Sophie Thompson - Director of Hackney Arts

Q+A with Sophie Thompson

Tell me a bit about yourself, your background and where you are from.

I am an arts producer and project manager living in Dalston, I’ve been in London for 8 years. I love music, theatre, art, anything creative that makes me think and brings people together. I like to explore different places and try new things.

I grew up in a small town called St. Helens, just outside of Liverpool. There is a big sense of community there, everyone looks out for each other. Although I’ve moved away, I still have the same friendship group since school aged 12! I went from there to Durham University which was a bit of a culture shock and made me realise the huge differences in background and opportunity across the country. I studied Combined Social Sciences, specialising in Politics and Philosophy and have always had a big interest in social issues, politics and how the world works. After university, I wanted to move to London so I took a job as a receptionist and have been here ever since.

Tell us more about Hackney Arts and how the idea for it came about.

Living in Hackney, I became very aware of the ever increasing gap between local residents and newcomers to the area. Huge government cuts to lots of services, including the arts, means that many people are struggling to access the services they need. Hackney was designated the eleventh most deprived area in the UK in 2015, yet one of the things I love about the borough is the many incredible artists, makers and creative individuals who live and work here. I started to think about how can we make sure that the positive impacts of the arts and the benefits of the artistic community reach everyone. In early 2016 I won an award from Unltd as part of their Hackney Connect programme, which funds ideas that impact the community, and I started to build a business with all of that in mind.

How did you get to where you are today and what was your career path?

My career path has definitely not been a straight line! My first job was at Avalon Entertainment, a big comedy agency, where I worked on live tours and running shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. I loved it and it was such a good grounding for learning how to grow ideas and develop projects. After that I worked in a charitable foundation, and then at an art consultancy, running various projects including Photo London art fair. On the side I’ve always taken on lots of voluntary projects, like Crisis for Christmas, running the marathon to raise money for Shelter, and working on Lake of Stars festival in Malawi. I’ve always been involved with organisations and projects that interest me at the time rather than thinking about a specific career or a set path.

Hackney Arts is a social enterprise. Has this presented any unique challenges and how did you overcome this?

Delivering consistent and effective social impact is definitely a challenge, especially in the early stages when budgets are tight and you have to decide where to spend funds. The unique challenges have come from realising that everyone has different needs and that the solutions are not a one size fits all. The key to overcoming that is to properly listen to people, and not let your own expectations and assumptions get in the way.

What are the key differences between being a social entrepreneur vs being a commercial entrepreneur?

In a lot of ways, they are the same! You still have to build a working business model that runs effectively and offers a good service, the social goals can’t affect how well it functions. But social enterprise measures success not just through the profits, but also by the level of impact that is made and that’s the part that can be really rewarding. Success is so often defined in economic terms, but I like the idea that there can be more significance to a business than just making money.

What do you think has attributed most to the success of Hackney Arts?

The need for creativity in our lives. I really believe people need space in their lives to be creative, it is so important, otherwise, we just end up like robots going through our routines. We are conditioned to be 100% perfect in our jobs and our lives so it’s good to have that down time. It’s also great to interact with new people and make real life connections, it can feel hard to do that sometimes so it’s definitely something that has appealed to people.

Have you learnt anything unexpected?

Even though it’s your project, it’s better not to be too emotionally invested in your own ideas. I’ve learned that you can’t completely predict what will work and what won’t, and you can’t be too attached to the outcome. Just try things, keep and adapt them if they work, and get rid if they don’t. Don’t hold onto things.

What keeps you motivated?

Attending our events and seeing people enjoying themselves! I love how individual and creative everyone is, it’s so inspiring. Actually, one of my favourite things someone said to me after an event during the US election was, ‘this was great and I didn’t think about Donald Trump for two whole hours!’ so if we can help with that then I’m happy!

Do you have any advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs?

Three key things are research, resilience and a little bit of magic. You need to research your area and industry inside out, know your audience and current trends. Resilience is a major trait; there are going to be times when it’s hard and you have to just keep going. And lastly, that little bit of magic, you don’t know who you will meet or what opportunities will come up, so keep your eyes and mind open to the signs along the way!


Find Hackney Arts at