Alumni of the Month March 2010 Geof Cox

GEOF COX
1981 American Studies

How did you get to where you are now?
Geof Cox I've been a freelance social enterprise developer for the last 15 years, living with my family - 4 children and 3 hens - in rural Northumberland, but working internationally.  Social enterprise is about using business methods to achieve social benefits – doing business to do good – and I advise some of the UK 's biggest charities, such as RNIB and Oxfam, as well as public sector bodies, on enterprise development.  I don't have a typical day.  Last week I was in Russia working on the development of a new fair trade product line that will hopefully appear in Oxfam shops before next Xmas; yesterday I was in Dorchester helping a very successful private share company restructure as a social enterprise; next week I might be in Hull where I'm helping the NHS PCT delivery arm - over 1,000 staff - transform itself into a social enterprise. My route here was convoluted.  My first degree was in English & American Studies at Nottingham, after which I taught English in a 14-18 comprehensive school for a couple of years, spent a year travelling throughout Europe, then went to Keele to do my Masters and stayed on to lecture in American Literature in the 1980s.  I was however also involved in social enterprise throughout, first in Nottingham working for the pacifist magazine Peace News then for a radical books and wholefoods collective while at Keele.  Eventually I chose the social enterprise over the academic life and via posts as a social enterprise development worker in Leicester, and a local authority economic development officer in Northumberland, I eventually stumbled into my current life.

What has been your biggest achievement so far?
I'm very proud of many of the social enterprise development projects I've worked on (see www.geofcox.info) but for me the greatest achievements are around my four children.  My partner Pauline lost two babies in her first marriage and helping nurse her through successful pregnancies and births and also seeing our eldest son Wallace through the first difficult four weeks of his life in the special care baby unit - these have been the best things I've done.

And your biggest mistake?
I've made many mistakes.  It took many years for me to learn that people are more important than ideas.  But I couldn't begin to construct a hierarchy of mistakes - we don't have a vantage point to see our lives in that way - many times what seemed to be the stupidest words or actions have led later to unforeseen opportunities.

What are your ambitions now?
I've written a number of books and guides on social enterprise development, but not yet the literary work that has always been an ambition.  The new fair trade model I'm working on with Oxfam is about taking   characterful indigenous craft products, creating a story from them, and selling the craft characters as 'merchandising' alongside the resulting book.  Most fair trade to date has dealt with basic commodities – foods, cotton, etc – rather than the intellectual property development now at the heart of western economies. We want to move fair trade and production in developing and transitional economies, right into high added value processes, knowledge-based industries, and intellectual property development.  I'm working with a professional writer and publisher on this – but I have a hand not only in the enterprise development but in the story writing too, so I guess I'm a step nearer realising those literary ambitions.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in a similar field?
Social enterprise is a wonderful career choice.  It combines the commitment to change the world for the better with the excitement of business and enterprise.  Social enterprises like the Oxfam-inspired Cafédirect outperform both multinational companies – from whom they have consistently taken market share – and most charities in terms of the long-term difference they make; in so doing they model a whole new way of organising human affairs. Start the way I did - just do what you believe in - volunteer if necessary - but just go out and get involved. I was with a very successful social entrepreneur the other day who repeated a piece of advice which is my own golden rule, and which I hear again and again from those most successful in the social enterprise world: do what you think is ethically right, and it will turn out to be the best business decision too.

What made you choose Keele University ?
I liked the educational philosophy behind Keele ('the people's university') but my main reason was simply that the American Studies department was the best in the country.

How has Keele influenced your life?
The four main lecturers I worked with (Roy Fisher, Ian Bell, Charles Swann and especially Richard Godden) were all enduring influences, partly because of their very different but equally brilliant minds, but also because they saw in me someone from a relatively disadvantaged background whose potential had been missed by most other parts of the education system – and it was their perception more than anything else in my life that gave me the great gift of self-confidence.

What is your favourite memory of Keele?
Listening to my friend Arthur Lambert playing Tippett's sonata for solo guitar inspired by Wallace Stevens' poem The Man with the Blue Guitar - the subject of my MA thesis - at Richard Godden's house in Hartshill in the mid-1980s.  Oddly enough, the talk later that night was about how universal and fundamental narrative is to our lives, and humanity as not the tool-making, but the story-telling animal – ideas which came back to me as inspirations in my current work on a story for Oxfam.  And yes – my eldest son Wallace was named for Wallace Stevens.

And your worst?
The shock of discovering that unlike students in my own radical and anarchic undergraduate years in the 1970s, by the time I went to Keele as a post-grad in the 1980s Thatcherism had infected a lot of the student body too with self interest.  In this and its blind belief in unregulated markets Thatcherism/Reaganism also set some of the seeds of the financial world melt-down we have recently experienced.  I just hope this has finally buried the idea that in business, or in life, we should do anything other than work for the common good.