Barbara is the CEO of the Low Carbon Hub, a group of social enterprises that all work together in Oxfordshire. One of them is a Community Benefit Society, the Low Carbon Hub IPS (IPS). This company takes investment from shareholders, develops renewable energy installations, and then, after paying shareholders back, generates a community benefit profit. This profit is donated to the Low Carbon Hub Community Interest Company (CIC). The CIC holds all the Hub staff and does all the Hub operations, maintenance and administration. It also has 32 shareholders that are all community energy organisations working right across Oxfordshire. They invite them to become member shareholders, they pay a pound, and then we work with them in all sorts of ways, to help them reduce carbon emissions in their communities. We also use the community benefit profit from the IPS to support innovation projects, and that is becoming more and more important to us.
LCH are now in their 10th year, celebrating our 10th birthday on December 4th, 2021. They spun out of work that had been done, and still goes on in fact, in West Oxford – West Oxford Community Renewables, Low Carbon West Oxford. The Hub was started to form an umbrella organisation for the City and the County, repeating the models that they had been developing in West Oxford. It has grown from nothing to having 20 members of staff. There are 47 solar rooftop projects (about 4 megawatts), the Sandford Hydro project, which is about 440 kilowatts, and are now developing a 19 megawatt solar ground mount, Ray Valley Solar. These two big projects are held in wholly-owned subsidiaries of the IPS, now a group of 4 companies working together.
So far, LCH has raised about 7.5 million pounds worth of share equity, with about 2 million pounds of long-term debt, and are just negotiating another 2 million pounds of long-term debt. Also, very crucially, LCH has a short-term construction fund with Oxford City Council, of 2.3 million pounds. This allows them to secure that funding for up to 12 months against new or existing projects, to get ahead and build new projects without waiting for new share capital to come in.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
My answer to that has to be that I did not decide to become an entrepreneur! I was just trying to make a thing happen with a group of local colleagues. It actually started with my husband and I standing on the towpath at Osney Island, wondering how we could help other people to retrofit their houses in the way that we had just done. This was like 2002, and the sun was just coming up and shining on the silver crinkly tin of the old University Engineering Lab that used to be the Osney Power Station. And we just went “oh, wouldn’t it be great if we could put solar panels on there? And if we put solar panels on there, wouldn’t it be great if we could use the income to support people to do retrofitting?”. That was just the original idea.
And there were people thinking in a convergent way, across West Oxford. We formed a little group to try and do that. It was a bit of a long, hard slog for quite a long time. But suddenly, the Feed-in Tariff was happening, and we were poised and prepared for that. And so we installed our first solar PV roof in West Oxford, just before the Feed-in Tariff came in, and we ours was the first project in the whole of the UK to lease a roof from someone else to install a solar PV project! Which was quite something. It seemed so big at 11kW! So the Hub was sort of building on that, to do exactly the same sort of profit for a purpose, generative approach to business but right across Oxfordshire.
This is going to sound really stupid, but it is true: you go along, and you are really enthused about an idea, and you go, oh, right, ok, we have to set up a community benefit society let’s find out how to do that! Great, done that! And we need to do a share offer, ok, let’s find out how to do that, ok, done that, that’s great! Oh god, now we’ve raised some money, that’s great, so we can buy a system, oh right ok now we have to maintain the system… And it was just like, well now we’ve got to keep this going for 25 years at least! That’s great, but we’ve got to have insurance etc.
I do not know whether you are yet in the age of being a parent. My experience of being a parent was, when I had the first one, we took her home from the hospital and it was like “oh, ok, this is now 24/7”. And it is like that with businesses. “Oh ok, we’ve got to keep this going, how do we keep this going? Oh that’s interesting, do we want to grow this business, what do we want to do with it? No, we don’t want to grow it, we want it to stay in West Oxford. Ok, there’s a need for this thing, ok, let’s see if we can get some money to start-up”, and that became the Low Carbon Hub. And having done that, how does that keep going? And then people started saying “Oh, you’re a social entrepreneur!” and I’m going “What? What’s that? How is that different from being an entrepreneur? And what does being an entrepreneur mean anyway? How to be a good one?”
