PSEN Director Annette Dhami attended the POP+ Conference earlier in the year and talked about how PSEN founders came together to launch the network, and what this action has gone on to create.

It went back 8 years.

Michelle Virgo from Dartington School for Social Entrepreneurs, Dave Kilroy from Social Enterprise Outcomes, Ed Whitelaw from Real Ideas Organisation and Gareth Hart from Iridescent Ideas CIC sat around a kitchen table on a windy autumn afternoon over coffee. One year before, a research study had been done to see whether Plymouth’s growing social enterprise sector would benefit from a network that could support it. The study found that it could. In 2010 an event was run to discuss getting one started, but representation from the social enterprise community itself was low, and the ball didn’t start rolling. Without Plymouth social enterprises taking the lead, another organization from Exeter was awarded a pot of funding to try to get it going, but – not being based in Plymouth – traction didn’t take, and when their contract ended so did the activities.

Over coffee, Michelle, Gareth, Dave and Ed had a question to discuss: did they, representing their various social enterprises, feel that they could get a Social Enterprise Network for Plymouth going? And where on earth would they start?

They knew that there were things on their side: they were all passionate about social enterprise and the type of inclusive and sustainable economy that it could help to build in Plymouth. They were all committed and willing to chip in. They represented social enterprises in Plymouth, so who better to do it? They decided to try.

Plymouth Social Enterprise Network was formally constituted in May 2011 and began its work by arranging regular meetings of 10-20 people. Learning quickly, a Board of Directors was soon set up to change the focus of these meeting from ‘how do we run a network’ (now done by the smaller voluntary board) to ‘these are the great things are happening in Plymouth and let’s celebrate them’ (with growing participants to do so). Before long, they secured funding to run a large conference – now run as the annual Social Enterprise Festival – and launched the first directory of social enterprises in Plymouth. They conducted research into the state of social enterprise in Plymouth, and started to reveal information about how important the sector was becoming. As this was being published, Plymouth University announced itself as a social enterprise, adding even more weight to the sector. £500 million income and 6,000 jobs were identified from the sector in Plymouth, securing coverage from national press.

They ran an event asking: ‘Social Enterprise City: What, Why and How?’, wondering what it would mean to be a city that champions social enterprise approaches. National speakers became to attend events, recognising the buzz in Plymouth. They began to organise bigger conferences, including the next social enterprise festival, this time a week long.

In 2013 Social Enterprise UK launched their Social Enterprise Places badge, looking for hotspots of activity in the country where social enterprise was thriving. With all the work done in previous years, PSEN was able to quickly evidence the case for Plymouth and over a few days worked to pull together a bid. It was successful, and in September 2013 Plymouth was announced – along with Bristol – as the first Social Enterprise City in the UK. Plymouth was put on the national map as a go-to place for social enterprise, and international universities, major funders and large organisations started to travel to Plymouth to find out more.

In the last five years PSEN has leveraged this opportunity to develop the support for Plymouth’s social enterprises further. It launched a paid membership model, to ensure that trading income was at the heart of its work and that the network would be financially accountable to social enterprises in the city. PSEN Board members began to be invited to influence governmental policy, sitting on the Plymouth Growth Board and the Plymouth Inclusive Growth Flagship; at the Local Enterprise Partnership level; and working with Social Enterprise UK, national government and other powerful players to champion social enterprise as a way to create a more inclusive and sustainable economy.

Between 2013-2015 PSEN ran even bigger social enterprise festivals, with – for example – over 2,000 people attending over the course of two weeks.

By lobbying for support and raising awareness increasing funding was secured to support social enterprises in Plymouth. Power to Change, the Seedbed Incubator Programme, Esmee Fairbairn, The Rank Foundation and Plymouth City Council are among the supporters that have funnelled over £6 million of finance and support into social enterprise support as a result.

With support for social enterprise growing, social enterprise is increasing its contribution and influence in the Plymouth economy. Progress has been notable, but there is more work to do. We want to see an economy with social businesses not at its periphery but at its core. Whilst we continue to be run by passionate and committed people representing a range of social enterprises in Plymouth, we will continue to try.

Come join us for the 2018 Social Enterprise Festival to learn more about the exciting things happening in social enterprise in Plymouth and ways to be involve.