Story Pic Umi

We meet Bhavesh Patel, founder of Storyteller and one of our nominees for the Social Entrepreneur Index 2020.

What does your social enterprise do?

Storyteller is a purpose driven business with a direct social mission, which focuses on using its travel accessory products to make a global impact. 10% of every sale directly funds educational programmes and workshops for less privileged children and adults around the world.

Closer to home, we help startups in the UK to create strategies to directly impact social issues that they are passionate about through their business. It is the Storyteller belief that you don’t have to be a multinational company to have a CSR strategy and having a genuine commitment to making social change embedded in your strategy straight from its inception, is just good business.

Education is the area that Storyteller wants to make its mark and encourage change: Approximately 773 million adults around the world are illiterate, and it is clear that this is a cycle that’s hard to break. This not only has a long-term consequence for the individuals affected, but also for the next generation who become part of a repeat cycle of inequality and poverty.

Our aim is not only to raise awareness and funds for educational programmes, but also to help individuals create a better long-term future and build sustainable local communities.

In collaboration with local NGOs and international charities, the Storyteller team have helped run and fund educational programmes for adults and children in Liberia, Tanzania, Nepal and India.

Most recently, in June 2019, the Storyteller team visited India and Nepal. We worked on different educational projects, including with a number of non-conventional schools (school in the park, etc). As well as teaching general school subjects, we also focused on teaching social skills, and led workshops sharing the importance of gender equality and the environment.

We also renovated (painted, carpets, shelving, etc) two local village schools in Nepal.

What made you start your business up?

Living in the UK, where education is free and accessible, we are incredibly privileged. Although most people know that there is a lack of access to education in many other parts of the world, it truly is hard to comprehend the human impact this has until you see it. 

Travelling the world showed me some incredible sights, but it also opened my eyes to how many barriers there were for people to obtain access to a basic education. I saw this problem in Asia and South America, and decided I wanted to be part of the change. I pledged then that an integral part of any company I would start would be to help those less privileged obtain access to education.

With so many global issues, access to quality education can not only lead to individual growth, but also be the resolution to many other issues.

Storyteller was then started after trying to solve a personal problem. As an avid traveller, I love to collect my travel memories, and like many, the way I did this was through a travel journal. However, this was time-consuming and so made me think: ‘there must be a better way of capturing my travel memories’ – enter the Storyteller FlagMate. Our flagship product helps combine the two things I love and was most passionate about; travel and giving back. 

What keeps me going each day is building Storyteller to be a startup that proves that having a balance between profit and philanthropy can generate a positive outcome for all individuals involved. My long-term vision is not just for Storyteller to do good as a brand, but to bring together passionate travellers from around the world in unity with a mission to do good in the world.

How do you measure your impact?

We have helped run and fund projects in Liberia, Tanzania Nepal and India over the last 12 months. Using a percentage of the sales from our travel accessories, combined with the work of our team visiting we have helped impact in the following ways:

  • Running workshops with children focusing on social/life skills, gender equality, recycling and the importance of the environment. Speaking with teaching staff, thereafter these classes have been incorporated into the school agendas
  • Run and help fund workshops for adults focusing on solar infrastructure and micro-enterprise (small business skills)
  • Renovating old village schools by painting, carpeting and helping build new infrastructures
  • Providing school supplies for schools and covering school fees
  • Funding night schools helping children from rural villages access education
  • Fund literacy-focused programmes helping children to read
  • Funding life skill workshops and training courses such as hairdressing, crafts and computer use, allowing them to obtain paid employment
  • Preparation of our tote bags, made in our Indian charity partners' headquarters where women from the slums in India attend a six-month course and learn advanced sewing skills, which provides them with the skills to earn income. The women earn a wage per bag, with the remainder of all of the profits going directly towards funding the sewing skill workshops

Following the end of each educational project, we monitor/measure our impact by:

  • Performing qualitative and quantitative research methods, including questionnaires and feedback sessions (both children/teachers) to help us identify what worked well and where improvements can be made
  • Monitoring performance by liaising with local teachers to consider whether the objectives of the programme have been met
  • Performance/process evaluation - to assess whether any changes to the process are required and how it can be more impactful
  • Keeping in touch with the local charity partners once we have left projects to understand the longer-term impact of our work and how we can continue helping

What help did you have to start your social enterprise?

I’m extremely grateful for my friends, family and the social entrepreneurs that I have connected with over the past few years, who have all helped me create the platform that is Storyteller today.  Having a strong support system and team full of individuals on the same social mission has been integral to our success.

Our team of like-minded individuals known as the Storyteller Community now consists of over 20 individuals in nine different countries, all with a mission to inspire people to ‘Travel More and Do Good’.

How did you decide on what legal form would work best for your business?

Although banks and investors only look at profit margins, we wanted Storyteller to do much more than focus on the bottom line. We had a higher cause to bring individuals from around the world together to create a positive impact.

Therefore, instead of having the pressure of shareholders, we decided on forming as a private limited company, and partnering with like-minded charities and individuals who all shared our mission to help less privileged individuals around the world obtain access to quality education. This not only allowed us to expand our reach and globalise quickly, but it combined our ethos with their knowledge, allowing us to be as productive as possible.

What’s the best thing about being a social entrepreneur?

The best thing about being a social entrepreneur is knowing that we could always be helping and impacting individuals around the world. We know that the work will never be complete and while this is a daunting prospect, it is this sole mission that keeps us motivated to constantly do more and make as much of an impact as we can.

What have been the three biggest challenges that you have overcome (or that you’re still working on)?

