In Conversation with Ali Baeta, Unite Students

  1. Please describe your role and responsibilities. How many years have you been in the company?

I oversee our Social Impact strategy and associated activity at Unite Students. For us this essentially means how do we create benefit for the different stakeholders we work with, as well as our organisation through our social initiatives, whilst ensuring it’s aligned to our broader business purpose ‘Home for Success’. I’ve been with the organisation for almost 11 years, having started out running some of our properties back in London, before undertaking a secondment to look at how we were approaching CSR (back when it was called this!) as a business which I have then progressed through various roles in to the one I hold today.

 

  1. What was your background previously and where did your interest in social impact begin?

My background is originally in operations, previously having honed my skills running an indoor ski slope before moving across to manage student accommodation at Unite Students. At the ski slope we were often approached by charities and not for profits to see whether we could collaborate with them on a variety of initiatives and as the leader of the business I was able to choose to bring these to fruition, realising they were often mutually beneficial. It got me thinking that I would really enjoy working in a role that enabled me to develop this type of approach on a more strategic level, kicking off my interest in social impact.

 

  1. How has your social impact programme evolved at your company? What role did B4SI play in its evolution and development?

Hugely! When I started in the organisation, we had a small amount of sporadic fundraising activity and charitable donations going on, and we now have a specific social impact purpose, and objectives, with a range of BAU And strategic activity that is aligned to this. B4SI have massively helped to develop our thinking and approach over the last few years in terms of how we do this effectively to ensure we are clear on the impact we want to have and are having. Their framework has helped to steer how we position this and build a business case around some of the developments we’ve been able to progress, as well as helping us to engage our executive team with this agenda. We’re still very much on a journey and B4SI continue to be an extremely valuable support, and I very much see that we will continue to work with them over the coming years to ensure we are maximising the opportunities and value we are able to create through these programmes.

 

  1. What are the challenges you encounter in driving your social impact agenda and how do you stay inspired?

The last couple of years have been really challenging with Covid, as it has for most organisations, and a lot of our Social Impact activity has had to be paused during that time. That being said, now we are (hopefully!) coming out the other side of it I would say that this agenda is now more of a priority than it’s ever been. This is really exciting and something that we battled with pre-covid with priorities and commitments often moving. Gaining consistent commitment to what we’re doing, and how we’re going to do it are probably the things that previously caused the most challenges – I’ve found people have lots and lots of opinions on social initiatives which can make having a clear purpose, and ultimately impact, difficult!

Seeing initiatives gain traction and the difference they can make is really what keeps me focused and inspired…knowing that genuinely you can make a difference is the best feeling.

 

  1. Please give an example of how the B4SI Framework (or its tools and additional services) has helped you in your role, and your company.

The framework has helped me to develop my understanding of how, and to what extent, we can help create positive change through our social impact – especially in a more strategic way that creates value for beneficiaries as well as the organisation. This coupled with the ability to be able to benchmark against other organisations has helped to inform the business case for why we would do this and helped get far better internal traction. They have always been a source of support and help and it feels like they are genuinely committed to helping businesses on this journey because of the benefits and change it creates, not just because it’s their ‘business’.

 

  1. Please tell us about:

o A recent innovative initiative adopted by your company.

We’ve recently invested in some additional resource to support the delivery of our Leapskills program, supporting young people with the transition to independent living. Whilst the initiative isn’t new, having dedicated resource to deliver this is (it has previously been a digital resource with facilitation guide for others to use), and we believe making this investment will enable us to hugely increase the number of young people able to participate in and benefit from the program.

 

o How you have supported the community during Covid-19.

I would use an example of how we’ve supported our student community. When the pandemic hit, we made the decision as an organisation to enable any of our students who wanted to, to cancel their tenancy and leave the property they were living in, writing off all associated rental income. Even during the 2nd lockdown, we offered discounts to students who choose to stay at home for part of this time rather live in the property they had leased a room in. Whilst this cost the business over £1 million in income, it was absolutely deemed the right thing to do for the students living with us.

 

  1. What is your biggest accomplishment or learning so far?

I would say keeping going! I think working in any area of responsible business means you have to be resilient as there’s always lots of competing priorities and agendas which at times can make it feel like its tough to make progress. Staying focused and rolling with the changes is critical to being able to achieve success overall. That coupled with the actual progress I’ve seen the organisation make over the past few years makes me feel really proud, and the impact this progress has had through the projects and initiatives that have been mobilised as a result make me feel really proud because I know they have genuinely made a difference.

 

  1. What is your motto in life?

I don’t think I have a motto but would probably say it’s about values. Treat everyone as you wish to be treated, whilst respecting everyone’s differences. Be kind, try not to take things too seriously and strive to keep moving forward and learning.

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