Leaders and entrepreneurs in focus: Lizzie Jordan, CEO and Founder, Think2Speak

The rewards and challenges and of leading a social enterprise, as well as tips for budding entrepreneurs and insights into positive leadership characteristics

If you harbour ambitions of starting your own company, you should seek out extra learning opportunities wherever possible, says Lizzie Jordan, CEO and Founder of Think2Speak, a social enterprise focused on positive change. ‘Experience is essential in convincing anyone to use your services,’ she says, adding that would-be entrepreneurs should see what you can observe and learn from others, even in a voluntary capacity. ‘It will pay you back hugely in the future, expand your knowledge and your network,’ she reasons.

In this interview, Lizzie also talks about the importance of empowerment, compassion and respect to her style of leadership.  

Can you tell us a little bit about your current role and what it involves?

My role is to lead, grow and be the face of the organisation. I’m also one of the UK’s highest-profile HIV advocates, have spoken in the House of Lords and been interviewed by [popular English broadcaster and actor] Stephen Fry for a BBC documentary. Spreading the message about the work we do is a big factor in helping to grow the organisation.

What single piece of advice would you offer undergraduate and post-graduate students of business and management who plan to start their own companies after completing their studies?

If I could only offer one piece of advice, it would be to gain as much work experience as you can; watch and learn from others. Volunteer to watch and learn, it will pay you back hugely in the future, expand your knowledge and your network.

It is difficult to stress just how important your experience and network are when you’re leaving university. A lot of students find themselves in a situation where the degree that they have worked so hard for simply isn’t enough to secure them a job that they want. A lot of those same students didn’t search for extra learning opportunities while they had more free time.

For students who are looking to start their own business after university, the same applies. Experience is essential in convincing anyone to use your services. The more you have, the happier people will be to work with you.

Mentorship schemes in business are becoming increasingly popular. Who would have been your dream mentor when you were at the outset of your career and why?

I find mentoring incredibly valuable and insightful and have sat on both sides of that table, as mentor and mentee. As for choosing a mentor for myself, who I would have chosen at the start of my career versus who I’d pick now would be very different. At the start of my career, it would have been someone solely focused on business, career and success on paper, now I work with someone who is able to understand all components of my life and how they’re interwoven – being a business owner, mother, and friend, and how to offer a much more holistic approach.

There isn’t a sole person I can think of who I would consider to be ‘the’ dream mentor, and I don’t think you’ll find that in just one individual. Of course, there are people we look up to who can influence our decisions, but we shouldn’t attempt to copy them and their attitudes. I’m much more comfortable being myself, and my goal at Think2Speak is to help others feel the same way. I recognise I need advice and support in different areas and so I tap into that from different people.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities you’re currently facing, both as a leader and as an organisation?

People are the key to my organisation’s success and we’ve recently secured social investment to add to our team. This brings both challenges and opportunities for us.

Recruiting for a social enterprise can be challenging; our values are central to what we do and we need anyone joining our team to be a great fit. Everyone at Think2Speak is fully invested in what we do and what we aim to achieve. We have to balance being a third sector organisation with social purpose at the core, with making profit to enable us to do more good.

Please outline the importance of sustainability to your company’s strategy and why you feel it is important to business approaches as a whole today.

Sustainability is of paramount importance in the third sector. Too many not-for-profit organisations rely solely on grant funding and this restricts them. There are, unfortunately, too many third sector businesses who simply can’t afford to operate without the grant income they’re reliant on. As a profit-for-good organisation, we trade using a blended approach to enable us to be sustainable with income coming from trading, donations, grants and contracted income.

Being able to create multiple sources of sustainable income is good for any business, but especially for an organisation like Think2Speak. The more money we receive, the more we can put back into the community and our projects. That keeps the quality of our work high, and allows us to expand, as well as invest in new projects.  

Which three words best describe your approach to leadership (or your management style) and why?

I’d be better asking my team to answer this! However, I’d like to think they’d say I’m respectful, compassionate and empowering.

Being a leader is all about respecting and trusting the people you work with. I have to be able to trust that they are going to do the best they can in the work they do. I know that if I respect them, I’ll receive that respect back in return, as well as the amount of hard work that they do.

Compassionate because understanding and caring is a core pillar of my being. I’ve always been compassionate to others and I believe that it is incredibly important in bettering ourselves. The people I work with at Think2Speak are more than just colleagues. We all care for each other deeply and always work to understand each other and celebrate our successes together.

The reason I do what I do is to empower others with the skills and confidence to achieve whatever they want to do. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am now, and with the Think2Speak team behind me, I believe we can do great things.

I like to believe that using this approach I can ensure that Think2Speak is as efficient and effective as it can be, and I’m sure that these points can be easily utilised by any business leader.

Lizzie Jordan is the CEO and Founder of Think2Speak, a social enterprise that works to equip people with the skills and confidence necessary to have some of life’s most difficult conversations. Specialising in LGBT+ inclusion, Think2Speak promotes social inclusion and integration in communities across the UK.

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