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Social Entrepreneur Index Nominee: Infused Learning

Tara Askham and Natalie Sharpe, Co-Founders of Infused Learning spoke to UMi about how they got started in their quest to break down barriers to higher level qualifications and university degrees. We discuss the challenges they've faced, the support they received and their plans for the future.

What does your social enterprise do?
 
Infused Learning is a not-for-profit business which offers educational courses designed to break down barriers to higher level qualifications and university degrees, by being tailored to suit the individual. Our enterprise has two main strands: working with individuals and working with businesses. Individual students can take courses in a range of subjects that they access via a “blended learning” model: this is a combination of Skype tutorials and online learning that fits around a person’s needs, for example: caring for family, special learning needs (like autism or addiction) or employment. We are proud to offer students qualifications that no other distance learning provider does, and that we invest in developing and delivering a diverse portfolio of qualifications, business training and community courses. For example, we are currently the only provider in the UK that offers the Higher Education Diploma in Accounting (Level 3).

Our work with businesses funds our core work. We help employees achieve higher level qualifications while still at work, benefiting employee and employer alike. Business clients include the civil service, Volkswagen, Nottinghamshire County Council and Sure Start. Infused Learning also works with the University of Nottingham to help train new students in advanced academic learning, as well as with many other sectors.

We enable all types of people to access education. Those we have helped include a hamlet-based stay-at-home mum who wanted a career change; a 17-year-old recently paralysed young man who was turned down by all ‘traditional’ local colleges because of disability-related logistics; the prisoners at a UK prison, and a 20-year-old working man who wanted to study but couldn’t afford to give up work to attend a ‘traditional’ university. We have offered all of these people, and many, many more, a route to their future careers, plus we have supported businesses from SMEs to corporates to train their workforces and improve their bottom lines. We have unrivalled quality standards in distance learning, far better than larger online/distance learning offerings. Our video case studies help give a good idea of what we do and the impact we have: for example, here’s Nicola’s story https://www.infusedlearning.org.uk/learner-stories/nicolas-story/

What made you start your business up?
 
The business was set up in 2014 by us: Natalie Sharpe and Tara Askham. We are two experienced educators who have lived through the difficulties of achieving higher level learning while coping with the demands of family life, and we therefore resolved to do something about it. Mum-of-two Tara first experienced what a balancing act life can be when, aged 21, she became pregnant, was working full time and studying for her accountancy qualifications. It was then that she first took note of how inflexible traditional education institutions were, in allowing her to complete her studies. Natalie, an experienced lecturer and academic manager, was at university when her eldest child was a baby, and she too found this challenging. When we met in 2008, we discussed the problems we had when we were younger, and the idea for Infused Learning was born. Both of us believed that we could have had far better experiences if the typical educational model was redefined, believing that many people were unnecessarily excluded from education because of their circumstances, financial situation or history, and that was unacceptable to both of us.

In our professional lives, too, we also found that despite qualifications being undertaken in the workplace, businesses were not necessarily applying the knowledge learned by their employee, in a way that would certainly have been desirable, to support the growth of that business. So, at Infused Learning, we often tailor workplace learning to the individual business, and even specific departments, so that real life, on-the-job changes can be investigated, developed and implemented through the assignment-based learning and the knowledge learned is translated directly into business benefits, rather than being lost and not applied.

Both of us are still passionate about ensuring that everyone, whatever their circumstance, can have access to education and this, combined with our personal experiences, is what will drive the business forward.

How do you measure your impact?
 
At Infused Learning, our success stories are our students. We have helped students get to university to study a range of subjects, despite leaving school with no A-levels and struggling with a range of barriers to education. One of our students was the first in the country to complete the Access to HE Diploma in Accounting, and progress to Sheffield Hallam University to study forensic accounting (here’s her story: https://www.infusedlearning.org.uk/learner-stories/ginas-storyu/)

When it comes to measuring our impact amongst students, this often depends on the specific project we are undertaking. Some projects, like those for the National Lottery, are measured in detail by the Lottery so it is very clear that there has been an impact. This level of measurement is also present in many projects for third parties or charities. For Infused Learning-specific delivery, we gather data on a regular basis about the changes our students have found in their lives as a result of the experience with us or qualification achieved. As much of our work is face to face via Skype and working in a one to one environment, the feedback is often gathered by a student’s tutor.

With some projects, the measurables are very clear: for example, our scholarship programme has benefited more than 40 people in its first 12 months.

The social impact of the business is far-reaching. Hundreds of students have been supported over the last few years and, for many of them, the effects are life-changing. For example, getting back into work after education and training by Infused; moving onto university; achieving any qualification.

Another notable success for Infused Learning was being named as an accredited provider of ILM (Institute of Leadership and Management) courses – this has been a big boost to our enterprise.

Despite turnover and monetary success not being our main focus, we are nonetheless proud of what we have achieved financially simply in order to be able to plough our profits back into our business. Our first year’s turnover was £8,753 with a profit of £28, by our third year this had risen to a turnover of £108,702 and a profit of £9,982. This upwards trajectory has meant we have a team of five tutors, including ourselves, to deliver our innovative courses.

What help did you have to start your social enterprise?
 
In setting up Infused Learning, we were supported by Aim Awards for Access Diplomas and the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM), both of which organisations offered us the chance to provide their qualifications, despite the fact our methods had not been seen before. The Aim Awards could see that there was a gap in the provision of their diplomas and we could provide an opportunity for students, who otherwise would have missed out.

