Superheroes of Social Enterprise: Zahra Hedges

by Allana Grant

2 weeks ago

Welcome to (Superheroes of Social Enterprise), our monthly series of blog posts that celebrates inspiring people who have made a valuable contribution to the social enterprise sector.

“I like a challenge, need to work somewhere that’s a good ethical fit, and really enjoy working with and developing people.”

Meet Zahra Hedges; our extraordinarily passionate, caring and charismatic November superhero. I recently chatted to Zahra about the latest chapter in her social enterprise story: one which sees her transition from manager of the VoiceOver interpreting and translation agency, to her new role as social enterprise business advisor with CEIS.

A career with social change at its heart

As we delve in to her professional life, Zahra’s long-standing dedication to changing society for the better immediately comes to the fore. Her early career saw her use her flare and considerable talents to a positive effect in various management roles within the education sector. For Zahra, who admits to preferring “change and challenge management”, each of the posts she held were a unique experience and presented her with fresh and fulfilling challenges. Speaking with particular fondness about her time at a chain of private maths and English tuition centres she says:

“I enjoyed working with the kids; marketing a service I really believed in. Everyone who worked there was enthusiastic and excited about the mission of the business.”

A foray in to the third sector

Zahra first got involved with the third sector when she volunteered her services to a charity that helped other charities improve their governance, administration, and business practices.

In the wake of this, she became increasingly convinced that her professional destiny lay in the third sector in some capacity. Consequently, she took a conscious decision, after returning from a successful year working with a school in China, to begin looking for a position in Glasgow.

“I knew I wanted to work for a charity, but really struggled to get my foot in the door.” she explains. “After four years of running my own retail business selling stocking fillers, I decided to sell up to try again for a career in the third sector. I spotted an advert for a social enterprise called VoiceOver. To be honest, I’d never heard the term before but from what I could tell it would allow me to use my business skills, but to the benefit of a charity. When I read the job description I felt that it could have been written just for me. I was delighted to be offered the role as manager on a one-year fixed term basis.”

VoiceOver

The VoiceOver interpreting and translation agency was launched around 6 years ago under the umbrella of the Govan Community Project, or the Govan and Craigton Integration Network as it was known then.

At the time, the charity’s forward-thinking manager recognised that securing grant funding was becoming increasingly difficult and began looking into alternative revenue streams. As a charity supporting refugees and asylum seekers, they potentially had access to a bank of bilingual, highly skilled people who would perhaps be interested in working as interpreters or translators whilst settling in to life in Scotland.

“By the time I started, the model was well established and there was a bank of freelancers,” Zahra continues, “Some were refugees, but many others were professional freelance interpreters who registered with VoiceOver as part of the portfolio of agencies they worked with.”

Zahra the manager

Expanding on her role as manager, Zahra says:

“Although we already had some interpreters and some really good customers, including a number of councils, the British Red Cross, Shelter, and Citizen’s Advice Bureaus; we were making administrative mistakes and surviving on a lot of goodwill.”

With all this in mind, she focussed her energies first on evaluating the service Voiceover was providing, and then implementing changes to make it more professional and self-sufficient. With a view to achieving long-term sustainability, she set about working on the following key areas:

· Developing policies and procedures to standardise or simplify processes

· Designing and implementing a training and support programme for the interpreters

· Organising company finance

· Researching areas for growth

Although her workload was a heavy one at times, Zahra threw herself in to it with unrequited passion. She especially grew to enjoy exploring the social enterprise aspect of her role and took full advantage of the opportunities offered by the Glasgow Social Enterprise Network and Social Enterprise Scotland.

VoiceOver’s social mission

Initially, the agency’s purpose was to provide unrestricted funds for the Govan Community Project through its service provision. As Zahra’s involvement with the wider social enterprise sector increased however; thoughts turned in earnest to more clearly defining its social mission, which became:

· To promote equality of access to services by providing high quality, affordable interpreting

· To improve standards in interpreting and translation, in particular by supporting new entrants to the field and being an agency of choice for freelance interpreters

· To raise funds for the vital work of the Govan Community Project in integrating refugees and asylum seekers.

A time for change

A year after taking up her post, and with the business on a very solid footing, Zahra decided that the time was right to pass the baton on to someone new:

“VoiceOver has a very exciting future and it was a really hard decision for me to leave.” She re-iterates, “I genuinely believe that in a year, everyone will have heard of VoiceOver and it will be contributing to the charity’s finances in a meaningful and reliable way. It has been a great environment to work in. Every day there you can see the impact of your work. The charity has drop in advice and advocacy sessions and a weekly food bank so we get to meet service users all the time, which really focuses in the mind and makes it very easy to sell VoiceOver’s services when you are out and about.”

Yes! The eagle eyed amongst you may have spotted that Zahra still refers to Voiceover in the present tense? This is because her involvement with the agency is still on-going in spite of her already having taken up her new position with CEIS as a Business Advisor. As she explains, succession planning often proves difficult:

“We had recruited someone to replace me but at the 11th hour the plans fell through. After a year of hard work I wasn’t prepared to just walk away, or to rush out and get someone who wasn’t perfect. We were hugely lucky in that Philippa, who managed the admin function at VoiceOver, agreed to take on some of my management responsibilities, and I stayed on a voluntary basis.”

Whoever her successor may be, Zahra is undoubtedly leaving them in a strong position to carry on the momentum. Even now she is working to develop several opportunities for growth which she recently identified: expanding the business’ geographic reach via a national recruitment drive, building partnerships with commercial organisations who have web design or video production companies under their umbrella and might need translation services for foreign clients, and piloting video link interpreting over the summer in order to offer clients even more competitive prices

A new job; a fresh challenge

In spite of the transition in to the new job with CEIS throwing up a few hiccups along the way; Zahra is settling in well. She is now, more than ever, freely able to indulge her passion for developing social enterprise and revels in taking on board every little gem of advice her new colleagues have to offer her.

“The job seems to be a great fit. I’m working with new people and projects on a regular basis; I can continue to use my business skills to the benefit of local communities; and on a personal level I’m developing my own skillset on a daily basis. I’m also excited to be part of an organisation that is a real thought leader in the industry.”