Brilliant Club

Operating outside the comfort zone

30 May 2012

A founder of The Brilliant Club, a social enterprise helping poorer pupils aspire to top universities, explains why feeling disconcerted gives him a real buzz.

The idea of The Brilliant Club came to my colleague Simon and I just over a year ago. Having trained as a teacher in an east London school – serving a relatively deprived community – I became increasingly frustrated with the lack of progression to highly selective universities among the fantastic children I was teaching.

The premise of the Brilliant Club is simple: we recruit, train and place PhD students in schools serving low-income communities to deliver university-style tutorials to small groups of outstanding students. We are a non-profit organisation, but we are committed to a sustainable and scalable social enterprise model where we charge schools for our services and pay our PhD tutors competitively. We are young, but growing very quickly. The Sutton Trust is one of our founding partners and we are working with King’s College LondonOxford and SussexUniversities.

Since we started The Brilliant Club, I’ve felt constantly uncomfortable; there is a seemingly endless list of things to do. I used to know what was on the list, but more recently I’m just aware that there is a list. Overall, despite the sleepless nights, I’m delighted about this. Operating outside our comfort zone seems to be good for driving change.

The most relaxed I’ve felt was at the start. We would find a PhD student, find a school and make it happen. And we could have probably carried on like that.

However, two meetings in two successive days changed the way I viewed the boundaries between charity, business and social enterprise – and helped to establish this “uncomfortability” yardstick by which we now measure ourselves.

Meeting 1: Demand from schools has always been strong and, within five months, we were in a position where I was proudly boasting, “We’re already at capacity for this year!”

It was January and we had 15 schools signed up, were set to turn over around £50,000 from earned income (not bad for a start-up) and were looking forward to working with 200 children.

Around that time we met Brett Wigdortz, the chief executive of Teach First. He raised the obvious question: “If you’ve signed up 15 schools in five months, how many could you sign up in 12?”

Brett made me realise that if you believe what you’re doing is right (Simon and I have complete conviction in this – it should be absolutely normal to walk down the corridor of a non-selective state school to see a PhD student delivering tutorials) then why wouldn’t we want as many children as possible to benefit from it?

Meeting 2: The next day I met a trustee from the School for Social Entrepreneurs who dropped another conceptual bombshell. I began to explain the scalable and sustainable way that we work to break the link between parental income and access to selective universities forever, etc.

“‘Great idea,” he said, “Well done”.

“Thanks”, I said (glowing).

“It should work – it makes sense” he continued. “Have you realised that the only people who can stop this happening now are you and Simon?”

That comment resonates with me every day – it makes me realise that the organisation has to be separate from, bigger than and reach beyond what Simon and I can ever achieve on our own.

Initially, there had been too much focus and self-congratulation on what we’d done in a relatively short time – when actually what any social enterprise needs to do is constantly look forward with clear focus. For us it is simple: we want to be placing 500 PhD students in schools across the country within the next five years. Until this is done, we’re not doing enough and, if someone else can do it better, the trustees should fire us and employ them. Thinking in this way motivates and empowers both Si and I.

Those two meetings totally changed the way I think about charity. There seems to be a natural inertia towards growing and letting go of any business, but even more so a charity. I’ve realised that to even begin to fully utilise a good idea, the idea of letting go needs to be overcome.

On the back of those meetings, Simon and I hired four new staff, each with significant responsibility. By letting go in this way, this year we will now be working with nearly 40 schools, placing more than 50 PhD tutors to work with 500 students and turning over £100,000+. And next year we look set to double those numbers (and aim to do the same again the year after that).

Yes, I feel extremely uncomfortable about this (I know we can pay our employees next month, but I’m pretty worried about the month after that and line management is a whole new headache!). In fact, this is the most uncomfortable I’ve felt so far. But then, that’s almost certainly a good thing and we’re probably doing OK.