When social entrepreneur Steve Williams left his community development job at a non-profit to start a couple socially-minded companies of his own, he had no idea he’d be back a few years later to apply what he’d learn from the business world to solve one of society’s big questions: how to supply jobs to the disadvantaged and long-term unemployed.
Williams had an ah ha moment in 2007 that made him leave Sandbag, a not-for-profit community group in a coastal community north of Brisbane. He says he realised, “Wow! Business actually has the potential to create the answers to some social and environmental problems—and you can make some money out of it at the same time.”
In 2010, after having relative success with his environmentally-friendly paint business he returned to Sandbag to manage its new social enterprise arm, SEED Parks and Property Maintenance. SEED offers commercial landscaping, residential gardening and commercial cleaning services. It’s considered a social enterprise—a company that operates for a social purpose—because it employs people whose situations make it difficult to find work in traditional businesses.
Now at the helm of a growing company, Williams, a passionate Brit from Brighton, England, sought what all companies do: to win more contracts with customers in order to help more at-risk people gain employment.
People like Yeshi Wolde.
Wolde is a refugee who came to Australia eight years ago. After war caused her to flee from her home in Ethiopia, Wolde spent 14 years living in a refugee camp in Kenya. She had three children in the camp, which was brimming with hundreds of thousands of people. Wolde remembers how frightened she was, especially when darkness fell.
“I couldn’t sleep because the people came with guns.” She recalls the rebels who came during the night, shooting through the camps.
It took years of waiting and plenty of paperwork, but in 2005 she and her three children—now 20, 19 and 12—finally made it to Australia. Her fourth child, who is seven, was born in Australia. He is autistic.
It’s Yeshi’s job cleaning community centres for SEED that allows her the flexibility to earn a wage while still being able to care for her children when they need her. This was impossible to do when she worked night shifts cleaning for a different company in Brisbane.
“It wasn’t good for me because I couldn’t look after my kids when they got home from school,” she explains.
Now she says she can work around her family’s needs.
Wolde speaks about the people at SEED and Sandbag with warm admiration.
“It’s like family,” she says, everyone is very supportive and understanding of each other’s unique situations.
But like many people with casual jobs, Wolde hopes to get more hours and worries about the work drying up. To ease that fear SEED needs what every business needs: more customers.
Williams’ focus is held steadily on this task. Despite the success of having gone from turning over $50,000 to a half million in three years, Williams acknowledges the struggle to break even many social enterprises face.
“We’re employing people who may not be able to be employed elsewhere…” he says, “… because there are simply too many issues to deal with.”
Six of SEED’s 15 employees are refugees, some of whom have difficulty with English. Other workers suffer from a mental illness or have communication troubles.
“The majority of small businesses can’t be flexible enough to employ people struggling with these types of issues,” Williams points out.
SEED, on the other hand, developed what Williams calls a “flexible supportive employment framework.”
“And that means we’re flexible with people, we’re flexible with their needs, we’re flexible with their times, and we’re supportive of and with them when they’re at work,” he says.
“But it’s really important to make the distinction that it’s not supportive work, because when people come to work we want them to be workers not clients of social work.”
That’s why, he adds, they are always referred to as staff not clients.
But for all the added challenges Williams grapples with under this type of business model, it’s paramount SEED still run like any other business. And that means offering customers the same service at the same rate as a traditionally managed company.
“People don’t generally care that we’re a social enterprise, they just want value for money and a good service,” says Williams. And he says that’s what SEED delivers. They just happen to do it all while serving as sustainable and supportive employment for people who have been long-term unemployed.
But many people do care about the social impact SEED makes in the community and actively seeks out its services based on that commitment.
“It’s a real bonus and they really want to employ us,” says Williams.
And the more people learn about the invaluable impact of social enterprise, the more people will go out of their way to hire businesses with a triple bottom line: people, planet and profit.
SEED’s reach goes beyond whom it employs, it connects with various groups in the local area as well, delivering its grass clippings to community gardens, for example, which uses them for mulching.
“We’ve spent about $130,000 in the local community, buying plants from local nurseries and supporting local businesses when purchasing supplies,” Williams beams.
“We know we create social impacts, and local impacts too.”
All of SEED’s profits go back to Sandbag, its not-for-profit extension.