Karen Lynch MBE joins Startups 100 guest judge panel

Lynch, an experienced social entrepreneur and mentor, will judge this year’s Social Impact shortlist.

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Helena Young

Karen Lynch MBE, the former CEO of award-winning social enterprise Belu Water, has been announced as guest judge for next year’s Startups 100 Index.

In collaboration with Startups’ panel of experts, including fellow guest judge, Chris Forbes from Cheeky Panda, Lynch will help to identify the winner of the Social Impact award from the list of the top 100.

The chosen change-maker will be a UK startup which is truly impact first. Leading the charge in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), they will be selected from a shortlist of firms by Lynch; herself an experienced entrepreneur-for-good.

Telling Startups why she decided to partner with the index, Lynch tells us: “When you look at the legacy of these awards, some amazing businesses have been spotted relatively early on. The list is a real flag to wave for social entrepreneurs. It’s a point of endorsement.”

Who is Karen Lynch?

Lynch’s social impact journey began in 2011, when she became CEO of Belu Water. After more than two decades in what she calls the corporate world, she began to get itchy feet.

“I was jealous of people with a vocation,” she says. “I thought I was going to retrain as a vicar or go and work for a charity. But what I was really good at was running businesses.”

Having found what she was good at, the next step was doing something good with it. Steering towards more meaningful work, Lynch discovered the world of social enterprise through Belu Water.

In 2023, the trailblazing brand is a million-pound titan stocked in almost every leading regional and national wholesaler. And, it does all that while donating 100% of its net profits to WaterAid.

Likely, if you’d have told Lynch that fact twelve years ago, she wouldn’t have dared to believe it. Coming from a background in the finance industry, she knew she faced a monumental challenge to turn Belu into a profit-making venture.

“We essentially had to rip it up and start again from every aspect,” she recalls, “brand, business model, funding, structure, product range. I didn’t really know whether we would get there when I set that goal from those early startup days.”

Lynch’s success story has made her a legend in the entrepreneur networks. She has since used her platform to set up the mentoring service, Expert Impact in 2014, and as the Vice Chair for the UK’s membership body for social enterprises, Social Enterprise UK.

“The great thing about social enterprise is that there’s a real human drive,” says Lynch. “Our work is all about giving social entrepreneurs access to some of the world’s best founders on a one-to-one basis for advice money can’t buy.”

Social impact in 2023: the new business normal

As the mastermind behind Belu Water, and its impressive growth journey, Lynch can lay claim to being one of the first social entrepreneurs to successfully balance the so-called ‘triple bottom line’ (TBL).

The TBL theory states that a company should add as much weight to social and environmental concerns. It therefore measures success in terms of three P’s: profit, planet, and people. From Lynch’s perspective, a TBL is now the norm for startups.

“I think any business that has its brain engaged is noticing that pressures are increasing from all around,” she comments. “Teams want more purpose, as do investors. Becoming a registered B Corporation was a new thing. Now it’s the starting block.”

As a result of this shift, Lynch sees there being little distinction today between the challenges facing traditional businesses, and those with social benefit at their core.

“I think the challenges faced by social enterprises are exactly the same as every other business,” she says. “It’s about figuring out your target audience, versus where you are wasting time and money and investment and trying to get to them.”

Of course in today’s market, that’s an especially tough nut to crack. The cost of living crisis has depleted consumer spending power, while sending supply chain and business overhead costs skyrocketing. Lynch knows first-hand the impact this has on startup owners.

“We need to actually really recognise how bloody hard it is,” she presses. “I’ve been going through the startup journey with Expert Impact speakers over the last 18 months. There’s not enough time, not enough resources, not enough money. It’s exhausting.”

Despite the struggles, such turmoil can actually make community-oriented organisations ripe for success. SME owners are increasingly turning a personal struggle into a force-for-good, leading the way for disruption. Passion for the cause provides a powerful fuel source.

Examples include onHand. The on-demand volunteering app was founded by Sanjay Lobo after his dad was unable to find a carer to carry out household tasks during lockdown. Since then, it has partnered with over 150 cross-sector brands to support their CSR objectives.

“We’re absolutely going to see more social enterprises emerging where the founders are experiencing the societal issue themselves, and they want to solve it,” Lynch predicts.

Could you be the next Startups 100 social impact hero?

It might seem like a step change coming from the companies that want to do good. But as Lynch reveals, the number one thing she wants to see from Social Impact entrants is the bad: the mistakes, trials, and tribulations that make up every startup origin story.

“What I want is an honest narrative,” she stresses. “Not the elevator pitch, I want to hear the real story complete with the pain and the obstacles that have been overcome.”

Lynch proposes social entrepreneurs take a no-nonsense policy when it comes to submitting their entry. “Look at the awards entry as if we were investors”, she advises. “Increasingly the things investors are looking for most is directness and data, not fluff and spiel.”

Practically speaking, the business structure must also signal to the judges that the company is locked into solving a societal problem for the long-haul; not just a short-term charity partnership.

“A classic red flag for this would be a hand sanitizer business that boomed in COVID and is now floundering,” she says. “I’m looking for sustainable business models that also have further growth opportunities.”

More than anything, Lynch advises: think on the business case for applying. Beyond the benefits of featuring on the Startups 100 Index, she emphasises that even the application process can be therapeutic for today’s startup owners.

“You may be fatigued as a founder, you may be surrounded by obstacles right now in year three – use the Startups 100 as a reason to take stock,” she recommends. “Through that entry, focus the energy and revitalise your team behind this great opportunity.”

Are you a mission locked UK startup that’s solving a big societal problem? Apply to the Startups 100 for a chance to be named Social Impact award winner for 2024.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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