John Bird MBE knows all about life journeys. His has taken him from a life on the streets and time in prison to founding the Big Issue and becoming one of the world’s foremost social entrepreneurs, called on to share his experiences at the UN, Downing Street and countless business forums.
Speaking at the Jersey International Business School’s Annual Leadership Forum this month, Gallery caught up with John to find out what took him from the streets to social entrepreneurship.
It’s well documented that you were born into poverty and lived through a lot in your early life. What marked the turning point?
My life’s journey has included spells as a thief and prison inmate as well as an artist and poet. I used to be part of the problem, and now I’m part of the solution. That’s quite a revolutionary change, and for me the turning point was getting rid of the bad thinking that goes with poverty – racism, prejudice and blaming other people – all that stuff. I tried being a Marxist, but chucked in the towel because they were talking about after the revolution and I wanted to do something to help the homeless right then. That’s when I met Gordon Roddick (husband of Body Shop founder Anita Roddick) who wanted to start a street paper, and I thought this is good, give people the chance to make their own money. We all need work after all. Why shouldn’t the poor be given the chance of arranging their own exit strategy rather than having some piece of social engineering that keeps them poor for ever?
You started the Big Issue twenty years ago – what was the reasoning behind the launch?
It was a business reponse to a social crisis. Not one of the organizations around at the time were offering homeless people work. There was sandwiches, beds, places to watch TV, everything from condoms to cakes but nobody was there to supply them with what you and I thirst for which is labour, and the opportunity to grow and be independent of the handouts from parents or the state. That’s what I refer to in my biography, it’s not a rags to riches story, it’s more poverty to purpose. If we get around to enfranchising the poor, it won’t be because we’ve given them more relief, it’ll be because we’ve given them the opportunity to become themselves, to help themselves.
What’s the ‘big issue’ these days?
The misuse of the social pound. You have 32% of all income in the treasury goes to maintain people in and around poverty. Not getting them out of poverty, maintaining them there. You can’t change that with another initiative, we can’t think outside the box on this one, we’ve got to go back into the box to change it. We live in a world described by David Cameron as broken Britain, but we wouldn’t have that it if we hadn’t had broken government, which has done appalling things down over the years like turning the welfare state from a contributory mechanism to a non-contributory mechanism where people who have never worked can get something for nothing.
What would you like to see changed?
Politics is always about what’s possible, not impossible, and that kind of cliché has stopped people from thinking the impossible. Every time someone starts a business they’re making the impossible possible because they’re starting from beyond nothing. The genius in business is people taking risks, and governments need to do the same instead of just changing the labels. All the big things in society, the NHS, prisons, education, the BBC, they’re constantly in perpetual motion, changing management, getting rid of this and that, it’s a permanent label change. The only people who do well out of it are the consultants and the printers who are reprinting the stationery.
What’s the way forward for business?
We’ve got to get a bit Japanese about things and invest for the mid to long term and not just the short term. When you look at the really interesting new businesses, it’s astonishing how many don’t make a profit initially, they discover the profit making as they go, whether it’s Facebook, Amazon or Google. If we’re going to sort out our business crisis, we can’t go for instant returns. Business is like building a cathedral, you have to put a few generations into it.
John Bird MBE is one of the speakers at the Jersey International Business School Leadership Forum, Tuesday 22nd November at the Hotel de France.