Prom Ally is a fashion initiative which has a focus on helping teenagers who are experiencing financial hardship to receive free loans of prom dresses and suits to go to their school proms, while also having sustainable fashion at its core.
Ally was at University studying Law when she watched a documentary looking at poverty through the eyes of children and one story really stood out for her – a young girl facing social exclusion as she wasn’t able to afford a dress and therefore wasn’t able to go to her school prom. Ally was inspired to act and set out looking for a way she could help meet this social need, in an innovative way; and from this Prom Ally was born. Their Eco Wardrobe enables young people from all backgrounds who may be struggling financially to be able to hire an outfit cheaply and in an eco-friendly way. It is linked with schools, social services, food banks and charities around the UK on a referral basis and has now helped thousands of young students.
Initially, Ally Elouise self-funded by using 21st birthday money and dress donations from the public; indeed, she continued to self-fund the business through a fulltime teaching assistance job as well as thinking outside the box to draw in money through other means for over six years. While she was lucky initially to be able to run Prom Ally at nights and weekends, she soon realised it was becoming all-consuming and that she had to quit other employment to dedicate herself full time. Ally has some rather sobering advice for budding social entrepreneurs to consider before starting up revealing that they may need to recognise that a wage will not always be immediately available for them.
The hardest thing financially is funding and fundraising which is a big part of your daily life and you will be constantly looking to raise money and find innovative ways of income generation. It can sometimes make you wonder if you can carry on and the reality is a social enterprise you need to be able to prove you can self-sustain if you want to attract grant finance.
Ally considers herself fortunate that proving she could self-sustain meant she was able to draw on the Welsh Third Sector Resilience Fund; a blended finance of 75% grant and 25% initial interest free loan which goes towards the costs of ongoing revenue expenditure, including salaries. She received £50,000 which covered her for a whole year, and without the Social Investment she received, she would never have been able to afford to make the leap into launching her new formal-wear hire site and in turn would have struggled to keep Prom Ally open.
Ally has used other sources of funding to help her cover costs through crowdfunding (gofundme) and alternative income generation through Patreon which allows her to charge customers a monthly subscription charge to get a ‘first look’ at new stock.
Diversifying sources of income has increasingly been a priority for many social entrepreneurs and Ally has plans in place to increase her income generation through online rental of dresses outside of Prom season, to ensure stock is not just stored for large parts of the year. The grant she received will help her set up an online trading arm to hire out formal wear for customers wanting to shop more sustainably by hiring instead of buying new. She hopes the funding would help us create, establish and market this secondary website called Eco Wardrobe which in turn would fund the service we offer at Prom Ally’.
Initially, this was chosen as it was the best source of finance to start a social enterprise, but without incurring any debt. While this was sustainable, in order to grow organically, Ally had to look for additional sources of finance that minimized any long term debt, but allowed for growth.
Not having a business background can be a significant hurdle for many budding social entrepreneurs, however, Ally advises that help is readily available to make the start-up process less daunting than many people think. Initially, she didn’t have a legal constitution and she found becoming a registered charity a difficult process. She spoke with Social Business Wales and they gave her great advice on setting up as a social enterprise and helped her produce a business plan and look at finance.
Ally has come to recognise that the biggest qualities needed for a social entrepreneur are belief, being passionate about your idea and being resilient. ‘As a social entrepreneur, once you have your idea and you believe in it you’ve got to keep pushing it. I’ve had so many setbacks over the six years, but I believe in Prom Ally; there are tough times, but I know I can’t give up because there are so many people who rely on it so no matter what I’ve got to make it work’.
Ally offers the following takeaways for those thinking of starting a social enterprise:
Social Enterprise success can often come down to marketability and Ally advises that entrepreneurs really show people what you are doing – ‘engage with the public and local community because they will always help you out if they believe in you. People like to follow your story so use social media to your advantage and be transparent’.
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