June O'Sullivan

London Early Years Foundation

June O'Sullivan

June O’Sullivan is the CEO of The London Early Years Foundation. A nurturing, brave, inspiring and fun organization – 115 years young! – which runs community nurseries, and aims to change the world, one child at a time.

LEYF has a business model including a fair fee structure that enables the company to subsidize children form families who cannot afford nurseries both in local community nurseries but also by opening nurseries in poor neighbourhoods. All profits at LEYF are reinvested back into the business including staff training and development, apprentice programmes and continually testing new ideas and campaigning for improvements to issues of child poverty and child obesity.

June, an inspiring social entrepreneur specialized in early years, child poverty but also leadership, was recently honoured in the Veuve Cliquot Business Social Purpose Award. She holds an MA in Primary & Early Childhood, an MBA from London South Bank University. She was honored in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2013 in thanks for her work for children in London and was voted Social Enterprise Women’s’ Champion in 2014. She received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Middlesex in 2015. In 2016 she was voted one of DEBRETTs more influential 500. In 2017, June won the NMT most Influential in Early Years award.

Ogunte: What made you decide to become involved in social entrepreneurship?

June O'Sullivan: Like many social entrepreneurs it was a combination of personal experience as a young single Mum unable to find good childcare and a sense of duty to improve something that was not working well. In this case it was finding a business model to develop affordable high-quality nurseries available to all families with a social pedagogy that was built on the kind of cultural capital that makes a difference educationally to all children but especially those from poor and disadvantaged families.

Ogunte: What stands out in your profile as a social entrepreneur?

June O'Sullivan: I am a bit of a researcher, I like to know everything about everything. Like to be well prepared! I want to feel confident, and less likely to make a mistake. When embarking on this journey I wanted to have the balance of experience, attitude and knowledge to develop a new way to improve the childcare sector, and disrupt the existing approach which was not working for poor children. Early on I discovered the work of economist Joseph Shumpeter, writing about entrepreneurship when I was studying for my MA and I realized that understanding business models and how to run a great business was paramount if we are to succeed. Let’s work together to build a High Street of Social Enterprises.

I come from ordinary working class background, I grew up in an estate. To me, It seems unfair and wrong that the assumption was that because you come from a poor background you can’t do it, or have barriers that prevent you to succeed.

I went to a good school and I had family structures around me to help me develop my career and I came as an immigrant to London. There I found opportunities that I wouldn’t have had in my own home because there was no work. It all came together.

Headshot - June O Sullivan - London Early Years Foundation - Interview Ogunte

“You should create a community model that would allow everybody to have a really good experience. I am obsessed by that even now. “

Ogunte How do you apply that to nurseries?

June O'Sullivan: Nurseries should be as good as everywhere else. I can’t tolerate that traditional view of that charitable contributions for example where people paint walls with a bit of spare paint or we just male do with leftovers is good enough. I wanted to be able to plan strategically and give children from the poorest families the best experiences and resources. That isn’t good enough. Why shouldn’t children from more difficult backgrounds experience aesthetically pleasing, highly culturally capitalized nursery experiences?

Ogunte: What is your social mission? How has this changed over time?

June O’Sullivan: Our purpose is to run an innovative childcare model that allows children from all backgrounds to receive the best opportunities and best experiences.

We want a well structured, well researched, well considered model that can be taken elsewhere.

I looked at social franchising for a while, and I liked it but because of the cost of franchising, we couldn’t make it work. We decided that acquisition would be a better route. We may still license the model and build a means of sharing our pedagogy .

Outside this, we also run a campaign that supports men in childcare, promoting a mixed gender Early Years workforce that celebrates diversity and integration.

We also campaign to raise awareness about crisis of child obesity through our partnership with Bikeworks, which are generously donating dozens and dozens of bikes to help get young children active.

We have storytelling and book reading campaign with Drag Queen Story Time (DQST), supporting children to read whilst spreading a message of tolerance and kindness.

Finally, we are working to create the LEYF International Institute of Pedagogy.

Ogunte: Do you feel you have been successful in achieving your goals and why? What do you feel have been your most significant impact?

June O'Sullivan: I wish I could be quicker. And be faster at getting people to understand. That’s a very frustrating position. New ideas which seem so sensible that a long time to change the world.

