Dorothy and Dawn: two extraordinary women and what they teach us about entrepreneurship

Two women of extraordinary commitment and ability have been named recently for their work over decades in the cause of entrepreneurship. Dorothy Francis, chief executive of the co-operative development agency CASE in Leicester is the one and only person this year to be given a lifetime achievement Queens Award for Enterprise. And Dawn Whiteley, chief executive of the National Enterprise Network has been honoured with an MBE, again for services to enterprise. 

Their work has been at the front end of business support and advice. They are not the business leaders at the public helm of FTSE companies. They are business leaders in another sense, of having supported, nurtured and inspired hundreds of small and medium sized businesses, private business, social enterprise and co-ops, whatever works, whatever creates jobs, uses skills and expresses hope and opportunity.

The origins of both institutions is also interesting as it is entwined. Many of the early enterprise agencies, as Adrian Ashton reminded me this week, were formed by the co-operative development agencies that already operated locally, from the 1970s. Just as, in later years, it was London co-operative development bodies that were the key force in the arrival of social enterprise agencies.

Also linked are a few other progressive institutions. The story is told to me by one of the prime movers of the early enterprise agencies, John Davis. John, author of Greening Business, keeps in touch with me from our time together at the New Economics Foundation, when he was Chair of Trustees. His letter is below.

Fritz Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful and once named by Keynes as a preferred successor, asked John Davis, on leaving a global role at Shell in the late 1970s, to lead a programme on intermediate technology in Britain (the work of the charity Schumacher founded out of an Observer article, ITDG now Practical Action, had been focused overseas). John started work to support enterprise agencies – to catalyse and support local small business. One of the first was in St Helens, but there were soon many more: by 1981, 30 agencies.

The model appealed to the Chair of Pilikington Glass, Sir Alistair Pilkington, who visited them and inspired him to found Business in the Community, explicitly to spread the practice across the country. Oh, it would be wonderful to see that noble charity return to those roots of practical community economic development, away from the back slapping world of social responsibility reports and awards.

By 1986, there were 250 local enterprise agencies, but that was perhaps close to the tide turning. Rather than embedded micro-economics, government turned to a national advice agency, business link, and then when that failed to demonstrate the same track record (and yes, enterprise development is notoriously hard to evaluate, as this report from the state-endowed NESTA concludes), ditched it in favour of austerity-friendly websites, unpaid mentors and hopeful social investment. 

It is true, there is a different story in Scotland, where enterprise and community enterprise trusts have their own proud history – and to an extent also Wales, with the leadership of the Wales Co-operative Centre. People-powered prosperity is a recent book by David Boyle that tells more of the story of community economic development across the UK.

John was writing to me to welcome the new Community Economic Development programme we had launched with NEF, Locality and Responsible Finance (in liaison with many others, such as CLES and the Reconomy network), backed by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Through this we have supported fifty neighbourhoods across England with their community economic development plans, rooted in a holistic and participative approach to livelihoods and enterprise development. We are now in our second year, inspired by the communities we are working with.

At national level, over three decades we have an extraordinarily patchy record of support for enterprise. But look at the story of Dorothy and Dawn. Look at the grassroots as the most innovative and persistent of enterprise, social enterprise and co-operative agencies still show us the way, if ever we wanted to move from an economy of dependence to one of true, mass entrepreneurship.

Do raise a glass to Dorothy and Dawn.

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