Claire Carpenter: a Social Enterprise Champion and a visionary

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Susan Smith spoke to Claire Carpenter about how she became a Scotland's Social Enterprise Champion through the success of Edinburgh's co-working hub The Melting Pot

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22nd February 2017 by Susan Smith 0 Comments

Ten years ago Claire Carpenter had a vision. It was a social innovation vision, a light bulb moment that she thought could spark a revolution. She wanted to take all the social ideas around her and mix them together in one big Melting Pot to create a new way of working and a better society.

Was she mad? Well, when she opened a shared office space in Edinburgh just months before recession hit the UK, some may have thought so. Offering people desks by the hour with nowhere to stick pictures of their kids or pets or store hundreds of unread reports didn’t immediately jump out as the most exciting social innovation.

A decade on, however, Claire has been named Scotland’s Social Enterprise Champion in recognition of the role she and the Melting Pot have played in driving social change.

Located in the heart of Scotland's capital city, on Rose Street, The Melting Pot is a trendy hive of activity that puts other work spaces to shame. An ideas pod, break out booths, graffiti boards in the toilets, and virtual office services make it more akin to a cutting edge digital agency than a third sector co-working space.

For third sector staff used to working in dark basements with 15-year-old IT equipment, it seems remarkable. So, is Claire the ultimate social entrepreneur? Did she sniff out both the social enterprise boom of the last 10 years and the onset of the gig economy?

“I am a visionary,” she says. “That’s not egotistical, that’s an understanding of my abilities to perceive and to see and to sense. I’m not an academic, I’m a practitioner.

“I’m an ideas and solutions type of person. I invested my own personal time learning about what people needed and came up with a solution, and that solution is cropping up all over the place now.”

Today, more than four million people in the UK work from home, an increase in around 800,000 a decade ago. Consultants, freelancers and small business owners turn to the coworking movement as a first step away from the loneliness of their kitchen table; it's a place they can network with others, share ideas and grow their business.

It’s this that Claire believes makes the Melting Pot a quality co-working space. It welcomes co-workers from across the public, private and third sectors and offers flexible working of anything from a couple of hours to fulltime.

“We give people the freedom and flexibility to expand, grow and contract as they require it,” she explains. “We provide virtual office services, we have events spaces and meeting spaces. We do all sorts of things that allow people to build their intellectual and social capital.

“Soft resources include a nurturing culture, positivity, critical reflection, peer support, cups of tea and casual meetings or formal meetings, mentoring. We have trips to other essential spaces, like the pub, the five aside football team and social events.”

The current success of the Melting Pot justifies Claire’s visionary assertion, but she’s willing to admit that it’s been a long, hard struggle. Ten years ago social enterprise was a little-known concept and co-working was unheard of.

“It’s come into its own now, but yes, it’s amazing how long it’s taken to get there,” says Claire. “We make mistakes along the way, and I definitely went through a period of real personal struggle. That affects everything – it affects your personal life, it affects your business life.

“There was a period when it was all too hard, I didn’t know what I was doing, I was learning as I went along. I didn’t respond well to some difficult situations that occurred. With reflection, if I’d have been stronger at the beginning, I would have handled things differently. But I was where I was at.”

Claire has the aura of a fighter and a survivor, though, and after taking a few weeks off, she got back to it with continued determination because she believed in her vision.

And in the end, it is that struggle which is now moulding the future of her business.

At its core, the Melting Pot is more than a co-working space, it’s a social enterprise. Claire’s commitment to helping people to build sustainable businesses in sustainable communities has been her main motivator over the years. It’s the reason why, five years ago, she launched the Good Ideas Academy, which provides a range of support and services to start-up social entrepreneurs. And it’s the reason she’s now launching the Co-working Accelerator Network.

“Nobody has to go through what I’ve been through over the last 10 years. I’d hate for that to happen to anyone else,” she says frankly.

No little thanks to Claire’s pioneering work with the Melting Pot, Scotland’s recently launched Social Enterprise Strategy for the next 10 years includes a commitment to developing quality co-working spaces across the country. And the Co-working Accelerator Network aims to play a major role in that.

“The idea is to spread the quantity and quality of good co-working that goes on everywhere. We’re going to provide a peer network, a consultancy service to help people develop their ideas for a coworking space in their town, and a turnkey business solution”

Working with six spaces across Scotland this year alone, Claire will help make the process of setting up a coworking space less painful, risky and ultimately faster. The Scottish Government has funded the Melting Pot to create a co-working business pack that will provide established policies, practices and systems to new business.

“It is replication, it’s not franchising. It’s taking our learning and knowledge and helping to make it happen,” explains Claire. “We know co-working is beneficial to people, so we’re determined make it happen.”

Co-working it seems is the future. So, does all this make Claire a Social Enterprise Champion? Social Enterprise Scotland, who awarded her the title late last year, clearly thinks so.

“It’s very nice to be recognised and rewarded for your work – of course it is. I was very pleasantly surprised to win,” says Claire modestly.

“If you were to ask me now how I feel about my achievement, I'd say ten years ago I was terrified. Now, I feel really good. I can genuinely say I feel confident, competent and experienced – but that’s been a hard journey. I’m really grateful for all the support I’ve received in so many ways and what I’ve been able to achieve because of that.

“Now, I’m interested in the future because I‘m interested in the new relationships, the new people, the new places and the new ambitions that I can make happen with other people.”

Find out more about the Melting Pot, the Good Ideas Academy and the Co-working Accelerator Network at themeltingpotedinburgh.org.uk