With a projected turnover of £1m this year, Create’s big ambitions are certainly materialising. But with so much already under their belts, what’s next for Sarah and her team? She details an expansion plan for the business to be operating in four UK cities by the end of the year, including opening the first Create restaurant in Leeds. They will also look at other business opportunities – although geographically rolling-out the food businesses in Britain remains top priority. But while they may have big ambitions, their ultimate goal remains simple: “We want to be a place where good food and people matter.”