Grocer4Good Ability Development Program
Interview with Lisa Vezeau-Allen, Founder Grocer4Good Ability Development Program
By Sadaf Kazi, Enterprise Development and Research Assistant
What inspired you to start the Grocer4Good Ability Development Program, and what is your motivation behind it?
My inspiration came from having a son on the Autism spectrum and working with a marginalized population in my work, also knowing not many opportunities are available for paid employment and skill development for people facing barriers. I resided and worked in Boulder, Colorado, for three years from late 2014 to early 2018 and was exposed to different social enterprises employing youth and adults on the autism spectrum. I attended the Autism of America National Conference. I had the opportunity to experience different models in terms of what would work and what wouldn't work — moving back to my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie in early 2018, I intended to start a social enterprise I waited until I could determine what would be the best model as well as what would be sustainable.
The sustainability piece is key here. The announcement of the closure of Downtown Walmart was the catalyst to create a small grocery store in the food desert, mainly because the social enterprise model lends itself well to assisting various groups in overcoming barriers to employment. My motivation was a little bit of everything: because I am personally affected, the opportunity to work with marginalized populations, seeing the downtown Walmart closing, and then confirmation that something needed to happen because we need a sustainable revenue-generating model.
Who do you hope to impact/reach through the work of your social enterprise? Why?
Our articles of incorporation define our objective to employ people on the Autism Spectrum or other mental disabilities, and those chronically underemployed. After consultations, I included the chronically underemployed because the chances are they have a barrier to employment, so it gives us a broader spectrum to reach out. That is the goal of the social enterprise to ensure that we are giving people the opportunity for skill development, paid employment, and also just being part of the working community. So initially, it will be a small pilot group of recipients from Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support program that will support the day to day activities and then we will expand from there.
Would the store be any different than a regular store, for example, being music-free or dimmed lights to support the employees?
It depends. Everyone is different. It is true that if you have met one person with Autism, you have met one person with Autism. That's why the social enterprise model works well. If someone does not like crowds but has a great computer understanding, then we are going to have an online store that could sell merchandise, so they could run the online store. For someone social, they could be a greeter. For someone who needs a simple task, they could do inventory, unpacking, cleaning. There are a lot of things to do. There is a wide range of functions that can enhance their chances of success. That's why we are starting with a small group because it will be very much about putting the right person in the right task so they can succeed.
Would you consider yourself a social entrepreneur? Why or Why not?
I do consider myself a social entrepreneur. Throughout my career, I have come to understand that I am motivated by creating change for the greater good, and that's what social entrepreneur does. The primary goal is to employ people but also to do something positive for the community on a broader scale. So while, yes, we are going to have placements for people who are not able to get employment or minimal employment, we are also providing a basic need in an underserved community in terms of food security. We will have everything from toilet paper, produce, to dairy goods, and giving people access to life essentials at a low markup. I wanted there to be an underlying social benefit over and above the employment piece.
Does the term' social entrepreneur resonate with you? What words or phrases might you connect with more?
I think there are so many titles we have out there in the nonprofit social sector, which makes it interesting. I also relate to the term 'advocate' not just because I have autistic son, but I have the ability, and I am at a place in my life when I can do these things. I think it is our responsibility to do that as citizens of our community.
What barriers/challenges have you encountered?
There is an assumption among the general public that there is a lot of money, multiple funding sources, etc. that you can access when you start a social enterprise. The reality is that the majority of funding organizations require a minimum of one year in operation before an application will be accepted. After researching specific social entrepreneur funding, I did discover grants, but they are for a tiny amount and would not support a start-up. There are multiple loan programs, but I don't want to have liability as soon as we start. Realizing that barrier, I took on the challenge and just asked people and organizations for the cash investment needed to get Grocer4Good off and running. Being a registered charity was a significant benefit due to the ability to give donors charitable receipts. But on a broader scale, when there are a lot of assumptions that you can get a ton of money, it becomes a barrier. I have found that when starting a new organization, there is not a lot of grants, but some loan programs.
How did you confront those challenges and barriers?
It is taking a look at your connections, and knowing who could assist with the community outreach. We have been fortunate that way. One way is not to be afraid to ask. For example, I just asked people and organizations, can you give me $10,000 or $5,000? Part of it is just being fearless about rejections. Not everyone said yes, but enough said yes. I also have a great board of directors. That means not having ownership of everything, and being able to delegate work to people. I have learned as I grow older, that you don't have to do everything. The treasurer deals with everything government-related, and I have another board member who is going to be in charge of all the employment-related things and another board member who is working on distribution. It is a hard thing to do when you are the founding member. I think it doesn't benefit you when you are trying to do it all by yourself.
