Building something special

Anike Mlemchukwu is the founder of Lapapo Special Needs
Anike Mlemchukwu is the founder of Lapapo Special Needs

A Walthamstow teacher is using her experiences to help others, writes David Floyd

For many social entrepreneurs, the journey to starting their own business starts when they spot a social need that is not being met.

Anike Mlemchukwu was a special needs teacher, working at Woodside Primary School in Walthamstow, when she became aware of the lack of support for parents of children with special needs.

Such parents face major challenges but, in many cases, have nowhere to turn for help. Anike explains: “I got frustrated about what support is available. A lot of parents don’t feel like they have someone to speak to. You can speak with family but there is only so far you can get. Vulnerable parents, if they can’t reach out, where are they reaching out to?”

For Anike, who lives in Blackhorse Road, the answer to this problem was to set up Lapapo Special Needs. The website is part shop, selling specialist products for children with special needs, and part online community, where parents can ask questions and receive support from others with similar experiences.

The site is designed to help parents find the right products for their children – from blankets and bibs to specially-designed beds – by providing a curated experience that offers something different to the priced-focused offer of online sales giants.

Anike says: “The thing with those sites is that you don’t always know what you are getting.”

It’s early stages but, just over a month after launch, there are already 18 vendors listed on the site and two parents have signed up to offer advice as part of the wider aim of the site to build “a community of parents who are supporting and helping one another”.

Unlike the tech pioneers of Silicon Valley, Anike has not had big money investment to help get her business off the ground. What she did have was the drive to get started.

“This is my first business,” she continued. “I have done business at school but now I have this urge saying ‘do it, do it’.”

While Anike is grateful for the help she received from social enterprise support organisation UnLtd, she has so far been building the business in her spare time, while working full-time as a special needs teacher. “It is hard when you don’t have a space. I’m at work until 4pm, then in the library 5pm-9pm, then I sleep.”

Faced with getting a website up-and-running on her own, Anike has had to develop new skills. One of her biggest challenges, she said: “Is not knowing anything about tech and building the website myself with the help of freelancers.”

Now the site is online, Anike is about to go part-time with her job so that she can devote more time to running the business. She hopes that she will soon be in a position to leave teaching entirely and work full-time on growing the site.

“I am currently looking at getting on some accelerator programmes to get investment to dedicate more time into it. If I had more time, how much bigger could it actually be?”

As well as looking for investment, Anike is also looking for support from local businesses and more parents to volunteer to offer advice on the site. Despite being at an early stage, she has big plans for Lapapo Special Needs.

“In two years, I want to be known in the UK and Europe. In five years, I would like to be known across the globe. I would like to go into countries which are less well off, where learning difficulties are more stigmatised.”

Given Anike’s bold ambition, a business that started in a local library could go on to change the world.

This article is supported by William Morris Big Local in association with UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs. To find out more about UnLtd:
Call
0207 566 1100
Email [email protected]
Visit unltd.org.uk