We chatted with the tenacious and unstoppable Jill Poet, on how she is ‘changing the world — one small business at a time.’
There are people in life who made in indelible impression on you when they talk. Jill Poet is such a person, so if you ever get the chance to meet her, do it! Having seen the need for businesses to behave a bit better over a decade before CSR was even a thing, she set about doing what others had not even considered …and she’s been changing people’s attitudes towards business responsibility ever since.
Tell us a little about yourself
I’m a management accountant by profession and, over a very long career, have worked for many different types of organisation. Apart from the first couple of years in the city, I have always worked for small companies and been able to take a very hands on ‘project management’ approach. This has provided me with a broad range of skills.
I’m also a mother, grandmother and great grandmother to an ever increasing tribe!
What was it that inspired you to set up ORB?
My husband and I had set up a C.I.C, one of the first in the country, for what is now the Healthy Life Essex website. I was excited by the whole social enterprise movement and started to attend events in London. Often, BiTC would be speaking about CSR, but always with an emphasis on big corporates. With my small business background, I was interested in what was happening in the small business world, bearing in mind that 99% of businesses in the UK are SMEs. Research showed that apart from a few small pockets of activity, nothing much was happening.
We decided that we would bridge the gap and encourage smaller businesses to operate ethically and responsibly, with a mantra that Doing Good is Good for business.
ORB was developed initially as a membership organisation with a very strong voice, launching in February 2010. A year later we added our optional auditable certificate, the Responsible Business Standard.
What does ‘responsible’ mean to you?
“A responsible business operates efficiently and ethically; meets and exceeds legislation; and always considers its impact on people (the workforce, the local community and society at large) and the environmental.”
We feel that it is so important that businesses take a holistic approach to responsible business i.e. Ig is the core culture that drives the whole of business operations, rather than an add-on.
How did you set up the business and who were your initial backers?
We have never had any backers or grant funding. We needed to get external finance but It was 2009, just after the financial crash, and most banks were just not lending. We had produced a comprehensive business plan and were delighted when the RBS business manager liked the project and put it forward for a loan. We didn’t need all the loan until we started trading and were assured we could draw down the balance when we were ready. In line with our business plan, we applied for the next tranche of loan just after we launched — and were turned down!! The reason? Not enough turnover. But we had just launched and were meeting business plan targets. That scuppered our development plans and caused many challenges, not least the impact on our personal finances e.g. Maxed out credit cards and depleted pension pots!
What is the most satisfying part of your work?
When we see companies and individuals change their approach and embed a value-based culture at the core of their businesses.
What is/was the most frustrating?
Lack of funds!
Highs/lows of note?
There was a point, several months after we didn’t get the next tranche of the loan and the impact of that was really hitting us hard, that I broke down in tears and was about to give up. That would probably have meant selling the house and living in a caravan! But no-one saw the tears and I pulled myself together and just kept going……. Challenging to say the least!
One of the high points with ORB was getting the Responsible Business Standard validated by Anglia Ruskin University. Quite an achievement for a small organisation such as ours. But really, there are just so many high points when people have that light bulb moment and get it — and act on it.
There’s a long way to go, but we are definitely seeing a mindset change in the business community, and we do feel we have played a small part in that change on a national level.
What advice would you give to start-ups and entrepreneurs who are trying to be change makers?
Two pieces of advice that at first glance might seem contradictoy, but they are not if you are able to honestly evaluate your ideas and actions:
What do you make of growth of businesses who are putting purpose at their core ( e.g B Corps, Social Enterprises, B1G1 companies etc) and what do you think the future holds for those without purpose?
Ah. This is where I can get a little bit controversial! I believe EVERY business should have purpose at it’s core. I believe it would be far more impactful to follow the responsible business agenda so that it is just accepted as the norm. There’s a huge emphasis on social enterprise, but I worry it creates a ‘them and us’ situation, with social enterprises being the good guys and business the bad guys. But every step towards following the responsible business agenda is welcomed by me.
Individuals and companies are increasingly making decisions about their purchases based on the ethics of companies supplying those goods and services. That is definitely going to increase and any business not embracing a values-based approach is going to see their turnover and profits reduced. I think what is particularly interesting is that the consumer is increasingly aware of ‘greenwashing.’ Companies need to evidence how they really operate, not just add a nice CSR statement on their website! And increasingly, people want to deal with smaller companies they feel they can trust, which makes me very happy.
What was it about Work For Good that caught your interest and made you get involved?
The name Work for Good says it all really. Anything that encourages and facilities companies to support good causes is welcomed by us. Although our approach is different, ultimately it is all about making the world a better place.