Founder of the Edinburgh Student Arts Festival (ESAF), Briana is definitely an entrepreneur in Edinburgh to watch. Originally from Washington D.C., Briana was Student President of the Edinburgh University Students Association. Here, she spotted the need to bring together student artists. The ESAF is a social enterprise that provides a platform for emerging creative to show their work in public. Their aim is for young people in Scotland to be able to access the creative sector in order to fulfil their potential.
We met with her to discuss her work, goals for the future and find out more about her journey.
How did ESAF start?
"I was always a creative person when I was younger, I was in a rock band, I used to paint, I used to dance, and I did all sorts of things. When I came to university, I felt that there was a sense of either study the arts and you became an artist or you couldn’t really practice it anymore. There were societies and clubs at the university that focused on the arts, but I still felt that being creative wasn’t accessible. This, alongside the merger of the Edinburgh College of Art and the University of Edinburgh and a desire to create one community and bring them together, was the reason for the festival’s first pilot. Then we began to see more and more a disconnection between the varying schools so the festival became a city wide festival for all students in Edinburgh that were in higher or further education. That idea of bringing the community together and allowing anyone that felt that they had no platform to have one for the first time.
ESAF covers all of the arts, visual arts, performance arts but it also has areas for artists who are also entrepreneurs to sell their work.
The workshops vary. Someone did a workshop on ‘How to Kick Depression in the Butt’. Another one built a life size social experiment board game, so it is open and has really grown. This year we introduced our Creative Partner series to incorporate a lot of wider issues. For instance, youth underemployment. They say that by 2018, one-third of Britain’s youth will be underemployed. ESAF is trying to address the barriers for employment in the creative sector. Especially the issue where a lot of creatives are expected to do unpaid work and need access to more support.
Another area that we are combating is that art is only for artists. We are simultaneously working to adjust those barriers but also give creative professionals the practical skills to succeed."
"There are 6 in the core team but the ESAF grows to about 40 in the core festival planning team – which are graduates and students. In the festival itself, ESAF had 400 artists this year and have worked with 174 volunteers. This year the festival took place across 11 venues across the city. It has grown from 6 venues to 11."
Do you think you would have started your own social enterprise if you hadn't of been Student President at EUSA?
"I have always been interested in pushing a cause forward, but I wouldn’t have done it as quickly. Without the experience of being Student President – I became a trustee of an organisation, chair of a board of trustees,and managed senior management team - I wouldn’t have had the confidence to run my own company. Having that power, respect and responsibility, and to be able to really mobilse others and work with brilliant people, gave me the power and impotence to feel like, “Yea, I could run my own business.” It was someone at the university’s incubator that said, “Why don’t you just run this? Why can’t you set this up as something that you do?” And before that I had never thought, "Yea, I am going to go and set up a festival."
"But that is privilege so how do you enable others to feel like they can do it? Yes, I worked really hard but if I didn’t have access to the Principal to discuss funding, if I hadn’t of studied sustainable development, had access to the university hub - there are a lot of things that allowed me to have the confidence and skills to do this. But others that come from different backgrounds that have never been exposed to it – and why would they get involved in social enterprise? They wouldn’t have the knowledge and skills. It is still quite unfair, more fair in Scotland, but it is still a big problem."
Having a year under my belt and a model that worked so we could say that we have done this and this is the impact it has had has been really useful."
What are the differences in the social enterprise scene between Edinburgh and Washington D.C.?
"In Edinburgh the social enterprise community is so small and you meet people so quickly. It is very progressive and a safe space. The traditional business world is changing quite a lot and if you come at it from a I run a social enterprise, and most people don’t understand what that is, they believe you and there isn’t a ageism aspect because they don’t understand.
Back at home not many people understand what a social enterprise is and how it can be so much more as they aren’t as exposed to it. From what I see there are co-working spaces popping up in D.C. and it is becoming a more collaborative environment. I very much get the sense, and I can’t speak too much on it as I am not exposed to it as often, that it is very tech-y, high growth, unicorn culture out there at the moment. It seems like it is very traditional. The third sector in Washington is prominent and they are understood, but the social enterprise and sustainable business are not coming together as well as they are in Scotland. Scotland is a really unique place to be involved with social enterprises. And the government is investing loads."
