Grand ideas

I recently filled in an application to speak at an event about children in Care. The form asked me to summarise in a limited number of characters what I would bring to the table as a speaker. I wrote:

We have collected BERRI data on the psychological needs of over a thousand children in residential children’s homes over the last five years, and surveyed and trained over a thousand residential care staff to provide care that is tailored to those needs. We can present what this data shows us, and how we have used it to improve the services that are offered, and commissioning decisions made about children. For example, we have learnt that the level of challenge presented varies remarkably little by age or gender, though the types of needs are slightly different. Some types of needs (eg behaviour, risk) are affected much more by proximal stressors (eg exclusions from school, gang involvement, substance misuse, sexual exploitation) whilst others (eg relationships) are affected more by historic adversity and the nature of early attachment experiences. We can present how staff variables (demographic factors, burnout, empathy, ability to formulate) affect the care they deliver, and how the price and types of services commissioned relate to the needs of the child and the impact they make on the life of the child – if at all!

The government spend a billion pounds a year on these 7000 children, and we have good evidence that by better targeting the psychological needs of individual children they can improve outcomes whilst saving costs.

It struck me when I looked at that paragraph that this was simultaneously a grandiose claim and underselling the potential of the systems we have developed*. I think that tension between over and under-selling what we can do reflects one of the big challenges of being an entrepreneur – seeing the potential, whilst being realistic about the frustratingly slow steps it takes to achieve it. I can see so much that we can achieve, and the way that collecting the right data can help put children’s needs in the heart of commissioning decisions, improving outcomes whilst saving substantial amounts of money but it is very hard to get this information in front of the right people. I’ve tried to speak to politicians, policy makers, experts in the field, commissioners, clinicians, funders and the media. I’ve spoken at conferences, written a book, contributed to policy documents, delivered service improvement programmes in major providers in the sector, I’ve even given evidence before a select committee. But because I try to answer the questions that are asked, I don’t always get the chance to promote the products and services that we provide. And it isn’t my personality to aggressively sell what we do.

Looking back, I think that I believed that if you work out a better way to do something, a technique that saves time or money or improves outcomes for people, then once people knew about it then it would start to gain traction until it became the established way of doing things. I figured that was how we had progressed from horse-drawn carts to steam engines, cars and now electric vehicles, or from papyrus to paper to typewriters to computers to the plethora of voice-activated, photo-capturing, text and graphic app laden smartphones – finding iteratively better ways to solve problems. I knew that sometimes there were two simultaneous steps forward that competed (like VHS and Betamax) and that variables like marketing, networks and budget could influence the choice, but I generally thought that the best solutions would win through. Maybe it is my left-leaning political bias or my hippy upbringing, but I think in my heart I have held onto a naive idea of fairness in which everyone should be motivated to solve social problems, and people should be rewarded for their effort and insight.

I suppose the concept that we live in something of a meritocracy is quite a widespread belief, and entrenched in western cultures, that good ideas will surface and the best people will rise to positions of power. That’s taken a bit of a crushing for me over recent years, as I’ve seen the covert influence of the super-rich and we’ve had several prominent examples of terrible people rising to the top of systems that have failed to keep up with social and technological change, but somehow I am still hoping for the system to right itself, because it feels like society should be a functional meritocracy.

I think it is particularly well articulated in the USA, because they started as a nation of immigrants who created their own society. To quote the American Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal”, are entitled to “the pursuit of happiness” and will rise to their natural position in society. That sounds like a fair way to run a country, but of course the reality has never quite matched the headlines, given the theft of land and resources from native peoples, the decimation of the natural environment and the evils of the slave trade. But somehow the myth of the American Dream has persisted. First described by James Truslow Adams in 1931, it describes a culture where anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. The American Dream is achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, rather than by chance or the privilege of your pre-existing connections. In Adams’ words it is:

