INTERVIEW! Stephen Bediako, Project Oracle talks Social Entrepreneurship

Want to use your career to change the world for the better? You could do a lot worse than taking a leaf out of Stephen Bediako’s book – an exhaustingly talented individual whose mission of social good echoes in every project he spearheads. So what can future pioneers learn from him? We picked his brain to find out…

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Stephen Bediako is a problem solver. Dedicated to tackling social issues with razor-sharp business acumen, he’s already blazed a trail at companies like Deloitte, iMPOWER and Tribal, before setting up The Social Innovation Partnership – a business dedicated to helping people get back on (or stay on) their feet. He’s also a contributor to the brilliant Project Oracle – a Youth Programme hub that aims to understand and share what really works in improving the lives of young people across the UK. Frankly, we’re tired just reading about it.

So, what can young entrepreneurial types learn from his experiences?

You have worked on a number of exciting projects in your career so far – is there a through-line of passion that connects them?

That’s a great question. Okay, so I think the thread is that nearly everything I have done has some kind of social good attached to it. A lot of my experience has been in the public and social sector with government, charities and social enterprises. However, even my private sector experience is usually something that has an impact on people – such as my time working with News International when I was at Deloitte.

In the early days I also really enjoyed my work at iMPOWER, where I worked with local authorities. However, my work at TSIP now and initiatives like Project Oracle mean I am living my own dream. I get to see opportunities to join up the dots in the social space and create projects that try to tackle social ills. I just want to keep doing that using technology, research, ideas and great partners.

What excites you about being a social entrepreneur?

I think the creative freedom is great. You get to do what you want, and what you think will have a genuine impact. The other part is the people; you get to meet the most amazing people from all walks of life and at all levels of society. I mean my days are just great; I can have a meeting in the morning with senior officials in the Cabinet Office and in the afternoon I am interviewing ex-gang members in Southwark for a project.

I think having and continually maintaining these type of experiences means my and TSIP’s work is always grounded in practice. The most exciting thing I am involved in at the moment is an initiative to connect research students to charities that need research support; Project Oracle.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face to date?

The biggest challenge – is one you face every day – trying to build your credibility to get your foot in the door. There is a lot happening in this space and while meeting people and making introductions is important – doing good work has to be what drives you. We started off quite small, there’s now six or seven of us, and it’s important to maintain quality while trying to grow. The way to overcome this is to try and get the balance between delegation, and maintaining an eye on quality – making sure you’re partnering with the right organisations.

Looking back at your university career and the subsequent years, what advice would you give young people passionate about charity and social enterprise?

Get involved now. It’s important to start building your understanding and demonstrating your commitment for a sector early on. I have been a school governor since 2005, I have trained business owners in Africa as part of a DfID Programme – this all added to my experience and helped with my transition out of the corporate world further down the line. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t follow a solid corporate career for a few years and then make the switch. If I was being controversial I would say there is room for people with experience from other sectors (finance, consulting, law, etc) to add value to the charity and social enterprise sector – you don’t have to have a life-long career in the space.

I’d recommend looking around for opportunities you can take up now – we currently offer research positions at Project Oracle and it’s a brilliant way to get to know the sector.

What do you look for in the people you work with?

Where do you start? How about a top three?

Good judgement is critical. People build their judgement through experience, of course, but a natural ability to judge a situation and make good decisions is critical at all levels in business. I think reliability is really crucial. When you work with people it’s important that you can rely on them to get something done, or they will let you know if it can’t be done in good time. If I get a whiff of you being unreliable you lose me immediately – I just have too much going on to be dealing with people I can’t rely on.

Finally, good communication skills are just so important. We are in an increasingly fast-paced world and people need to be able to communicate effectively in both written and verbal formats – judging when to use one or the other and being flexible to different people’s personalities and behaviour is vital.

What would be the advice you’d give to someone setting up on their own in a sector like yours?

Focus on starting up and don’t try to do too much; commit to one idea you really believe in and see where it takes you. I would advise setting up with someone more experienced, smarter, and capable than you – so that you can learn. Also, get on top of your planning. Starting my own enterprise has taught me the importance of being structured, super-structured in everything you do (planning your day, planning meetings, running your business, managing people, etc).  However, you also have to maintain a level of creativity and look for opportunities to “join up the dots”, as Steve Jobs would have it.

Any final words of wisdom?

Strike a right balance – work hard and play hard. It is important to go for it when starting up but don’t forget friends and family as you’ll need them whether it works our or not.

Finally, you have to believe in yourself. No one ever changed the world listening to other people. Whether it was Einstein, Ali, Gandhi  Mother Teresa, Obama – they had an idea and refused to listen to those who told them it couldn’t be done. They pursued it, were sometimes ridiculed and eventually influenced the world we live in. Of course it’s important to be realistic – if your business is not selling or not working then changes have to be made – but if there’s a crowd of people saying no before you’ve even started, they are probably not worth listening to!

Learn more about Project Oracle and The Social Innovation Partnership, and get inspired to start changing your world.

Interview by Enternships

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