Liam Black didn't wake up one day and say, "I'm a social entrepreneur." But he has spent the past 10 years applying the same rigour and energy most people put into making money, into running a business with social change - not profit - at its core.
It is his passion, commitment and business acumen that is credited with transforming the Liverpool-based Furniture Resource Centre (FRC) Group from a small charity supplying second-hand furniture to council tenants, into a £5.5m business group giving work to hundreds of unemployed people and providing thousands of low-income families with the chance to buy good-quality recycled furniture.
For that reason, he has been labelled a "social entrepreneur". The success of the FRC Group, coupled with his desire to propound the social model of business, has probably made Black, 43, the best known of this new breed of business leader in the UK.
With his move to Jamie Oliver's Fifteen - the restaurant that teaches unemployed young people culinary skills - social enterprise is about to get bigger. Black's job is to export the celebrity chef's social business from east London, and turn it into a global social business brand.
"We're franchising the operation in Amsterdam in the new year," says Black. "A cast iron guarantee that 20 young people are trained as chefs each year is part of the deal. Jamie takes no money out of Fifteen; all the profits fund its training programme."
With more outlets planned in New York and Melbourne, Black hopes the fees from the franchise arrangements will help to open a Fifteen in Cape Town. "These are very exciting times for social entrepreneurs," he says. "Too often, social entrepreneurship has been marginalised. With celebrity endorsements from Jamie Oliver and eBay founder Jeff Skoll that's about to change."
The son of an Irish brickie, Black's first vocation was to become a priest, and he brings the same evangelical zeal to business that he put into campaigning against apartheid and social injustice in the 1980s.
"The more I got into it, the more passionate I became that this business model was the way to create change," he says.
The idea to make FRC Group a not-for-profit business was born out of the sheer frustration of fundraising. Black had been working for a number of homeless charities and was "sick and tired" that their work was constrained by the amount they raised, and that they had to massage the facts to appeal to potential funders.
"You put your purpose in others' hands and as a result you can't be too honest about the drugs and alcohol homeless people take. You've got to present them as cuddly victims and pretend that a £15 donation will transform their lives.
"I thought about how we could do it differently. What if we created a service to sell, and at the same time gave jobs to unemployed people? We had two years of horrendous sleepless nights, but at least we were putting all our energies into creating the product and services, rather than fundraising."
Salford city council signed the first contract with FRC Group, to furnish its empty homes with recycled and refurbished second-hand furniture; anything from a three-piece suite to knifes and forks to curtains and carpets. Other local authorities and housing associations in the north of England soon followed. Then came Revive, which sells second-hand furniture direct to the public through shops in Liverpool and Wigness, and Bulky Bob's, a waste management and recycling business contracted to various councils to remove unwanted items of furniture from 60,000 homes each year. Once refurbished, these sofas and cupboards either end up for sale in a Revive shop or on the inventory of an FRC-furnished flat.
Social enterprise is not universally popular among charities. Some accuse Black and his ilk - over 200 have graduated from the School for Social Entrepreneurs, in Bethnal Green, east London - of selling out by mimicking the private sector. "It's not worth wasting breath responding to these critics," sighs Black. "Social business achievements speak for themselves. Hundreds of unemployed people have had the opportunity to work, get a salary and get real qualifications."
At the FRC Group, Black earned £70,000 a year. No small sum, but perhaps not as much as the head of a multimillion-pound company could earn. Does Black feel becoming a social entrepreneur involves sacrificing financial rewards?
"Lots of my mates went into the City and are doing very well for themselves," he says. "But what you have to ask yourself is 'Are they happier than me?'" He refuses to disclose his salary at Fifteen, only to say that it is "considerably more", and has allowed him to move from Liverpool to Buckinghamshire with his wife and three children.
The Cat's Pyjamas - the fourth arm of the FRC Group - is a social business training organisation. Black's own advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs: "Do what you're passionate about and take risks. You have to do it against the odds, never give up and make sure you have a very good team around you."
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