Celebs come out in support
Interview: Josh Littlejohn, homeless campaigner
Stars and street life
Anyone who’s been to the Scottish Business Awards, held annually at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, will doubtless be impressed by the size of the audience, the scale of its ambition.
Billed as the biggest ceremony in the country, the event marks the achievements of some of Scotland’s finest, but is probably better known for its guest speakers which, with all due respect, are a step above the norm.
Bob Geldof, Richard Branson and Bill Clinton have all stood at the lectern. Last year brought the first touch of Hollywood when George Clooney came to town. A few weeks ago Leonardo DiCaprio made his first visit to Scotland.
Edinburgh has never seen its like and the big names are likely to continue making the trip as long as they see a cause worth supporting.
,Josh Littlejohn, who has turned the event into an institution, is not fazed or starstruck by his A-list guest list. He pinpoints those who expect a donation to their own charitable foundation and seems quite relaxed about their willingness to come to Edinburgh. Bagging a former US president was a particularly big name to attract.
“I just googled Clinton and checked out his foundation,” he says. “Yeah, it was great he came.”
Rumour is that Barack Obama is being lined up for next year’s bash.
“Everyone is trying to pin me down, but we have not started thinking about potential speakers,” says Littlejohn. Obama’s name, he insists, “should not be put above anyone else” at this stage.
So it’s just a rumour, then?
He smiles, and inhales deeply on his cigarette. Clearly, we will just have to wait and see.
Littlejohn has become something of an institution himself since launching the awards which have been tied in with his campaign to help the homeless.
He has teamed up with some of the big movers and shakers in Scotland like Sir Tom Hunter to leverage their influence in getting to the people he targets.
Yet it all began almost by accident. He had opened Social Bite, a cafe, as a social enterprise in 2012 where he came across Pete, a Big Issue seller who was looking for a job. He became its first employee.
“When we were looking for someone else he introduced us to another Big Issue seller, and so it went on,” says Littlejohn who now employs dozens of individuals who’ve spent time living on the streets. “We were set up as a social enterprise and so this became our cause.”
For Littlejohn, working with those who had previously possessed nothing proved a turning point.
“Pete was just so pleased that he was no longer a marginalised person. He had something in his life, some purpose,” he says.
Social Bite itself enjoyed its fifteen minutes of fame when Clooney showed up, accompanied by the media pack and a clutch of adoring fans.
This year, DiCaprio dined at Home, the restaurant in Queensferry Street which Littlejohn set up with Maison Bleue founder Dean Gassabi. It offers meals to the homeless and gives 100% of its profits to charity.
We meet at the venue for another fund-raiser, this time organised by the estate agent David Alexander who had arranged to cook with Dean’s daughter Layla for 70 invited guests.
Next up is a big sleepover involving three hundred senior business people who will be sleeping rough in Charlotte Square on 15 December to help raise funds for a ‘village’ for the homeless.
“I think we have created an awareness about homeless people and how we can get them into jobs and back into society,” says Littlejohn. “They’re too often seen to be a lost cause. We need to give them something to hold on to.”
His ambitions for improving their lot may yet see him develop his idea overseas following conversations with his Hollywood star guests. He won’t be drawn on exactly what he has in mind.
“It’s just a thought at the moment. We’ll have to see how things progress,” he says, smiling again as he lights another cigarette.
Educated: Edinburgh University (politics and economics)
Career highlights: Ran an events company before moving into working for Social Bite
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I do martial arts. It helps keep the weight down.
What do you find frustrating?
Journalists fishing for a story