On the Sofa - Sarah Sharlott

by Sarah Sharlott 02/09/2015

What’s your business?

Realise Futures is a Community Interest Company providing products and services which help people get on in work learning and life. I usually say “we do stuff” but that’s not a very clear elevator pitch! But if you try to describe a company that covers the range of things we do from Careers Advice, Employment Support, Community Learning to making public space furniture from recycled plastic or running a wholefood shop you can see how hard it is to sum up what we do in a couple of sentences.

What did you do before you set up the business?

Prior to setting up Realise Futures I worked for several Local Authorities and for the NHS, though I began my working life as a Community Worker on a couple of large inner city estates in Leicester

Tell us what motivated you to spin-out of the public sector?

I was and remain a very proud public servant but I knew that the services that I was responsible for were those which were good to have not essential and that in a time of cuts ours would be the first to go regardless of quality because we were not statutorily required. We had also participated in a Trans- European project which studied models of social enterprises and social cooperatives in Germany, Italy, Poland and Lithuania and so we had an idea that we could do things differently and better. I loved the services I was responsible for within the local authority and I loved the people I worked with. I wanted us to stay together doing what we did best and so I knew that the best way to do this would be to become independent of the County Council and let our entrepreneurial side flourish with fewer constraints.

How would you describe the journey?

Like tunnelling out with a plastic teaspoon initially but SO rewarding when I look at the impact we have made and the changes I have seen in the lives of the people we work with. I have also laughed a lot. Not from hysteria honestly! I also think a sense of perspective and a sense of humour is essential.

What would be your advice to yourself now if you were starting out?

Obtain better advice on state aid and be more forceful in contract negotiations!

Ensure all the basics are fully in place such as the necessary policies and procedures.

Get the board that you want in place at the start so that they can help with transition.

Make sure you have support for yourself to help stay resilient.

Keep a sense of perspective. You are not in this alone!

What is your best advice to people setting out now

Take care of yourself.

Be confident in your reasons for stepping out.

Take as much good advice from sector experts be they lawyers or specialist support organisations such as Stepping Out as you can afford!

If you hadn’t done this, what might you have done?

Found a job in the Community and Voluntary Sector or become a Commissioner with another Local Authority!

How do you see the future of your business?

Sustained and sustainable growth, replication of some parts of our businesses into other parts of the region.

What do you think the new government will mean for the mutuals sector? 

I think there will be ongoing support for the Mutuals process. It is clearly one way of replacing government funding with other sources of incomes for some services. There are wholesale transformations of some services which could yield tremendous benefits but I think greater dynamism and leadership is required within both National and Local Government so that people feel there is an enabling culture and the right support systems are in place to enable them to step out. I am convinced there will be much more mutualisation of services given the successes of some of the ones we have seen in Suffolk. A coherent national agenda and debate would be a great help.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Personally, working in a different organisation and possibly working in a different way. More project work, probably doing some more regional and national  work on governance and leadership within the sector and maybe providing some Non exec support to Community Enterprises of my choice! That said, if the right job came along possibly in Australia then I would jump at the chance of trying out some of the work I have done “down under” But staying in the Social Enterprise Mutuals Sector for sure.

To finish, what is your one single big message to public sector bodies looking at spinning out

If you believe in the transformative power of public services to be a force for good in the local community this is the best way you have of achieving that ambition.


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