What resources did you need? What resources does your project needs as you move forward?
I was fortunate to have the knowledge and experience that enabled me to do all the incorporation myself. I have worked in the nonprofit sector, and I understand incorporation paperwork. There were some tasks that I lacked the skills for, such as getting a rental agreement. I had a local professional who did it for free. It is really about taking a look at who can help you. We have a local design firm that is doing all the shelving and setting up the store at a discount. A vital resource is our collaborative partners Ontario Works and Ontario Disabilities. We have also had many more individuals and businesses offer assistance. It has been humbling and overwhelming
Who is your community of support? How important is a local face-to-face community of support?
The face-to-face community of support is essential. If you don't have buy-in from the community, then you are not going to succeed. I didn't even send out a press release. It was just a word of mouth that this was happening, so all the press almost happened too soon. I filed incorporation papers in June 200 and received approved in mid-July. I wasn't anticipating such a quick turnaround. I was expecting the winter to mull this over because the incorporation would take 6 to 8 months. Most rewarding are people stopping on the street and saying they want to volunteer, make a donation, or insisting on being invited to the grand opening, or just mentioning that they wanted to shop at the store. I got a lot of questions asking if anyone shop at the store, and I want to say that everyone can shop at the store. It is open to the public. So it has been incredibly humbling and also very much confirming that this needed to happen.
What would have made this Is process easier for you?
Having more actual start-up grants and, not just an assumption, that there is a lot of start-up money. It helps that our community has been very generous. But it would be challenging for someone who does not have the same level of community connections as I do. My journey through this has made me realize that we need real money for people who want to start social enterprises, not just small amounts like $5,000. Something that can sustain them for more than a month, for example, hiring someone until the revenues start coming in. I think social enterprise is the wave of what we need in terms of economic growth and development. Many social enterprises are unknown, and many you don't even realize that they are a social enterprise. I think in terms of economic development in our community, we look at the impact of nonprofits, charitable organizations and social enterprises and understand their impact along with the challenges they face, like a more holistic approach to developing some solutions.
What other community initiatives are you involved in?
Currently, through my seat on the City Council and various committees that I am on right now, a sub-committee of the accessibility committee will be struck to draft a Municipal Autism Strategy. So, if all I do in the four years as a Councillor is to help create a Municipal Autism Strategy, then I am completely satisfied. We all have different strengths and abilities that we bring in terms of government leadership, and we need to connect our initiatives. That is something I am proud of. I am happy with the support of my colleagues. It won't necessarily solve all the issues with families that are dealing with intellectual disability. Still, I think I will identify it, and I think it will make the struggles more well known within the community. It could serve as a springboard for lobbying other levels of government. Autistic kids become autistic adults, who then become autistic seniors. And what are we doing through that life cycle? We do not see a lot of support for that. It is really taking inventory for what's there and what we can do in terms of planning on the municipal level, and also what we can do to put pressure on other levels of government to identify this as something we need to have a strategy on−not just parents off on their own journey. For a lot of adults and seniors who have been on the spectrum who have had a fulfilling, successful life, have so because of the support of their families, not the community, not government programs. It is solely because of parents and siblings. So that puts a lot of stress on family and siblings, and we need to be better at supporting those families as well.
Are you aware of other youth social entrepreneurs or those with innovative ideas that need support and resources?
Sault Ste. Marie's Centre for Social Justice and Good Works have launched a production facility for chocolate. They are training new entrepreneurs. And their facility will be on the corner of Queen Street East and Gore Street at Queen.
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Knowledge & Resources Highlight:
Interview with Kyler Crawford, Director of Business Development, Social Enterprise Institute
By Sadaf Kazi, Enterprise Development and Research Assistant
Can you tell me about your role within the Social Enterprise institute?
My role in the Social Enterprise Institute (SEI) is built around business and partnership development. SEI is affiliated with Common Good Solutions (CGS), which is a consulting firm based in Nova Scotia. My time is split between business development and delivery management for CGS, SEI and Social Shifters (which is a platform that focuses on collaboration and learning via bite-sized e-learning snippets delivered by experts). I connect with organizations, drive partnerships and inform users of the platforms available to them so that they can explore opportunities, share resources and become the change-makers they set out to be.
Can you tell me about the new venture you have launched with the Social Enterprise Institute?
