WISE100 Lunchtime Takeaways: How to boss it as a woman in social enterprise

'Be prolific, not perfect': WISE100 2024 winners share their lessons on leadership

Victoria Papworth, CEO of NatWest Social & Community Capital, and WISE100 champions Zareen Roohi Ahmed and Sarah Hopley on being a “beacon” for the cause, disrupting the “boys’ clubs” – and knowing when to step back. 

Be content with imperfection, surround yourself with other great women and create space for others. These were the key takeaways from last week’s webinar on ‘How to boss it as a woman in social enterprise’, hosted by Julie Pybus, editor of Pioneers Post.

The WISE100 Lunchtime Takeaways webinars are run by Pioneers Post in partnership with NatWest Social & Community Capital. For our first webinar of the series in 2024 we were joined by a panel of inspirational women working in social enterprise and impact investing to share their experiences of leadership, career development and self-care.  

The speakers were 2024 WISE100 Social Business Woman of the Year, Zareen Roohi Ahmed, founder and CEO of Gift Wellness, 2024 WISE100 Social Investment Champion, Sarah Hopley, head of Venture Studio from Crisis and Victoria Papworth, CEO of NatWest Social & Community Capital.

Cast light on your cause and be prolific, not perfect 

Gift Wellness is a social enterprise dedicated to innovating high-quality, plastic-free menstrual products, founded by Zareen Roohi Ahmed in 2012 after the death of her daughter. The enterprise has donated over 6.5m menstrual products to date to women in need, supporting those in homeless shelters, refugee camps, food banks and schools. 

Sharing her story of turning grief into an acclaimed social enterprise, Ahmed emphasised that a social entrepreneur’s vision has to be unwavering to “get you out of bed” each morning and as a “cornerstone of your resilience during tough times”.

Ahmed added: “My background wasn't in business at all, it was in the public and charity sectors. But, you know, when you have this unshakable belief in your vision, the ‘how’ becomes mere detail. So embrace your vision fully, and start now and don't wait to be perfect – be prolific, not perfect.”

It's not just about showcasing yourself, but about highlighting the purpose you serve and becoming the beacon that hopefully guides and inspires others

Analysing her role as a social entrepreneur, Ahmed said leaders need to champion their chosen cause. She said “[customers] are eager to embrace not just the product, but the narrative and the driving force behind it, which is you. 

“Leadership doesn't mean that you're constantly in the limelight. On the contrary, you're becoming that spotlight, the luminary, casting light on your cause and illuminating the path for others to follow. So it's not just about showcasing yourself, but about highlighting the purpose you serve and becoming the beacon that hopefully guides and inspires others.”  


Surround yourself with other great women who will champion you

Venture Studio from Crisis was created by the homelessness charity Crisis to invest in and scale companies that increase access to or the supply of good quality, affordable homes. Hopley joined the Venture Studio in 2021, bringing past personal experience of being at risk of homelessness. 

She emphasised that entrepreneurship was not just for the select few and outlined how she had moved from the commercial property sector to working for purpose-led organisations. Hopley said: “I discovered that there's this whole incredible ecosystem of changemakers and social entrepreneurs and passionate people. And so I just felt like I was in exactly the right place.”

But, while she was making the transition to the social impact sector, and pregnant with her first child, Hopley and her husband were threatened with homelessness. This lived experience of the issue drives her to help find radical creative solutions that can be employed at scale. 

Hopley reflected on how rewarding it can be to disrupt the “London real estate old boys’ club” and advised other women to “surround yourself with great women that will champion you and don't be afraid to ask them for help.” 


Flex your style and create space for others to do the same 

NatWest Social & Community Capital provides loans to charities and social enterprises across the UK who've been declined by mainstream finance. While only 20% of women-led organisations are able to successfully access finance and investment in the UK, nearly 50% of NatWest Social & Community Capital loans go to women-led organisations, according to CEO Victoria Papworth. 

The best leaders create space for others, Papworth said, and women are particularly good at doing so. “View yourself as the conductor of the orchestra and not the lead guitarist. I saw some really great leaders stepping back when needed, not always needing to be that loudest voice in the room,” she said.

View yourself as the conductor of the orchestra and not the lead guitarist

Being able to flex communication styles is a crucial skill for a leader, Papworth said.

“Really flex a broad range of styles and skills and voices, and really understand what works for you in particular situations,” she advised. “When is it right to be analytical? When is it right to be empathetic?”

Finally, Papworth emphasised the importance of staying topped up with inspiration and energy to avoid burnout. “So share your learning, share your energy, share your expertise. And remember that you can be transformative, but it doesn't need to all happen at once. It can be incremental change and that is just as important.”


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