Dorothy Francis is CEO of CASE (Co-operative and Social Enterprise) development agency, a workers co-op offering business advice, support and training to individuals and communities. Here she talks about the changes she has witnessed, how being a co-op has been integral to CASE’s survival – and the dilemma she faced in accepting an MBE as a woman of colour.
How did you start in the sector?
My introduction to co-operatives was through being a client of a Co-operative Development Agency (CDA), a support organisation for people setting up and running co-operatives. Some friends and I sought advice from Coventry CDA in the early 1980s on how to set up a bookshop selling literature for, and about, people of colour. I was very impressed by the service at Coventry CDA and knew that I wanted to work in a similar role once I’d gained business experience. A few years later a job came up at what was then Leicester and County CDA (now renamed CASE). I applied with the intention of staying two years and never left!
What do you do at Case?
We do a lot of liaison work to deliver our service. We are a small organisation so partnership working is very important for synergy of services and to build relationships for joint bids and working together. I started as a business adviser and still operate within that role, meeting with new-start businesses and existing clients to help them establish, grow and develop their enterprises. As an agency we aim to maintain contact with our clients and I have worked with some businesses for over 30 years.
CASE is a workers co-operative so all members take ownership of running the business. My role as CEO is to be a figurehead and a point of contact. I undertake a number of functions within my job including bid writing and creating and delivering training courses – at the moment I’m running a programme to deliver training to women to help them enter business, employment or training. Helping women to get into business is one of my driving passions; getting people of colour into the co-op movement is another
What is CASE’s co-op difference?
At the start, what made us stand out was that Leicester was one of the few CDAs constituted as a co-operative. We wrote a set of rules (the ‘Leicester Model Rules’) to suit our needs and sold these to ICOM (the Industrial Common Ownership Movement, which merged with the Co-operative Union in 2001 to become Co-operatives UK) for other small co-ops to use.
We firmly believe that having a co-operative structure has allowed CASE to adapt to changes and has contributed to CASE’s longevity.
What’s the best – and the hardest – part of your job?
The best part is working with people and helping them develop their business ideas. Seeing a business flourish and knowing that CASE has played a part is a great feeling.
The hardest part is accessing the finance to keep CASE going. A lot of people think we are funded but we are not; we bid for contracts and seek work on the open market. It’s a challenge, but we like challenges! This can also be a positive aspect when talking to clients because they know that we are also a small business and that we offer advice from the experience of running an enterprise, rather than from a purely academic basis.
Has it become easier or harder for enterprises to develop and realise their potential?
In the UK it is relatively easy to set up in business. However there are fewer support agencies than there used to be so if people need additional help – for example if they come from disadvantaged communities, have a disability, are long-term unemployed etc – they may find it harder to set up due to the barriers they face. They may lack assistance to overcome obstacles in their way.
One of our roles at CASE is to smooth the path so that people who want to set up in business are able to do so more easily. CASE excels in assisting people from disadvantaged communities into business and we gain great job satisfaction from doing so.
We find that we are always busy as there is great interest in co-operative ways of working. We promote co-operative values and principles in the work that we do as it is the crux of the movement. More people are now aware of social businesses as a viable alternative and we find that we do not need to explain co-operatives and social enterprises as much as we used to.
What does receiving and MBE mean to you?
I am delighted to have been recognised for my work and it’s a great honour to receive an MBE although I had to think long and hard about whether or not to accept. An MBE commemorates ‘empire’, and as a person of colour, with Jamaican heritage, that is not something that I particularly wish to celebrate.
I decided to accept after doing a lot of thinking and some informal consultation (without letting on to the real reason as I was sworn to secrecy!) I asked friends and family what they thought, in principle, and the overwhelming response was that people of colour should be recognised for what they do and should feel free to accept awards and honours. It was felt that when we turn down awards we also turn down opportunities for people of colour to be recognised for their achievements and contributions and to be seen as influential role models for other people – of any colour – within society.
I accepted as I feel it’s not just an award for me, but for my community, my family and my colleagues, past and present, at CASE. The deciding reason why I accepted is that I knew that it would have tremendous significance for my mother and would contribute, in a small way, to repaying the courage and faith that she showed in leaving Jamaica to make a life in Britain so that her children could have a better future. I’m pleased to accept on her behalf and gratified that 33 years of doing a job that I love has been recognised in this way.