Ruth Rogers is founder of The Canvas and Body Positive Charity ‘Body Gossip’. In her 20s she became frustrated with the fact that people were not reaching their full potential in life due to low self-esteem – hence the creation of these two successful organisations, built to improve mental and emotional wellbeing through empowerment and self-expression. I first came across this space when I attended one of its uniquely London ‘Dog Yoga’ events and knew I had to find out more about where it all began.
What is The Canvas about?
The Canvas is a blank canvas for positive change; we are a not-for-profit social enterprise space at 42 Hanbury Street, with a Café, Creative Venue and Community Hub. Our Café (where you can write on the walls!) is 100% vegan and is open 7 days’ a week to welcome guests with our smiley service, serving homemade food and cakes, Square Mile coffee and loose leaf teas. Our Creative Venue is available to hire on a sliding scale, and hosts live performance, talks and workshops. Our Community Hub is our social heart; it’s offered free-of-charge to community groups and individuals wanting to launch ideas that will improve the lives of others.
How did you start The Canvas?
I had the idea for The Canvas in 2009 through building another enterprise; a positive body image charity called Body Gossip (www.bodygossip.org) that empowers people’s stories about their bodies through theatre and education. But it wasn’t until 2013 that I got my first opportunity to take steps to creating it. I was lucky enough to gain startup funding via the Beyond Business / Investec CSR programme that offers 5 social entrepreneurs each year the opportunity to launch a new business idea in East London. I knew the space was crucial for The Canvas, so I pounded the streets for months until I found 42 Hanbury Street, which was then very neglected and cold. I spent 2 months, alongside countless volunteers, friends and family renovating it to the welcoming, creative space it is now. We opened in 2014, so we’re 3 and a half.
Had you had any business experience before this?
None at all! I had been an actress and puppeteer for 12 years, alongside building Body Gossip in my spare time, until I opened The Canvas. The last 4 years have been a life-changing, steep learning curve for me.
How big is your team at the moment?
Team Canvas is 14 people; a leadership team of 5 and 9 legends working in the café and kitchen. Everyone has the opportunity to get more involved in the social and creative aspects of the business, so some of our team also volunteer to run elements within our events programme.
How did your fundraise for the business (if applicable)?
I am striving to be 100% self-sustainable through café sales and hire revenue, as to me that’s the job of a social enterprise; to operate socially, but also be financially viable. However, in the years that we’ve been growing, I’ve fundraised via a private crowdfunder, through Awards for All, through public events and I’ve also personally supported the business in the earlier years.
How do you promote and PR your business?
We’re lucky; a lot of our customers find us via word of mouth, especially for the use of our Creative Venue and Community Hub. We use social media to spread the word of all three aspects to the business, finding Twitter works best for our social impact, Facebook is great for our creative events, and our Instagram followers love our food pictures!
What are the challenges with running a company like The Canvas?
There are lots of elements to it; building a Café from scratch is tough enough, but we also have two live performance / events spaces, and a team of 14 people. A year ago, my greatest challenge was juggling many roles; I was Café Manager, Administrator, Bookings Manager, CFO, Head of Marketing and PR (or, as I called it, “CEO – Chief Everything Officer”!) Now, the challenge has changed; I have experts running those areas, but I have to let go of them. I hadn’t expected that to be so difficult, but when you’ve built something from scratch, letting go is really hard.
And what are the rewards?
The people! Our team are amazing; we’re so lucky to work with so many interesting and interested individuals, who want to make a positive difference to the world. They see working at The Canvas as not just another café job; they really are helping to launch new ideas that will improve the lives of others, by keeping the space open, clean, warm and welcoming. And the entrepreneurs, thought leaders, optimists and positivity pioneers who use our space are inspiring examples of the magic that can happen when you open a space that exists purely for positivity to take place.
Do you have any other entrepreneurs in your family?
My Mum and sister are both go-getters; between them they’ve launched village social groups, online forums and nationwide classic car clubs, and organised charity events and rallies. I’m the first in our family to open a business, which I think has caused more than a little stress to my poor family, but they’ve been so supportive.
What future plans do you have for expanding your vision?
I’d love to open more spaces around the country. Imagine how much positivity we could host if we had a Canvas in every major city in the UK! Every step I take with the East London space is part of a bigger picture to one day open more. I read Michael E. Gerber’s ‘The E-Myth’ very early on in my journey with The Canvas. It’s a must for any entrepreneur planning on growing their business.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
I don’t really have a typical work day, as some days I’m in the space and others I work from home. There isn’t a day when I’m not thinking about The Canvas – it’s my first baby – but I’m expecting an actual baby in 6 weeks so I’m currently strategically not at the venue every day so that it’s not too much of a shock to my team when the baby comes along and I’m suddenly no longer there for long stretches!
How does running your own business compare to your previous career?
I was an actress and puppeteer for 12 years before I opened The Canvas. That’s a very powerless life, especially for a woman. You’re completely at the mercy of directors, casting directors and your agent, and your success rate is rarely impacted by your talent, but on who you know and what you look like. I was badly injured in a show which left me with chronic back pain, so I was also really struggling to find work towards the end of my performance career. Now I run my own business, I definitely feel I’m where I’m supposed to be. It’s much, much harder than acting; some days I wonder if I’ve got the strength to continue. But when you feel you’re living your purpose, that’s invaluable in remaining upright and facing forwards, even on the worst days.
What’s been your biggest achievement in life thus far?
Opening The Canvas – without a doubt. Looking back now, I honestly don’t know where I found the energy! I’m glad I never have to launch something from scratch ever again (at least, I hope I don’t!)
And biggest failure?
I gave up opportunities to travel during my 20s because I was so focused on my acting career. There’s a saying amongst actors: “If you want a job, book a holiday”, and I found it to be true. I walked away from some awesome adventures for acting jobs that, with hindsight, didn’t really add to my life experience. I’d have been better heading off around the world.
What do you think the advantages and setbacks are for a female founder in the startup space?
There’s a lot of support in peer networks. I have found female entrepreneurs to be so collaborative and supportive, and far less competitive. I think women see the bigger picture really easily; if we work together to grow our market, that’s a win/win for all our businesses.
What advice would you give to someone starting out and looking to break into the food industry space?
I don’t really see myself as an entrepreneur in the food industry; I own a creative venue and social space that has an awesome café within it. But the advice remains the same: stick with it. Aside from the incredibly lucky ones, most businesses don’t really feel stable until you’ve survived the first 5 years (and yes, that’s still a scary thought for me, too, but you can do it!)
Did you have a mentor or people you asked for advice?
Loads of them. I wouldn’t still have a business without my mentors, and I have different ones for different areas of my business.
Who are your role models?
Anita Roddick – she built a strong, successful business that simultaneously changed the world for the better.
How has what you do, changed you as a person?
Oh I’m unrecognisable. Not always for the better; I’m more cynical now. Not as soft as I was. I can be more stressed, that’s for sure! But I also think clearer, communicate better and generally feel I’m happier and more fulfilled. I’m certainly more confident too.
How do you like to take time out for yourself and stay healthy and active?
I used to run and cycle, but now I’m pregnant I try and walk everywhere. My husband and I have recently moved to the country so long walks on days off are amazing for the mind and body.
Do you have any unconventional words of advice?
Yes – don’t listen to advice! I’ve found that advice doesn’t work for me, as I actually have to learn by doing rather than by being told. I can’t count how many times I’ve thought ‘Ah, that’s what so-and-so told me exactly not to do’ – they were right, but I needed to experience the mistake for myself to really understand why it was important.
What is your motto?
This too will pass.