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Expert view: UnLtd’s CEO on enabling entrepreneurs to drive social change

Published: 25 July 2022

Mark Norbury, CEO of social entrepreneurs foundation UnLtd, explains their innovative approach to social impact: giving entrepreneurs the tools to realise their potential and create lasting change 

Mark Norbury, CEO of UnLtd, describes their recently launched £25m Growth Impact Fund as a “pioneering a pioneering social investment vehicle, providing the right kind of investment capital”. | Photo provided by UnLtd

In brief

  • UnLtd was founded in 2002 by the UK government with the view to provide funding and support to social entrepreneurs to help them start up and scale their impact
  • Since its creation, it has provided £80m in grants and investments. It supports over 300, of whom over 50% are from ethnic minorities and/or disabled.
  • The organisation has recently launched a £25m Growth Impact Fund to support entrepreneurs from minority or underrepresented groups to scale up their ventures and impact

UnLtd finds, funds and supports social entrepreneurs. It was formed in 2002 by the UK government in the belief that social entrepreneurs had a much bigger contribution to make.  

The organisation believes that social entrepreneurs offer some of the best solutions to loneliness, community resilience and long term economic, social and cultural health. 

Since 2002, UnLtd has provided over £80m (€94m) in grants and investment to entrepreneurs, while also offering “market-leading one-on-one support” to an equivalent value of £80m.  

CEO Mark Norbury tells Impact Investor that what the offer is a “highly personalised service”, delivered through a series of partnerships and programmes with a large number of advisors working on a pro bono basis, as well as our 75 paid employees. 

The firm seeks to break down the barriers faced by social entrepreneurs, such as finding customers, making a living, and getting access to finance. Norbury says: “We are also shifting our support offer, so it’s less about specific products and programmes and much more about a continuous offer which accompanies the social venture through the different challenges and phases of growth and impact they will encounter.” 

Entrepreneurs from minority groups are a particular focus. “We know inclusivity is key because it is entrepreneurs lived expertise, such as skills, trust, and networks, which enables them to solve social issues more effectively and affordably than others,” he explains. 

UnLtd supports over 300 entrepreneurs every year, of whom over 50% are from ethnic minorities and/or disabled.  

Launch of the Growth Impact Fund 

UnLtd has just announced the launch of a £25 million Growth Impact Fund which Norbury says is “a pioneering social investment vehicle, providing the right kind of investment capital”.  

Norbury notes that only 0.02% of venture capital goes businesses founded by black women. “We wanted to give them the same access to capital. We believe that talent is distributed evenly, but opportunity is not. We have designed a fund that tackles those barriers.” 

For the first time, UnLtd will take equity stakes in businesses, rather than making grants or extending debt finance. “We will be making a series of different kinds of investment offering entrepreneurs the right product for their enterprise.”  

The new fund will back over 50 diverse entrepreneurs to scale up their ventures and impact, with the average size of deployment being in the range of £50,000 to £1.5m. 

Norbury observes: “We will focus on the very early stage of support – the pre-seed scale up opportunities. And in launching this new fund, we benefit from our deep relationships with entrepreneurs.” He adds that so far they have already had over 240 expressions of interest. 

Investees have to have “good core vision” and ideas. “We want companies that have impact woven into their business model,” he says. 

In choosing who to back, UnLtd’s research team will look at different aspects including the level of need, the systemic ambition, effective solutions (high impact, ability to scale and sustainable) and the added value they can bring. 

The fund has so far raised £8.1m, with a £2.5m technical assistance facility alongside that. Norbury’s eventual target is to get the fund to £25m “but of course it could be bigger”.  

As regards investors, the minimum ticket size is £250,000 and Norbury thinks it’s unlikely that UnLtd would accept more than £5 million from one investor. The target IRR is 7%, and several investors have come on board from what Norbury describes as “the heartland of social investment”.Among them are the Greater Manchester Local Authority, the Bank of America Foundation, the University of Edinburgh, and Big Society Capital.  

Showcasing some key successes 

Potential investors can take comfort from some of the successes Norbury is able to point to in UnLtd’s recent history.  

One example of investee company is Good Life Sorted, which finds “helpers” living locally who can provide help and companionship to older residents in their community. 

Norbury says: “Every helper has been carefully selected, interviewed, and vetted. It’s been growing over 350% year on year, both in total orders and profit, meaning it’s now providing vital help to over 600 customers and meaningful income for over 200 helpers. It recently raised £1.5m in equity investment.” 

Another success Norbury is proud of is Harry Specters. This is an autism-friendly workplace, dedicated to crafting high-quality chocolates. Norbury explains: “Mona and Shaz Shah and their son Ash, who has autism, are behind this social enterprise. It was Ash who came up with the memorable business name. They offer confidence and hope to young people with autism by providing employment and free training. “ 

In 2015, the social enterprise joined UnLtd’s ‘Big Venture Challenge accelerator.’ It led to a 100% growth in sales and in 2018 they received £150,000 (a £22,275 grant and a £127,725 loan). So far, Harry Specters has employed 149 people with autism and worked with 94 different organisations. 

Next steps

In the short term, Norbury’s main challenge is raising the other £17m of capital to make the £25m target for the Growth Impact Fund. “It needs a particular kind of investor. There are not the same liquidity events and exit points in social investment as in mainstream venture capital. We need investors who can come on the journey.” 

Otherwise, the continuing challenge is “weaving together” social impact with growth and profitability. “This is a very labour-intensive task that requires us to develop partnerships with a lot of different professionals. We are always on the lookout for mentors – tax accountants, lawyers, marketing experts. I would love to hear from people who can offer services.” 

“Further out, I see no reason why our fund shouldn’t be considerably bigger. I believe we should be much more ambitious as a sector about what we can achieve.” Norbury cites the current consultation in the UK on over £800m of dormant banking assets which “offers a good opportunity to significantly expand the support for black-led businesses”.  

UnLtd has already shown the way. “I believe that the Growth Impact Fund is an innovative pathfinder in that whole space. I’m really excited about what this can do to make the UK a real leader in social impact and social investment,” he concludes. 

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