This article was written for the Irish Sunday Times by Sandra O’ Connell
PIECES FELL INTO PLACE WHEN TOLD I’D BE IN MY ELEMENT
In the 1990s, Derry girl Jennifer Neff went through a situation many Leaving Cert and GCSE students face now: not getting their choice of college or course. In her case, it was the result of poor A-Level exam results.
“Things don’t always go to plan, and I didn’t have as many choices as I’d have liked, so I ended up doing Applied consumer Studies in Edinburgh,” says Neff. “I’ve ended up using it in every job I’ve had since. Also, I managed to bury the bad result of my A-levels with 2:1 university degree.”
It landed her a graduate job with a life assurance company in Norwich, but when Neff read a newspaper article describing the city as “depressing”, she decided to move to Manchester – which was more trendy.
Manchester was also better known for its music scene: her brother Vincent is in Django Django, who were once nominated for the Mercury Prize.
While working in a call centre, Neff was selected to be part of a Prince’s Trust Programme, doing volunteer work with the youth charity. “It was my introduction to community development. It opened my eyes,” she says.
Over the next few years, Neff worked in jobs including advertising sales before taking time out to travel solo around the world. She had a narrow escape in Bali when a last-minute change of plan meant she avoided going to a tourist bar on the night it was bombed. By her late twenties, she was ready to move home – and determined to work in community development. “I knew I wanted to do something with, and for Derry,” she says. The city was undergoing massive regeneration and was on track to be UK City of Culture in 2013. “There was this sense that anything is possible, that now is our time.”
Neff worked on programmes in the city, including one to provide digital skills to communities, before setting up her own consultancy.
She met Leeann Monk-Ozgul, a fellow community development worker who had helped to expand a healthy-living centre in the Creggan area of Derry. The pair found much in common, including a growing frustration that not everyone in the community had the same opportunities to access health, education and welfare services. “The people who needed these services the most were not engaging with them”. Says Neff.
A talk by the late educationalist Ken Robinson sparked the duo into action. “He said that when you find your passion, anything is possible because you are in your Element,” says Neff. That was the catalyst that led the pair to set up Elemental Software. The two women developed a platform for “social prescribing” – the idea that doctors and nurses can refer people to local, non-clinical services, often provided by the community and voluntary sector.
When the pair came second in a start-up pitching competition, the winner, Professor Maurice Mulvenna of Ulster University, donated his £500 prize and told them that their idea was better than his. The lack of technological background has not held them back. In fact, it may have even helped.
“If you have drive and passion, you’ll get there,” says Neff. “It’s about putting people first and technology second. Our system helps the face-to face interactions to take place.”
Today the software is used across the UK, linking GPs, local authorities, housing associations, prison services, education and community and voluntary sectors. The company employs30 staff at its offices in Derry city centre and is on track to double in size in the next two years. Its founders say they won’t move despite being regularly told they should be closer to their main customer bases in London, Manchester and Cardiff.
“Derry is too important to us,” says Neff.
We are Elemental, an award-winning tech for good company with the purpose of empowering and enabling individuals, families and their carers to better connect into community-based programmes, services and interventions that make a positive impact on their lives. We are a team of passionate community impact professionals who genuinely care about community health and well-being and reducing health inequalities.
Elemental was established by former Community Development workers to scale and measure the uptake and impact of the social prescribing movement.
Through our innovative digital platform, we provide teams with the technical connectivity they need for multi-sector partnership working, leadership, and the measurement of mobilisation of support where needed.
By better connecting people into their communities, the Elemental platform demonstrates the impact that multi-sector partnership working and community and voluntary services have on wellness, community cohesion and demand on health and social care services.
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