Sara Fernandez is CEO of Oxford Hub, a local charity that brings people and organisations together to make Oxford a better place for everyone through programmes focused on building relationships, participation and systemic change. They also run the refill shop OxUnboxed and have incubated social enterprises such as Uncomfortable Oxford and StepShop.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I did lots of volunteering while I was at university, back when it wasn’t that popular! After graduation I wanted to build a community around that work; we have so much at our doorstep, and it would be amazing if more students got to know the community outside the ‘Oxford bubble’. I joined the Oxford Hub in 2009 and I’m still there today.
Due to the success of the Oxford Hub, we expanded to build the model nationally through the charity Student Hubs. I was CEO of Student Hubs for four years, but my heart was always in Oxford. We knew that our ambitions were beyond just student volunteering, although students are always at the heart of what we do. Diversifying allows use to work on more complex, long-term issues with local residents, charities and councils.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is being willing to take the risk even if it may fail. I’ve always preferred action over inaction – and for me, spending time testing things rather than writing a business plan…
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
We’ve always been about building it first and seeing if people take it up. We don’t go into a dark room and make a plan and roll it out. By giving students the lead, our projects are likely to be relevant and what students need – so people are more likely to come.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
One, have a good grasp of how to prototype. Can you stop talking about it and actually start doing it?
Two, have a way of dealing with your fears. Some things are going to go really wrong. Ask yourself: what are you scared of, what holds you back and how are you going to deal with that?
Three, build a really good support network. Find a gang of people doing similar things who can support you, recommend resources and provide motivation.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
We’re really plugged into the student and the community energy, as well as the University. It gives us great opportunities to make things happen and we’re really able to react quickly. For example, we set up Oxford Together as the community response to COVID-19, launching activities before the official lockdown started. This included building a digital solution which was integrated with the City Council’s response and supporting thousands of requests for help.
What individual, company, or organization inspires you most? Why?
Something that really bugs me is consumerism. I mean, who invented shopping as a pastime? I’m passionate about figuring out how to put money in better places rather than spending it on ‘things’. So, I’m most inspired by Ethex, which makes it easier for people to put their money into projects that are worthwhile. I supported Flo’s – The Place in the Park through Ethex.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I’d love to talk to Lisa Ashford, their CEO, about her perspective on behaviour change. How do you make positive investment mainstream and simple? How do you get people to invest socially, locally and ethically?
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures, or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
You can have the best plan, the best strategy and the best idea but really the most important thing is to have a brilliant team. You just want talent, even if that is raw talent. We’ve constructed a culture where we can take on graduates, put the training in place and build a develop an amazing team.
How have you funded your ideas?
We have diversified funding streams. Although the organisation is run like a charity in terms of governance, our funding is more akin to a social enterprise. Philanthropic funding can ebb and flow and is often unrelated to the quality of the enterprise. We’re not a ‘cheque-writing charity’ like a homelessness or cancer charity may be, so we’ve built funding streams that are more directly related to the quality of our work.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
UnLtd had a higher education programme that we participated in 2010. It gave us more exposure, support and connections.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
We’ve had long-term support from mentors and advisors in the University. In particular the Careers Service gave us our first office and Jonathan Black (Director of the Careers Service) has been a great mentor. He became our Chair of trustees when we spun out in 2018 and set up as a place-based charity.
The organisation has changed a lot since I joined, as has the University. The University is a global brand and for many years volunteering hadn’t been their focus. But we’ve become much more rooted in the community and the University is moving that way too. Plus, it’s a beautiful city. Oxford and Oxfordshire are full of people doing really amazing things for social justice. Mind you, it’s not London. The social enterprise scene can be very London focused, but even so Oxford has a good profile.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I am a book junkie! I’d recommend How Google Works – it’s a great book that challenged the mainstream wisdom around strategy. There are other ways of building strategy than the five-year plan!
Otherwise, OSEP (Oxfordshire Social Entrepreneurship Partnership) has been really useful for networking. Social change is slow so It’s important to build a network with people who share similar values.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
The times where I have faced difficulty have not been just for being a woman but also for being really young. When we were setting up Turl Street Kitchen, there was a chief executive of a big foundation who said that we’d never be able to do it because we didn’t have the experience. However, you can learn and you can build a supportive network to help you do things for the first time.
Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Be aware of where you find your own personal validation. There’s a wisdom that says that you should always get a mentor, but sometimes we need to remember that just because you are young doesn’t mean that you will be wrong. We do have a lot of wisdom and intuition inside us, so learn when to ask for help, and also when to trust your gut.
Any last words of advice?
At university I thought I was so busy… and then I started at the Oxford Hub and I couldn’t believe I ever thought that I was busy as a student. So, make time at university to try things. You have time!