The extraordinary story of how one woman set up a Shoreditch social enterprise by seeking out positivity

Ruth Rogers of Canvas Café, 42 Hanbury Street, E1 5JL 260118 © david.altheer@gmail.com
Ruth Rogers, left, sweeps through the café, a dynamo spinning new ideas

Ruth Rogers reveals how she started a business from zero. And within a few years, it had borne other great ideas. Could you do the same? Read her insider advice for tips on how to do it

 

EXPENSIVE PLACE, rude people: they’re the standard London stereotypes. But that’s not my view of our city, and those living in it. I’ve learnt you don’t have to look far to find positivity, generosity of time and spirit, warmth and community — in buckets.

I chose near Hackney, where I live, to launch my social enterprise The Canvas, a concept entirely based on supporting the creativity and community spirit of Londoners.

If you’re unsure what I mean by social enterprise, I mean a business that puts social impact not profits at the front of its mission. Any profits are reinvested to generate greater social impact, and no shareholders profit from the business’s growth.

The number of social enterprises in the UK is growing; more than 70,000 social enterprises are trading and almost a million people are employed in them.

The Canvas is a creative venue and community hub, with an-all vegan café inside. It supports and enables the launch of new ideas to improve the lives of others, providing a blank canvas for positive activism.

Ruth Rogers of Canvas Café and Spitalfields Housing Association trustee Syed Ahmed, at the caff, 42 Hanbury Street, E1 5JL 260118 © david.altheer@gmail.com
Rogers tries a glass of Hass, an alcohol-free bubbly, with its commissioner, local businessman Syed Ahmed

Since I opened three years ago, it has enabled the launch of more than 50 new ideas to London, including supper clubs feeding refugees and service users, doggy day care supporting the homeless, and the world’s first Museum of Happiness.

Before The Canvas, I’d never started a business. When we opened in Hanbury Street just off Brick Lane in 2014, we had seven Twitter followers. In the first few months I remember a growing terror; what had I done? How would I make it work? What if people just didn’t care about positivity, creativity and community?

There were some days when the venue seemed to be just a place where me and my team hung out… we didn’t get many customers in the early months.

Then the word started to get out. Organisations and movements such as  Action for Happiness, Mind, CoppaFeel, Service Space and Cardboard Citizens started using the space, and talking about us. We became London’s first Happy Café in 2015. Suddenly, we were the meeting place for everyone involved in the growing happiness-well-being movement.

The key infrastructure I’ve created at the The Canvas – and why we were able to become sustainable (which many small businesses fail to do) – is our vegan café. It is what brings in revenue, and means we can keep the doors open.

We’ve developed a business model built on generosity, offering free and discounted space for the growth and incubation of activism, and that means about 100 people a day come here to access free events.

We say to them: “If you want to support us, buy a coffee. Have your lunch with us. Grab a beer or a bottle of wine.”

We create space and events for people to use and benefit from, and we survive as a business because people choose us to buy from us what they would’ve bought anyway.

I commend this business model to anyone wanting to create their own social enterprise.

Thanks to the concept, The Canvas has become a magnet for positivity pioneers in London, and it turns out there are loads of them.

Both our event spaces host free and affordable events every evening, from yoga and meditation classes, workshops and courses for women in business and start-up social enterprises, environmental film screenings and women-led live performance.

This month alone, February 2017, we host 37 events, among them a community choir, a festival called Stick it to Stigma, a Queer-Friendly Valentine’s Supper and a workshop on how to embody love.

So next time you’re on the Tube lamenting the silent frowns, or contemplating the capital’s scary rental prices, remember that this town contains pockets of positivity. There’s one at my café, it’s affordable and you’re welcome.

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* The Canvas is at 42 Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane, Shoreditch E1 5JL (020 7018 1020).

All pictures on this page © DavidAltheer [at] gmail.com, and all for sale for reproduction. Most photographs are available in bigger formats

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