Claire Carpenter founded The Melting Pot, Scotland’s Centre for Social Innovation, a space that facilitates co-working, networking and shared learning for organisations involved in social change.
Things like Breaking The Mould are incredibly important. One of the things that I discovered from my master’s thesis on the motivations of eco-social activists is that people need examples. We can’t all be Nelson Mandela, we can’t all be David Attenborough – hero, hero! – but actually you can make a massive difference to your community, your town, your place, your country or other countries – you just have to get involved.
There were many women in Breaking The Mould I hadn’t known about, which made me think about that classic thing ‘do you get the profile that you deserve?’ So many people are recognised in politics, in business, but who celebrates the change makers and social entrepreneurs? Who gives them a nice pat on the back? Change makers tend to be campaigner-y type people and there are all sorts of ways to be an activist; campaigning happens in lots of ways. I provide resources and profiles to people who need it, using a social business structure rather than a campaign to change the law, or affect policy. Business models are not typically thought of as campaign agents, but they are important and viable ways to create change.
The idea for The Melting Pot came from a need I experienced myself and recognised in others – I perceived a need and then I created a business. I wanted to resource people who work in social change and bring them together. I’m a really practical person – physically practical as well as mentally practical – I like to solve problems and make things easier. I don’t see the point of paying for a desk 365 days a year if you’re not there 365 days a year. Having always worked in the third sector, I know loads of organisations have staff at work for two or three days a week and they have to buy or rent whole offices. That entails loads of juggling; informal hot desking in your an office, the office as a ghost town on certain days and overall, you’re paying more than you should do. There’s a practicality of providing space – it’s second to staff costs if you think about the outgoings involved in running an organisation.
Coworking is a philosophy of community, personal and economic development. I wanted to bring together a diverse network to cross paths, cross-pollinate, get to know each other, share knowledge and expertise. With coworking there are more opportunities for connection and serendipity than there would be in any other normal office. The office space is just one part of the platform, it’s a container to bring together people and resources and information, news, profile and for you know, the magic inside to emerge. There are currently about 170 members and another 10,000 delegates that come to events held here every year. The membership is always changing, some have been here since the beginning as members of the coworking community and others come for 2 months because they’re travelling – it’s very variable.
I’d had this seedling idea in my brain for a long time, I knew what I needed to exist; but that is quite different to getting to the position of ‘I’m going to take that forward’. I wanted to be surrounded by other people that I thought were making a positive difference… why wouldn’t you? I spent a couple of years discussing this big idea with a few positive reflectors -actually, all women – then got a email from an organisation called The Hub who really were the pioneer of coworking. They described their space in London and what it was about, who it was for, what they offer, and I thought ‘that’s my business idea, oh my god!’ I was quite excited. I went and saw them and I thought; OK if they can do this in London then someone else could do this in Edinburgh. It’s huge and scary undertaking but if I don’t have a go I’ll always wonder.
If I think about impact, we’ve certainly helped loads of social change organisations survive. I’ve definitely achieved what I set out to do, which was to create resource base for diverse organisations, working in social change that would create lots of added value and provide lots of good quality practical resources and put people on the map. I’ve done that, tick, tick, tick, lots of ticks! It’s a fantastic space to work in, people love the energy here. We’ve got endless stories of people that get that little bit of signposting, they get a bit of advice, they get a pep talk, they get a cup of tea when they’re feeling down, they get a board member, they get a coach, they have been able to ride their own financial rollercoaster, scale-up or scale-down, or access the right bit of learning at the right time.
There are many challenges; they change all the time depending on what stage you’re at. At the start there was two and a half years of work including market research, writing a business plan, all done with volunteers and a little bit of consultancy. Taking on a £90,000 a year lease is a scary thing, horrifically scary but we made such progress that there seemed like no other alternative. Entrepreneurs take risks, that’s what happens – you create momentum and you’re in a course of motion. Since then I think the challenges have really reflected our the lack of experience and resources- for example now you can buy software that will run a coworking space, but that didn’t exist at the start; we were doing everything on Excel sheets. When we started mass communication tools like Mail Chimp, and Twitter and Facebook weren’t in common use. Building a website, trying to articulate what The Melting Pot does was difficult and at the start nobody got it, maybe that’s a complete lack of experience with anything to do with marketing, quite likely, but it was all too different; we never fitted any boxes.
As with anything, money and people have made things easier, but people and money – or the lack of them or the wrong people, or wrong skills, not knowing what you’re looking for – have also been the cause of problems. I remember hiring someone for a part-time role to do with financial management and I had no idea what I was looking for – it’s hard to know if someone’s good, you can’t check their work if you don’t know how to do it yourself. So inexperience, my own and other peoples’ has been a challenge. But then, good will and enthusiasm and naivety makes stuff happen too… if you had a more sensible head on thinking ‘that’s never going to happen’ then you’ll never take the plunge. There’s a saying – ‘market research will tell you what is probable, not what is possible’. Sometimes you just have to take a horse to water and force it to drink.
We have an incubation programme where we support 30 people a year who are creating or developing a non-profit organisation. It’s a big programme and they get free resources and lots of support. Right now we’re working with Invisible Edinburgh – they have a great idea and I think they will go far.
It has been an arduous, long and stressful process. While we’ve achieved some really good things a wider public profile outside the social enterprise sector has not been forthcoming, perhaps it’s something about me being a bit humble; I’m told I’m not that great at shouting, blowing my own trumpet. I am being nominated this year by someone in RBS for the Every Woman Awards so we will see, you never know, I might not be the bridesmaid. We tend to try and promote other people as hard as we can but, it’s a lean team with lean resources.
As for the future I’d like to share my learning. I’ve developed a package called the Coworking Accelerator Network – to accelerate the growth of any social entrepreneur who’s creating a community. I’m used to doing the mentoring and development of individuals who want to get a social change organisation off the ground, now I’m looking at share my expertise, experience and systems with entrepreneurs who want to create their own coworking hubs. So, a different focus for me; I’ll let the things that I’ve set up over the years be taken on by other people because it doesn’t need me to keep running it.
Loads of ecologists & peace activists inspire me, but that’s to pigeonhole people; the reality is that people inspire me who get up off their ass and try and do something, whatever that is, just get active. It might be a campaign or they might they run a mums’ and toddlers’ group and get involved in creating social capital in their work around them and their network, that’s great.