WISE Ways to Lead: Five ways social entrepreneurs can protect and share their lived experience

Lived experience: five ways social entrepreneurs can overcome the challenges of sharing personal stories

For many entrepreneurs, the drive to set up a social purpose organisation is rooted in their own experience of a problem. Sharing your personal story can be a powerful and authentic way to promote your venture, but what are the challenges in becoming the face of your brand, and how can you protect yourself (and your employees) along the way? In our WISE Ways to Lead webinar, hosted in partnership with NatWest, we heard how two social entrepreneurs are using – or intentionally not using – their lived experience to market their enterprise. Read on for highlights, or watch the full discussion above.

‘Lived experience’ has become a buzz-phrase of late. But traumatic experiences of violence, abuse or neglect are not just moving stories to sell a service or a tick-box on a funding application, they are very personal and often raw feelings that must be treated with respect and care. “We give a piece of ourselves every time we speak, even if we are healed from our trauma,” said Michelle John (pictured) during our latest WISE webinar on 22 September 2022. 

Michelle John - PEGSJohn founded social enterprise PEGS (Parental Education Growth Support) in 2020, which today supports 3,000 parents, carers and guardians affected by child-to-parent abuse. She has always been very clear about what she will and will not share – her website explains that John has experienced child-to-parent abuse herself but that she does not discuss the specifics of this – “it’s a non-negotiable stance”, she said. She outlined the duality of wanting to share personal stories to make sure that others are not in the same situation, while also focusing on maintaining the privacy and respect that she and her family deserve. 

We give a piece of ourselves every time we speak, even if we are healed from our trauma

Speaking alongside John at the webinar chaired by Pioneers Post's managing editor Anna Patton was Leigh Carey (pictured), founder of the The Hummingbird Project which provides training and support for employers across the mental health spectrum, including suicide prevention and group resilience training. Carey’s own personal trauma and subsequent mental health diagnosis drove her to set up the social enterprise in 2016, which puts Carey’s own experience “front and centre” and is seen as a ‘USP’, along with the rest of her team who have all lived with mental ill health. For Carey, the importance of sharing her experiences is to “purposefully and safely break down barriers”, which she feels her openness and honesty does by “challenging a dictionary definition of a CEO”.

Leigh Carey - The Hummingbird ProjectSo when you bring something so personal and potentially traumatic into your professional life, how can you protect yourself and navigate what, where and how you share? Here are five tips for entrepreneurs who bring lived experience to their day job, as shared by our speakers.

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1. Be clear about the purpose of what you are sharing

Think through what you’re sharing about your lived experience and why. What is the purpose of sharing it? Will it benefit the people you are serving? May it be of benefit to those you are supporting but at the detriment of your own health? Understanding why you are sharing specific stories can help ensure that what you are sharing is always in service of your mission as well as your own wellbeing. 


2. Understand your boundaries and share them with those close to you 

Work out what you are prepared to talk about – and, importantly, what you are not prepared to discuss. Once you are clear on these boundaries, write them down and tell the people around you including staff, family and friends. Explain what you will and won’t negotiate on, how you will do it and the support you will need. This will help you to feel supported and safe, and accountable to your own boundaries. 


3. Check in with yourself and others

Sharing your personal experiences can be anything from exhausting to retraumatising. Clarify procedures when sharing stories – how will you ensure your own wellbeing and those of your employees? Find ways to ground yourself so that you can check in to see how you are feeling. This can be in a group setting, like at the beginning of a team meeting, or by yourself through checklists or breathing exercises. 


4. Take care around the ‘start part’ 

“Whatever caused the trauma is only the start of the story,” said Carey. You don’t need to share the story of your personal experience – the lived experience part is how you managed afterwards (or didn’t) and what you learnt, not the story itself.

Potential funders do not need to understand what happened to you, but instead explain how your own or your employees' experiences feed into the impact that your organisation makes. 


5. It’s okay to walk away 

“You don’t owe anyone your journey,” said John. You are in control of what you say. Don’t be afraid to be firm, have one or two sentences that you are comfortable with sharing and then deflect to facts or figures. If you feel uncomfortable or that your boundaries are being tested, walk away. 

“Say no, she said. “No is a complete full sentence – it needs no explanation, no apology, but it must be respected.” 


Are you a journalist or funder speaking to someone with someone with traumatic experiences that inform their work? Here are some tips that might be useful for you: 

  • The impact of sharing experiences can be long lasting, so if you’re asking questions, please be mindful of the wellbeing of those that are sharing. 
  • Check in with the person after they’ve shared something with you – see how they are feeling and stop that line of questioning if they are uncomfortable or finding it difficult. 
  • Ask the person directly what they are prepared and not prepared to share, ask what language they want to use, ask how they want their lived experience to be referred to, ask what questions they think would be useful to ask. 

See PEGS guidance for journalists: www.pegsupport.co.uk/media  


  • Look out for information in our newsletter on the next WISE Ways to Lead Webinar coming soon, and find more insight and inspiration from the UK's leading women in social enterprise in our WISE100 collection


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