Words of Aaron Probert, March 2022
Throughout my time at University I was a part of Enactus Sheffield. Enactus is a student-led society comprising students from various faculties who create non-profit ventures to solve issues in society. I joined in my first year and it Flipped. My. World. I had never heard of social enterprises before and it was life changing. To be able to combine two things I was passionate about, helping people and business, immediately drew me in.
I usually chatted to her on my way to and from University until one night, when I was on my way home from the library, she shared her story with me. It was a story of domestic abuse in which she had found herself trapped, and her only means of temporary escape had been alcohol. This created a cycle that had led to dependency issues and alcoholism. Her cycle continued until she was faced with a decision: to continue drinking and live a short life, or to leave her abuser with a resilience and determination to move onwards. She chose to leave her abuser and push forward. However, while trapped in the cycle of domestic abuse, her abuser had separated her from her support network. She only had the streets to turn to.
In that moment, while she was telling her story, I never wanted to do something for someone else more in my life, but as a second year university student I didn’t feel I could do anything.
I studied a University module called New Venture Creation, led by Dr Andreana Drencheva, Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at the Management School.
The module enabled me to create a business of my choice, and immediately, I knew it had to be centred around homelessness. Andreana was fantastic. She gave her time and energy advising, guiding, and motivating me to create a sustainable, impact driven business.
Since that module in 2019, I took Labre’s Hope through the ‘Well Rotherham’ Accelerator and it placed first, being awarded £10,000 in 2021.
We then joined the SantanderX 2021 Accelerator, which took us to Wembley Stadium and gave us the chance to meet some of the most incredible people I could think of.
Labre’s Hope formed a partnership with Crisis and South Yorkshire Housing Association, which brought all of the puzzle pieces together, enabling us to create a sustainable, bespoke solution for people experiencing homelessness in South Yorkshire. Together, we spent a lot of time co-ordinating, imagining, and developing the processes involved to make Labre’s Hope come to life.
There are so many others who have also played a part. They were the smaller puzzle pieces who advised, guided, connected and inspired me to keep pushing on during the multitude of challenges I faced on this journey.
You’re probably wondering what Labre’s Hope does…
Why soap? I wanted to create a product everyone could buy into, and what better than your daily wash routine. So while you’re looking after your skin in the bath or shower using a product from Labre’s Hope, you are indirectly looking after people who experience homelessness.
Then you have Crisis. Every wednesday, Crisis comes in to Labre’s Hope’s premises to lead a wellness session which we call ‘Wellbeing Wednesdays’. These sessions teach our employees how to live their best lives, from diet and its impact on mental health to building self-esteem and confidence.
Last but not least, SYHA provides one-to-one employment coaching to our employees under the umbrella of our ‘Future Friday’ workshops. Every Friday, our employees have the opportunity to sit down with their very own employment coach who guides them along their development journey to help them build the skills and find the resources they need to get them to a place in life where they want to be.
SYHA don’t stop there. They offer housing solutions to employees under the umbrella of their social housing projects.
SYHA and Crisis also act as our referral partners by directing people to us who they believe will be a good fit for Labre’s Hope, creating a holistic pathway out of homelessness for their clients.
A couple months after winning the ‘Well Rotherham’ accelerator, I received an email about this new, innovative funding called the Community Renewal Fund. It was a fund launched by the UK Government as part of the levelling up agenda, designed to help deprived communities access opportunities and reach their full potential.
It was a crazy bidding application which totalled over 13,000 words. The application included a full breakdown of the project, covering everything you can think of – state aid, risk management, cost breakdowns, procurement regulations and an impact matrix. Some of those terms were completely new to me, which meant that Google became my best friend!
I honestly didn’t think it would lead to anything.
I made it through Round 1, which is where I thought it was going to end.
Then I made it through Round 2 and I thought… surely not?
After 5 months, the news broke. There I was on the list of successful recipients of the UK Community Renewal Fund.
Labre’s Hope faced challenge after challenge, from funding issues to product development. I had to teach myself how to formulate soap bars and learn about dermatology, to understand how my formulation would affect the users’ skin. This involved reading scientific journals, watching videos and reading books. Sometimes, it felt like an entirely new language to me and impossible to wrap my head around.
I then applied all this knowledge to create a base recipe which would nourish, condition and gently exfoliate skin. I loved studying my own scientific interests and learning about the saponification process - the process of transforming plant oils and fats into soap molecules.
There was an even bigger challenge – aromatherapy. Labre’s Hope uses natural essential oils to scent our products and these were an entirely separate language.
Aromatherapy is about combining base, mid and top notes to create a unique blend that can provide aromatherapeutic benefits to the user. The slightest change in ratios can affect the end scent completely. It’s a challenge to combine essential oils with soap… the pH and temperature of soap can further alter the end scent and cause essential oils to flash off, which means they evaporate and aren’t trapped in the end bar. There are so many intertwining factors, so there was a lot of tweaking!
One person in particular that made a difference was Dr Andreana Drencheva, and her New Venture Creation module. Her passion, knowledge and enthusiasm for non-profits was pivotal in helping me develop a thorough business model that was impact-driven and could really make a difference. In week 9 of the module, I pitched my business at the National Enactus Expo and I needed advice on creating an elevator pitch for the Entrepreneurs of Enactus ‘Pitch Den’ event. I sent Andreana an email and she provided me with great advice which helped me earn a place as one of the top three.
Outside the New Venture Creation Module, learning about ethical management and sustainable operations through the Corporate Social Responsibility module provided me with a higher level of understanding on how every decision we make in business affects people and communities.
I’m grateful for the University of Sheffield. One of my fondest memories of student life is being a part of the Enactus Sheffield’s presentation team. I joined others in pitching our society’s impact over the last year to a room full of people in London. It was a chance to celebrate what we achieved as a society and also the people who we met along the way. Before being on the team, I could never imagine standing in front of a crowd and talking as my anxiety would have affected me. However, the Director of Enactus Sheffield and the rest of the team helped me to overcome my fear and develop my public speaking skills.
What ultimately made my time at University of Sheffield brilliant was the people. The housemates I lived with through University were amazing, Enactus Sheffield was a community of incredible people and staff like Andreana supported my development.
If someone had said this to me during my time at University, I might not have taken it seriously, but now I look back on situations, learn from them and apply my learnings to future decisions.
My advice is to challenge yourself, try new things and meet new people - like the time when I tried to join the Drama Society during University. I was absolutely shocking and I wasn’t exactly about to receive an Oscar, but I tried!
One more lesson I’ve learned in particular is that when building a venture, it’s about who you know. Build your network, join accelerators, find people with similar passions and most importantly, never give up!
You can keep up with Aaron’s journey with his social enterprise, Labre’s Hope, on the website at www.labreshope.co.uk or by following on social media @LabresHope. If you want to help out or would like Aaron's advice on your own venture supporting people experiencing homelessness, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.