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Social Impact Insights: Iqbal Wahhab, Founder and CEO, Roast Restaurant

28/04/2015 09:28 BST | Updated 26/06/2015 10:59 BST

As much as "social enterprise" is a buzzword these days, there are people who reject this label entirely. 'Reluctant social entrepreneur,' Iqbal Wahhab is one such person. Sitting in Roast Restaurant in Borough Market, London, enjoying a delicious macchiato and the exceptional service of their highly-rated staff, I questioned Iqbal's hesitation to embrace this categorisation of his long-standing work supporting the community.

Unlike the previous interviewees for this series Andrea Coleman or Nigel Kershaw, Iqbal did not set out to run a socially-focused enterprise. To this day, many people would not consider Iqbal a 'social entrepreneur', but as a restaurateur; but behind Roast's superstar service and delicious food is a very successful commercial enterprise. What you wouldn't know walking through their doors is their commitment to diversity and to their people. By diverse, we mean hiring ex-offenders, apprentices and everything in-between. Not a traditional social enterprise, but a business driven by its social mission it most certainly is.

Following on from my interview with Nigel Kershaw, Chair of Big Issue and CEO of Big Issue Invest, I sat down with Iqbal for the latest entry into Social Impact Insights.

What drives you to incorporate a socially-focused mission into all of your ventures?

Iqbal: As I grew up I kept hearing this term "first-class first" from my parents and one day I asked them what it meant. They both came from modest backgrounds in a rural part of Bangladesh and every year there was just one state scholarship to go to Dhaka University. To get it you had to have had the highest first in their equivalent of A levels. They both got it and met at university. My father became a professor (his father having worked in a post office) and my mother became a headmistress (her father was a forest ranger).

I asked what happened to those who came second, and when I visited the place they had come from I learned the answer for myself - nothing. When I ran a gang of troubled youths at school in south London we all failed our O-levels and my parents suggested I retake them, which I did and went on to do all the things I have. No one encouraged the others - and their futures were more grim. That could have been me. I am incredibly aware of how lucky I am and equally aware of how unlucky others are. That drives my social mission - who didn't get a chance to come first?

Do you think your approach is good for business?

I used to keep that thought to myself, lest people think me a fanciful romantic. But more and more people say they come to Roast because of the work we do with ex-offenders, our three-star rating with the Sustainable Restaurants Association, and even because of the simple diversity of our workforce. It also helps attract smarter employees who say they want to work with us because of these social impact activities. Not only that but they stay longer so employee retention is much higher for us than it is for most restaurants. So, I not only think it's good for business: I know it.

How do you think the environment for new entrepreneurs has changed in the last 10 years?

A decade ago at The Cinnamon Club I would hide my social impact work from the shareholders because as investment bankers they didn't get it. I felt obliged to disguise it under the marketing budget, which they did get. Now investors are actively seeking socially responsible businesses to merge their philanthropic and commercial portfolios.

I'm planning a major expansion of the business later this year and there's a lot of interest in backing me because the company delivers great profits. The result is I am finally in a position where I can quiz banks and investors about how they buy into my wider ambitions. That's how much the climate has changed.

What are the biggest opportunities out there right now for social entrepreneurs?

Social entrepreneurs need to demonstrate their commercial viability first and foremost - they need to be real businesses rather than artificially propped up ones or charities in everything but name.

The ultimate success of social enterprise, like the work of any pressure group, will be when the term becomes obsolete: when every enterprise has a social mission built in.

What challenges have you faced in making Roast a more socially minded business?

The most difficult aspect I found was encouraging our managers to use apprentices. Busy managers look at the quickest, most efficient ways of filling job shortages. If you call and ask if there are any vacancies, the first question you get asked is where you currently work. Anyone who is out of work is effectively being discriminated against. I challenged this and it required quite a culture change to get the team to understand that just because someone in London is unemployed doesn't mean they're work-shy. To put into perspective, I found it more of a challenge than engaging with ex-offenders.

Along your journey, what has been your most valuable failure?

A few years back I looked at the huge popularity of our fast food outlet in Borough Market (Roast to Go) and opened one in Westfield. For months it dragged on unsuccessfully until I pulled the plug on it. I later shared with managers my disappointment that it hadn't worked and then they told me they never thought it would.

The value of the failure was to learn they thought they couldn't voice an opinion. Disruption, I learned as a result, should not be the exclusive prerogative of the CEO.

What are three things that you have learned that you would pass on to budding entrepreneurs who would like to integrate a socially responsible approach to their business?

1. Know why you're doing it

2. Know how you're going to do it

3. Know who's going to help you to do it

You can follow Iqbal on Twitter and read his personal blog here.