So it is really learning on the job. And I sort of feel that people who do it quite often do it that way. Do you really learn about business and then go off and do it? I suppose some people do. But I sort of feel that there are two passions that you might have, the passion for what you are doing – which is my thing, and the same for all the people I work with – and the other reason to be an entrepreneur is to make money, and that is definitely not my motivation. It is just fascinating. I did a way of finding out about yourself called StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Gallup. And I did that last year, and for the first time I really understood what my method is. My main strength is learning. Then, I am about achieving. Then I’m about soaking up information, and then I am about activating people to work with me and finally I’m about strategizing. So, give me a learning curve to skip-up, and I’m happy! Now I understand what I do! I love learning new things, I love having new challenges, and that is what really spurs you on and gets you out of bed. And then you have the business that you have to keep going, and that is a learning curve as well, and it keeps getting you out of bed. There is no other job I’ve had that has been so challenging, but so fulfilling.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I am a social entrepreneur. The difference there, for me, is that being a social entrepreneur is about profit for a purpose, distinguished from charity, which is not-for-profit. For a long time, we were really worried about even using the word “profit”. But one of the key things that we learnt along the way, is that for a community benefit society, the profit legally has to be used for the benefit of the community! Because shareholder cash is treated actually as if it were a long-term loan. So, the return on their investment is treated as an operational cost, so it comes out before the bottom-line. Anything left legally belongs to the community. That makes a complete difference to the way that you operate. The CIC is a bit more complicated, in that it is a particular form of company. The Community Benefit Society is regulated through the Financial Conduct authority, and the CIC is regulated at company’s house. That operates more like a normal business, and the CIC form just makes explicit how you split the profit between shareholders and the community, but it is still the same sort of thing.
The thing I love about social entrepreneurship is that you are trying to solve social and environmental problems, in a way that is going to benefit people, and in a way that uses people’s investment over, and over, and over again. So you are, in a really fundamental way, trying to create value. For us, understanding what value means, and understanding that value is just not about pound notes, is absolutely the core of what we are about. I was very interested in listening to Mark Carney’s Reith Lecture yesterday, and the one last week – he is talking about values and markets in a way that I would recognise. I found it interesting that it is starting to happen. I am still a bit worried about calling myself a social entrepreneur, because I think that people do that a lot when they are not really. If you are going to be an entrepreneur, you are really about starting-up a business that needs to make a living, and keep making a living.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
In the first instance, it was persuading a group of people in West Oxford, or putting the idea to them, around 2007, the very end of 2007, after the summer floods. I had been invited to convene the Renewable’s Group for the new Low Carbon West Oxford charity, and I said “ok, I’ll do it, but I need to let you know I’ve got this idea”. And then a bid came-up for a grant-funded programme run through NESTA, the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, called the “Big Green Challenge”. And we got it!
That group of women – it was women around a kitchen table – actually listened to me and went “oh, that’s genius, let’s do it!”. And I just happened upon a group of 5 women who were just like “alright, what do we do, roll-up the sleeves, let’s do it!” After that, when we were thinking about how to move on from West Oxford and setting-up a bigger, wider thing, it was talking, getting into networks of civic society and businesses in Oxford, and coming across people with really huge backgrounds, in business, who were willing to listen! Who went, “oh that’s interesting, you need to meet this person”.
We would make a list of the influential people we needed to get behind us, we would ring them up and they would be “oh great come over for a chat”, and we went over for a chat, and sometimes they would be “oh yes, that’s really great, what do you need me to do?”, other times they would go “that’s really great but it’s not really my bag, so this is my advice” etc. Just having people, people at the City Council, people at the County Council, just really willing to listen, I still find that quite amazing that they did! It is always good to try something out on people. You never know, you might not be as mad as you think you are!
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Number 1 I would say is the ability to make partnerships, to gather what I call a ‘coalition of the willing’. You cannot be an entrepreneur on your own, especially if it is social entrepreneurship. Where are the people who are really going to back you? That’s the team of people, crazy people who are prepared to risk things, as well as the big organisations willing to partner, the people willing to give you their time – that network is absolutely invaluable. The partnerships that we still have with the City Council, County Council, both universities, now with big energy companies, that is absolutely invaluable.
Number 2 is knowing how to be deeply practical about how to turn an idea into reality. You have to have rules, you have to have methods, processes and systems, which is sort of boring when you are the person who likes to have the idea. But you do have to have money in the bank in order to survive! You cannot take your eye off that ball. You have to find a way of balancing between the big sunny upland that you are trying to get to, against the day-to-day realities of what you need to do to get there.
And Number 3, sort of following on from that Churchillian phrase: you just have to be a person who is prepared to Keep Buggering On. Grit! Determination! Stupidity!
