Profile - Sarah Dunwell: Entrepreneur helping to create a new life for the rough sleepers

Sarah Dunwell has built a thriving business around the talents of homeless people. She met Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright.

ONCE they probably regarded a hotel step as the perfect pillow on a winter’s night.

Soon, they could be running a hotel of their own, along with a restaurant chain and ethical retail brand.

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“They” are Yorkshire’s rough sleepers; a group you might have stepped over on your way to work.

Their CVs are often peppered with black holes. Many have been in trouble with the law. A large number have long histories of drug and alcohol abuse. Most recruitment firms would shudder if they walked through the door.

But Sarah Dunwell believes in them. This belief has created a business that could have a presence on every high street in Britain.

It all started with a trip to the crypt. For more than 80 years, St George’s Crypt in Leeds has provided support for people who have become homeless. About five years ago, Ms Dunwell, who ran her own outside catering firm, volunteered to help out at St George’s. She believed there was untapped potential among the men and women who slept on the streets of Leeds.

She recalled: “I recognised very early on, that although a small group of the service users at St George’s Crypt were never going to work on a long term basis, there was a much bigger proportion of these guys who were bright, confident and sparky.

“The demographic of rough sleepers has changed from 20 years ago, when they were older and probably men.”

Today, rough sleepers are usually young men and women, a sign that traditional communities are breaking down. According to Ms Dunwell, 40 years ago society would have wrapped itself around these vulnerable young people.

“Now that’s not happening,’’ she said. “Forty years ago, people’s parents didn’t open the front door and kick them out. Nowadays they do that, almost without thinking about it, and they start that cycle of ‘sofa-surfing’, and relationships break down. The consequences of homelessness manifest themselves in worklessness.”

At first, Create provided outside catering services to local companies, using the skills of former rough sleepers who had undergone intensive training.

Today, Create has 60 staff and turnover of around £1.5m. Recent successes have included winning a contract for catering at Bawtry Hall in Doncaster.

The company has also set up a restaurant in the heart of Leeds, and Ms Dunwell’s mantelpiece is groaning under the weight of a number of trophies, including the Outstanding Businesswoman of the Year award, which was presented to her by networking organisation Forward Ladies.

Ms Dunwell recalled: “Back in those early days I knew I wanted Create to be a real high street brand, something that had public awareness wrapped around it. I wanted to create a movement and a sense of engagement with the public.

“That has been the prize that we’ve been heading towards for all these years. We’ve now opened the first of a chain of restaurants. We aim to have four more of these within the next two years, and then 20 within five years.

“The long-term vision is that there’ll be a Create restaurant on every high street in the country.”

But how did she persuade long term ‘rough sleepers’ to get a job?

“The key to doing that is the peer pressure,’’ she said. “They can’t come up with the excuse that they were an addict and a rough sleeper. Everyone else will look at them and say, ‘Welcome to the club.’

“That peer pressure and a ‘tough love’ environment is the key to what Create does. We now have catering operations in Doncaster, Salford, Liverpool and Sunderland. We aim to get people who are a long way from the jobs market into jobs.

“The key to the Create model is that we run real businesses. We’re not a training provider, and we don’t do classroom based learning. Everything that people learn here is in a real business. So the only thing that stops our growth is the number of places we can provide within our businesses.

“This is why scaling and growing the Create operation is so important to us. One of the projects we are most excited about is the opportunity to provide products to major supermarkets.

“What we’d like to do is to make Create an ethical brand, something that resonates with people in the same way the Fair Trade mark does.

“So when people buy some of our Create branded flapjacks, they know they have been made by somebody who appreciates that training opportunity.

“They also know that the profits are being re-invested into training as well.”

In a few years’ time, you could get the chance to check-in to a Create hotel. Ms Dunwell plans to buy and run a small (“say 12-bed-ish”) hotel.

She said: “There’s a large pool of entry level jobs in that sector and Create is perfectly placed to help large hotel chains fulfil their CSR (corporate social responsibility) aspirations at the same time as gaining high quality, well trained new starters.

“It’s also a logical progression from our starting point of being a food business.”

Ms Dunwell aims to create a diverse community within “the Create family”. People who have worked in retail or catering for decades mix with youngsters who have struggled to hold down a job.

As a result, the former rough sleepers start to re-evaluate their potential. Perhaps a place on a higher education course isn’t an impossible dream? When Ms Dunwell pops into major retailers around Leeds, she often spots people that Create has helped.

“Four years ago, when I started Create I had never heard about social enterprises,’’ she said. “I knew I wanted to run a business that created opportunities for people who need them most, while making a profit.

“It didn’t feel right for me to be the person taking that profit.

“I set up a company where I could be paid like any other employee, but divert all the profits back into the company.

“That just felt really natural. It seemed the right thing to do. I grew up in quite a poor household. We certainly didn’t have a huge amount of cash ourselves, but my parents had a really strong sense of social justice.

“It was a strong sense that we had a duty to look after those people who weren’t as well off as we were. That’s always stuck with me.

“There’s that expectation that you will be there for somebody who needs that support. In five years’ time, I would like to think that Create will be a really diverse portfolio of businesses.”

By 2016, Create could provide you with everything from flapjacks to a hotel room for the night. That’s a staggering achievement for a firm built around the talents of men and women who once drifted from sofa to sofa.

Sarah Dunwell Factfile

Name: Sarah Dunwell

Title: Founder and Chief Executive Create

Date of birth: November 23 1969

Education: Not much, really. A handful of ‘O’ Levels but that’s all.

First job: I bought a franchise called Tumble Tots when I left school at 16.

Favourite film: Brassed Off. I love the poignant humour.

Favourite song: Claire Teal singing ‘Get Happy’

Car driven: Chrysler Grand Voyager

Thing you are most proud of: My children, Jennifer and Michael, who are both growing up sharing my sense of social justice.