Abi Billinghurst created Abianda in 2011 as a social enterprise designed to tip the balance of power in society in favour of marginalised and disenfranchised people, helping them inform the decisions and policy that affect their lives. Abi has worked for more than 15 years with young people and disadvantaged groups within society, supporting them to have a voice.
What was the dream when setting up ABIANDA?
To have a business for young women, run with young women.
How would you describe the journey of setting up a business?
It’s exciting! It’s liberating being your own boss, but a bit scary when you make mistakes and you are responsible for absolutely everything. But it’s worth it when I see young women working alongside us and taking control of their own lives.
You trained as an actor before becoming a youth worker. What skills did acting teach you that helped you in your youth work?
A good actor has to be observant, be a good listener and to empathise – I use these skills every day in my work with young women and in running a business. Acting is story telling, and at ABIANDA we support young people to tell their stories, like in these films I made with young people: http://bit.ly/1bZkKSV and http://bit.ly/1yNoJXw
So do you think that the background that someone comes from plays a big part in their entrepreneurial journey?
A big part. The values that my mum instilled in me are what make me want to help young women to change their lives. A belief in social justice and equality is engrained in me and the business. I had set up two businesses by the time I was thirty – I think entrepreneurs have a natural drive to make stuff happen.
What is the biggest challenge that you have faced when setting up ABIANDA?
Multi-tasking! A start up entrepreneur needs to do everything in a growing business. It is really challenging getting to a point where you can pay other people to do stuff for you so you can get on with growing the organisation.
How has ABIANDA impacted the communities in which it is active?
Gang-affected young women are a hidden group. We make it safe for them to engage in our services and get the support they need. They tell us they feel more hopeful, powerful and more in control of their lives as a result of working with us.
Previously being involved in gangs can leave some kind of scarring. In your opinion, what is the best way for these individuals to deal with this/filter out these thoughts and find confidence to move forward with their ideas?
Services need to be better able to identify gang-affected young women. Young women need support to deal with the risk and trauma they experience. They need safe spaces where they are not judged, where they are listened to and where they can get work and realise their potential. At ABIANDA we help young women get away from gangs by paying them to train professionals, so those professionals can then go and support other young women to get away from gangs.
You want the women you help to then become part of your core team at ABIANDA. Why is this?
Because those people who are affected by a problem are best placed to find solutions to it. If we want gang-affected young women to engage in our services, we need them to tell us what will work for them. I want ABIANDA to provide opportunities for young women at all levels of the business, whether in delivering our services, in marketing and PR, managing the finances or sitting on our Board.
You have a young family, which must bring it’s own challenges and responsibilities. What advice would you give to someone in a similar situation who wants to be an entrepreneur and create social change?
Go for it! It is difficult, and you wont always get things done as quickly as you might like but if you believe in what you are doing you will make it work. Being your own boss means you can arrange your working day in a way that suits you and your family. I work after the kids are in bed, during nap times, while rocking the buggy – whenever I can! I’ve got a really supportive husband (@MTBracken), which helps. Seeing young women making the changes they want in their lives inspires me to keep at it.
What is the one thing you wish people had told you before you started your entrepreneurial journey?
Cost control. Make sure you know how much it really costs to deliver your services and what your profit margin is! It’s really important for us because our profits go back into the business so we can work with more young women.
In your opinion and based on your experience, what does it take to run a successful business?
Hard work and determination. Doing one thing and doing it well. Celebrating the small successes and not letting the knock backs stop you. Being financially literate and most importantly being loyal to your values and those of your business.
What advice would you give to a young social entrepreneur?
Get a network of support around you – people you can bounce ideas off and have a good moan to! I am a Fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs (@SchSocEnt). They supported me financially, helped me develop my business knowledge and are a network of people I can reach out to when I need advice and support. It’s invaluable.