The School for Social Entrepreneurs (Dartington) hit the ground running by offering two intensive AWE Programmes since Oct 2019. The first of these was a pilot programme, run in Plymouth, and consisted of two modules. The second was a full programme of six modules, run in Paignton over twelve weeks. Sixteen harder-to-reach women completed the Plymouth pilot and nineteen completed the Paignton programme. We have had no drop out or withdrawals, and both programmes were over-subscribed.
But like so many, the SSE Dartington AWE team had to take a break during the first lockdown period to make some important changes to the way workshops were run, in order to align with new Covid guidelines. To reflect the global changes that have happened, the team have responded by adapting their AWE programmes to be run solely online, primarily via Zoom, Facebook and a WhatsApp group. This means that participants can join in, as long as they have an internet connection and either a laptop, tablet or smartphone.
The new format of the AWE programme is now split into two shorter online programmes; The AWE Sofa Sessions and The AWE Nuts & Bolts Sessions. The first of the AWE Sofa Sessions starts during the second week of November, followed by the AWE Weekend Accelerator, held on 13th and 14th December 2020 (now all virtual). January 2021 kicks off with a second run of the AWE Sofa Sessions, taking place every Tuesday for five weeks, starting on 12th January. This programme is followed by the AWE Nuts & Bolts Sessions, which applicants can also apply to –taking place every Wednesday for four weeks, starting on 24th February.
We learnt a lot during the first wave of the face-to-face AWE workshops (pre-Covid); what works and what doesn’t work so well, and how these programmes might be further refined to meet the needs of this capable, inspiring, creative, and yet sometimes vulnerable, group of women. We have applied these learnings to the new online workshops, but of course, we expect to learn new insights through the new format. Below are some of our five key learnings, taken from the face-to-face AWE workshops:
- The multiple benefits of running an all-woman programme:
We have learned that the fact that this programme was designed exclusively for women was a huge attraction of our programme, which participants told us, made it stand out from other similar programmes in their area. Participants also said that being in an all-woman environment, provided a uniquely rich experience during the programme because of the holistic way that they were able to interact, connect with and support each other. We have largely used women as facilitators and as key speakers, and this has been noted as being of particular importance.
“What have I learned from being involved with the AWE programme? How much fun it can be working and planning, with other marvellously motivated women, thinkers and doers!” (Participant feedback)
- The importance of reaching out when recruiting
With our goal of reaching as diverse a group of women as possible, we knew we couldn’t rely on traditional recruitment methods alone. A whirlwind tour of Plymouth and targeted networking in Paignton resulted in us meeting face to face with community groups, women’s centres, local food banks and existing local enterprises, all of whom proved vital in referring women who may otherwise not have heard about or necessarily felt confident in applying to the programme. We have attracted a wide range of participants, including those with physical disabilities, mental health problems or autism; refugees and others who do not have English as a first language; women with caring responsibilities; women living in poverty or with low incomes; and many with low self-esteem and a lack of confidence.
- The value of removing as many barriers as possible
To make the programme more accessible for women, we have experimented with structuring the sessions around different time-frames and locations, so that those with children, other caring responsibilities and part-time jobs might be able to choose a programme that could work best alongside various lifestyles. The first two programmes have been structured in ways that could fit in with the school run (between 10am – 2pm) and held in the city centre, close to public transport links. The forthcoming programme will take place over full days (10am-4.30pm) but bursaries will be given to support participants with childcare or additional costs. We also provide lunch, we give handouts with course materials, and we have a library of books for participants to borrow, all in an attempt to make the programme as accessible as possible to women on low incomes.
“The fact that it was aimed at women only, based in Plymouth and the timing worked well as it gave me time to go and collect my children.” (Participant feedback)
- The positive impact of putting people first
We maintained a consciously holistic approach to our participants, recognising them as individuals first and foremost, over and above their enterprise projects and ideas. For example, we included exercises and activities that allowed them to reflect on their lives, gifts and purpose as whole, not just their social enterprise. We also invited several ‘witnesses’ (local female entrepreneurs) to share their personal stories as well as experiences from their enterprises.
“The rich diversity of the group surprised and delighted me. We all have our gender in common but it feels like there’s also a really wide range of life experiences in the room.” (Participant feedback)
- Fostering a welcoming and diverse space
Another crucial common thread throughout the programme was feedback about the supportive facilitation style. Participants repeatedly shared that they valued being in an environment where they felt safe and able to share their personal experiences, stories and feelings, without judgement. Many women also commented positively about the strong networks they were able to forge amongst each other, as a result.
“I don’t always like to participate, but I have felt no barriers here.” (Participant feedback)
There is a risk that drawing out lessons of this nature over-emphasise the importance of women-only space and supportive environments, at the cost of devaluing the deep and substantial content of the modules. In order to counter this, we also want to draw attention to some of the aspirations of our participants, as stated in the first session of the Paignton programme:
“I want to have a really solid business plan by the end of the course”
“I want to build up a good network and believe in myself more that I can actually do this.”
“I want to finish the 12 weeks and firm up my ideas to make it a reality.”
“I want to give time to myself to build my confidence and give clarity to my new direction.”
“I want to know which idea to pursue because it is most financially viable.”
“I want to build my confidence and resilience.”
“I want to clearly articulate my vision so that it is realistic and achievable.”
“I want to prioritise finding my focus and working out the practicalities in amongst busy family life and make the very best of this opportunity.”
“I want to learn!”
By the end of these programmes, we believe that our participants will have all achieved these goals, and more. They have the chance to apply to have a mentor and to continue to work with us as an AWE participant and as part of a wider SSE network. Watch this space to see how they get on!