Julian is co-founder of three Oxford-based sustainability initiatives, the community edible garden OxGrow, the sustainable food business Cultivate, and the city’s sustainable food network Good Food Oxford. His career as a community entrepreneur has focused on creating a more sustainable and fair food system in and around the Oxford area.
Julian holds a B.A. in Human Sciences (St John’s College) and an MSc. in Nature, Society and Environmental Policy from the University of Oxford (Mansfield College). During his master’s course he co-founded OxGrow, and after graduating he co-founded Cultivate in 2011 and Good Food Oxford in 2013.
Having since handed over the reins of these three initiatives, Julian now works as a freelance social impact and sustainability consultant and remains involved with Oxford University through work with Saïd Business School’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and the Smith School for Enterprise and Environment.
What is your background? Why are you doing this?
When I was studying for my master’s degree I got involved in OxGrow, an exciting project that was just getting off the ground. A piece of land that had formerly been Corpus Christi College’s sports ground was leased to the community for sustainability uses as a peppercorn rent, becoming Hogacre Common Eco Park.
I was part of a small group that set up a community food-growing project on the old grass tennis courts. We even used the old tennis nets to protect the garden from deer!
Out of that, a group of us wanted to do something involving local, organic food on a commercial scale. Although there was a lot of demand for sustainable food, and a reasonable supply from local farms, they were only linked by box schemes and the farmers’ market. There was a gap in the market.
Cultivate was inspired to fill that gap and grow the market, and our innovative solution was a mobile greengrocery that we built from a second-hand van. It still operates around Oxford as a delivery service using bicycles (the van has since gone kaput).
Good Food Oxford built on both these experiences, aimed at making systemic changes to sustainable food across the city. It’s a backbone organisation, meaning that it’s a network connecting people across Oxford who want to see a better food system, but lack the coordination or funding to achieve their shared goals. We worked with a coalition including the City Council and Cultivate and had a huge impact in providing a focal point for food sustainability and food access in Oxford.
All three groups are still going and are now part of a very rich sustainable food scene in the city.
Ideas are two a penny – I think you can’t know how good an idea is until you test it. The biggest leap I made personally was with Cultivate, in deciding to invest myself fully in a crazy community project rather than going down a more conventional path out of a master’s degree. There’s a moment of truth – you just have to make the leap.
It’s important to spot untapped opportunities. Especially for community entrepreneurship, look at what’s working elsewhere, and what might be lacking near you. That was definitely the case with Good Food Oxford. The Sustainable Food Cities Network was emerging across the UK, but there was an opportunity and support for a similar initiative in Oxford, which didn’t yet exist.
For backbone organisations like Good Food Oxford it’s much harder to generate revenue. You’re not selling anything as such, so you need to speak the language of the zeitgeist to tap into existing funding opportunities before developing your own diversified funding model.
Getting stuff done without rules and being creative. The opportunity to do a bit of everything is such fun. One of my favourite parts of setting up Cultivate was building our mobile shop. For a start we had to buy a second-hand van, and then we found a fantastic local graffiti artist called Kleiner Shames, who for a very modest free spray-painted the outside of the van by hand in a borrowed warehouse – it looked absolutely fantastic. We found some local carpenters who were very creative in turning such a small space into an operational shop unit.
You’re confronted with a blank canvas and then make something that appeals to people and you can share with them. That creativity is one of the best things about being entrepreneurial for me.
One of my big inspirations is people getting together to do stuff in the community just because they believe in it. There’s endless overlooked creativity, talent and drive that people deploy in their spare time, in Oxford and beyond. Covid-19 has really shown this off – a group of local organisations close to us in Florence Park created the OX4 Free Food Crew and have been cooking high-quality meals for people who need it in the community. Other friends set up the Oxfordshire Kindness Wave to send housewarming parcels to care leavers and unaccompanied asylum seekers moving into independent accommodation and who might be experiencing loneliness and isolation.
That’s the kind of thing that inspires me most – it’s people seeing an opportunity to make our community better and just doing it because they love it.
One of the hardest and most rewarding things for me is working with a wide set of stakeholders who have to develop a shared sense of ownership in the project. In community-based projects it’s not all about you. Whatever vision you might have, you have to communicate and sell that vision, and be prepared for others not to share it immediately, if ever. And equally you have to be prepared to know when to compromise and take a back seat. I have sometimes been guilty of not doing that as well as I could, which can really put the whole project at risk. It’s very different to conventional business, in community entrepreneurship you have to get the balance right between collective input and agility. And because there aren’t so many community businesses around, there aren’t as many models of how to do that.
How have you funded your ideas?
For Cultivate we used a novel funding mechanism called Community Shares. We raised capital by offering co-ownership in the cooperative, ending up with a start-up fund of £80,000. Those several hundred members had a sense of belonging in the initiative – it’s a great mechanism for new projects, especially for community assets.
Crowdfunding is more well known, but you don’t get that co-ownership of the business which drives support as well as capital. Cultivate benefits from its status as a community benefit cooperative, with a social purpose built into its founding principles. As a hybrid organisation, it’s able to access both commercial revenue and grant funding.
Good Food Oxford was initially provided with free office and meeting space and some of the working time of one of the other co-founders by another amazing community sustainability organization, Low Carbon Hub. We later received two years of core funding from a private benefactor with a strong interest in transforming local food systems. Now, funding is a mosaic of different types of support as well as some earned income.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you? What support have you received along the way?
Masses, too much to name. OxGrow is a voluntary, grassroots initiative, but it couldn’t exist without the gift of the land from the College or the support of the wider eco-park and community infrastructure.
Sustainable Food Cities provided a network and a structure for Good Food Oxford. Receiving advice and having a benchmark of best practice is just as important as financial support for new projects.
Getting media coverage has also been very helpful. National media were particularly interested in Cultivate, helping us reinforce our local presence and build momentum. We appeared on Radio 4’s Farming Today and Food Programme, who were interested in young people innovating in the food system, and about our cooperative model of food distribution.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
There’s certainly a lot of advantages. The university community provides knowledge, resources and people – the student base is a really valuable asset. Good Food Oxford benefited from collaboration with the Environmental Change Institute, and from an annual stream of brilliant student interns.
One downside for community entrepreneurship is that Oxford is a high-cost city. That was why we launched Cultivate with a mobile shop rather than taking premises – it was lower cost and more agile. Our warehouse and packing centre were located outside the city to save on fixed costs.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
There’s a huge amount out there. I’d be remiss to not mention my former employer the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, which can offer some great leadership development opportunities as well as advice for social entrepreneurs on thinking through and maximizing impact. There are also more niche support offerings around community entrepreneurship, for example from the Plunkett Foundation, which is based locally. Entrepreneurs are hardly ever encouraged to think about governance but there are a whole range of organizational formats including community benefit societies and cooperatives that open up new possibilities for what running a company is about. Organisations like Cooperatives UK are useful for that.
Any last words of advice?
Have a vision by all means (in fact this is vital), but start small and prototype. This is pretty standard lean start-up type advice but I think it bears repeating that you can only really learn from doing, and your first idea won’t be the way you end up doing things.