"BlueFire is a social enterprise creating integration through the arts and community engagement by empowering young people to create free cultural and artistic events that make the most of Dublin, its diversity and its space."
Hi Keren and welcome to our inspiring startup talks with entrepreneurs! Firstly, can you please tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up becoming an entrepreneur?
I founded BlueFire, having lived in Barcelona, a city rife with racism. Through living with my then partner from The Gambia and having friends from a range of ethnic backgrounds I came to realise the unfair treatment that different ethnicities can have when they move to another cultural setting where their ethnicity is not dominant. Through my own lived experiences in Barcelona and the experiences of the people who surrounded me, I found that the result of this unfair treatment was that we closed ourselves off to larger society, we were not working and living with native Spanish residents but had withdrawn to form our own ‘cultural ghetto’. We were voiceless and powerless within a society that did not recognise our presence. The word ‘foreigners’ had never felt so real.
When I returned to Ireland, I wanted to ensure that others didn’t experience what I had experienced abroad. Through my lived experiences I knew the key to creating understanding between immigrant communities and the indigenous people was through social connection. In Spain, having no access to work or even food at times wasn't as damaging as feeling unwanted in this new society that I called home, and I know this to be true of others, because I saw it in the 200 immigrants that lived in the same cultural ghetto as me.
And so BlueFire was born. Providing space for us to come together to interact with new communities through artistic activities. A space that provides us with the opportunities to connect with one another. A space where as an indigenous Irish or an individual from an immigrant group, I can share my voice by showcasing my culture. A space where as an immigrant I can experience ‘Céad Míle Fáilte’ and be welcomed into my new home; for as an old Spanish saying goes “A donde el corazon se inclina, el pie camina”: Home is where the heart is.
Can you share a few words about BlueFire? Who is it targeted at?
BlueFire is a social enterprise creating integration through the arts and community engagement by empowering young people to create free cultural and artistic events that make the most of Dublin, its diversity and its space. Our target audience is young people (16 - 35) as all our team who run our events.
At the age of 20 you ended up becoming a social entrepreneur and founded your own company. What would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of becoming an entrepreneur at a very young age?
When I founded BlueFire, I had no real work experience or contacts. While this was the most challenging part of establishing my own social enterprise, in reality it was actually a blessing because I didn’t constantly analyse those first few months based on loads of theory - by the time I wrote our business plan which was only in January of this year, I knew what our target market wanted, how best to structure the organisation knowing what did and didn’t work and most importantly and what we needed to prioritise as an organisation in order to create social impact. I suppose, by not knowing the ‘correct protocol’ I had to accept the fact that I was going to constantly fail and by letting myself fail, I failed quicker, thus learning quicker.
Below are the 3 most common myths about social enterprises and social entrepreneurs; what is your stand on this?
a. ‘Starting a social enterprise requires minimal investment’:
Setting up a social enterprise has been the most challenging (and rewarding!) thing I’ve ever done, but I’m sure it’s the same for many for-profit enterprises. Setting up your own enterprise, social or not, involves round the clock commitment and that’s why it’s so rewarding.
b. ‘Social enterprises are not scalable.’:
I’ve seen many social enterprises scale - we’re still in our early stages and from our first year of our street fest to our second year we went from an audience of 3,000 to 10,000. Last year we ran 1 programme, this year we’re running 4. I’ve seen Social Enterprises go from working in one town, to working nationwide. We’re not at that point, but give us a few years and see what we’ll be up to ;-)
c. ‘Social entrepreneurs have it easy. Customers will buy their products just because the company represents a good cause’:
From personal experience I don’t believe customers buy products because the company represents a good cause - this can be the case, depending on the product, however for example one of our partners when I first approached her, began by acknowledging the important work we are doing, however followed up by saying bottom line is we have to see the benefit for us if we’re going to invest. Like any product, you have to develop a brand and product that your customer desires enough to purchase.
Can you tell us a bit about your team? What do you think is the best way for social enterprises to attract talents when there is less scope for high salaries?
We’ve an amazing team - we’re still predominantly voluntary run and are delighted to have a committed and highly capable team. You can definitely attract talent, even if you can’t offer large salaries. If the working environment is healthy - fun, community based, respectful, collaborative and most importantly driven by productivity and my preference BHAG (big hairy audacious goals) - then you’ll attract talent. Many people are happy to take a pay cut if they can go to work happy, and know that through their job, they’re leaving a positive mark on the world.
