‘In time it might change but at the moment it’s quite hard for social businesses to get investment’
CorkYogis founder Lara Sengupta on Dragons’ Den confusion, the future of CorkYogis and what’s needed for social business to thrive
To be honest I was completely terrified for two months before! You go to the audition for Dragons’ Den and then they give you a two-three month period where you know you’re going to be filmed but you have a gap between the filming. I was in India for those two months, doing some work with the charity over there. But the whole time, I was literally, terrified. You never know, sometimes you see a really lovely person with a great product and they [the Dragons] just tear them down. It was scary but at the same time it was good to push me out of my comfort zone. I was in there for an hour and a half, so in the 15 minutes that air, you don’t know which way they’ll swing it. They painted me in a good light – which was a relief.
I was prepared to be pulled apart on the financials, but in terms of the comment like, ‘oh, you seem confused, are you a business or a social enterprise’, I didn’t really know what to say. As far as I’m concerned, a social enterprise is a business and there are examples of amazing social businesses that do make money, a lot of money in fact. But people love them because of their social impact. I didn’t understand the comment really, and I didn’t want to reply, because I didn’t want to trip myself up! A lot of investors made their money at a time when social business didn’t really exist so I think it’s difficult for them to understand it as a business concept. I think in time it might change but at the moment it’s quite hard for social businesses to get investment. People have advised me to enhance the social aspect of CorkYogis when talking to customers but they say hide the social aspect as much as possible and lead on your ‘business side’ if you want investment.
TOMS inspires me. I knew I wanted to follow that business model with CorkYogis – we want our customers to be able to see what impact their purchase is making. Change Please is another social enterprise – completely different – that inspires me. Partnering with the Big Issue, they train homeless people as baristas, helping people get back in to work. TOMS didn’t get external investment. The founder sold his old business to fund TOMS. And Change Please got funding through the Big Issue. I don’t know a social business that has received big backing from investors in its early days.
We stand out in terms of our product as well as our social purpose. What makes our cork yoga mats different is that they are a lot more robust. We have done a lot of trial and error. The cork is very thin, so it doesn’t chip or crack as some other mats do. We work with a lot of yoga studios in London, especially hot yoga studios as our mats are really good for grip when you sweat. We’re currently focusing on getting in to the big studios like Gymbox. TriYoga has just started using our mats, which is exciting.
Everyone has business plans right at the beginning, but the way a business grows and develops is so different to how you think it’s going to be. We’ve had to keep adapting as we go. We’ve just started working with a sales team – which is great. They deal with the meetings with the prospective buyers – which is really handy as that is my worst nightmare! I guess hiring people to do jobs that you absolutely hate (read: are not very good at!) is the best way to spend money even if you don’t have a huge budget! Our focus in the next 2-3 years is to just keep growing, organically. We are splitting our time, focusing on increasing sales through the website and also targeting yoga studios. I would love to expand to the US eventually. So, yes, we’ll just keep working on the foundation and see where that takes us.
We’re working with the charity Destiny Foundation in India, who combat human trafficking and the challenges faced by the survivors of human trafficking by helping women learn employable skills. For every natural CorkYogis mat purchased, we provide a contribution towards a training course for one girl. It’s still early days, but maybe in the next year or so we’d also like to start our own charity, partnered with CorkYogis, so that we could develop our own courses and be able to better record, I guess, where the funds are going and the specific impact that they’re having.
I’m not sure if it’s possible to change investors’ views and standpoints, I think it’s more about different investors coming through. There needs to be more information available about how social businesses can raise funds. Most of the information out there is on how purely profit businesses can raise capital. And this is the route a lot of social businesses try to take – and it might not be the right or best one. Hopefully, the more exposure social businesses get, the more information there will be about how we can thrive.
CorkYogis launched in April 2016 by Lara Sengupta. The company’s core product is its ‘luxury cork yoga mat with a social purpose.’ CorkYogi’s product range includes cork yoga mats, cork yoga blocks, yoga accessories and yoga packages. You can find CorkYogi products on their website and also on Woocommerce, Amazon and eBay.
Until next time #liveslow, #livesustainably
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