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Making things happen. Having a plan, and seeing it actually work. And then seeing the reactions of people to having put that plan in place. I cannot tell you how brilliant the community groups are, that we work with, they are inspirational. We are trying to create this growing fern-like, fractal structure, that grows and generates from small beginnings, and seeing that actually operating is just the best thing.
The next thing, that sort of brings tears to my eyes actually, and I did not expect this: being able to employ people in really good jobs. Where they are fulfilling a purpose, they get a good training, they are being treated well, hopefully. It sorts of strikes home even more during this pandemic, but that is a really deep, unexpected joy. The other thing is seeing the guilt lift from people’s shoulders, when you offer them a way that they can actually do something about carbon emissions.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I find this quite a difficult one to think about. I was not inspired into doing what I am doing by anyone, I was not following anyone. I was inspired by the group of people that I was working with in West Oxford, I am inspired by the group of people I work with at the Low Carbon Hub. There are zillions of people that have been amazing.
One of them is Tim Stevenson, who is the Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire. He has been the most brilliant supporter, in a really unheavy sort of way. He just checks-in, puts in support where needed, and he also really understood the importance of doing something about carbon emissions. Then there are all of the organisations that make up Community Energy England, which is the sort of trade-body for organisations like ours, they are all different but all inspirational in their different ways.
Two particular people that I love talking to: Nicky Chambers, who is a local entrepreneur, she was involved in a company called “Best Foot Forward”, with a guy called Craig Simmons, and they did the foot-printing for the London Olympics, for example. She is really active, and she is just so clear, and focused, and practical. You never have a call with her which is not useful. And the other person I would say is a woman called Felicity Jones, who is a partner at Everoze Consultants. She has got one of the sharpest minds I have ever come across. She did PPE, I think it was, at Christ Church, and she is now doing energy consulting. Again, she is really crisp and clear, and she has got a great way of combining the blunt challenge to you, with the most enthusiastic “what we can do if we meet the challenge” approach. She is that really good combination of scary, bracing and supportive, enthusiastic. She is about half of my age, and I am thinking “I wish I knew at your age what you know, I’m learning from you”.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Whenever I talk to these people, I want them to help me get clarity. See the wood for the trees. Help me structure my thinking. I am a very sort of right-brain, visual, conceptual, systems-type thinker. I need people who are really good, logical, left-brain thinkers.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
The first one is, learning as a CEO, the truth that as CEO you are always looking for the next funding, the next opportunity. You are never in a position where you are resting on your laurels. And you just have to know that. It is about raising funding mainly, and being prepared to do that. The other thing I have learnt from mistakes, is that it is really important who you appoint to your Board and your team. You should not ever approach that lightly, or do it without enough care and attention just because you have got so much else on. It is a really serious thing, and needs to be treated as well as you can, as best-practice as you possibly can. Because it is the people who make an organisation stand or fall, ultimately.
Once or twice, I have gone “oh that’s great, I can now see a future for the Hub, so I can just rest my brains a little bit.” Every single time I have done that, something big has happened, policy-wise or illness-wise or whatever. You sort of have to learn that, even when you are on holiday, or asleep, a bit of your brain is whirring “is everything ok, do I know what is going on, where is the next thing?”. You need to like that.
Another thing that I can get wrong is making enough time to listen. I don’t know if you know about Myers-Briggs personality typing – I work out on that method as an INFP. One of the things that means, among many, is that I get my energy from my values within, and I like spending time on my own working things out, I like going into my cave to do that. I am a bit too ready to do that sometimes, because I like it so much. I need to make sure that I am communicating and listening as much as I possibly can as well. I am never going to be completely right all on my own; it is a combination of opinions that is going to be right.
Aligned with that, I can also just drive forward too aggressively. So just taking time to be considered as far as possible, although sometimes that is difficult in the rough and tumble of taking and making opportunities. But I should spend more time to be more aware of what impact I am having on people around me. The main thing I have learnt as a result of all of that is that the best thing I can do is know my own strengths and weaknesses as well as I can, so I can modify and temper those, use my strengths to their best and find ways of accommodating my weaknesses. Particularly, for me, it is about drawing confidence from my strengths, rather than allowing my weaknesses to undermine my confidence.
How have you funded your ideas?
