Aayush and Karis show off one of their gift boxes

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A force for good

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Does a business have the power to change the world? University of Edinburgh alumni Karis Gill and Aayush Goyal certainly think so.

As graduates of the University of Edinburgh Business School, Karis and Aayush are no strangers to entrepreneurship. Meeting in a class on their first day, their degrees allowed them to learn the fundamental theories of business while growing their entrepreneurial skills.

Then, on her 21st birthday, Karis had an idea; why not harness her passion for helping others and build a socially responsible company?

Fast forward four years and Karis and Aayush are co-founders of the start-up, Social Stories Club; a sustainable corporate gifting company that champions products from other social ventures across the UK. “We make gift boxes that are exciting to give and receive, and are filled with products such as teas supporting education for girls and chocolates providing help to refugees,” explains Karis.

Shining a light

Once Karis had her idea for Social Stories Club, it wasn’t hard to convince Aayush to come on board. The pair found themselves discussing social enterprise in Aayush’s student kitchen at the start of their fourth year in 2017. Aayush explains more: “When Karis introduced me to the idea of social enterprise, I was absolutely mind blown. It was incredible that you could use the power of traditional business to create social and environmental impact.”

“The two of us took this idea of a socially responsible gifting company and built on it. We wanted to shine a light on social ventures that were producing products and services that were creating positive impact across the world,” he continues.

“We wanted to combine our love for entrepreneurship with the passion to use our careers as a force for good,” agrees Karis.

A helping hand

Social enterprises are businesses that are led by their social and environmental goals. They look to build a positive social and environmental impact with their work, and these aims inform every part of how the company functions. There are several different ways a business can achieve this, whether it’s creating jobs for people with barriers to employment, protecting the environment, or investing in community projects.

There are currently more than 100,000 social enterprises across the UK contributing £60 billion to the economy.

With more and more of these kinds of businesses emerging, Karis is optimistic about how they could shape the future: “Businesses have exploited people and the environment for generations, and the power they have can be used to undo this damage. Social enterprises are transforming communities and are creating innovations to reverse harmful environmental disasters.

“I have a vision that one day businesses will lead the charge in solving some of the world’s biggest social issues,” she continues.

Making a difference

Leading this charge is exactly what Social Stories Club aims to do. Aayush elaborates: “We want to create impact at multiple levels, whether this is through employing individuals with barriers to employment, offering carbon-neutral delivery, investing in reforestation projects, or supporting social ventures.”

A flat lay of the products included in the gift boxes
A flat lay of the products included in the gift boxes

To date, Social Stories Club has partnered with 30 such social ventures across the UK, and their gift options for their boxes include a huge choice of products. Examples include food and drinks that are combatting food waste and reducing single-use plastics, as well as lifestyle items, such as stationery and beauty products, that are providing socks to homeless communities and creating job opportunities and support to those with disabilities.

Providing similar opportunities in their own company is also a key focus for Karis and Aayush. Since they started Social Stories Club, they have been careful to offer job opportunities to people typically further from the labour market. Aayush shares more: “It can be very challenging for some people to secure a job, whether it is due to their language skills, age, or ability.”

Their first full-time employee has been with Social Stories Club for more than two years, joining the company when they moved from Ukraine. They now work as a Team Lead: “To be part of Social Stories Club is to be part of a whole company where your opinion matters, and you feel you totally participate in company life. In our company, you can see inspired people who create amazing social impact. Social Stories Club cares about their staff, and always offers to help colleagues be happy and healthy and also gives support with professional development.”

Starting from scratch

Karis and Aayush’s passion to be socially responsible in every aspect of their business has made a huge impact at every level and it’s entirely down to their hard work and dedication that they’ve been able to successfully put their ideas into practice.

“In the beginning, we had to learn everything from scratch,” explains Karis. “We started off with an idea, we then conducted market research and spoke to potential buyers. We used their feedback to create a very early-stage version of our gift boxes and we sold our first boxes on a market stall.”

The entrepreneurs also reached out to Edinburgh Innovations, the University’s commercialisation arm, for advice and support with their ideas. They were assigned a business advisor, which was a pivotal moment for both Aayush and Karis.

“Lorna became our mentor and she’s played such a key role in helping our business grow. She focuses on the business of course, but she also checks how we’re doing as founders; it can be a challenging journey,” explains Aayush.

“It was so exciting, and to have somebody who is a business expert as a mentor who believed in us and believed in the idea the same way we do. That felt truly wonderful,” adds Karis.

Edinburgh Innovations also awarded Social Stories Club its very first funding, which allowed Karis and Aayush to create their gift boxes ready for sale.

Growing from Glasgow

A portrait of Aayush and Karis
Aayush and Karis

Today, Social Stories Club operates from a warehouse in Edinburgh, but it started on market stalls in Glasgow. “So much has happened between then and now,” says Karis. “We have had hundreds of market stalls, have outgrown two premises and have moved to our third as the word has spread about our sustainable gift boxes.”

However, the pair are keen to stress that the experience at these markets was key to shaping how their business looks today. Not only were these a valuable source of exposure, feedback from those at the markets helped Karis and Aayush really understand who they should be targeting.

“When we started, we were solely focused on the student market,” explains Aayush. “Through our market stalls, we found that we were targeting the wrong market. This was an interesting point of pivot for us. We started speaking to our new potential market and found that there was a lot of interest in our gifts for professional women and businesses.”

With this in mind, Karis and Aayush adjusted their approach and the results speak for themselves: “It was an incredible moment when someone came to our stall and paid for our first gift box,” says Aayush. “We knew we were doing something right.”

Heart and soul

Looking back at the past four years, Karis is proud of where they’ve come from: “It has been an incredible experience to grow from a market stall in Glasgow to a warehouse in Edinburgh. The first two years were so challenging, and we poured our hearts and souls into Social Stories Club.”

Disruptions and supply issues from the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit certainly account for many of the challenges the pair have faced: “Our gifts are packaged in cardboard boxes so when there was a national shortage of cardboard in 2020 we ended up having to pay 600 per cent what we usually would,” says Karis.

Despite this, Social Stories Club has created a huge positive impact: “In the past four years, we have achieved a turnover of more than £1 million, have provided more than 5,500 hours of work to individuals with barriers to employment, introduced more than one million people to social enterprise, and invested more than £390,000 into the social enterprise economy. We have been backed by The Big Issue Invest and Scottish Edge where we won £65,000,” explains Karis.

Working on short-term plans and reacting to huge changes such as Brexit and the Pandemic have kept Karis and Aayush busy during the past four years. But now it’s time to think longer term.

“We want to become the largest gifting company in the UK, and ensure that everyone in the country knows what a social enterprise is and how they can support them,” shares Karis. “There are only so many social enterprises we can include in our gift boxes, and we want to be able to introduce the UK to so many more.”