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Special report: Social entrepreneurship - it's boom time for businesses with heart

They are diverse, dynamic – and doing well in the market. And now social enterprises are to get their own 'champion'

Women are almost twice as likely to reach the top ranks in social enterprises as they are in mainstream businesses, according to a new report which predicts that the already booming sector is likely to "swell in size".

More than 90 per cent of companies that focus on tackling social problems have at least one woman on their leadership team, as opposed to almost half of small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that have all-male directors.

There are 70,000 social enterprises in the UK employing around one million people. The sector's contribution to the economy has been valued at around £18.5bn. Almost one-third of social enterprise leadership teams have Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (Bame) directors, according to the State of Social Enterprise Survey 2013, compared to just 11 per cent of traditional businesses. More than half employ people disadvantaged in the labour market, including the long-term unemployed, ex-offenders and disabled people.

Claire Dove is chair of Social Enterprise UK and chief executive of Blackburne House – an organisation that aims to get women from some of the poorest communities in Merseyside, Liverpool back into education. Six businesses, including a nursery, café bar, and design, health and well-being unit, pump their profits back into the organisation, which runs courses attended by 1,000 women a year.

"I am a very ambitious businesswoman, but I'm also very ambitious about the woman we serve," Ms Dove said. "I have worked in the private sector, but for me, this was about finding a job that had some sort of social impact. You can see tangible results when you spend a pound within our organisation."

Those mentioned in this year's Independent on Sunday Happy List, recognising people who enrich the lives of others, included a man who has served breakfast to the homeless for the past 10 years, and a nun who provides shelter for sex workers in central London.

To celebrate businesses that are regenerating communities and changing lives, The IoS is also sponsoring the UK Social Enterprise Awards 2013. You can vote for your social enterprise "champion" and help us recognise one outstanding individual who works, supports, or volunteers for a business that trades for the common good (see below). We know people and profit can go together; 38 per cent of social enterprises had an increase in turnover last year, compared with 29 per cent of SMEs.

Lucy Macnab, co-director of Ministry of Stories, a creative writing and mentoring centre for young people in east London, said: "It's about seeing a need among those around you and finding a creative way to help change the situation."

The centre, which was co-founded by the author Nick Hornby almost three years ago, generates 15 per cent of its running costs through its unusual shop – Hoxton Street Monster Supplies – which sells everything an "urban monster" might need, including fang floss and tins of terror.

But Becky John, founder of the women-run lingerie company Who Made Your Pants?, thinks there is a lack of awareness about what social enterprises do. Her Southampton-based firm trains women in sewing, English, leadership and finance to create pants from fabric left over by underwear companies. It employs four refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan, but has a waiting list of 70 aspiring workers. It has sold 5,000 pairs of pants since 2009.

"There's clearly an appetite in the market for social enterprise products; people look at what we do and their faces light up," she said. "But when we say it's a social enterprise, they don't really understand it. We talk [instead] about balancing business and social needs. They are both equally important."

Help choose a worthy winner

The Independent on Sunday is sponsoring the UK Social Enterprise Awards 2013 and has our very own award to give away: The Social Enterprise Champion Award. If you know an exceedingly talented individual working to improve society – either in a social enterprise or in a public or corporate organisation – then please send a nomination to socialenterprise@independent.co.uk or fill in a form at www.socialenterprise.org.uk/social-enterprise-awards-2013 before Friday 6 September. Your nominee could have created positive change in communities by demonstrating socially entrepreneurial skills or they may have simply shone a light on the sector and the work that it does. The award will be presented on Wednesday 27 November.