Becoming an entrepreneur brings with it enough challenges but doing it from scratch in a strange city with no contacts or support network is a huge undertaking.
Ciiku N Sondergaard did all that and, appropriately, her social business is all about offering support to people who have also found themselves isolated.
Along with fellow directors, Geri Ganeva, Marie-Claire Uwera, and Keshi, Makridis Ciiku runs 4Wings in Liverpool city centre, which runs various projects for survivors of domestic abuse , refugees and young people whose first language isn’t English.
Starting again from scratch
She was born and brought up in Kenya and, as an adult, spent several years living in Denmark where she met her ex-husband and they had two children.
The family relocated to the UK, living in Middlesborough, but the marriage came to an end and Ciiku and her children moved to Liverpool where she enrolled at the University of Liverpool to study criminology and psychology.
“I was initially interested in a career in criminal profiling with the police but later dropped psychology and added communications instead,” she said. “So at that point I didn’t really have a set idea of what I wanted to do.
“I was living with my two young children, I had no family close by and no social network.”
New friendships lead to a big idea
Ciiku slowly started getting to know people and became friends with a group of woman who were all survivors of domestic violence . But something about them puzzled her and that question led her to setting up 4Wings in May 2013.
She explained: “I discovered there was a pattern with some of the women where they would get back into abusive relationships – and I began to wonder why that was.
“Talking to them it became clear that they were often lonely with no friends and support network and so slipped back into what they were familiar with.
“Once they left the refuge there was little or no practical or emotional support.
“So I did a lot of research around that to see if there was somewhere offering that kind of service in Liverpool and there didn’t seem to be any long-term support. So I decided to set something up myself.”
Support and contacts can be invaluable when it comes to setting up a new venture – but at that point, Ciiku had neither.
“Making contacts is something you really do need in a new business so, during that first year, I networked like crazy.”
She also became the Liverpool ambassador for a global networking organisation called Internations. This brought together professionals from overseas who were living and working in Liverpool,
Backed by Lottery funding, 4Wings offered one-to-one support for survivors of domestic violence as well as a 12-week personal development programme to help clients move on to the next stage of their lives.
Ciiku said: “At the start it was very daunting. On our very first personal development session we had just four people and I thought ‘oh my God, how is this going to work out?’.
“But by the end of the 12-week course we had around 20 women attending and that was all through word-of-mouth. If you give a good service people will talk about it.”
Now 4Wings employs four people, as well as volunteers, and has widened out its support projects to reach out to vulnerable men.
Offering hope to those in trauma
Both Ciiku and Geri are also passionate about the work they do with refugees. People who come to the UK seeking asylum are often traumatised and, when they arrive, can be met with hostility from both the authorities and the general population.
They are also often trained professionals, eager to contribute to British society. But the asylum process can take years and they are barred from doing paid work for that time.
Geri explained: “They have invested in themselves to develop their professional skills and then they find they cannot use those skills. It is frustrating because everybody wants to contribute to their community.
“There is one person who is a trained radiographer. Even if he is able to volunteer with the NHS he will probably end up making cups of tea.
“Applications can take several years and it is that loss of hope – it puts people in a very dark place.”
Building a sustainable business
Similar to many social businesses, 4Wings has to work constantly to secure new funding and the age of austerity has meant the pot for the third sector has become much smaller.
“We are looking to diversify the business by offering services such as counselling and coaching that people can pay for and that will support our projects,” said Ciiku.
She acknowledged the difficulty of managing the projects while also managing the day-to-day challenges of running a business.
She explained: “The passion we have is to give that one-to-one support But if you don’t have a dedicated accounts or admin team then it is a tricky balance.
“We have been developing sides to ourselves we didn’t know we had. You realise it is no one else’s responsibility but yours. As directors you cannot say it is now five o’clock so it is someone else’s problem.”
Author: Tony Mcdonough - Liverpool ECHO