Jane Avery serves as vice president of the Central England Co-operative, having joined the board in 2015. Her day-to-day job is also related to co-operatives – she works as business development officer at the Co-operative and Social Enterprise Development Agency. In addition to her involvement in the co-op sector, she is chair of Leicester Rape Crisis, a charity providing therapeutic services for women and girls who have experienced sexual abuse.
How did you get involved in the co-operative sector?
I became a member of the board of the Central England Co-operative in May 2015. I stood for election and was successful so I am now a board member. In May this year I became vice president.
My experience with co-ops started when I left school in 1978 and became an employee of the former Derby society as management trainee. I knew absolutely nothing about co-ops and it was very different to me to work for one, compared to working as a student at Sainsbury’s. It was just another shop for me at the time.
How was it different?
At the induction meetings that happened over a week we were introduced to all the different departments within the society – food, non food, bakery, floristry, funerals and the services offered, HR, property and so on. At the final session on the Friday afternoon there was a presentation by a member relations officer. That person talked about the history of the co-op, the co-operative having a different sort of structure, with ownership based on membership and how we could become members. I was sold on the story.
Can you tell me a bit more about your work in the charity sector?
In my spare time I volunteer with an organisation called Leicester Rape Crisis. I am the chair of the trustees there and we provide services in Leicester for about 450 women a year who are survivors of sexual abuse. Some of it is signposting them to the different services they need, and some of it is providing therapeutic counselling services. These are often provided in the NHS, but they tend to be generic services rather than specialised ones and, of course, there is a really long waiting list so we are trying to fill that gap.
Do you think there is a role for co-ops to play in supporting this?
Central England Co-op awarded the charity a community dividend – it used that to refurbish the building and make it a pleasant environment. A lot of the values of the organisation, such as help and care for others, are values that it shares with the co-op movement. It is a charity though, it isn’t a co-op and sometimes we have to recognise that there is a role for charities. Co-ops are commercial businesses and you wouldn’t want to have a situation where providing support for victims of sexual abuse is a commercial activity. There is a difference but there are also shared values.
Is empowering other women a recurring theme in your daily job as well?
In my day job – when I am not at Central England Co-operative or at Rape Crisis – I am a co-owner of the Co-operative and Social Enterprise Development Agency. A lot of the support we give to people who want to set up a business is to women. It’s less so now, but still is the case that sometimes women want to set up a business and want some support but find that it is a bit intimidating. So we aim to provide training sessions or advice sessions that are specifically run by and for women.
This creates a really strong trust base where women aren’t going to be judged because there is a perception that to be ‘good’ in business you have to have male characteristics. It is not necessarily the case at all, but it is just one way of helping to break down barriers. So we do support women into business a lot but our focus is on developing co-ops and businesses that have profit with purpose – so some social enterprises as well.