Investing in social wellness

An assault in 2012, followed by crippling PTSD that left her incapable of leaving the house, didn’t stop former financial analyst Sara Hawkins from becoming the force that she is today. Her brainchild, Projekt 42, is the UK’s first wellness centre to combine physical with mental health and break down the stigma surrounding mental health services. It’s having a transformative effect on troubled lives.

Interview / Hilary Ivory 

Photography / Robert Ormerod

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Sara Hawkins’ recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder began with a fitness epiphany. Coaxed by friends into a local gym, at first she could only sit in the changing room; but eventually she worked up the courage to try a spin class. Soon she was weightlifting, practising yoga and meditation, and running (a year on, she ran the Edinburgh marathon), all the while working with a counsellor and a life coach. With each challenge, her self-esteem and motivation grew.

From trauma to trailblazing

What Hawkins discovered was that the prescriptive approach to mental illness and its merry-go-round of drugs didn’t cut it for her. It was the clarity of mind and purpose that comes with being fit, the confidence from feeling strong, and the release of positive brain chemicals – all working together – that build the connection between physical and mental health. She had stumbled on an extraordinarily effective method of healing.

“When I was mentally unwell,” she explained, “I felt I didn’t have a voice, and treatment options were never discussed with me. I wanted to make sure this would be different for other people.” So, she set out to bring together all the elements that had prompted her recovery, and then harness them to improve the lives of others.

Modest beginnings, mighty achievements

In 2017, together with four volunteers, she launched Projekt 42. The name comes from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the supercomputer Deep Thought reveals that “The Answer to the Great Question of Life, The Universe and Everything is…Forty-two.” This was irresistible to Hawkins’ inner geek. She is, she says, a social entrepreneur who is an introvert – it’s a misconception that to lead a business you need to fill the room.

Projekt 42 started as a pilot community gym in a former shop, offering 30 hours a week of yoga, circuits, weight training and meditation. Hawkins’ intention was to show the inseparable link between physical and mental health, and the need to take care of both – a philosophy encapsulated in the wellness centre’s motto: ‘Happy Bodies Strong Minds’.

Fast-forward four years, and it’s the UK’s first community gym to combine personal training, group fitness, yoga, meditation and mental health services, all included in the membership subscription. Currently based at Edinburgh’s Ocean Terminal, they’ll eventually be moving back to the space where they first launched, once it’s refurbished, with an updated offer: live online classes in which members can participate from their homes.

Currently, Projekt 42 is prioritising strength, mobility and confidence among older people, because despite the free iPads and wi-fi dongles distributed to those in need to keep them connected via online classes, COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on this age group. Indeed, with demand skyrocketing since lockdown, they’re preparing for an avalanche of free membership applications when they relaunch in early 2022.

The power of giving back

As a not-for-profit organisation, financial gains that would usually go to shareholders are ploughed back into Projekt 42’s facilities. It operates a unique circular revenue system: When people pay for gym memberships or counselling, or they access classes through PAYG, their fees fund the salaries of the mental health and counselling teams. As the service has grown, a tariff has been introduced whereby people choose to pay between £12.50–£50 (the most vulnerable don’t pay). It works on trust, and so far, so good. “In two years,” says Hawkins, “we’ve been able to build one of the biggest face-to-face and online counselling services in Edinburgh, ranging from CBT and person-centred counselling to psychodynamic and transactional analysis.”

Hawkins’ philanthropic stance, along with the positive effect on the communities that benefit, has had a galvanising effect on corporate CSR support. She’s quick to acknowledge the charity’s benefactors, exemplified by Power Up Scotland, established by Big Issue Invest in partnership with abrdn. Its aim is to grow sustainable, scalable social enterprise. This is smart thinking, given that good health is good for business. Besides, investing in a healthier society hot on the heels of a pandemic makes particularly good sense – it should be one of COVID-19’s legacies.

Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Hawkins has been showered with accolades. These include the Social Enterprise Scotland ‘One to Watch’ 2017; Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce ‘Best New Start Business’ 2018; and NatWest everywoman Social Enterprise GAIA Award 2019, as well as making the shortlist for many more.

COVID may have temporarily put the brakes on, but she’s currently developing a social franchise plan and exploring the “untapped opportunity for corporations and social enterprises to work together to achieve business and social impact goals.” We look forward to seeing Projekt 42’s ‘Happy Bodies Strong Minds’ concept rolling out to communities beyond the Scottish border.

Lightbulb moment

Victoria Prew HURR Collective

At just 24, Victoria Prew made a quantum leap. A qualified chartered surveyor, in 2017 she left corporate life to co-found HURR Collective, the UK’s first peer-to-peer fashion rental platform. Described by Forbes magazine as the “Airbnb of fashion”, HURR allows women to rent designer clothes for a fraction of their purchase price – and to make money from their own wardrobes.

As a millennial, Prew embraced the idea of the sharing economy, where renting trumps owning. Conscious that the fashion industry was one of the world’s biggest polluters, and with sustainability rising up the consumer agenda, she realised that the sector was ripe for disruption. Prew’s instinct was right – the platform signed up 8,000 members in the first six months and membership now stands at more than 100,000.

The business has a strong sustainability ethos, it uses Royal Mail and a cycle courier service to cut its carbon footprint, its packaging is recycled up to 20 times and between rentals clothes are refreshed by an eco-friendly dry-cleaning company. With 11m items of clothing end up in landfill each week in the UK alone, HURR is one business turning the tide against environmentally disastrous ‘disposable fashion’.