One of the interesting things about social enterprises, the way they are structured legally, is that it is quite hard to raise risk capital into them. Because you cannot give away ownership of the company in return. You cannot sell the company on to make a profit, because all the profit is owned by the community. So the sources of that risk capital generally turn out to be public funds, or charitable foundation funds.
For a long time, I felt really guilty about that, because it felt as if I was not doing business properly, until I talked to another inspirational person, John Boyle, who is one of the owners of Oxford Computer Consultants. He is a really wise person, he spends a lot of his time mentoring, he is a wonderful person. He said to me “Barbara, do not worry about that because, for you, that grant funding is the equivalent of Venture Capital funding. Don’t feel at all worried about it, it is your equivalent, just go for it when you need it”. So grant funding has funded a lot of what we do. The other point that he made, that is equally wise, is that any source of funding takes about the same time to get, and has about the same amount of rules, of bureaucracy, attached to it. There is no easy way of getting money. So, grant funding in the first instance, and we still do that to fund innovation projects, as any business would do.
And then, the major part of what we have comes from investors, who are mainly ordinary people, although we also have some people who are sophisticated investors. We have now got over 1300 investors. We raise equity in a particular way that is exempt from the financial regulations; it is all part of the our particular corporate structure, as a Community Benefit Society. It means that we can raise capital quite cheaply, because our due diligence requirements are less onerous than for a normal company, but it also means that we are limited in the amount that any one investor can invest. Every shareholder has one vote, so you cannot get control over our company by owning large numbers of its shares. So there is probably a natural limit to the size that the Low Carbon Hub can be, and one of the things that we have been thinking about in business planning has been, what size we need to be in order to play the role in the energy transition in Oxfordshire that we need to play? How we can be the right size to be necessary to that, but not sufficient to it?
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
In the early days, there were grants focused on low carbon communities, and we really benefited from that. And then grant programmes around energy efficiency, from government. Europe also with Horizon 2020 funding. And recently, we have been part of a consortium led by Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) and including both universities, city, county, etc for an Innovate UK funded programme worth about 40 million pounds. About £27m is match funding, ie provided by the consortium partners, and £13m is grant funding. We have got to the point where we can generate enough cash to provide our own match for programmes like that, which is an amazing thing to be able to do.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
I am sure everybody answering this question will be saying Oxfordshire is an amazing place to innovate, because it has got amazing networks and infrastructure for that. For low carbon, zero-carbon, energy in particular, a few people put in a lot of effort through the 2005-2010 period, to build an innovation network, which is still reaping benefits now, and is just getting bigger and deeper. That has just been amazing for us, and we have been part of building it.
Part of my background that I find really useful is that when we were setting-up the stuff in West Oxford, I was a senior civil servant in central government, running the UK renewable energy programmes. And I had also worked before in local government. So I came into it with a really good understanding of how things worked in both central and local government. I could build partnerships because I understood how to put win:win proposals together.
The other thing that is particularly important to us, which is a feature of this innovation network in Oxfordshire, is that many people involved in it professionally, also volunteer in their private lives in something community – community energy, community food etc. You are often coming across people who really understand things from both sides, and that makes it so much easier. I am not quite sure why that is, but it is a feature, and people who come in from outside, from places that have big reputations for innovation, networking in this area, come in and go “oh right so you really are doing partnership here, you really are doing innovation networking”, and I think it is a special thing.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
There is a really good mentoring scheme, it is probably called “Mentors” or something like that, where business people like John Boyle, and many other many wonderful people like him, give up time to mentor new people. The Said Business School is another source of help, for social enterprise as well as mainstream business development. There is also a really great thing called Charity Mentors, which can encompass social enterprises as well, where you are matched with somebody who has particular skills, expertise, experience, that they can help you with. My own experience of starting-out was bashing the internet a lot! There is loads of stuff you can find on the Internet. Oxfordshire is a particular place for Social Enterprise UK, which can be another source of mentoring. The Co-op, Co-op Futures, has really great materials for cooperatives in particular and also community benefit societies.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I would say all the “normal” ones; you tend to get patronised, and people do not hear what you say, all of that sort of stuff. That is just a bit dispiriting, you just have to find a way of dealing with it. Sometimes it makes me really cross. Sometimes it makes my jaw hit the floor, actually.
