I started my first enterprise with my brothers and sister when I was around twelve and they were aged ten, eight and six. We spent a good deal of time discussing our vision, our goals and our plans for expansion. We built up stock and cut costs by accepting donations for our equipment and running expenses. We already had one long high-sided box with some chicken wire tacked to the top; it wouldn’t be difficult to make or find another. The guinea pigs we were breeding to sell all lived together in the box and seemed comfortable enough.
We were feeling really excited about finding customers and marketing our business. Who wanted to go to a dusty pet shop and choose a sad, caged guinea pig when they could come to us and select from a whole squeaking mass of the happy little creatures. Our guinea pigs were different. They had twinkly eyes and little twitching pink noses. They were irresistible. We shone with pride. People would be able to tell just from looking at us that we were doing this for love, as well as profit. We didn’t know any other children entrepreneurs who had bothered to start something so amazing. We were certain we had found a niche in the market.
The guinea pigs found their own gap and began escaping at night. First one or two would go missing and we would find them huddled under the tumble drier in the laundry room of the old hotel where we lived at the time. We plonked them back in the box, but every morning a few more would escape and we would coax them out from under the drier until one terrible morning we went to the laundry room and saw that every single one had disappeared. Dreams of our global guinea pig farm crashed as we realised we had lost everything.
We didn’t have the heart to start again. In any case it was much more profitable carrying suitcases up the stairs for the hotel visitors and occasionally washing glasses. We moved into a new league of entrepreneurship when the coach parties rolled in for cream teas. We put our collaborative skills to use by each taking a team role: one to take the coats and umbrellas from the elderly ladies, one to hang them up (the coats not the ladies), one to issue the cloakroom ticket, and the littlest, brightest, shiniest one to smile and say thank you as the saucer overflowed.
We recognised from an early age that entrepreneurs don’t waste time when one business fails to get off the ground; they instantly start another. Entrepreneurs like to live by their own efforts, and there is nothing more satisfying than building something from nothing and having people want to invest in what you have built.
I started a social enterprise knowing that I wanted to link philosophy to connecting with animals because whenever I taught philosophy I nearly always ended up having a conversation about animals and the so-called species barrier. As a child I never really saw any difference between myself and animals, or trees or beetles, or ticks, or stones. To me, it was simply life in another form, and I was always utterly curious about life, which is important if you are going to attempt to do any kind of work in philosophy.
After seventeen years of teaching philosophy it is being, the raw material and energy of philosophy that intrigues me. Being is a constant, fresh puzzle and this has been illustrated by some of the children I’ve taught this year. An essential part of being is having something to care about, if I’m getting all phenomenological, something for being to be concerned with. These children rescue greyhounds, they care about orcas being kept in captivity, they dream of music or menus or oceans. They’ve shown me that when you care enough, you have everything you need to become who you are.
As I reach the final stage of my year at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, I’m realising how important it is for an entrepreneur to hold on to the open mind of the child. To trust that your enterprise will find its own form and to trust that even if your box is empty one morning, you will still be able to go out and build something, not be someone.
I’m really sorry though about the guinea pigs we lost. We made some careless mistakes and we really should have organised a night watch, but we were beginners and I suppose we can be forgiven for that.