Social Entrepreneur Index nominee: Red Dragon Flagmakers
We meet Jo Ashburner from Red Dragon Flagmakers, one of our nominees for the Social Entrepreneur Index 2020, who says: "If you’re not 100% passionate, committed and resilient, don’t do it."
What does your social enterprise do?
We are a sewing business, a manufacturer, a social mission enterprise and a forward-thinking dynamic product design company.
We are the only social mission flagmaker in the world and we make custom flags, banners, bunting and more every day in our Swansea Valley workshop. We are part of a thriving and growing sector of innovative Valley businesses here in Wales, actively pushing the boundaries to get people of every background skilled up and into work through our own in-house training and apprenticeship programme.
We are exclusive flagmaker to the Human Rights 2019 event led by Amnesty International, we made the flags for the 2014 NATO Summit through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and we make all the ceremonial taffeta stitched banners for Effat University in Saudi.
We make one-off coat of arms and the smallest of burgees for clients, wedding banners, installations for European galleries and we also print quality one-off flags for sports fans, events and bulk orders.
We are an award-winning Disability Confident and Living Wage employer and we are 100% reliant on sales revenue. We are not grant reliant and we are not a public sector business. We are an SE100 listed company, a member of the Flag Institute and the Wales Quality Centre and we are a thriving micro-manufacturing business.
What made you start your business up?
Dad started the business in 1969 when he was commissioned to make the flags and banners for the investiture of Prince Charles at Caernarfon Castle. After his retirement in 2005 and the closure of the business, I returned to Swansea from manufacturing in Vietnam and started it up again with some Dad’s original team and incorporated it as a social mission business in 2014.
How do you measure your impact?
All our profits go into the amazing people we train and help get back on their feet in the local community and economy. There are nine of us employed full-time and we've trained and helped rehabilitate over 300 people during the past seven years of trading (funded from the profits of our social mission business and not from external sources).
What help did you have to start your social enterprise?
The WCVA and the Wales Cooperative Centre were there for us right from the start – with support on articles and memorandums of association, kick start finance and advice.
How did you decide on what legal form would work best for your business?
When we started, social mission business wasn’t really on any procurement radar, which meant incorporating the business as a Limited by Guarantee and ‘not for profit’ was a huge gamble – but it paid off and it's now the case that buying with social purpose is a cornerstone of corporate social responsibility and public procurement procedures.
Being a social mission business is at the root of everything we do – it always was and always will be, so there was never really any question about what legal form the business would take when we started out.
What’s the best thing about being a social entrepreneur?
I am immensely proud of what the team and I have achieved - starting a niche business in a tough economic period with a relatively unknown business model and despite everything, surviving and thriving.
What have been the three biggest challenges that you have overcome (or that you’re still working on)?
- Educating those with purchasing power on the benefits of supporting a social mission business.
- Proving that the third sector is NOT third-rate.
- Growing a business with articles and memorandums of association which don’t give any investment incentives.
What advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?
If you’re not 100% passionate, committed and resilient, don’t do it.
Why do you think social enterprise is important?
It’s the go-to business model for social and economic survival. Social and economic pressures are proving year-on-year that monopolies and conglomerates and BIG business is unsustainable when the chips are down.
What’s been your most rewarding experience as a social entrepreneur?
Seeing a positive change and empowerment in the people we train and employ.
What information sources would you recommend (books, websites, organisations?) to help someone just starting their social enterprise journey?
Social Enterprise UK and Social Value UK, Wales Cooperative Centre, WCVA, Unltd, Acas, FSB (Federation of Small Businesses), Make it British.
What’s been the most surprising thing about creating a social enterprise?
How little awareness there is of the business model and socio-economic benefits for more than just the business in being a social mission business.
What are your plans for the next 2-5 years?
When the pandemic lockdown happened it wiped out our order book. Within two weeks, we had set up a fundraiser (www.scrubsforall.co.uk) and started production of red tunic and trouser sets of scrubs for donation to care homes and health care professionals. We also linked into the Welsh Government supply chain for a short while, making navy scrubs for the main NHS contractor, but within a few more weeks the orders for flags and coffin drapes started to arrive and we achieved 80% of previous productivity levels.
We have ageing monarchs which will eventually mean State funerals and a Coronation, so we’ve already started producing and stockpiling traditional sewn Union flags.
In addition to this, we have soft-launched Red Dragon Services to handle the growing need for flagpole maintenance and installation UK-wide and will build on our experience of piloting the first apprenticeship in Wales for textiles goods production and establish an apprenticeship in carpentry for historic and listed buildings.
Last but not least, we are excited about the ROOF Initiative (www.roofcoatbag.wales) and the potentially game-changer stab-proof composite we have developed and patented with University of Wales Trinity St David.
What is the biggest change you would like to see in the world?
Remove all barriers to equality. Overhaul the justice system. Make heads of industry and politicians accountable. Make racism and racialism a punishable crime.
What have been your three proudest moments as a social entrepreneur?
- Taking the team to London to have tea and cake with the US Ambassador in a private meeting at the missile proof new embassy building in Nine Elms.
- Creating a sustainable and credible brand and business for the long-term.
- Listed as a Wise100 social entrepreneur in 2018.
What would you say to encourage more entrepreneurs to consider the social impact of their businesses?
It's becoming the go-to benchmark for business giving more power to the purchasing pound. I'd say it is critical to the future of any business.
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 information visit www.socialentsindex.co.uk