We spoke with Jem Stein, the winner of the Lloyds Bank 2015 Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Jem is the director of the Bike Project, a social enterprise that gives refugees the opportunity to cycle and improve their mobility. We discussed the challenges of starting an enterprise, what it means to be a social entrepreneur, and the evolution of the Bike Project.

About Jem Stein:

Jem Stein is the director and founder of the Bike Project, a social enterprise that provides refurbished bikes for refugees and asylum seekers. The ability to cycle as a means of transportation enables refugees and asylum seekers to better access resources in London in the face of high transportation costs. What began as a side project for Jem while working for another charity, has since provided 1,400 bikes to people.

Jem studied at Oxford University before attending the London School of Economics where he participated in a refugee mentoring program that inspired his work.  Growing up in Oxford he witnessed how popular and useful bikes were for getting around. Getting inspiration from this and his experience with the difficulties his mentee faced, Jem set out to do something about it. He hopes to grow the Bike Project geographically and get even more people cycling.

Follow The Bike Project on Twitter @The_BikeProject and read more at thebikeproject.co.uk

Our interview

Can you tell us about your background and what inspired your involvement in social enterprise?

Jem:  I started getting involved in refugee issues when I was at University, where I mentored a refugee from Darfur. I was at LSE, and started mentoring him when he was 16. I ended up getting him a bike, because when he came here he really struggled getting around, which made mentoring him very difficult. At that point a bus pass was about £16 a week, and now it’s about £21.20 a week. He only had £36 a week to live on, and wasn’t allowed to work. So actually doing anything with him was very difficult. I grew up in Oxford which was cycling bonkers, and so I just got him an old bike. That meant we could go to places and actually do stuff, rather than just sitting around or me having to shuttle out a lot of money for this transport.  That was sort of the first step into normal living for him.  When I graduated I started working for another charity and set up the Bike Project in my spare time. We refurbished bikes in the back garden and cycle drop in center. To cut a long story short I left my job to set this up in November 2012, and we launched in March 2013. [We have been operating for three years]. I don’t really have a background in social enterprise or business, it was just a sort of snowball, and there wasn’t any type of grand plan. At every stage it was like we “go up another level and then go up another level.”

What is the mission of The Bike Project and some of the milestones you have reached?

Jem: Our mission is pretty simple- to get refugees cycling. That’s what we put on our website, it’s what our staff does – that’s what we are here to do. We have been running three years, and we have given out 1,400 bikes. Now 1,400 refugees have bikes and means of getting to resources in London. We are very pleased with that and we know there is a lot more work to do.  Another milestone is that we have set up a separate project to teach refugee women to cycle. We realized we became very male dominant, and when we did a bit of research we realized the reasons for that was because refugee women came from societies where it wasn’t socially accepted to cycle. Now, we run a bit of funding to teach them to cycle from scratch. This program runs weekly out of another refugee charity we work with. There are also other kinds of milestones, like winning awards and money, but from an impact perspective, the previous are the important milestones.

Can you tell us about your team and the people and volunteers who work with you?

Jem: We have six staff at the moment, and lots of volunteers. A lot of people come in at different times doing different things. We have a really great bunch of volunteers. There’s a variety of people.  For instance we have an Eritrean refugee who came to us through the project, got a bike from us, volunteered with us, and we saw that he had a knack for bike mechanics. We helped him to train through another charity called Bike Works and now he works for us full time as a bike mechanic.

How exactly does the  Bike Project work?

Jem: We have second hand bikes donated, so we collect them from: individual donations, train stations, property companies, local councils, and police. We get a funnel of donations and refurbish them and donate them to refugees and asylum seekers. Refugees and asylum seekers also volunteer to help fix the bikes as well, and then we have to Women’s Project which is separate from that.

Can you tell us about the people who are the beneficiaries of the Bike Project? Is there a particular story you could share with us?

Jem:  I think that Ahmeed’s is a good story.  He came to the Bike Project as a 21 year old, got a bike from us and we just realized he had a knack for bike mechanics. He fled Eritrea by himself when he was kid and managed to come here. We supported him to train and now he works for us full time. It was just a fluke really, I don’t think we will go with the employability route with refugees and asylum seekers, especially as many of them can’t work. But, it has been great to work with him!

What programs and social enterprise networks are you involved in?

Jem: I have done two courses at the School for Social Entrepreneurs. I’m a twice fellow of School for Social Entrepreneurs. That’s really my main network. I still keep up with all the graduates form the two courses I’ve done there: start up and scale up.  I’m quite involved in that community. It’s a small world- the social enterprise community, so you meet a lot of people in the sector.

What advice do you have for others starting at social enterprise or pursuing a career in this field?

Jem: Starting a social enterprise is probably not for most people. People shouldn’t be under any illusions of what they are getting themselves into. It’s not a job, but a lifestyle choice and a way of life for however long your choose to do it for. Be aware that you are about to start a hell of a roller coaster journey, and don’t expect to have too much else going on in your life at that point.

Can you tell us some of the major challenges you faced with starting the Bike Project or some typical challenges social entrepreneurs might face?

