Meet the 'trailblazer' who is helping green businesses become more efficient
When Danielle Heward decided to set up a niche management consultancy aimed at helping environmentally-conscious firms operate more efficiently, it was a passion project that quietly ticked along.
Three years later, however, Optimo has grown to a team of five, is a champion of quality, diversity and inclusion and recently became the first LGBTQ+ and female-founded consultancy in Yorkshire to achieve B Corporation certification. Businesses that are certified B Corps meet the highest standard of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.
“I found out about B Corp when I was starting the business and I discovered a whole world of people who were trying to use their businesses to make the world a better place rather than just for profit and greed,” says Heward. “At the time I incorrectly assumed that it was for bigger businesses or it was going to be really expensive so I admired it from afar. But as I started talking to more people I realised it was accessible for our business and it felt like the right thing to do – to practise what we preach.”
It was a rigorous process that took about 18 months from start to finish and the firm will continue to be monitored every three years.
"It’s helped our internal structure and it also assures clients that we are a responsible company who are doing things right,” she says.
Optimo is one of only 20 female-founded and led consultancies in the whole of the UK with the B-Corp status, which she says sends an outward signal to others about what and who the company is.
"While many organisations are taking steps toward responsible business practices, Optimo stands proudly as a trailblazer in our region,” she says.
Equality, diversity and inclusion are a real passion for Heward and her partner, Vicky Otley.
Until Otley joined the business in January, Heward says she didn’t really talk about LGBTQ+ in relation to the business but with the couple set to get married this month, it’s something she’s keen to discuss.
"I guess it wasn’t really relevant before but now Vicky works in the business, we’re about to get married and she’s taking my surname so it’s going to be very obvious in our networks,” she says. "It feels a bit more important.”
"If you look at the world of investment and funding, there’s still a lot of mismatch between the number of female founders versus the investment they get and it’s something that needs to be talked about.
"LGBT rights is still a massive issue in some communities and it’s important to us that we talk about it and are transparent about it and it doesn’t need to be something that we hide.
"We’re proud of who we are, where we’ve come from, what we’re doing now and how we support others.”
Leeds-based Optimo works with sustainability-focused businesses, charities, social enterprises and universities to help with operational challenges.
"We tend to look at operations quite holistically. We’ll consider people, processes and technology and how those things all fit together to find a solution to the problem they’re having,” says Heward.
"Where an organisation exists to make the world a better place, the services we provide make them more efficient and more effective at what they’re already doing. It means that the positive impact that they’re already making can be faster or bigger or better because we’re making them more operationally efficient to be able to do that.”
When an architect working on a project to install solar panels onto the roofs of village halls and churches in rural Northumberland needed help to improve his systems and processes, he called Optimo for support.
Heward’s team showed the architect, who was used to processing his work on paper, how to use technology for the same jobs and made sure he followed those processes consistently.
Other projects have included helping Leeds Trinity University with the way they manage their improvement initiatives. It has supported other clients with organisation structure by shuffling teams around and helping with the performance management of teams and individuals.
The company provides both consultancy services and extra pairs of hands, depending on what is required.
"Some of our clients want us to tell them what’s wrong and how they can fix it themselves. Other clients know what they need to do but they don’t have the resource to do it. And others require a bit of both,” says Heward, who has over 15 years of experience in operations and project management, business change and transformation.
The company was originally set up when Heward was a project management contractor. But when a project she was working on came to an end at the start of the pandemic in 2020, she decided to follow her dream.
"I’ve always been interested in sustainability,” she says. “I saw it as an opportunity for me to take what I know, channel it into something positive and use my business as a force for good.”
Turnover is on track to more than double this year to approximately £550,000 compared to £230,000 last year.
Heward believes the fact that Optimo helps its clients save time and money, has helped the business during the current economic turbulence.
"There are lots of new businesses needing our help. I’d say the need is probably greater now than it ever has been,” she says.
Looking ahead, she adds the focus now is on growing the business organically and balancing client demand with the right supply of people in her team. “There aren’t many businesses that do what we do for the people we do it for,” she says. “Because the environmental and social sectors are growing, there are new businesses coming into those markets all the time so our potential client pool is growing and, therefore, the need for our service is growing.”