“I wanted to find a way of doing something more joyful”: an interview with Olivia Head – Co-Founder, Bread and Roses
"This isn’t a problem that is taking place far away - as a nation, we are playing a part in the lives of refugees. We are allowing abuse to take place. It isn’t far removed from us – we’re allowing our government to keep behaving in this way unless we sit up and take notice and start speaking up for refugees and asylum seekers."
Surrounded by so many injustices in the world, it’s easy to feel powerless. Hackney based Bread and Roses, a social enterprise which trains refugee women in floristry, provides a plethora of practical and emotional support to those on its program, the most vulnerable amongst us. It was a pleasure to connect with co-founder Olivia Head, who reminded us that showing humanity and solidarity is something we’re all capable of.
How did you and (business partner) Sneh meet – were you friends before you started working together?
Sneh and I actually met on a course called ‘Year Here’, which is a post-grad training program for people interested in finding new ways of addressing entrenched social issues. The idea is that insight drives innovation – so if you want to come up with solid, water tight solutions for social problems, you need a good insight into what those problems are. The program starts with a six-month work placement where I was working at a homeless hostel in North London and I then worked in hostels throughout University. Sneh was working at a housing association in Euston – we didn’t really know each other and to be honest we came from quite different places… Sneh is super bright and driven, she’d been working as a Management Consultant before she decided she wanted to something different; I was a bit of a drifter! I’d graduated with an English Lit degree and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to work with homeless people or people who were at the margins of society. We both decided we wanted to set up a project – there was the mutual interest in creating something impactful for refugees in London. The friendship very much came out of that and it has been really nice. We’re quite different, but we’re really close now.
What was the inspiration behind Bread and Roses?
Looking back on it, neither of us actually really thought that we were going into running something full time. We were shooting off lots of different ideas – the need to contribute was the main factor. I just wanted to find some legitimate way to work with refugee communities in London. Going to Calais, I was really inspired by the people I met there - the camps were amazing. Even in that wasteland, of all the different cultures shone through. I just wanted to be involved in a more equal way, I wanted to find a way of doing something more joyful. The name came first and influenced us a lot. My mum is a huge Ken Loach fan – we’d watched the film Bread and Roses together and I went away and looked into what it meant and realised it was attached to a political movement and had been a slogan used by lots of women’s groups throughout the 21st Century. The idea that women should have the basics that they need but also the opportunity to flourish and thrive is applicable to us all. We’re living in a patriarchy where it’s difficult to be whatever we want to be and so it resonated with me. All of these women are inspirational in their own way, I’m getting so much back from it.
What was the hardest part of setting up the company?
Two things – nobody takes you seriously for quite a while at the beginning when it’s just an idea in your head. In the early stages, you’re throwing everything into it and putting in an insane amount of work, but you have nothing to show for it. It takes a while for people to actually see that you’re bringing your idea to life. The other thing is that in the beginning it’s hard to justify paying yourselves. The whole idea of Bread and Roses is that women should be paid their worth! We both felt quite guilty about taking money out of the project for ourselves. That was hard! But, you have to live - I’m really lucky to be doing what I’m doing; I want to carry on doing it!
Did you make any mistakes?
Yeah, loads. So many! Ugh! Some that I’m too embarrassed to talk about! In the early stages, we said yes to everything and wore ourselves down to the ground. You do have to be quite discerning quite early on because there’s always going to be things to get involved with. You’ve got to be clear about what your intentions are behind saying yes to things. If you end up doing five events a week and four of them are shit and you end up wondering why you’re there, you get really tired. Choose events wisely and say yes to the right things!
Did you ever doubt yourself?
Yeah. Every day. As women, we’re so critical of ourselves. We were riddled with insecurities when we first started Bread and Roses and there are still days when we think: “who the fuck are we to speak about any of this stuff to the world!” Another white middle-class girl being ‘woke’. There’s definitely a lot of that feeling. It’s difficult when you’re using social media to tell the story of your brand and your product – you can make joyful nice posts, but there’s so much shit out there. Before I started Bread and Roses I would have probably looked at beautiful pictures of models and compared myself to them. Now I look at beautiful pictures of flowers that have 5,000 likes and worry that we’ll never be like that! Whatever it is that you do, you’ll always end up feeling insecure about it.
I watched your incredibly affecting TED talk (find it here) - you were talking through a particularly atrocious refugee journey. Is it typical for women on your program to have been treated so badly?
The sad fact is that being a refugee is the intersect of so many types of prejudice and abuse that a woman can suffer. Women might be fleeing domestic abuse and part of their persecution might be manifested in physical and sexual violence. Nations gripped by civil strife use rape systematically as a weapon in war. People have been through so much and then they have difficult journeys here, then they arrive and everything comes crashing down – the expectation lots of refugees have is that they’re arriving somewhere safe, but then they’re jailed and questioned. In the UK, it’s like we’ve washed our hands of any responsibility for what happens in these people’s lives. The majority of women that we work with have come through illegally. They’re made to feel so unsafe and uncertain, they live in fear for years. They’re not allowed to contribute anything to society, they have no agency and have to constantly report to the Home Office. This isn’t a problem that is taking place far away - as a nation, we are playing a part in the lives of refugees. We are allowing abuse to take place. It isn’t far removed from us – we’re allowing our government to keep behaving in this way unless we sit up and take notice and start speaking up for refugees and asylum seekers.
How can people best help refugees?
I’m not sure about outside of London, but here there are so many ways to help. You can volunteer at a centre for people that are really vulnerable. Maybe they just need a hot meal, maybe they need people to create a warm and welcoming environment and a sense of community. You can also volunteer with initiatives that do befriending. You can run events – for example, there’s an event at Amnesty International tomorrow evening where someone has offered to screen a film and cook dinner for refugees and asylum seekers. The main thing is to persevere. The nature of funding makes it hard - be patient and willing to commit. Be available. We partner with Women for Refugee Women who are based in Old Street. We also work with a charity called Ourmala who run yoga classes for refugees.
What happens on one of your programs?
Floristry is the way of connecting everything together. We do an eight-week training program run by the fabulous Olivia (Livi) Wilson, she delivers all of our floristry workshops and the training program that takes the women through everything they’d need to be in a junior floristry position. We build English learning into that. In the next program, we have a qualified English teacher built who has co-designed the course with Libby, delivering straight up English classes. We also have an employment adviser that will be sitting in on the floristry workshops to get to know the women and then go on to work with them one-to-one, working on their CV’s with them and start thinking about what it is that they actually want to do, then reach out to find job opportunities for them. The floristry is the hook to get people involved – we want to encourage confidence and engagement. Floristry is up there with baking cakes and cooking – it’s joyful and practical and fun.
What else is next for Bread and Roses?
We want to find women who fit a specific set of criteria for the program – women actively seeking employment, with a certain level of English and women with children, as we’ll be providing free childcare for every participant. That’s the biggest part of our next program. The biggest thing holding these women back is when they can’t afford childcare in London, so we’re shelling out money to get a decent crèche facility. One indirect benefit is that the kids will also benefit by socialising with other kids.
Finally, what advice do you have for any other women out there setting up their own venture?
This answer probably changes every time someone asks me this question. Right now, I think there are so many start-ups and enterprises out there… businesses go from 0 - 100mph so quickly, they’re born and have an insane boom and then fizzle out after three years. They’re there to fill a gap for a couple of years and then they die! If you’re going to invest in setting something up, know what you’re trying to achieve long term. Have a vision and a reason behind what you’re doing, take the time to make it thoughtful and meaningful.