What does it take to set up a successful social enterprise?
I have been lucky to sit down with Ally Elouise, owner of ‘Prom Ally’ to learn about her experiences of starting a social enterprise; including gaining an insight into what drives her and understanding more about the challenges facing social entrepreneurs.
Prom Ally is a fashion initiative which has a focus on helping teenagers who are experiencing financial hardship to receive free loans of prom dresses and suits to go to their school proms, while also having sustainable fashion at its core.
Ally was at University studying Law when she watched a documentary looking at poverty through the eyes of children and one story really stood out for her – a young girl facing social exclusion as she wasn’t able to afford a dress and therefore wasn’t able to go to her school prom. Ally was inspired to act and set out looking for a way she could help meet this social need, in an innovative way; and from this Prom Ally was born. Their Eco Wardrobe enables young people from all backgrounds who may be struggling financially to be able to hire an outfit cheaply and in an eco-friendly way. It is linked with schools, social services, food banks and charities around the UK on a referral basis and has now helped thousands of young students.
Financing Prom Ally
Initially, Ally Elouise self-funded by using 21st birthday money and dress donations from the public; indeed, she continued to self-fund the business through a fulltime teaching assistance job as well as thinking outside the box to draw in money through other means for over six years. ‘While I was lucky initially to be able to run Prom Ally at nights and weekends, I soon realised it was becoming all-consuming and I had to quit other employment to dedicate myself to this full time’. Ally has some rather sobering advice for budding social entrepreneurs to consider before starting up revealing that ‘they may need to recognise that a wage will not always be immediately available for them’.
‘The hardest thing financially is funding and fundraising which is a big part of your daily life and you will be constantly looking to raise money and find innovative ways of income generation. It can sometimes make you wonder if you can carry on and the reality is, as a social enterprise you need to be able to prove you can self-sustain if you want to attract grant finance’.
Ally considers herself fortunate that proving she could self-sustain meant she was able to draw on the Welsh Third Sector Resilience Fund; a blended finance of 75% grant and 25% initial interest free loan which goes towards the costs of ongoing revenue expenditure, including salaries. ‘The £50,000 covered me for a whole year, and without the Social Investment we received, we would never have been able to afford to make the leap into launching our new formal-wear hire site and in turn we'd have struggled to keep Prom Ally open and helping those in financial hardship’.
Ally has used other sources of funding to help her cover costs through crowdfunding (gofundme) and alternative income generation through Patreon which allows her to charge customers a monthly subscription charge to get a ‘first look’ at new stock.
Biggest Challenges and how they were overcome
Not having a business background can be a significant hurdle for many budding social entrepreneurs, however, Ally advises that help is readily available to make the start-up process less daunting than many people think. ‘Initially, I didn’t have a legal constitution and becoming a registered charity is really difficult. I spoke with Social Business Wales and they gave me great advice on setting up as a social enterprise and helped me produce a business plan and look at finance. I wouldn’t have been able to do this alone, but there is a lot of help out there’.
Ally has come to recognise that the biggest qualities needed for a social entrepreneur are belief, being passionate about your idea and being resilient. ‘As a social entrepreneur, once you have your idea and you believe in it you’ve got to keep pushing it. I’ve had so many setbacks over the six years, but I believe in Prom Ally; there are tough times, but I know I can’t give up because there are so many people who rely on it so no matter what I’ve got to make it work’.
Why are we talking about sustainable fashion?
One concerning issue with the discourse of sustainability in fashion is that it often conveniently offloads the responsibility and decision making onto consumers and their individual choices; after all, we consumers must know that clothes can’t go through the supply chain and be sold that cheaply if they are made ethically, right?
Although Prom Ally plays an important role in sustainability, the focus from the beginning was more on helping from an income inequality point of view; however, as the business has grown, it is something Ally has become quite passionate about. ‘We have seen recent examples of sweatshops close to home in Leicester. The emphasis seems to be on consumers making the decisions, but it can’t be only consumer choice’. Ally agrees that the regressive nature of taxes like National Insurance and VAT in the UK means that there is a trade-off between sustainability and our finances; particularly as accessing some cheap fashion brands, although not offering sustainability, instead provides an important social need.
‘Sustainability and eco-friendly is the way forward with consumers. Big fashion brands are now really aware of this and are trying to up their green credentials. Businesses need to look at their supply chains and sustainability before they launch and lead by example’.
What is the future?
Diversifying sources of income has increasingly been a priority for many social entrepreneurs and Ally has plans in place to increase her income generation through online rental of dresses outside of Prom season, to ensure stock is not just stored for large parts of the year. ‘The grant we received will help us set up an online trading arm to hire out formal wear for customers wanting to shop more sustainably by hiring instead of buying new. We hope the funding would help us create, establish and market this secondary website called Eco Wardrobe which in turn would fund the service we offer at Prom Ally’.
Ally offers the following takeaways for those thinking of starting a social enterprise:
Little grants are available and do help, but applications are time consuming. There needs to be a balance between responsible finance and good decision making; so choose a source of finance that best suits your business. Relying on self-funding for so long wasn’t easy, but it allowed Ally to grow her business without incurring debt.
You might already have the idea and attributes of an entrepreneur. To create something new entrepreneurs might just need support and time to drive it forward. Help is available, so make the most of it to boost your confidence and get your start up right.
Social Enterprise success can often come down to marketability and Ally advises that entrepreneurs really show people what you are doing – ‘engage with the public and local community because they will always help you out if they believe in you. People like to follow your story so use social media to your advantage and be transparent’.
To donate, support or learn more about Prom Ally please follow the following link https://www.promally.co.uk/
*Interview conducted by Mike Gallagher of South West College.