As a British supermodel and actress, Lily Cole has lived a life of glamour, but it is her new role as a social entrepreneur using technology to do good that she hopes will inspire women.
Scouted on a London street in 2002 at age 14 and featured on the cover of British Vogue at age 16, Cole became a fixture on catwalks and in fashion magazines with her trademark red hair and then in films such as “Snow White and the Huntsman.”
But Cole, 28, with a double first degree from Cambridge University, wanted more, so she started tracking the supply chains of fashion companies she was working for, hoping to drive some good.
In 2013, amid a wave of publicity, she founded impossible.com, a “social giving” website and app where people post money-free requests and offers of assistance
The tech startup, part of a growing global trend to build a shared economy, faced some controversy as it emerged that Cole received 200,000 pounds ($248,000 U.S.) of taxpayer funds from the British government for her project that lost money in 2014 and 2015.
But Cole said Impossible has since evolved and become sustainable, adding a shop selling ethically sourced goods, a magazine and a lab to find innovative ways to create new products and deliver services.
With a new-look app launched in September and on Android this week called Impossible People, Cole said Impossible is now accessible in more than 120 countries, using the power of technology to create social good.
“I threw myself into a totally different world, with so many awesome people, and I was so amazed by the impact that technology can have,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday in an interview in Impossible’s central Lisbon office.
Cole, who was attending Europe’s largest tech event, the Web Summit, in Lisbon, said the use of technology was critical to help build a shared economy and stronger communities.
The whole point of Impossible is taking people back to a time when communities thrived and trust played a major part in everyday exchanges, although the international reach makes that challenging, she said.
“It has been a blessing and a curse. It is wonderful to have an international community,” she said, adding that the follow-through of connections made through Impossible can be tricky.
“It is problematic in trying to get offline interaction, which is a big part of the mission,” she said.
With the tagline “We reimagine the planet one product at a time,” the app lets people post requests and offers of “small favours” and matches posts with users based on friendships, location and interests “to make sharing easier.”
A quick trawl of the app found one man offering to give visual design lessons, a musician seeking help with artwork for an album cover and a Chinese resident of Spain offering to help people practise their languages skills.
“I did a voice-over for a film for someone (off Impossible), and someone gave me driving lessons,” said Cole, adding that she passed her test.
“It is a bit of a mix of skills on offer, but generally it is quite simple skills.”
Although Cole said she does not see herself as a role model, she is increasingly being called upon to talk to girls about career options.
“I do wish there were more women in tech, as I wish there were more women in most industries,” she said.
“I don’t think I will inspire anyone to be an engineer as I am not an engineer, but I do hope I can inspire more women to run their own business,” she said.
By Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst; c Thomson Reuters Foundation.