a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position

Whilst I can see so many places where people are not starting the race from the same starting line, because of geography, race, gender, religion, socio-economic adversity, sexuality, age, or so many other variables I have clung on to my optimism that if you can work out a solution to a big social problem, or have an idea that can really work to make life easier (and/or make lots of money), then it should be possible to gain traction with it, get key people to support you, and get it to happen. The reality is that so many people who think of themselves as examples of a working meritocracy have in fact been handed a huge head start by their privilege. As we joked the other day on Twitter, all the wrong people have imposter syndrome because it is mutually exclusive with entitlement. It seems that private schools in particular train people to expect to be leaders and wielders of power, as we see in the preponderance of Prime Ministers educated in Eton (and in the irritating arrogance of Lottie Lion and Ryan-Mark in the recent series of the Apprentice). Having attended an ordinary comprehensive, and never having been aware of any negative repercussions of my gender or heritage, it has been quite eye-opening to see that maybe the playing field isn’t as level as it appears, even for someone ostensibly white and middle class**.

One figure that has stayed with me is that of all the money invested into fledgling businesses in the UK, 89% is given to all male founder groups, 10% to founder groups containing men and women, and just 1% to all female founders. I couldn’t find any UK numbers, but the figures look even worse if we consider race, with black women only receiving 0.0006% of the of the $424.7 billion that has been invested into startups globally between 2009 and 2017 by venture capitalists. Those white men probably think they simply have better ideas, but the evidence doesn’t support that, whilst the statistics say they are 89 times more likely to be funded than all female groups, whilst a white male entrepreneur is thousands of times more likely to be funded than a black woman, and will have the confidence to ask for much larger sums of money. Only 34 black women have raised more than a million dollars of investment in the last decade. This doesn’t reflect the quality of the idea or the work ethic of the individuals involved (as meaningfully empowered women on boards increase corporate social responsibility and may have a positive impact on the profitability of the business, and diversity increases profitability). It reflects the stereotype of what the (predominantly white male) funders think successful entrepreneurs look like – and they imagine young geeks from silicon valley who are predominantly white and almost always male. And that sucks.

It might also explain why men in suits with glossy patter are able to sell systems they have pulled out of the air for eight times what we charge for properly evidenced tools that do the same job better. Or maybe that’s just a coincidence. But whether or not the playing field is flat isn’t something I can solve alone, and it is unlikely to be resolved within the timescale that is critical for me to make a success of my business and to maximise the impact I can make on the lives of vulnerable children. That means that, despite how discouraging it is to realise that we are not living in a meritocracy where the strength of the idea is enough to sell it to those who matter, I need to find ways to shout louder, communicate what we do better, and get our message in front of the right people.

Because we are tantalisingly close to having all the data we need to understand the critical variables at play in the psychological wellbeing of children and young people in Care, and which placements and services can help to address them. We have an exciting partnership growing with a group of local authority commissioners that will couple our data with commissioning data, and we are applying for grants to help us to gather and analyse that data across much wider samples. We are also scaling up the previous project we did looking at whether BERRI can help to identify suitable candidates to “step down” from high tariff residential settings into family placements with individualised packages of support. These larger scale projects mean that we will be able to show that the model works, at both the human and financial levels. And with a little bit more momentum we can start making the difference I know we are capable of. The trick is hanging onto the vision of what is possible and celebrating what we have already achieved, whilst having the realism to put in the graft that will get us there. I need to keep pushing upwards for longer than I ever imagined, in the hope of reaching the fabled sunlight of easier progress – even if so many variables skew us away from the meritocracy that I imagined.

 

*I think that’s why I used the pronoun “we” and shared credit with my team, even when I was asked to describe myself as a speaker, rather than taking full credit on my own. This transpires to be a common female trait, and part of the double bind for women where being assertive is seen as aggressive whilst being collaborative is seen as lacking leadership. In fact, many words are used exclusively towards women and highlight how pervasive these biases about women in leadership roles are.

**albeit a second generation immigrant to the UK, with Jewish heritage

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