Jemma Phibbs

School Space

Jemma Phibbs

Six years ago, Jemma Phibbs started School Space along with her business partner, James Lloyd, when they were serving as deputy head boy and girl in their last year of school. School Space works with schools to rent out their facilities during the evenings, weekends and school holidays to generate income for the school.

Ogunte: What drives you about working with schools?

Jemma Phibbs: We started the business when we were in school, so it all came from first-hand experience. We saw the importance of a school's reputation in its local community - a problem we wanted to solve! Nowadays, I stay motivated because education is everyone's shared experience. I truly believe that inequality can be addressed through improving education.

Ogunte: How did you go about refining your idea?

Jemma Phibbs: We entered a local enterprise competition for students, which then provided us with MBA mentors from Oxford's Business School. It was our first introduction to mentoring, and seeing how important it is for young people to learn about business. I'm still passionate about both those things having a huge impact.

Jemma Phibbs and James Lloyd - Founders School Space

Ogunte: How did this mentoring alter your course?

Jemma Phibbs: Mentoring was instrumental for us at the beginning, and always will be. I remember being in awe of the MBA students! They gave us constructive, practical advice about the business and how to go from there, as well as feedback on shaping the business plan and our pitching.

Now, I value mentorship for making me look at things (or myself) in different ways, as it allows me to adjust my actions accordingly. For me, a good mentor encourages you to question the way you are doing things.

We had to convince the school to see us as a business

Ogunte: How did your school react when you first pitched your idea?

Jemma Phibbs: We were deputy head boy and girl at the time, so it was more a case of asking. I don't remember the exact conversations we had, but we met with the facilities manager and headteacher after winning the enterprise competition, and they agreed to sign a contract and give us the keys to the school. At the time, it felt like the normal course of action but, looking back, I’m so grateful we were given that chance.

The transition was more difficult as we grew the business. We had to convince the school to see us as a business, which had contractual relationships with paying customers, rather than as students trying out a project.

We don't get it so much nowadays, but sometimes with schools we do have to work to get past the idea that we are students, especially as we were pitching aged 21. Schools would think we were there for an open day rather than to generate them income!

Ogunte: What are the biggest challenges facing School Space right now?

Jemma Phibbs: Every day I face new challenges, and they all feel bigger than the last - which is a good thing! Today, my most immediate challenge is learning how to run a sales team because we're just about to make our first business development hires.

Long-term, our challenge is winning over as many schools as possible. It's a slow and never-ending task, but knowing that what we do works for schools, and feeling the enthusiasm for School Space from nearly everyone we meet, keeps us motivated.

Ogunte: What are your top three tips for helping your team and customers feel connected to your vision?

Jemma Phibbs:

  1. Share stories of the impact we're making.
  2. Relate sales, systems and processes to their impact on real people.
  3. Stay positive. Always.

Ogunte: What are the three most valuable lessons you will take forward from the last 6 years?

Jemma Phibbs:

  1. You have to make hard decisions, all the time - act quickly on your instincts if something feels wrong.
  2. People are everything, surround yourself with people who bring great personalities and skills to the table.
  3. Things are never as stressful as you believe, perspective is so important.

Ogunte: What is the key to having a successful business partnership?

Jemma Phibbs: James and I work really hard to make our partnership work. I always say it's like a marriage, but without the romantic part (thank god!). We have coaching sessions together (like counselling), share worries and best practice about people we manage (the kids?), and learn how to communicate despite being complete opposites.

We have very different approaches and skill-sets, which is one of the reasons we have managed to build a business together, but it also means it can be difficult. We tend to agree on all the big things - our biggest argument so far was over which sofa to get for the office. If we are disagreeing or struggling to communicate, we look to mentors to help us discuss things in a productive way.

Ogunte: Looking ahead to 2030, where will you be and what will you have accomplished?

Jemma Phibbs: I have no idea - and I find that really exciting! I know I want to grow School Space to a global company, and I can't imagine how much I'll learn from doing that, given how much I'm learning every month at the moment. Then I want to use those skills to have an impact. It's as planned out as that!

Ogunte: Finally, who are three women in social enterprise who inspire you?

Jemma Phibbs: I meet women in business who inspire me all the time.

Lily Lapenna gave us some amazing and very real advice when we first sought to scale, our impact investor Kim Morrish is endlessly motivated and insightful on every level, and Devi Clark is a constant source of support and kindness.

I also take inspiration from my peers. Aditi Shah is one of our most recent additions - her commitment to ethical causes is amazing.

Visit School Space if you have vacant space in your school or if you are looking for a space for your event.

Interview produced by Naomi Pyburn for Ogunte.
Learn from other ImpactWomen interviews here.

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