We also received £50,000 from the Young Foundation to support our growth. This was for: a video testimonial marketing project; a start-up website (to give us an initial presence until we were able to invest in a more comprehensive website); paid time for us, the two founders, Natalie Sharpe and Tara Askham, to take time out from teaching on a daily basis and dedicate time to growing the business.

We have also received lots of awards, including Lottery funding, and we were one of 20 winners across the UK of the Big Venture Challenge, 2016.

How did you decide on what legal form would work best for your business?
 
To run Infused Learning, we use the social enterprise baseline: People, Planet and Profit – this is at the heart of everything we do. At its heart, our business is innovative: our teaching concept, blended learning, combined with the flexibility of our approach is something that has not been seen before in the traditional education arena. This is why we chose the legal for ‘Company Limited By Guarantee’. It allowed us to run and work in the business, have charitable objectives and any profit made gets put back into our educational projects to help our learners.

What’s the best thing about being a social entrepreneur?
 
As an entrepreneur, you have a responsibility to give back. If that excites you and works for you, it's also very rewarding and a lot of fun, if done correctly. We love working on the coalface of the education industry; we are there when individuals have breakthroughs, when they get their first job after retraining or undertaking some back to work training. Your business can really make a difference, and making that difference positive is just so rewarding. Seeing your ideas actually improve people’s lives … it really is immense.

What has been your biggest challenge when setting up and running your social enterprise?
 
One of the main difficulties we have faced as a business is in explaining our concept to others. Our blended learning model is not well known so we have had to spend a lot of time explaining to students and businesses what it is we are doing and why we are different – they don’t “get it” straight away. Financially speaking, we have had our struggles: in order to fund the social enterprise aspect of Infused Learning – working with adults with autism and learning difficulties; funding the ‘back to work’ programme in the high unemployment area of Bulwell in Nottingham – we have had to work hard selling full cost courses to businesses in order to subside these projects, along with the scholarship programme we run for deserving students. In the competitive marketplace of offering educational courses, we have also had to work to raise our profile as a social enterprise rather than a purely profit-making business: we have done this by engaging fully with the media, appearing in publications such as Business Matters, the Nottingham Post and Army & You, as well as continually applying for awards schemes, many of which we have been lucky enough to have won. We do this so we can have external verification and illustrate that we are the quality offering that we claim to be.

What advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?
 
Over the last three years, we have learnt a great deal. We have tried a range of different sales and marketing tools and a commissioned few different suppliers, not all have been successful or integrated, but some have.

With this in mind, our advice to aspiring social entrepreneurs would be: start off by carefully planning so that you can be investment ready. We took 12 months to come up with a watertight plan that enabled us to apply for funding from the start. Work out exactly what you want to offer and how you’re going to offer it. Seek out your competition and establish in your own mind – and in the mind of anyone you’re working with – why you’re different. This may be a social enterprise we’re talking about, but you still need a way of making it pay, and therefore you’re still open to competition.

Be passionate, be brave, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but do learn from them!

What information sources would you recommend to help someone just starting their social enterprise journey?
 
We were very lucky in that the basis for Infused Learning was largely born out of our own experiences within our lives, our workplace, and our areas of expertise (accountancy and education) that were gleaned over the course of many years. The Internet was a very useful way of seeking out the right kinds of grant funding opportunities. Apply for Accelerator Programmes as the knowledge we acquired by winning places on these has been phenomenal. We won a place on The Young Academy and Unltd Big Venture Challenge. Winning these helped us secure investment.

What are your plans for the next 2-5 years?
 
At Infused Learning, we have continued to grow as an enterprise since we started in 2014. With a five year track record under our belt that has only seen us expand, with more courses, more awards, more staff, more students, and more profitability to go back into our business, we feel confident that this shows there is a real need in society for the work that we are doing to redress the balance between high and low incomes when it comes to barriers to education. With our rock-solid partnerships with large institutions such as the University of Nottingham and the civil service, we are sure that the future will be bright for Infused Learning and the growing numbers of people we are able to help.

When it comes to financials, we believe we will be able to continue with our planned growth and have set some challenging targets, aiming to reach a target turnover of £150,000 in year five. We currently have five tutors, including our founders, and will be a team of 10 before the end of year five.

We plan to increase the range of courses and qualifications we offer and increase the number only available in the UK through Infused. We will also continue to grow our partnerships with universities.

We have plans to develop specific target areas. These include specific programmes, like our Back to Work and Life Skills programme that we have piloted in Nottinghamshire for the National Lottery and which we expect to be rolled out nationally. We also expect growth of our Prison Programme and our bespoke business training, which will support our ongoing Scholarship Programme. As far as this goes, we would like to see more than 60 beneficiaries of our scholarships in year five and more than 80 in year six.

Working with London financiers Ernst & Young (which picked us to benefit from its Accelerator programme in 2018) we are developing an international strategy and are keen to launch this as soon as possible, although our official timescales are 20 months. Within the UK, we are building our business base and in 2019 we are having a significant push to grow this part of the business (in order to support the socially important work that we do). We have many charities and public sector organisations keen for us to use our experience to support their clients, as well as students on the waiting list for scholarships. We will only able to achieve this if we have an ongoing steady and growing stream of business work to secure the funding of our social work.

Related campaign: 

The UK Social Entrepreneur Index, sponsored by UBS, 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.

Ashleigh Smith
Article by Ashleigh Smith
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