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SPNM Perspectives: June O’Sullivan, London Early Years Foundation

By: June O'Sullivan | 23 Aug 2021

June O’Sullivan MBE is CEO of London Early Years Foundation. June attended the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management – Virtual (SPNMV) Executive Education program at Harvard Business School in June. In the post below, she discusses her experience in the program. 

When I received a telephone call informing me that I had a scholarship to the Harvard Business School on the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management programme, I was intrigued and accepted, looking forward to a trip to Boston. But along came Covid and that stopped everything. The programme was put online and I took a week’s annual leave to make sure I was fully available to engage. I was glad I did because it was a rather intense week.

I lead the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), the largest childcare social enterprise in the UK. I shaped LEYF from a small local childcare charity because I wanted to create a means of ensuring children from disadvantaged backgrounds could access high quality, affordable childcare. Most importantly, I wanted LEYF to be best in class so everyone wanted to attend our nurseries no matter their background. I wanted to be better than everyone else to disprove the acceptance by too many that nurseries in poor areas are less good than their equivalents in more affluent areas. It struck me as fundamentally unfair and wrong that those very children who most benefited from great childcare could not access it and that the childcare sector in the UK could not consistently provide for these children. I wanted to disrupt it.

LEYF has developed a sustainable business model based on a fee system that allows us to subsidise at least one third of our places. A model with a triple bottom line: economic, social and environmental. To ensure excellent quality, we created a social pedagogy so that quality and research drove our social purpose and it filtered through every element of our operation. We underpinned this with a global academy to continually train and develop staff and enhance their learning through coaching, research and access to existing and new qualifications – from entry level to an honours degree. We also paid attention to our nursery chefs who cook daily for our 4,500 children and established the first Early Years Chef Academy and professional qualification – the first of its kind for the sector to transform how we provide nutritionally sound meals across all London’s nurseries.

Children are the litmus test of society and we need to be constantly looking at what is affecting them and responding through research, reflection and ensuring our organisations are continually learning and innovating.

It was with this mission in mind that I logged on to the first session of the HBS programme. One of the most interesting things about the HBS programme started right at the beginning with the focus on leadership and social purpose. Sometimes, when you are so focused on doing what you do every day, there is little time to raise your head, step back and observe and think. This was what I was able to do during the programme. Stepping up onto the balcony and looking at the sweep below me. Listening to Dutch Leonard talk about looping our work into our social purpose was not radical or unsettling but it provided a level of confidence and lucidity that allowed for some deep reflection. This was particularly needed after a year of intense operational focus to navigate the Covid pandemic.

Another fascinating focus was on operational transparency and making it stronger in the “back room”. This was particularly relevant for me and the example Ryan Buell used took me straight into the heads of many of our central office staff who sometimes struggled to understand how their roles linked to our social purpose, especially amongst staff appointed during the Covid lockdown. This had become more of an issue as we tried to balance the challenges and benefits of the new world of working from home and the limits it placed on staff bonding and camaraderie. Tying day-to-day work back our social purpose provides the energy to respond and innovate.

As someone who is a passionate advocate of social enterprise, often campaigning, speaking and writing on the subject and keen to see a High Street of social enterprises, I must admit being surprised to realise how much HBS recognised the power and influence of the social enterprise model. Kash Rangan’s discussion on investment and funding social enterprises really interested me because it was so closely related to our model. The UK has a march on this and there is much to learn from social enterprises such as LEYF which has used social investment to grow our social purpose and very pleased to have fully paid off our investment loan last year.

The joy of any programme is in the people you meet. Having the programme online was a challenge but we did our best and the small groups of six meeting every evening was a great idea. I met some interesting colleagues from a range of different sectors with much in common: funding, managing Boards, supporting staff, balancing operational challenges with innovation and just keeping a sensible head in a summer “when all about are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” Getting their take on my work and the effort they went to look up our website and read some of my writing, listen to my Ted Talk etc. humbled me. Social enterprises thrive on collaboration, innovation and networking or, as Robert Putnam would say, bonding and bridging. We have formed a happy bond and bridge right across the Atlantic.

To learn more:

Visit https://leyf.org.uk/ and www.juneosullivan.com. June O’Sullivan voted the SE100 Social Enterprise Leader of the Year; LEYF named one of top 100 UK social enterprises.

Twitter: @juneosullivan and @leyfonline