Interview with Eve Wagg, founder of Well Grounded

Read how Eve Wagg was inspired to launch Well Grounded, a Speciality Coffee Training Academy that changes lives by linking people looking for work with an industry looking for talent.

London’s first social enterprise solely focused on developing talent within the speciality coffee industry, Well Grounded is on a mission to support Londoners into employment as Baristas – with a focus on people who are most at risk of long-term unemployment.

Is Well Grounded a social enterprise? And why start a social enterprise and not a charity?

What a great and complex question to kick off with. First off, I guess it might be useful outlining what we mean by social enterprise? The term social enterprise confuses many people because unlike a charity it isn’t a legal structure.

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Ultimately a social enterprise is an organisation that trades for social good, i.e you strive to make money and then invest it in your charitable aims. I often think of it as a ‘movement.’ So you can be a charity, community interest company or limited company and still be a social enterprise.

Confused? An example is Belu, a well-known company that sells bottled water. Belu then channels all their profits to Wateraid, a charity providing drinking water across the world.

On the other hand a charity such as Street League would say they follow a social enterprise model. They operate as a charity with a trading arm. This means they earn trading income, which they then invest back into their work with young people not in education or employment.

Now that that’s sorted…!

I chose to set up as a social enterprise because I wanted people to know far and wide that we believe in creating a sustainable business that can affect social change. Having worked for charities for many years I have witnessed that without a commercial focus, charities can struggle.

When launching Well Grounded I wanted to present outwardly and inwardly that we were going to strive for financial security so that we could continue to benefit our local community. We are not there yet, but that’s our ambition.

What was your background before setting up Well Grounded?

For 12 years I’ve worked in the voluntary sector, across education, special needs and employment charities. I never really thought of working in any other sector and I can’t imagine doing anything then what I’m doing today. I’m lucky that from an early age I always knew the kind off work that would make me professional and personally fulfilled.

Within the voluntary sector I’ve had roles in marketing, fundraising and operational leadership, with a focus on creating collaborative programmes to tackle social inequality. At the same time I’ve always held a passion for food and coffee… can you see where this is going?!

More recently I’ve dedicated a lot of time to my own professional development. I’m a fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, a Centre for Charity Effectiveness Alumni, and a trustee of a local Down Syndrome charity.

Was there a tipping point that made you start up your own enterprise?

It all started in 2005, when I tasted Monmouth coffee for the first time, having just moved to London. It was the beginning, not just for my obsession with coffee, but for an idea I’d be thinking about for the next decade – I wanted to connect my love of coffee with my passion for social impact.

It was that thing that you always have niggling at the back of your mind. But over time, I built up the confidence and experience to go it alone. The final tipping point happened whilst studying for a part-time MSC and focusing on how I could make the social enterprise work. I left my charity sector job and began work on Well Grounded.

Why coffee, and did you have any knowledge or experience of the trade beforehand?

Scarily no I didn’t, apart from basic barista skills and a love of coffee although I did have experience of the hospitality industry.

So why coffee you might be thinking? As an active participant in the growth of the coffee industry, I watched the UK coffee market boom. Can you believe there are now approx. 18,000 coffee outlets. I recognised that this growth resulted in an industry in desperate need of employees.

For me this represented a great social enterprise opportunity. I could embed my approach to recruitment, training and development whilst capitalising on an industry in need of talent. I thought I’d test my hypothesis and see whether my concept would work.

For those thinking of setting up a social enterprise what advice can you share?

I could go on and on here but a few key points…

1) Start small, test and adapt

I’d say the best thing I did was test the concept early, before I had invested too much time and money into the business. That way I could tell quick if it was something my beneficiaries would want and coffee companies needed. It also provided me with learnings quickly, so that we could adapt and change to meet the needs of our customers.

Finally, it gave me some charitable outcomes (i.e no of people transitioned into work) which enabled me to leverage some start up funding. As someone that likes to follow a handbook I found the lean methodology really useful at this point.

2) Set deadlines, be accountable to someone

It’s easy for the days to disappear and the temptation to drift can take over without you knowing. It sounds obvious, but set deadlines and make yourself accountable to them. Get someone to hold you to account, be it your partner, a colleague, a mentor or even your cat.

3) Develop a network

Whilst this is obvious, working independently can really knock your confidence. For me I bounce of other peoples’ ideas, so I found it tough working alone.

I’m lucky to have built a good network of mentors, old colleagues and friends who I’ve leaned on extensively. Below I talk about some networks that can really help you in your early stages…. Don’t be too proud to show your weaknesses and get input from your network. Oh and only surround yourself with people that make you feel good. That’s a given.

4) Be prepared for the lows

Whilst I want to say it’s all fun and games, it’s also really tough. Be prepared for a hard slog. And don’t be afraid to realise it’s not the right journey for you. However far you get you will have learnt skills and strengths that will support you in your next step.

5) Do you have funding? Where do you apply for funding?

There are great start up funds are out there – Beyond Business, Unltd, the School for Social Entrepreneurs and the Shackelton Foundation.

These funds all supported Well Grounded within our first 18 months and specifically target start up social enterprises. What’s more these funds offer professional development programmes and a peer network, which provides a great structure for your early days.

This year we have engaged in contracts to deliver coffee and work readiness training for vulnerable adults. Therefore our income will be a combination of voluntary funding and traded income. We also offer consultancy and run events.

Do you and the team draw a salary from Well Grounded?

For a long time no. I worked weekends and evening as a consultant to cover my salary. It was a full on year. Now I am on a payroll and we have four freelancers working across different disciplines. We are just going out to recruit for a Head of Coffee and project officer and I am beyond excited.

What do you know now that you’d wish you’d known at the start of setting up the enterprise?

Tough one and I might not be viewed very favourable for this one! I feel there is a bit of a hype around the start up and social enterprise world.

And whilst I totally believe in what social enterprise represents it is quite easy to get caught up in it, from buying a Mac Book (guilty) to using terms like game changing and innovation in every sentence (also guilty).

In some ways you need this buzz to get you through the early days, but in others I think it’s important that we are realistic about the unglamorous and gruelling nature of starting a business in whatever sector.

What are the business goals for the future?

In five years Well Grounded aims to have supported over 280 young people into employment through an established training and accreditation programme. We aim to be self-funded through the delivery of barista traineeships and apprenticeships and a private training business for coffee connoisseurs. Must of all we want to provide opportunities for people that need a break.

Personally, I hope Well Grounded is seen as an example of best practice for the voluntary sector sharing learning and pressuring for change that will support the end to structural unemployment in the UK.

What are you most proud of since setting up the enterprise?

I’m most proud of the people that have graduated from our programmes. Rasha, a refugee from Yemen and the most determined and ambition woman I’ve ever met. After graduating from our programme she took two jobs as a barista with a goal to eventually procure green coffee from Yemen. She’s on her way to Rwanda with a green coffee company to make that dream a reality.

And Thomas, once homeless and now a Roasting Assistant, living in his own flat and running events for us around the city. You can’t beat that really…

You can find out more about Well Grounded on their website.