Making a difference through social entrepreneurship: an interview with Tom Rippin

I spoke with Tom Rippin, founder and CEO of On Purpose, a leadership programme aimed at “attracting and developing talent to address the greatest issues faced by society and the environment.”


We talked about:

  • Tom’s own career path and what led him to founding On Purpose

  • Why he thinks that social enterprise has the potential to have an enormous positive impact on the world

  • What constraints the social enterprise movement faces at the moment

  • How On Purpose is working to address these issues, and how they plan to assess their own impact

Key takeaways:

  • Solid professional skills can be very useful for accelerating a career in other sectors, especially social enterprise. This supports the view we’ve expressed previously that working in the private sector early on in your career might be a great way to build career capital to have more impact later.

  • The social enterprise space might be less constrained by people who have ideas and want to start businesses, and more by people who actually have the skills to run and scale these businesses. So developing these skills early on could be very valuable.

Tell us a bit about your career background and the path that led you to set up On Purpose

I started my career in academic research but soon discovered that wasn’t for me after all, and decided I wanted to get into international development. I spoke to various people who recommended I acquire some private sector skills first, so I joined management consultants McKinsey & Company.

It was here that I first came across social enterprise, in the form of bottom of the pyramid thinking in international development (which I was managing to do a bit of as a consultant) and I became really interested in applying this kind of thinking in the UK as well (which it turns out was already going on and had been for quite a while!).

After five years, I left McKinsey and worked first at Comic Relief and then at RED where I was able to undertake work that was combining commercial and social ways of working.

A little more than 2 years after leaving McKinsey, I started setting up On Purpose seriously. Part of what fueled this was lots of people coming and talking to me about how I had transitioned from consulting into social enterprise, and realising it could be very high value for me to help others undertake a similar transition. The other part was the realisation that if the fledgling social enterprise space is to be successful, it needs to be able to access, develop and retain the very best talent. On Purpose seemed like a great way to combine these two aims.

Do you think starting at McKinsey was the right decision? What benefits did you get? What were the disadvantages?

I went to McKinsey because I quite specifically wanted to acquire some private skills first. This idea stemmed from a conversation I had with someone who had done accountancy (which I would never had considered at the time) but then went on to do interesting work very quickly in international development. This switched on the light bulb that private sector skills can be very useful and accelerate a career in another sector, so that’s what I went for.

I benefited hugely from getting a lot of training and development and getting an insight into a very diverse set of organisations. In addition I was working with senior management, which I would probably not have been exposed to in another job.

Whilst I was at McKinsey, my interests switched from international development to social enterprise; partly I realised I had never lived in a developing country but also, I realised that I found the concept of applying commercial dynamics to social and environmental issues really powerful. I also realised that this kind of work was also happening in the UK, right on my doorstep!

What’s the overall aim of On Purpose? What problem are you setting out to solve and how?

We want to be part of developing a more sustainable way of organising our society and a more sustainable way of how we do business. Because we believe that no one quite knows what this new way is going to look like, we think that the smartest thing to do is to make sure some of the brightest and best people are working on figuring this out. So we find these people and equip them with the right skills, tools, experience and networks to set them up to contribute as much as possible over the rest of their career.

At a more tactical level, we are solving the problem that lots of talented professionals, especially ones who are still early on in their career, are really keen to work in social enterprise, but find it really difficult to get a full time, paid job. Historically, there has been quite a lot of support available for entrepreneurs who want to start up a social enterprise, but not for people changing careers and looking for employment.

Why do you think getting more people into social enterprise will have a positive impact on wider society?

Ultimately, the way society works at the moment is not sustainable – we can’t afford the growth, the climate change or the inequality (to name but a few) that we are creating. The social enterprise movement (which I define quite broadly to include organisations that are innovating approaches that use commercial dynamics for social or environmental benefit) is, I think, an engine room for generating alternative approaches that will lead to a better way of running our society. Getting more people involved in this who are motivated, willing and able to contribute can only help!

What do you think are the barriers to making a difference as a social entrepreneur at the moment?

One of the topics that I find myself talking about quite a lot at the moment is that we don’t actually need more social entrepreneurs (in the sense of people who start up organisations) but we rather need leaders who can build and run organisations. It’s a big issue in the social enterprise space that very few organisations are growing to a national or international scale; how many national social enterprises can you name? One of the things that is lacking is the talent that can help run and scale an organisation, rather then start one up.