What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far that you can share with our community?
"Funding myself and my own salary. In my opinion, you do have to have a part time job or be freelance, which I am. The other biggest challenge is mental health because I have been impacted by my situation. Everything is so uncertain, you don’t know where you are going to get income. Most people say startup founders don’t pay themselves until 18 months or two years after they start. If you have money, yea sure you can do it, but if you are a recent graduate the financial stability is so challenging and that really impacts your ability to work on your idea. This is a 80 hour work week and I have had to sacrifice time for either the festival or part time work. A big challenge is being able to live.
I have anxiety and it is tough because it impacts your social life, mainly because you don’t have one as you are working a lot and you do become isolated. But, you can meet people going through the same thing and reach out to them. If I wasn’t part of the co-working place I would be in trouble. Having your own social enterprise is so tough and a emotional rollercoaster. It seems to be this unspoken known, but others don’t seem to know. I don’t know what the solution is. Some people say that it is a trade off, if you want to be a trail blazer and go your own way it is at the trade off of stability, you are taking more risks and that is part of the fun and that is a fine line if it pushes you over. If you don’t have enough disposable income, it inhibits getting exercise or therapy."
What advice would you give young entrepreneurs?
"Advice for young entrepreneurs is to know your limits – but not in a restricting way. You don’t need to conquer the world, we are really young and what you are doing is really amazing. Learn to let go and enlist positive self talk and to share what you are feeling with other people. I think it is really important to find a community and find balance. You need to sleep, you need to eat well, you need to exercise and when you are stressed those three seem to be the things that go first. Self-care, you need to take breaks, you have the rest of your life ahead of you – patience. A lot of us are perfectionists, are really hard on ourselves and visionaries, which can be wonderful, you just need to give yourself some compassion."
What role do you think that your gender has played in your career?
"I have never consciously felt that my gender has impacted my life. I played tackle football on the all-boys tackle football team, I did thinks that weren’t characteristically female. However, of course it has an impact as how others perceive me has an affect on what I can do. The odd thing is that I think it is working in my favour.
People see me as a young, black woman and they are favourable to me, but I am very aware that that is not the same case in other parts of the world and I think that being a white man is a lot more under fire than it used to be. As a society we are more aware of gender and how it can be perceived in the work place but we don’t live in a gender equal society.
There are still gender roles that people fall prey to or they feel that they can’t do certain things because of their gender and I don’t think it is as active as we think it is. It is more subconscious. Personally, I have been in board rooms with all men and people have made flippant comments about me that I don’t know what I am talking about. Maybe because I am woman, maybe because I am young. I am sure it has impacted me, but I personally haven’t felt it.
On the flip side, I do know that I am privileged and that other people do feel that way and are limited by their gender or not aware of their possibilities. You can’t be what you can’t see, some people who have grown up with supportive female and male role models may not see gender bias as much because that is not how they were raised. But I think that definitely things need to change and it is still a man’s private sector world."
What is coming up for you and the ESAF in the future?
"The organisation is going through growing pains to ensure that the growth meets our wider aims and they stay in parallel. A schools programme is on the books and talks for professionals.
The festival was brilliant, we doubled our footfall, doubled our artists, increased the number of venues. For the third year we are looking to scale back and find the processes to make it replicable for teams in other citites.
Personally, I am looking for someone to take over in a couple of years and for, myself, to look more into sustainable business structures that don’t always rely on funding. Interested in social innovation, the arts, and the creative sector – every single person has the chance to be creative and it shouldn’t be just a part of the creative sector. It should be a part of life.
We have an awards scheme that we are trying to get more organisations to help support emerging artist. Our best performing artist, Claire, just performed at On the Rocks supported by the Saltire foundation. We paid our travel fee, accommodation, and the rest of her award to develop her work and work with a projection artists in Edinburgh to collaborate and further her work. Talking to other companies to see how we can help promote skills development and employability."
Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to meet up with us Briana and we wish you every success in the future!
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