The biggest challenge for me was getting started. I was practising as a lawyer at the time of starting Storyteller, so balancing this with a new startup was very difficult. At times I would leave a court hearing, and then immediately be on the phone to manufacturers! It was a bit of a whirlwind at the outset, but then once prototypes were finalised, it was time to take the leap of faith!

I think the second most challenging aspect was to work with the right manufacturers. I wanted to ensure that our production chain came from an environmentally-friendly and ethical provider. Although we could have manufactured the products cheaper abroad, our manufactures are not only all of the above, but they are also a family run business right here, in our hometown of Birmingham! It is always a great feeling being able to give back to our local community. 

Finally, something we are continuing to work on, is the language barrier when our team goes abroad to deliver educational programmes. Luckily some of our members speak Hindi, so delivering content and developing relationships was easier than expected in India, but in Nepal, our projects had to be delivered in partnership with local NGOs due to language barriers. We are continuously identifying ways where can deliver content and programmes in the most effective way where we may have a language barrier.

What advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?

1) Have a full-time job and work on starting your company in your spare time until you are ready to make the complete jump! By doing this, you will have the financial input to put in at the start and also income to fall back on, as most companies won’t make profits immediately.

2) Pick the right team and business partners. If you are starting a business with a team or with a business partner, make sure that you complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses, rather than basing it on being good friends. Bringing different skills to the table in business is crucial and will set you up nicely in the long-term. If you are starting a business as a solo entrepreneur, having positive people around is essential. They can help bounce ideas but also help out with marketing activities at the start which is when you could do with a first push in the right direction!

3) Travel! The most competitive companies today are global in nature, and to make your company, service or product relevant to new markets, you need to have a global mindset. You can read about world markets and study analyst reports, but there’s no substitute for experiencing the world yourself and seeing it first-hand.

4) Create a company which is based on something that you are genuinely passionate about. If you have the fire in your belly to fight for the cause, you’ll be much more convincing when trying to recruit others to believe and invest in your product. Also, in the tough days and the long-run, it will make getting out of bed much easier!

What information sources would you recommend (books, websites, organisations?) to help someone just starting their social enterprise journey?

Honestly, I think the best way is obtaining experience and in-depth information of the problem you are trying to solve: to do this, volunteering both locally and in countries where your problem is a huge issue is key. By seeing the problem first-hand, you will be able to create a direct resolution which will actually take into account the conditions of that particular country.

A mistake that I had made prior to starting Storyteller was to think about ways that I personally thought would be helpful. In reality, after spending time volunteering in India, our plans had to be completely re-thought.

If your approach is to work with charities and local NGOs, do your research into organisations to ensure that their mission/ethics fit with your brand values. Unfortunately, there are still some charities who promise a lot but their delivery may not be what you would expect. Hand-picking and researching impact partners is imperative.

What are your plans for the next two to five years?

Our aim is to continue to grow and impact even more people around the world. We are also developing three programmes at the moment, which are:

  • Life Skill workshops, run by the Storyteller team and Community, where they share skills that they have learnt in their personal lives and whilst travelling with children and adults. This includes using a minimalistic approach, using existing resources effectively, advising on how to build confidence and communicate well with others and achieving positive results working as a team
  • Running workshops using quality educational content provided by e-learning partners and education providers in the UK which will be shared in rural schools
  • Leading skill growth workshops in UK schools

When I started out, I wanted Storyteller to be part of a new wave of startups, which are proving that having a balance between profit and philanthropy can generate a positive outcome for all involved. Therefore, my vision is to continue this and prove that you can have it all! I see Storyteller as both a conduit to do good as a brand, as well as a vehicle to bring together passionate travellers from around the world in unity, with a mission to make a change in the world.

What is the biggest change you would like to see in the world?

I would like to see changes within the current education systems around the world to include a real focus for young persons on developing life skills such as communication, organisation, creative thinking, problem-solving (global and wider scope), self-awareness and emotional/mental health. These are skills that we learn in later life through experience, but I think having the understanding at an earlier stage would be really beneficial.

In addition to this, given the ongoing issues we are facing such as gender equality and the environment, it is super important to have focused workshops ensuring children and adults obtain a deeper understanding of the long-term effects, and what they should be doing now as a result.

What have been your three proudest moments as a social entrepreneur?

Wow, it is difficult for me to pick three moments as the entire Storyteller journey has been incredible for me. However, if I had to pick, I think the stand out would have to be our team delivering educational projects in India and Nepal last year.

We kick-started the trip by working with non-conventional schools in India, such as the school under the bridge, where there were over 300 children in attendance each day. After spending two weeks on-site and delivering a variety of projects, it was a very proud moment to have seen the impact we had made on the children and teachers!

This was followed by renovating schools in Nepal, which had not been painted/carpeted or changed for over 50 years. As you can imagine, it was full of dust, full of old furniture and faded wall colours. After we had finished our renovation, we closed the doors and invited all of the children to the front door so they could see their new school - the response was something I will never forget, that moment. Laughter, tears, and pure amazement as the teachers and children walked around their new school.  

What would you say to encourage more entrepreneurs to consider the social impact of their businesses?

Whether you are a startup or a multinational company, I really do believe that if each company made a genuine commitment to support a cause which was close to their heart, together we can make a big change in the world.

If you support a cause or a movement that you stand for, your company and employees are far more likely to want to support. This will lead to you not only having lots of fun doing something enjoyable, and having a great feeling of giving back, but also giving back to those less fortunate.

Related campaign: 

The UK Social Entrepreneur Index is a celebration of social entrepreneurship across the UK. 

Open to social entrepreneurs tackling a social or environmental issue at any scale, entrants will act as beacons of inspiration for others to encompass positive social impact.

For more info visit www.socialentsindex.co.uk.

Amanda Armstrong
Article by Amanda Armstrong
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