Mel Young was one of 14 of the UK’s most committed supporters of entrepreneurship inducted into the Great British Entrepreneurs Champions Hall of Fame in association with NatWest and JD&Co in 2019, a brand new initiative led by the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards.
In a special issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs magazine, we sat down with Mel to look back at his entrepreneurial career so far.
In 2019, more and more businesses are placing social responsibility at the very core of their values. But it hasn’t always been this way. A decade or so ago, businesses were developing Corporate Social Responsibility policies, and before that relatively few were thinking about how they could enact positive social change. One man, however, has dedicated his entire entrepreneurial journey to positive social impact is Mel Young.
Mel is the man who helped bring The Big Issue into Scotland, before going on to create the Homeless World Cup in 2003.
Mel didn’t set out to become even a social entrepreneur, let alone a profit-seeking entrepreneur. “I’ve always been driven by fairness,” he explains. “Then the entrepreneur bit came in afterwards. I’ve always been practically driven, as well, so it was about looking at how I practically drive change through entrepreneurship.”
When recalling the biggest challenges they face when starting a business, entrepreneurs often highlight things like fundraising and recruitment. But when Mel started, his biggest challenge was convincing people he was “actually sane”.
Are you mad?
“We were pioneers [in this social entrepreneur space]. A lot of people thought what we were doing was crazy. We were saying ‘Look, we’re trying to do something here that is constructive and adds up’.
“When I started the Big Issue in Scotland, I had people questioning the idea. They looked at me and actually said ‘Are you mad?’.”
In establishing Big Issue in Scotland, Mel had developed a track record of starting and building a successful non-profit business that brought positive social change. And yet, he was still faced with the same questions when he launched the Homeless World Cup. Sixteen years on from the first Homeless World Cup, Mel says he doesn’t hear those questions anymore.
Although quite common now, Mel didn’t realise he was a social entrepreneur for quite some time. “I’d never been able to fit the fold, because I wasn’t what everyone thought an entrepreneur was. I was bringing business concepts into the social sector and marrying the two together.
“The sector was emerging and in many ways I was always being entrepreneurial without realising it.”
Like so many great start-up stories, the idea for the Homeless World Cup came in a bar over a beer. In fact, it was after the International Network of Street Papers annual conference, where a large group of attendees were having a drink and talking about how inspired they were. There was one, big issue though. There were no homeless people there.
“We were talking in the bar until 3am about how we were going to change the world. We were talking about how we could get homeless people to experience what we were experiencing at the conference,” Mel recalls.
“A colleague of mine from Austria and I were trying to come up with ideas, but we didn’t think a conference would work. Homeless people might get bored, then there would’ve been issues with visas and even the language barrier.”
Then it clicked. Both big football fans, Mel and his colleague realised there was an international language called football, and just how powerful that language can be.
“Some of the [street paper] sellers we knew had formed little football teams, and we thought we could build on that. We talked about staging a match between Scotland and Austria; I’d put a team of Scottish homeless people together, and he’d put together one from Austria.”
There it was, the very foundations of an idea for a football World Cup, not made up of the most decorated and skilled players on the planet, but of the most underprivileged.
Mel adds: “The next morning we met for breakfast, talked about how great our conversation was, and questioned whether or not we should actually do it. You can have these amazing discussions, but they often stay in the bar. The critical thing was in that second conversation, we simply said ‘let’s make it happen’.”
Breaking the rules
Sometimes businesses have the luxury of starting slow, even getting things wrong and making changes. That wasn’t the case for Mel and the Homeless World Cup, however.
“The Homeless World Cup broke the rules in that sense. We had to get the first one absolutely right to get people to listen to us,” Mel explains.
A standout first event was the big breakthrough, without which Mel admits it may not have been able to garner the support it has in the years since.
“We were able to convince big corporates to come on board. We kept banging on doors and people again thought we were nuts, but we kept going. Eventually someone said they liked our passion and said the idea was ‘off the wall, but it might work’. Once we got that first deal, it opened more doors.”
Just three years later, the Homeless World Cup in Cape Town in 2006 saw the number of teams taking part double, and there was a jump in media coverage, as well. “We jumped from this peripheral concept into a serious and impactful force,” Mel says.
Now in 2019, the 17th Homeless World Cup in Cardiff will see over 500 players come together to represent 50 countries, resulting in real and positive social change. Since launch, the Homeless World Cup Foundation has impacted the lives of more than 1.2 million people around the world.
Mel has no plans to slow down. In fact, he is adamant he’ll never retire. “As long as there is homelessness in the world, the Homeless World Cup will keep going,” he says. “I want to get to a position where there is no need for us because there is no homelessness. Sadly, I think it will be around for a while.”
Realising that the need for social entrepreneurs will go on for quite some time, Mel now attributes much of his time to championing the next generation.
“It’s incredibly important in this day and age that you have people who are prepared to do things.
“I’m inspired by entrepreneurs because they always have great ideas, and what they need is support to get these ideas into practical action.”
What’s clear to see if Mel’s passion for helping young entrepreneurs with social values, in particular. He says “I love it. I love listening to their ideas and want to support them the best I can. Reading about people who have these ideas to change the world is inspiring for me. It’s very encouraging to see them thrive.
“They have a very important role in the future. There’s a huge discussion surrounding what we’re doing about the climate, about the planet. The role of governments and individuals is obviously important, but the roles of business in the future of the planet is crucial.
“That’s where entrepreneurs will take the lead. We’re seeing people take simple concepts that already exist and change them for the better.”