Whitney Iles is CEO of Project 507, a social enterprise that aims to change the systemic conditions generating violence by providing innovative solutions to create positive peace. The organisation, which was launched four years ago, works across three strategic change areas; The Criminal Justice System, The Community and Policy & Research. www.project507.co.uk
What drove you to start your own business?
In 2011 I was approached by Working Links as part of the NOMs/ESF CFO2 (European Social Fund project) prisons contract to run four personal development programmes over a two-year period. After we ran the first two programmes, the contract was re-negotiated and we ended up with 18 programmes to run over the same two-year period.Project 507 ltd was started because I needed an entity to host all the work we had just been awarded.
What was your career path prior to starting your business?
I have worked with children and young people in the community from the age of 15. I had previously been a Director and Vice Chair of Equanomics UK and Co-Founder of NoSexWithOutLove but this was the first time I had a private limited business with any real money. It wasn’t part of the plan, well not my plan at least, so I had to quickly learn the ropes of running a business and working within the prison system.
Tell us about the business planning stage.
There was no real business plan in the beginning but there was a vision. I knew one of the biggest problems in my community was that very few people owned anything that was truly self-sustainable with a social purpose, so I wanted a business that made money and real authentic change.
I asked a financial and business person to become a board member so we could work from day one with the right business understanding and knowledge. Then I went out and approached other mentors that I’d had when I was younger, to see if they wanted to be involved in the movement for change – luckily they all said yes! From there the business just grew and grew. Only in the last year have we managed to slow things down a bit and spend more time focusing on the strategic framework of the company and want we want to do moving forward. So I would say pretty opposite to what they teach in school!
How far ahead do you plan and what keeps you on track and motivated?
For the business we have a two, three and a five year plan, but we also have a bigger world vision that we work towards so our shorter plans never drift too far from that. We re-evaluate and develop our strategic framework once a year and have regular meetings to keep us on track.
Personally, I have a long-term vision that I try to break down into five year periods, I think the beauty of getting into this work so young is that I can have 20/30 year plans.
Can you describe a typical working day?
There is no typical working day for me. I could be in Parliament in the morning and prison in the afternoon, then in the community by evening. I never wanted an office job and routine bores me, so I created a life where no two days are the same.
What has been the most amazing day in your entrepreneurial life so far?
I have so many amazing days it would be too difficult to choose one, I like the days where I can see something that had once been in my mind out in reality and think to myself ‘wow – that came partly from my head’. Then when I see Project 507 team members interacting with the young people in prison and seeing the relationships building, the love and appreciation from both sides and knowing that I was a little part of that, it feels me with gratitude.
What has been your scariest moment?
I don’t really have scary business moments, but I’ve had a few moments in the prison system where I’ve seen individuals want to take their lives. There is no training in the world that can prepare you for that and it comes down to how quick everyone can move in that moment. I don’t have to deal with it much but this is why I believe we need to have a lot more support for prison staff/officers because what they are dealing with every day can be soul destroying.
How do you work on making your business grow?
By ensuring I put the majority of my time into the growth and development of the business – I think this is also about individual professional development as well and making sure I am in the right environments that help me think about business development because there are still a lot of things I don’t know. Right now I am a student on the School of Social Entrepreneurs and the Lloyd’s Bank Scale Up Programme, which has helped out a lot.
I don’t quite see it as being my own boss, more, the person within the company who is in the most service. Leadership to me is about service and the position of CEO is about being in service to those on the Project 507 team and the people the company as a whole serves. It can be hard work and there is a lot of responsibility involved, it’s not for the weak at heart. I do enjoy being a part of a movement that is creating change from an authentic space, that is my favourite part of it.
What are the challenges of working for yourself and how do you tackle them?
Motivation, self-doubt and loneliness. My core group of friends have all spent many hours talking with me, helping to sort through my emotions and thoughts. There is no way I could do this without them.
Who do you admire or look to for inspiration as a business owner?
I know so many people who inspire me, I don’t think I could name just a few, plus, the people I admire are not necessarily business owners. There are a lot of activists that I look to for wisdom.
What piece of advice has had the most impact on your business? And who was it from?
‘Don’t make your business about you’ and that I should be able to walk away from the business at any time and it should still run just as smoothly. Many people have said this to me and I have probably read it many times as well.
What are the 3 books, websites or resources (professional or personal) that you would recommend to other business owners?
TedTalks – I’ve watch many through the years!
What other passions do you have away from your business? How do you relax?
I read a lot. I love fantasy books, it’s the only time I get to really escape and not think about work. Everyone thinks I tend just to read fact-based books but I think there is a lot of power in letting your imagination run wild.
Whitney was a finalist in the Leadership category at the 2015 PRECIOUS Awards.