Josh Littlejohn: Leaders need to ‘think different’

Josh Littlejohn says business leaders need to 'think different'. Picture: Contributed

Josh Littlejohn says business leaders need to 'think different'. Picture: Contributed

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I first got the bug for entrepreneurship when I left university and set up a small events company in Edinburgh.

I originally tried to get a job with the government as an economist, but having not been successful, I decided to go it alone and set up my own business.

I started organising events, and the process of seeing an idea that was in my own head come to life and become a reality was a real thrill. It gave me an understanding that we can create our own opportunities and we can also create the world we want to live in.

This notion became more entrenched in me, when I came across a book by someone called Professor Muhammad Yunus – a Nobel peace prize winner based in Bangladesh. In 2011 I was reading his book, where he described an idea he called a “social business”. It basically meant turning off the button in your head that was concerned with maximising a personal financial return, and instead focusing all your creative and entrepreneurial energies on solving social challenges.

This idea of using entrepreneurial thinking and energy to tackle our most pressing social issues really struck a chord with me and I decided to go and visit Prof Yunus in Bangladesh in October 2011.

I spent a week there and toured around his social businesses and it was incredibly inspiring. He showed me what thinking big really meant.

To many, “thinking big” means becoming successful according to conventional definitions of success – money, status and power. But for Prof Yunus, thinking big meant that you started thinking about the very economic structures that govern us, you started thinking about the very definition of “success” the we aspire to. Thinking big meant turning traditional business models in their heads. Thinking big meant not trying to win the game, but rewriting the rules.

We took this type of thinking back to Scotland and opened Social Bite in August 2012 – a business concept where we compete with multinational coffee and sandwich shops – but do so with a social mission.

We’ve now got five shops around Scotland – two in Glasgow, two in Edinburgh and one in Aberdeen, as well as in office canteens, a large corporate catering business and we just opened a new restaurant called Home in partnership with the Maison Bleue restaurant group. We employ over 100 people and around a quarter of those staff have struggled with homelessness. Every day we feed over 150 homeless people throughout Scotland with meals that our customers pre-pay for and 100 per cent of our profits are invested in the common good.

Social Bite offers “suspended coffee and food”. This means that customers can pay in advance for a coffee or any item of food from the menu, and a local homeless person can come into Social Bite shop to claim it. Text BITE00 £5 to 70070 to buy a hot meal for one homeless person.

We have some ambitious plans for the next little while and we want to expand our social mission to provide housing for the homeless in Scotland alongside support and jobs – providing a 360-degree solution to homelessness for the individuals we engage with.

To me it’s not about thinking big – it’s about thinking different. The economic structures that we have created have brought great prosperity, but they have also left people behind. They have left a segment of society downtrodden, marginalised and living excluded from the things we all take for granted – inclusion in society and in the economy.

Our society and our world needs people to think differently and to proactively think of ways to include the excluded and create a system that allows all of us to prosper.

• Josh Littlejohn is co-founder of Social Bite and is speaking about the business of leadership at the Institute of Directors Scotland conference at Gleneagles on Friday 4 November.

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