By Kimberly Bond

It’s a rainy afternoon in Salford (no surprise there) when I go to meet Chris Dabbs at the Innovation Forum, which bills itself as ‘the ultimate in flexible workspace for growing businesses.’ Quite fitting, as we are here to talk about Chris’ work through Unlimited Potential and his aim to literally help grow businesses through his social incubation programme.

Chris is well known in Salford as the chief executive of Unlimited Potential, a large social enterprise delivering public health contracts through innovative projects and ensuring local people have ‘healthier and happier lives.’

Although the idea of social enterprise is quite new in the mainstream business world, Chris has been in the industry a long time – more than 20 years in fact.

“I discovered social enterprise in 1997” he says, “I had been working in Salford for about seven years after moving here in 1990 and it was getting to the point where I was wondering if my work was making much difference. I was working in healthcare – hospitals, clinics etc.

“We had got to the point where people were telling us what would make their lives better, and it didn’t really have much to do with what we were doing. Around mid-1997 I was reading a newspaper and there was this article at the bottom of page 17 by a guy called Michael Young. It was about this thing he was setting up called the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE).

“I read this article and by the end I was thinking ‘he’s talking about me.’ He was describing these people who I had never heard of, (social entrepreneurs) and at that time social enterprise didn’t exist as a concept in this country. But I knew he was talking about me.”

After a year of studying with Michael Young, who Chris deems as ‘the greatest social entrepreneur of the 20th century’, he was ready to try it himself and established the first ever community based social entrepreneurs programme in Salford.

Fast forward to 2005, Chris joined Unlimited Potential when it was still a community group called CHAPS (Community Health Action Partnership), and helped write the blueprint for the company as it is now, converting it in to a Community Benefit Society – a type of co-operative.

“We focused on what it was good at, rather than what they wanted to do,” he explains, “A lot of what we do now is what I call social innovation; taking what big agencies see as their most difficult problems and working with the people they think are the problem in order to create the solution.

“My colleagues on the projects we do are always local people who are recruited as staff. We have employed about 100 people; if we are working in Ordsall, we recruit from Ordsall, if we work with ex-offenders, we recruit an ex-offender etc. We offer all our people the same opportunity too; to make their lives happier and more fulfilling.”

The opportunity Chris is so passionate about is his social incubation programme, where he personally mentors selected colleagues or local people who come to him, to learn more about social enterprise and potentially grow their own. It has seen great success so far, with a list of 14 people he has worked with, many of them grown from within Unlimited Potential. It is a tough selection process for Chris to choose who he invests his time in but says he always gets excited when he meets someone with an ‘entrepreneurial spark.’

“In simple terms, there’s three characteristics I look for; a spark plug personality – it’s quite hard to describe but I just know when I have met one. It’s like those joke shop handshakes that give you an electric shock – when I meet someone who is genuinely entrepreneurial, I just get that feeling, there’s something, an ‘electricity’ about them.

“They have to have a dream at the right time. I deliberately use the word dream. A vision of how they want the world to be, what they want to create, but they must be able to articulate it. And thirdly they must feel it in their gut, like they are prepared to die for it. If they have a dream but don’t feel that passionately about it, they won’t make it happen.”

The next step in the process is the incubation. As the entrepreneur is often a colleague employed on a project through Unlimited Potential, Chris uses this to create an environment where the new social enterprise can be ‘incubated’ or created under the UP umbrella.

“It’s quite similar to what the Big Life Group did for our organisation when I first joined – for about nine months I was one of their employees technically; they incubated CHAPS until we were ready to say okay, we can do it now. And that’s where I am trying to get them to; the point where they don’t need me anymore.

“We have a young man called Ben who works with us, he was a health trainer at the start – his passion is physical activity with disabled people. We are incubating him and his emerging social enterprise and eventually after two or three years he will float off and he’ll be ready to do it himself.

“Incubation is in essence getting them from having that dream but not doing anything about it, to the point where they know what they’re doing, have created it and will go off and do whatever it is they want to do.

“Part of my role is to keep nudging people to get on with it, which for some people takes a few years. Most of the people I do this with have come from particularly disadvantaged backgrounds, so it’s about giving them confidence to think they are capable or worthy of doing it. There’s an element of mentoring, of sharing mistakes but also very importantly, some contacts.

“I know quite a lot of people who can help others, and I think I have a responsibility to share those contacts, because it’s what middle class people like me don’t tend to do a lot. It’s probably the most powerful thing I can do for them.”

The issue of class is a personal one for Chris; with both his parents from working class backgrounds, he watched his dad make a name for himself as a metallurgist in the car industry and now feels privileged to be doing the work he does.

“For me, my dad worked very hard and came from a really poor background and I have a responsibility to share that with people who have not had the advantage I’ve then had. That’s my motivation and that’s really important.

“When I look back on what I’ve done, it’s always been about social and economic justice in one sense or another. Everything I do is fundamentally about political or economical activity as they are the two things that make the world go round. Who controls the resources, and who controls the power; if you can influence those you can make things happen.

“I am very inspired by those who have achieved great stuff in the past and all those people who seriously changed the world. I often go to the People’s History Museum on the days when I am thinking I am completely rubbish, I am not achieving anything.

“I use these great people, the Suffragettes, the Rochdale Pioneers etc to give me inspiration. I use these to think, what, if anything can I pass on to either adults or to young people and children, so they are inspired to think they can start to change the world too.”

The social incubation work is not what Unlimited Potential is contracted to do, in fact Chris spends his free time helping his specific mentees with their goals for no extra money, as he strives to achieve his own goal of everyone having happier and healthier lives. This work, he says, is not only influenced by his desire to share his knowledge but it also helps him personally too.

He explains: “Around eight years ago, in my mid-40’s someone suggested I might have Aspergers. I found a way of getting an assessment and a psychologist did a report on me. I am borderline Aspergers; I have 3.5 out of the four characteristics. In some ways it was really helpful because it explains a lot to me, and I am better able to explain to people why I am like I am, some of my peculiar behaviours. I now describe that as having a ‘difficult gift’, I can do things many others can’t do and that’s the gift bit.

“There’s always going to be stuff I am bad at; I am not very good at social stuff, I am really awful at creating relationships, which is the downside of how I am and I just have to accept that.

“On the upside, I can focus on what I tend to do best, what things I can make happen – most of that isn’t what I am going to get out of life, it’s about what I can help other people to get out of life – and that’s the thing this work can do.

Chris finishes our conversation with a reminder from the great Michael Young. “At the turn of the millennium, at the first gathering of social entrepreneurs, Michael gave this speech where his analogy was us being on a ship leaving for the 21st century, and he stood on the quay as he was not coming with us. He told us the stories of being told he wouldn’t be able to do it, wouldn’t be able to change anything about the world.

“He said there’s about 26 reasons people will give about why you won’t be able to make a difference. But, ignore them. Be persistent. Don’t be put off by those people who tell you, you can’t do anything. Just go and do it. At least if you try, even if you fail, you can’t sit there in five years’ time thinking ‘what if’. I try to pass this on, my aspiration would be for bits of this to rub off and resonate with people, they take something from it, to the point where they think ‘I can do this’ or even ‘I can’t not do this.’ And then they go and make it happen. That, for me, makes it worth it.”