I have not experienced difficulty in getting funding because I am a woman, which is great. I think there are some people who have not followed-up and worked with us because it is run by a woman, but that is just my impression. Increasingly, all the people I work with, I find that it is not a thing, it is not “am I male and you are female” or whatever it might be. The really great people that I work with, I am not even really aware anymore that I am a woman. What I would say, however, for some people who do not know you in a particular milieu, the combination of being a woman CEO and having the label of community energy just turns people. When I was still doing both my senior civil service role and my community energy one, I would meet the same person in both roles, and they would treat me completely differently! I think there is something actually that is more of a problem around the word “community”, the word “social enterprise”, where people sort of think you are fluffy, and you’re definitely not. You have to be better at business to make a social enterprise work.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
We have a network in Oxford called “Women in Sustainability”, run by a wonderful woman called Thalia Carr, and I’d recommend anybody to go along to some of these meetings. It is just great, being in a room full of people, where you do not have to modify at all!
The StrengthsFinder that I mentioned was just a revelation. It was, let’s not do appraisal about people’s weaknesses anymore, let’s be about how we build your strengths, and be really positive about them.
The other thing I would say is really listen very hard to successful men and women, and how they operate, so you can see what things could be appropriate for you. Also, listen very hard in meetings as to how the successful people in those meetings operate, particularly women. There is just a quiet, solid power about successful women that I wish I had. Trying to repeat that is a really good thing to do. It is about having a quiet strength and solidity about what you are doing, and identifying the appropriate time to make your intervention. The calm strength of the intervention that you make is what it is all about.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I think it would be helpful if people were really mindful and intentional about bringing women into senior and Board roles. I have had a number of examples recently where we have been thinking about setting-up Boards, and you quite often get the “oh, I cannot think of any women”, “oh I am not sure we have got the time to train any women”. And when you suggest someone: “oh, yeah, she’s fantastic, why did I not think of her?” There need to be lists of great women held, I think, so that they spring to mind very easily. I have been very interested in the way in which programmes like University Challenge have started making a real point about including questions about women, and how often I do not know the answer either. On our Board at the moment, one or two women have left for some reason and I am soon going to be the only woman on it unless we put a careful succession plan in place. Otherwise it is going to be another bunch of middle-aged white guys again. No one is immune to it, and you have to be really watchful to make a difference. I think the university can make a huge difference in doing that for all of its appointments.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Concentrate on your strengths. Because your strengths are what is going to feed you. Do not allow anyone to make you focus on your weaknesses. Really try hard not to be defensive. It is one of my big weaknesses. Notice behaviours, and work-out which ones are going to be helpful to you, that you can model and mirror, and how to deal with some of the unhelpful ones. I am still working on how best to make myself heard.
The other thing I would is that women have got to get much better at being part of self-supporting networks, as men are. There is just a whole way that men will tell the truth of the future in a way that is very convincing to other men, and those men will go away and amplify it. It is a whole amplification sound box, which women do not have, there just is no equivalent, so you have to put in much more effort, it does not happen as naturally. Male entitlement is a real thing, and it is not anybody’s fault, it is just a thing. Any amount of equal pay is not going to sort that out, but you have to find ways of dealing with it without getting really cross and upset and angry about it.
One of the things that has taken me ages to work through is that I left the civil service because of a gender pay discrimination issue, that they would not sort out. I had to take them to court and it was actually settled out of court, in the end. It made me so angry, I was just burning with anger for so long, and it really made it hard for me to respond effectively to others, it was sort of soaking up emotional energy all the time. I am happily beyond that now, but it took a long time to work through that and deal with the anger. Even when it was settled I was still angry. And then I was angry that I was put under a non-disclosure agreement, that meant I could not talk about it. Now I find, because of #MeToo, that they should never have put me under a non-disclosure agreement, and so I missed the opportunity to help other women. Because it had not gone to court, there was no court case to help other women.
So try not to be bogged down by these things, try to find your methods that build on your strengths, and make sure that you are partnering and networking with other women to get the amplification happening. And also other men! I have to say that blokes are really good when they are completely gender-blind, because then they will use those things that they normally do as a blokes’ thing, to help you.
Any last words of advice?
One thing I think that women are really good at, is having the ideas and the passion for doing business in a way that achieves societal benefit. Maybe because women are not so invested in the established way of doing things, there just seems to be more space for us to think differently, and have different motivations. I would hate that to be lost in equalising some of the structures that I was talking about just now. We should celebrate that.
EnSpire Oxford is a University of Oxford initiative to help connect people to the entrepreneurship resources they need, and to promote entrepreneurship across Oxfordshire.
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