How did you go about gathering funds for your startup? Would you have any tips for other social entrepreneurs about fund raising?
Funds have, and still remain to be challenging for us. Networking is pivotal, and people we met early on opened up doors to small contributions that got us through our first 12 months. Through providing branding opportunities at our festival, advertising opportunities and support from local businesses, we’re still able to deliver our services, however we’re currently developing a new financial model in order to become more financial sustainable.
My biggest tip is to remember that if you’re looking for funds from someone, whether it's a grant, a corporation (CSR or sponsorship) or through direct sales, it’s not about why your product or your cause is so worthy, it’s about what does your product offer said customer. There are millions of causes out there, majority of who are very worthy, and the people you’re targeting probably hear about worthy causes daily. Think about why your cause or your product align with their mission, what specifically does it do for them, how can it benefit them. When meeting with potential customers I’d advise the following steps:
- Listen to what they want, and when appropriate discuss in a conversational manner, how your product aligns.
- Don’t go in intensely telling them all about your products ready to give the ‘perfect pitch’ - it’s all about building relationships
- Give a helicopter view. I make this mistake all the time, you so believe in your product and feel that they need to know absolutely everything in order to see how amazing it is, but they don’t. They need to know the overview and the 1 - 3 things on how it’ll benefit them.
What is something that you wish you had known/learnt about being a social entrepreneur before becoming one?
It’s OK to not go from 0 - 100. It’s funny I say this, because I wouldn’t change the way in which we started for anything, because seeing the difference we’re making and the 1,000’s of people our work has reached has been amazing, but if I were to set up a second venture in a few years I wouldn’t try to reach so far so quick. One of the benefits of being a 20 year old Social Entrepreneur is you’ve got a ridiculous amount of energy and enthusiasm that allowed me work 18 - 20 hours a day, however now I’m 22 and have grey hairs! ;-)
Drawing from your entrepreneurial journey, what are the key lessons that you have learnt? What do you think is the key to your success?
Vision: I don’t just see that we need to connect and integrate, I see we need to do it in a way that leads to a productive intercultural society.
Determination: I’ve been working on BlueFire full time in a voluntary capacity for two years, making great sacrifices for my belief in the success of BlueFire is great. Determination also allows my team and I overcome challenges; if we don’t know how to solve something, we don’t admit defeat, we find the answers.
Resilience: Every day brings new challenges, something to learn, something to solve, lack of resources (and the list goes on!). This journey of starting a social enterprise with no experience has knocked me down more times than I can count, but I pick myself right back up and get creative to overcome the obstacle.
Stillness: A walk in the park, a 10 minute meditation, a cup of tea (!) is key because within this space, innovation grows and the missing links within your project connect.
What do you consider as your biggest achievement till date? How was this possible?
Our biggest achievement to date was last year’s intercultural street fest. BlueFire Street Fest is our annual flagship event that brings together the wide array of cultures now living in Dublin through the Arts. We’ve everything from a main stage, to street performers, a YouthTalks area, workshops, a children’s area and much more. The first year we ran it in 2013, we had half this many areas and a footfall of only 3,000. Last year, we created what we originally set out to create and had over 10,000 people attend throughout the day. Because of this success we’re delighted to be bringing it back again this year, bigger and better on September 19th from 12midday - 10pm in Smithfield Square.
You can see highlights from last year’s festival here:
What is the next for BlueFire?
We’re in the middle of building a programme for corporations that creates integration in the workplace through arts and community engagement, while providing key opportunity for employee engagement. It allows us do what we do best, further our mission, and all profits raised through this programme will be reinvested in the community. It’s a win-win and I’m really excited about developing this venture.
Before we let you go, where can we find you online?
You can learn more about BlueFire on our BlueFire website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
I’ve also been shortlisted for the Rising Star Programme run by Kruger Cowne where if I’m the selected candidate I’ll have the opportunity to go to space! You can see my profile here: www.krugercowne.com/risingstar/shortlist/keren-jackson/
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What drives you as an entrepreneur?
What is the best advice you received as an entrepreneur?
Sindhu Chandrasekaran is a very confident and enthusiastic journalist who loves to take up responsibilities and challenges. My quest for learning and keeping myself abreast of any developments in the field have been a drive to experiment new things. Both, the interest that I have in meeting new people, make connections and flare for writing that I am blessed with has moulded me into what I am today. You can follow Sindhu on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.