Jem: I think there are two big challenges that social entrepreneurs face. The first one is money. For a lot of organizations, but particularly start-ups, finances is really the most important thing that you do. Either grants, donations, trade, or investment, whatever it is, you have to have money coming in the door. We are lucky in that we have done quite well financially in the few years that we have been running. But that is always on my mind as a big challenge. I think the other challenge is that social entrepreneurs often run into is the kind of disconnect between their vision and what they actually want to be doing on a day to day basis. The classic example is the baker who starts a bakery because they love baking. Well, actually if you start a bakery you are probably not going to be doing the baking. You will have to be bringing the income, doing the strategy, managing everyone else. So it’s often a problem for social entrepreneurs who are really passionate about a cause or an issue. They might think I will just work with refugees all day, but actually that’s not where you should be at. You should be managing everyone else and running everything else. I think there’s often that sort of paradox. I was lucky because I thought that I was interested in working with bikes to give them to refugees, but I’m actually I’m not very good with bikes and I’m better at managing everyone else doing it, and developing the organization. That’s really where my interest is, so I am lucky that I fell into the role of director and that suits me better than being a bike mechanic.

What sort of tasks do you specifically do on your day to day basis?

Jem: At the beginning I did everything, so I was just a one man band. As soon as you hire people though, you chop off bits of your role and delegate them. So as we expanded I sort of chopped bits of my role and delegated them to other people. At the moment I have fewer responsibilities in the sense that I have fewer roles and tasks.  I do a lot of managing everyone else, the fundraising, and driving the trading bit of what we are doing. Basically my key roles now are managing everyone else and bringing in the cash.

What are your views on the social enterprise sector in the UK? Do you think it is a growing field? Does the UK have a favourable environment for such an enterprise?

Jem: The field is definitely growing and taking off. There is a sense that traditional models of funding social organizations are not sustainable.  Most people traditionally run on grants, donations, trusts and there is a sense that there just isn’t the money there to sustain the social sector from those sources anymore. The other big source is government money (grants, donations, government contracts) and that is all drying up as well. So there is a strong sense across the whole of the third sector that an alternative source of income must be found and social enterprise is generally seen as the way forward in that regard. There is a little bit of a zeitgeist around it; I think people need to feel like it’s some kind of panacea, and I think you have to be a bit careful because trading and running a social enterprise is also very difficult, and bringing income that way is not easy. It does have advantages over grants and donations, but it’s just about being clever about it. As for the environment; not very many people get what social enterprise is, and I think that is something that needs to change.  As the sector continues to grow, hopefully that will change. The policy environment is pretty good. There are tax breaks and such for social enterprise and social investment. So, the environment is pretty good, but in the wider sense of why buy from social enterprise, that is still not well understood.

Can you explain to us what social enterprise is and what does being a social entrepreneur mean to you?

Jem: Social Enterprise UK defines it as; an organization with a social mission who derives 50% of their income from trading and at least 50% of their profit is reinvested back into the organization. There are a lot of other definitions, but I think that is one of the best working definitions of social enterprise that is around. We are not for profit completely here. As for being a social entrepreneur, I think it sounds a lot sexier than it is. [A lot of my friends say to me “oh you don’t have a boss, you do your own thing, isn’t that cool, isn’t that fun, isn’t it exciting?” So, no one will say anything to me if I show up 20 minutes late or walk around the office in my socks. But at the same time the buck starts with me with everything. If the payroll for the month isn’t ready then I’m the one who stays up late. If there’s not enough money in the bank to pay people’s salaries, then I’m the one that’s got to bring it in. If stuff goes wrong, I’m the one who has to deal with it. The actual part where you are entrepreneurial, as in coming up with an idea and being creative, is a very minuscule percentage of the actual experience of being an entrepreneur.  Most of it is banging on doors, getting people to buy into what you are doing. A lot of it is also in the detail of trying to work out a plan, get the nitty gritty going, and just grinding out. It sounds really exciting and fun, but the day to day of it is interesting, but really tough work.

With all the recent developments in the refugee crisis, what do you think social enterprise should do?

Jem:  Unfortunately the UK is not accepting a lot of refugees, so about 20,000 arrive over 5 years. So there isn’t a lot for people to work with. I think that social enterprise should be doing what social enterprise does best, which is finding inventive and sustainable solutions to help refugees settle in this country. That is a big job even for 20,000 people coming in a few centers. They are going into centers where there isn’t a lot of social enterprise: Coventry, Glasgow, and Bradford. Glasgow has a bit of social enterprise, but Bradford and Coventry don’t have same kind of infrastructure that somewhere like London, Manchester, or Birmingham have. So it’s about spreading geographically and finding more ways in which you can support them in a sustainable way. The government money will run out at some point, so it’s about having another layer of service to get them involved, particularly with employment which social enterprise is very good at.  A lot of social enterprises are about starting a business and employing underprivileged people in that business- that’s a mission of a lot of social enterprises. That is one particular way I think social enterprise can work with the Syrians that are coming.

What are your plans for the future of the Bike Project? Plans for the future of your career?

Jem: I think we are very focused on what we are doing, we are getting refugees cycling; providing a bike and providing cycling training.  That’s what we do and we don’t want to diversify that at all. What we want to do is basically scale up. Already we are thinking of working with Coventry and Oxford and a variety of different areas. We want to work on a national and international scale with more refugees in different parts of the world where there are significant transport costs. In terms of the enterprise, we sell a lot of bikes and we are trying to scale that at the moment too. As for my future career plans- I don’t know.