So in some ways, the big barrier that I see for social enterprise more generally, now that it has attracted a lot of social entrepreneurs, is: how does it attract the leaders that will make it successful beyond the start-up phase.

Does this mean that you think there’s less room to have an impact as an entrepreneur, and/or that there’s less of a talent gap there? What are your main reasons for thinking this?

There is of course a lot of room to have huge impact as an entrepreneur, but at the moment there is a relative lack of people who can build and run organisations – that is, to my mind, the bottleneck. So whilst entrepreneurs are very important there are quite a lot of them around and a high awareness of the need for them. I think fewer people are aware for this need for builders and runners in social enterprise and hence finding and working with them is, we think, a very high-impact thing for us to do.

Why do you think getting involved in the social enterprise movement is one of the highest impact things to do? Why might this be wrong?

I believe that because I believe in the power of social enterprise. I spent some time working with large charities and became very aware of how dependent and limited they can be because of the grants that they survive on. Social enterprise has the attraction that, if you can get it right, you can create and organisation that is not limited by the amount of grants or donations it can attract but is only limited by the size of the problem it is trying to solve.

Similarly, much of the private sector is subject to a bunch constraints and incentives that don’t promote a very sustainable way of operating. Social enterprise, it’s hoped can chart a course between the traditional charity and private sectors, combining the best of both worlds, whilst avoiding the pitfalls.

I also think that social enterprise can play and important catalytic role in getting conventional business and charities to change the way they currently work.

The reason this could be wrong is if social enterprise does not fulfil the promise it currently holds. Social enterprise is hugely exciting and inspiring at the moment, but in the grand scheme of things it is still very small. Unless it manages to grow significantly quite quickly, it’s at the risk of being a quaint experiment that never quite fully took off.

Tell us a bit more about how exactly the fellowship works. What kind of training and experiences do fellows get?

To start off with, you go through a rigorous, but we hope also informative and fun, selection procedure. It’s a competitive process that is comparable to some of the big city recruitment processes.

Once you are on the programme there are four main elements:

  1. Two 6-month placements in organisations that are combining commercial and social ways of working. You get paid for this work and it’s the best way to accumulate the all-so-important real-world experience

  2. Half a day a week of training that covers a broad set of commercial, social and professional development topics. Most of these are delivered by senior people from the social enterprise and commercial networks that On Purpose has. It’s also a great opportunity to meet regularly with your peers on the programme, compare notes and help each other with what you are doing

  3. Fortnightly mentoring with seasoned professionals who are there to help you, in very hands-on ways, with the work you are delivering in your placements. Many of our mentors are current or ex strategy consultants and the opportunity to work closely with them is a huge opportunity

  4. Quarterly coaching with qualified and experienced executive coaches. These sessions are there to help you make sure you make the most of the programme, take time to reflect, talk through any issues and make plans for the future. Again it’s a fantastic experience that normally only more senior people get to access.

Beyond this though a lot of the value of the programme lies in the networks that you develop – with your peers, the alumni, placement organisations, trainers and many more. By the end of the programme our Associates (as we call the participants) highlight this as hugely valuable.

After the programme about half our Associates go on to work in one of their two placement organisations and the big majority of the rest of them find jobs elsewhere in the social enterprise space – most often through the networks created during the programme.

Why do you think this training will help people to have more impact with their careers later?

The overall programme helps you have more impact in your career because it not only gets you off to a great start in the social enterprise world, it also joins you to a community of like-minded individuals who will all be part of this same exciting movement and will help each other and others for years to come.

The half-day per week training specifically helps people acquire a high-level working knowledge of a wide range of topics that I believe you need to be successful in social enterprise. Because social enterprise works across the boundaries of so many sectors you need a much wider than usual set of skills and knowledge to be able to add value.

How does On Purpose go about measuring its own impact?

Ultimately, our impact is about the impact our Associates have on the organisations they work in, both during and beyond the programme. We currently measure this through a range of regular surveys of Associates, alumni and placement organisations. Interestingly though, this summer we have just been conducting a review of how we do this, so watch this space!

What kinds of people are you looking for, and who is best suited to the fellowship?

We are looking for motivated professionals with at least 2 years of experience (although on average our Associates have 5-7 years’ experience). We don’t mind what you’ve worked in before as long as you have a track record of achievement and can demonstrate a commitment to social issues. You can see a bit more about what we select people for here:

On Purpose are currently recruiting for their April 2014 intake and the deadline is 23 September. See for more information.