30 Under 30: Alice Thompson

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Alice Thompson, 27, grew up in Dornoch in the Highlands of Scotland, lives in Edinburgh. 

My interview with Alice Thompson didn’t get off to the best of starts. I turned up at her Edinburgh office on a wrong Thursday only to find out that she was in Glasgow meeting with Jeremy Corbyn. Absolutely mortified after witnessing an office-wide hunt for her upon my insistence that we were supposed to meet on that particular Thursday, I emailed her with apologies and immediately got back this reply: ‘ Haha no worries chica – god knows it’s happened to me!!’. This rather embarrassing situation gave me a really good idea of what kind of person Alice is – insanely busy and successful, but also just freaking nicest! 

And Alice has a lot to be proud of. By the age of 21 she co-founded Social Bite, a social business sandwich shop chain in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, employing and feeding the homeless community. A quarter of their 100+ staff comes from backgrounds of homelessness. They offer a full support programme for their staff, and also feed the homeless through pay it forward service. They run Social Suppers in each of their locations, including women-only evenings, where members of the homeless community can join in for a chat and something hot to eat, helping them to feel less lonely and isolated.  

Oh, and there is also this small thing of being able to convince George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio to visit their Edinburgh sandwich shop (you go girl!). The next big thing on the radar for Social Bite is launching homelessness accommodation through their Social Bite Village project, and raising money for it through Sleep in the Park – the World’s largest ever sleep-out, with Bob Geldof, Liam Gallagher, Deacon Blue, Amy Macdonald, Frightened Rabbit, and John Cleese confirmed to attend.  

But what makes Alice’s achievements even more impressive and totally relatable is that it wasn’t a straightforward path for her. She attended university for 2 years to study Events Management, but quickly realised that it wasn’t the best way for her to progress. So she left at 19, took on an unpaid internship with a fledging events company run by Josh Littlejohn (the co-founder of Social Bite) from an office size of a cupboard, and 6 months later she was running Scotland’s Ski & Snowboard Show, and coordinating The Scottish Business Awards. Both Alice and Josh were inspired by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Professor Muhammad Yunus, so they used last of their money to book tickets to Bangladesh to meet with him to discuss the social business model he champions – a business created and designed to address a social problem. And so the idea for Social Bite was born.  

We predict that the future holds all sorts of amazing badassery for Alice, and we can’t wait to see what she comes up with next! 

IN HER OWN WORDS…

What’s your proudest achievement?

The stuff I’m most proud of is not the stuff that I’ve done, but it’s everything that ex-homeless staff in the company do. But also at the same time, I am maybe even more proud of the work that all the staff not coming from the vulnerable backgrounds do for the company. Because they come in and work a café job with some of the most challenging people, and they serve the homeless community day in and day out. And they behave with such compassion and genuine kindness to these people, and it’s them that are really operating the business. I’m here in the office pulling the strings, but really all the good stuff that we do day to day is done by them. All the managers at each of Social Bite locations are such good people, and I’m the proudest of them.

 

But for me personally to say that I have a big achievement that I’m really proud of, I would like to first see Social Bite to be financially successful and in a stronger position generally. I would like to see Social Bite as more of a polished model that we could that we could give to somebody else in another country. Once I have that that would be my proud moment.  

What women inspire you?

My mom… This is really emotional, I’m not normally like this [full disclaimer, both Alice and I ended up teary-eyed during this interview]. She was a mother of 3, and she divorced my dad when I was 2. She didn’t finish university, because she left that environment to become a mother. So she had no skills and no education, and 3 children under the age of 7. She went to college and got her counselling degree and became a counsellor and worked her way up, so she could provide for us. But on top of that, to have a counsellor for mum was the most incredible gift, and if I was struggling with anything, I could talk with her about anything. I don’t think there is anything that is completely off limits for me to talk with my mum about. And she behaves with such a generous way with everybody, even if inside she is really struggling herself, she is always strong for other people. She is my inspiration day to day with anything good that I ever do. In the back of my mind I always think what would my mum do; for example, my mum would probably write a little note and put a little love heart in it, so that’s what I do, because that’s what a good person would do.  

Angie McEwan, Jane Bruce, and Charlotte Turner in the office. Angie is our Operations Manager, I hired her three months into opening the first Social Bite shop, and she’s just the force of nature. I really value her guidance, and her support to let me do things that I think are right. Jane is like my unofficial mentor right now, and I don’t know where I would be without her this year. Charlotte is my best friend since high school, and she’s also Head of Catering at Social Bite. She’s one of the strongest, and yet most vulnerable people that I’ve ever met.  

Actually, the entire senior management team at Social Bite, other than Josh, is women. So all of the highest paid salaries, the most responsibility, the most crucial decision makers in Social Bite are women, and they are all incredible.  

What change would you like to see for girls and young women in Scotland in next 10 years?

I would like for girls to be encouraged to be politicians, although Scotland is quite good at that. I think that out of all the countries in the world Scotland is one the most awesome countries on the planet. I would like to see girls being paid just as much or more than men, in the same way that in some vocations men sometimes make more than women. It would be cool if other companies would be more open to flexible working hours. With Social Bite it’s a smaller business, and we have always just hired who’s right. Jane, for example, who is really high up, and she essentially runs the charity side of Social Bite, is a mother and until this summer her son was at home, and she could only work three days a week, and we made it work. For us it was more about finding the right person, but I suspect big corporates hire men on the basis that they won’t take time off, they would work later in the evening, they would come to social events outside of work. With Social Bite we’d grown so fast, and there was this year or two of bit of a panic: ‘how do we manage all of this?’ and ‘everybody wants staff all the time’ and ‘how are we going to do any of this?’. And it’s been the women. It’s been Angie, and me, and Jane, and Charlotte – it’s been all these women who’d rushed in and done this incredible work that made the company strong. So I think other companies should adopt the mentality of working around women to have women in the workplace, because we are yin to yang. 

What can we do to shatter the glass ceiling once and for all?

I think it comes down to the government and the corporate sector, because they make the rules. We need a change in corporate culture and that might be only by looking to the future. Instead of changing corporates that already exist, if they are set in the way they operate, maybe it’s more about looking to the future, and investing in young women being entrepreneurial and making their own businesses. If we have more female-led corporations, of which there are not enough right now, speaking to a more female-led political house there will be acceptances made for all the things that women have to deal with. Even simple things like having sanitary products dispenser in offices. I think it comes down to the policy at the government level, and the corporate environment being different. And that might not come from the corporates who are in place already, but those of the future.  And once those two things are talking to each other more, we will see a real change happening. For example, Social Bite has just given 20k to Herriot-Watt University to do research on the cause and solution to homelessness, and the findings of that research are going to be used by the Scottish Government. We need more corporations investing into research to advise governments and create change.  

What 3 women (past or present, real or fictional) would you invite to your dream dinner party/picnic?

Nina Simone. Erin Brockovich. And in order to lighten the mood I would also have Jennifer Lawrence. 

What would your message be for girls and young women in Scotland?

We are strong, and we are compassionate, and we are vital to be part of a discussion happening in society. So if you find yourself in a space where there are lots of males, and not so many females, it is our job to speak up and create a space where there is just as many of male and female. And not an anti-male environment, but we can work together and behave as yin and yang to find the right solution.  

Find Social Bite on Twitter @Socialbite_

Pictures courtesy of Alice Thompson


You can see the full list of our amazing 30 Under 30 2017 finalists here, and keep a look out on the blog as we feature  a different finalist every day throughout November.

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