London Early Years Foundation lead a family of 38 community nurseries across London.

We serve 4600 children daily and have a team of 680 local staff, along with 50 apprentices across 11 London boroughs. That’s not insignificant.

I am a well known early years advocate for children and I am therefore prepared to take on the Government on a regular basis. Things can and do change as a result of these battles such as the formation of the Ofsted Big Conversation which certainly impacted on OFSTED.

Ogunte: What about you as a woman in leadership?

June O'Sullivan: I don't go around shouting about what we do. It’s maybe a female thing. But if you don't stand up and say your bit, or accept the compliment, then you have a problem. Men don't have the same issues in telling the world how great they are. We tend to be shyer, and more reserved. Sometimes you have to shine a light under the bushel to alert people to the work that needs doing.

I don't know if people trust me more because I am a woman. In some ways, I have had to prove myself over and above many male colleagues, particularly in business, it’s been easier since we got bigger, overcame some really tough challenges and still standing ten years later.

There is a glass ceiling that is double glazed when you are a social entrepreneur. How many times have I found myself in a room with 3 or 4 other women in the room and the rest were men. [sighs]. And believe it or not, I have been patted on the head for doing “a good job”, I find this patronizing. Then they discover the size of our business.

In short, women have to get out, get over the discomfort of networking and share your story. Use facts and examples and don’t get cocky. Business is volatile!

Ogunte: Have you been affected by or changed on a personal level since starting at London Early Years Foundation? If so, how?

June O'Sullivan: I have grown as a leader. I also wrote a number of books and lots of pieces about leadership and learned a bit about myself.

I am keen on the notion of emotional intelligence. Great leaders help their staff and peers to learn about emotional intelligence. This is something I worry about. I meet a great deal of women who have been appointed and they are sadly neither good at the job or capable of doing the job and don't add value. I have doubts about women’s quotas. I know that women who might not be from the establishment need a bit of a leg up to break the double glass ceiling, but you need to be able to do the job…

You have to ask yourself: How do you balance giving people a leg up and ensure the ones who are in the position are capable at their job, or inspire you to emulate what they do?

Ogunte: Did addressing gender equality play a part into your experience with social entrepreneurship? How do you see your role in contributing to women’s empowerment?

June: The fact I am a woman leader, running a women’s business, with mostly female customers, for mostly a women’s issues. Most of my staff are female. That’s how I engage in the women’s issues. I need people to understand for instance that childcare is an infrastructure issue not a life choice. If you need more women to go to work to contribute to the GDP, childcare becomes an infrastructure issue, as important as transport, finance, etc, that needs to be taken seriously, that’s how I translate my instinct of feminist rationale.

“One of the biggest barriers for poorer women to return to work is the cost of childcare and its availability in poor neighbourhoods. At LEYF, we attempt to change the situation." June O'Sullivan

I was given the Women’s Champion Award at Social Enterprise UK Awards in 2014. And I was chuffed because I don’t go around thinking of myself as a champion but I do a lot quietly. One has a duty to support other women, one has a duty to support the business of social enterprise.

The challenge for women entrepreneurs is often met by connecting to each other, but we need to do slightly more than that. There is a role for women to mentor other women and also to articulate things and to open doors to younger women, and how that translates in business.

The natural inclination to collaborate is often overwhelmed by the business instinct to compete. Women have to help to shape that debate.

At the moment, this is also an Interesting space for women running bigger businesses. You find yourself into uncomfortable areas, you have to stand out.

I think many of our sisters overseas have far more challenges than some of us in the West. They have bigger battles to win. And we need to be to be much more helpful. Our forewomen have helped us to get to the point in the year of the suffragette and we need to step up to the next stage. We can easily get sidetracked but women need independence, education and opportunities to help them move forward. We need to debate issues such as pensions so women are not left poor in their old age. We need childcare as a right not an add on if we are serious about women wanting to be part of the workforce. If we want to change the social entrepreneurial world, we have to think about how we support people beyond the places where we are based.

Read also this interview in Pioneers Post with June O'Sullivan and Servane Mouazan: Why we need more women on investment boards.

Interview produced by Servane Mouazan for Ogunte. 
Learn from other ImpactWomen interviews here.

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