“Thriving is not a straight line, it’s always a wiggly line”, says Bianca Robinson, chief executive of CEO Sleepout, a UK charity which gets business leaders involved with initiatives fighting homelessness. “You have to be resilient and crack on… until the right thing finds you.” Bianca, a Kiwi from Wellington who has lived in Saltburn-by-the-Sea for more than two decades, found her purpose leading CEO Sleepout’s city-by-city campaign that encourages business leaders to rough-sleep in the open for a night for sponsorship. As the organisation’s only full-time employee, she fundraises more than half a million pounds annually from events held over the UK, from Northumberland to Portsmouth. Funds raised through high-profile ‘Sleepouts’ go to grassroots initiatives which improve rough sleepers’ access to opportunities, role models, education, housing and the mental health care system.
Arriving in the UK with a Bachelor of Design from Victoria University, Bianca had already built a multi-pronged career in advertising and marketing when she was approached by CEO Sleepout’s founder, Teesside politician and businessman Andy Preston. “London, Edinburgh - they drain you after a while, I think. And I wasn’t really living through my values”, she says of her high-paced professional engagements at the time, leading a web and creative agency, freelancing and teaching. “I got a call in 2017 from Andy as CEO Sleepout was taking off nationally, and I said, ‘Well, I'll give you two days a week’. About a month in, it was clear that this was overtaking my entire life.”
CEO Sleepout gave Bianca renewed purpose for her professional energies, as she directed her marketing skills into getting local business leaders through the UK personally involved in fundraising for some of the most vulnerable in their communities. Company leaders have both the power and opportunity to support social causes through their business and, in turn, strengthen the fabric of society, she says. While large businesses are more likely to have incorporated social action into their companies, she says the mid-scale business sector is often “time-poor” and "just really concerned about the monthly turnover”. CEO Sleepout aims to make it simple for these bosses to build social action into their companies - and to experience themselves just how tough life can be on the streets.
The Covid pandemic presented an immediate challenge to CEO Sleepout’s event-based fundraising model and two months into lockdown Bianca faced another hurdle when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and began treatment. Looking for something positive to focus on, she threw a virtual Sleepout where volunteers around the country could sleep outside in their own backyards, seeking sponsorship of £100. The event was a huge success, bringing in £125,000. Since the pandemic, CEO Sleepout has continued to bring in record-level funding for homelessness, despite the international crises redirecting priorities for charitable giving and cost-of-living pressures squeezing people’s discretionary spending.
The pandemic both intensified and brought to light the complexity of social exclusion created by homelessness in the UK. The Government’s “Everyone In” strategy gave three days for councils via their partner charities to find emergency accommodation and support for rough sleepers. “In a lot of cases, initial shelter did actually change these people’s trajectories for the better”, says Bianca, “but unfortunately it didn’t develop into a bigger strategy going forward”. Today, CEO Sleepout plays a critical role nationwide, raising awareness as well as much-needed funds for the social challenges caused by homelessness. In the UK, housing prices are now seven-times the average wage, interest rates and thus rents are soaring, there is a lack of affordable housing stock and unstable tenancy protections which can result in families, single parents and kids being made homeless. Sadly, Bianca sees increasing inequality and housing poverty in New Zealand leading in a similar direction.
Even though she has now lived most of her life in Saltburn, with two adult daughters now living in Wellington, Bianca still feels strongly connected to New Zealand and attributes her straight-talking style of communication to her Kiwi upbringing. “We just don’t beat around the bush,” she says. As a single mother and a Kiwi living in the UK’s heavy industry heartland of Teesside, Bianca “had to build a reputation and a network from scratch, through graft”. Her success was recognised earlier this year, when, as an “adopted Teessider”, she was voted one of the most inspiring leaders in the region by a panel of business peers.
Bianca has found resilience to be essential in her career, along with grasping hold of the opportunities that life presents you. As an expat, she has been able to bring fresh perspectives and energy to confronting entrenched social problems. By showing the business community simple, practical ways they can engage in social issues affecting their own communities, Bianca encourages people to turn outward and think collectively, “making sure whatever you’re doing professionally makes a real difference to your broader community”.