In person: Susan Aktemel, entrepreneur
AN ADULT literacy course in a Glasgow further education college is not the obvious place to find entrepreneurial inspiration. But it was there that Susan Aktemel, watching her students fire pots and play instruments, found a business taking shape before her eyes.
“They did serious stuff – IT, English, numeracy, literacy – in the morning and arty stuff in the afternoon. I saw that the art room was where they were flourishing. I saw right there that the arts can work really well in a community context. That planted the seed of my business.”
That business was to become Impact Arts, founded in 1994 in Aktemel’s front room in Partick. Her first project was a Japanese cultural week in Pollok. Her second was a touring exhibition of artworks from Women’s Aid. “It cost around £5,000,” she recalls. “That meant ten funding applications of £500 each. You do the graft to make it happen. If you don’t, nobody’s going to see the results.”
For the first 18 months, Aktemel taught modern languages for 20 hours a week, running between meetings, devising craft workshops on the way to French lectures and using the cash to keep her business going. She realised this could not continue one evening, as she was driving to teach advanced Spanish at 7pm. It was 6.56pm and she had no lesson plan. “I got away with it,” she recalls, “but it was the turning point for me. I knew I had to give up teaching and focus on Impact Arts.”
Aktemel was no stranger to hard work. Aged 15, she had a Saturday job at Schuh. Three months in, she talked her employer into giving her a 50 per cent pay rise. “I explained that I was making them £150 a day profit and they were paying me £10 a day. I reckoned they could afford to pay me £15. And they said yes.”
There were no entrepreneurial models round the dinner table – at home in Bishopbriggs, her mother was a legal secretary and her father a Ravenscraig manager. But Aktemel was way ahead of her time. It was the early 1990s. The concept of a social enterprise business had yet to be invented. If you weren’t the council, or a charity, or a voluntary sector organisation, you were probably a yuppie and not to be trusted.
How things have changed. She has grown Impact Arts into a thriving social business with around 100 staff, working in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Ayrshire. Turnover is around £2 million a year.
With Impact Arts on a solid footing, Aktemel is ready to try something else. She and her husband have a property portfolio, and last year something snapped. “I saw some of the bad practice in the private rented sector and I had that classic response entrepreneurs have: I think I could do that better.”
It is, she admits, an arrogant response, but she can’t help herself. Homes for Good, Scotland’s first social enterprise letting agency, was born. Starting with her own flats, Homes for Good will be run as a commercial concern, renting out furnished properties to the kind of tenant other agencies don’t want to know. There will be no funny business with deposits, delayed repairs or dodgy key money. “All the research shows that private renting is going to become the norm for households, not just something that young professionals do. People are going to rent for years.
“We have chosen to create supply for vulnerable people. It’s a market everyone’s moving away from, it’s too much hassle, there’s not enough money in it. But it’s a market I want to make an impact in.”
And that’s just phase one. As soon as she can find an investor she will start buying, renovating and then furnishing properties, to increase the stock of high-quality, accessible, rented property. “Everyone is saying the private rented sector is a necessary partner in the housing crisis, then in same breath acknowledging that the private rented sector is not fit for purpose. That’s where the opportunity is.”
It sounds almost too good to be true: running a business that makes money and has a positive impact at the same time. On the downside, the financial rewards are not on the Barclays bonus scale. Aktemel has not earned “anything near what I would get in the private sector”, she says. “But the social pay packet is what’s important.”
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