SEI was founded four years ago by David Upton, who is the Managing Director of CGS and Jonathan Coburn from the Social Value Lab in Scotland. SEI was created as a way of extending our reach and being able to take advantage of the excellent networks we've developed over the years. It is an online platform that allows us to share our expertise and knowledge, regardless of location and geographical constraints. SEI is currently operating internationally, especially in countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and the United States.
Through CGS and SEI, we have developed a course called Steps to Startup that is in the process of being integrated into the curriculum of 15 universities in Scotland. It's also being delivered across Australia by the Australian Center for Rural Enterprise and in partnership with several Canadian universities.
Social Shifters is our new community platform, which takes content from SEI and breaks it down into accessible, free, bite-sized pieces. It's a place where social entrepreneurs can go to find resources, tools, inspiration and be a part of a community of like-minded individuals as they pursue their ventures.
Is Social Shifters networking or social media site for people who are or want to be, a social entrepreneur?
Social Shifters is a membership website which is free to join. It contains our most popular resources and tools taken from SEI courses. The resources have been edited down into bite-sized chunks to help people get started. We also provide premium courses for institutions or intermediaries to deliver. We have a community section, which contains testimonials and profiles of social entrepreneurs from around the world. As we move forward, we're going to be building more collaborative and interactive tools, such as peer-to-peer coaching circles.
One of the challenges we've identified from our interactions with entrepreneurs is that it's a lonely journey. You're starting something. You're by yourself. Particularly if you're in a rural or remote community or a community that doesn't have a history of entrepreneurship. Social Shifters wants people to know that you aren't alone! There's a vast number of groups and individuals out there trying new things, sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding. We want a way to bring everyone together, to learn from each other, to support each other and to become part of a network of people who can and will change the world.
How is that different from a social networking site?
You could say that we are developing aspects of social networking into Social Shifters, but I wouldn't call it a social networking site. It's a community website, which provides resources and tools and offers networking opportunities.
How does this differ from the Social Enterprise Institute?
You'll see as you go through the website that our courses are still made by SEI. Social Shifters is simply the name of the community. Social Shifters was created so we could offer users free resources prior to asking them to pay. We want to demonstrate the value of our courses, show people the quality of our resources and the impact that those resources can have on their social ventures. Our free resources only give you a glimpse into what we offer, and the aim is for users to engage with us further by purchasing premium courses or working with us to integrate our content into their curriculum or program.
We also have the ability to develop customized interfaces. So, if an organization wanted to work with us as part of an innovation challenge, we can build a customized user experience and a better way for users to engage with the program. We have a lot of flexibility with the platform. Our main goal right now is to get users to the platform, and we're currently on track to have 10,000 users by Christmas, which is amazing since we've only been 'live' for two months! Things are starting well, but we need users so that we can actually learn from them, understand what we need to change and what we can improve.
We are looking for partners who can help us drive people to the platform and partners who can assist us in exploring creative ways to leverage our technology in the community and help spread the word!
What skill levels does somebody need to enroll?
It varies, for example, with the 'Steps to Startup' course, you can be a complete beginner! You see, there's a problem in your community that needs to be addressed, and you go from there. The concepts are presented using simple terminology that is easy to get your head around. If you're more advanced, you can do courses on things like value proposition, which is presented at a much more detailed level. It all depends on how specific you want to get. We present all our content in an accessible format, so it's applicable no matter what stage you are at on your journey.
Who do you hope to impact and reach with your work?
Our target audience is anyone who is looking to address social, cultural or environmental issues within their community.
Do you have a physical location, or is everything online?
We have centralized offices in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Glasgow, Scotland. Social Shifters, however, only exist online.
What if somebody doesn't want to take an online course or doesn't have an internet connection?
All our courses can also be delivered face-to-face, and we often work with partner organizations to deliver what we call a 'blended course,' which is where face-to-face sessions are supplemented by online resources.
How does the training courses through Social Shifters and Social Enterprise Institute differ from a traditional business training course?
Our training is focused on enterprise development and having a social impact no matter what sector you work in. Most business training only focuses on the financial aspect of how to make a business work; we, however, delve more into operational and social aspects, which transforms traditional businesses into ones that can make an impact in the community that they are based.
What would you recommend for anyone who is considering starting a social enterprise?
I would encourage them to go to Social Shifters and sign-up! During the sign-up process, we ask users a few quick questions which focus on their idea and to find out what stage of development they are up to. We want to understand the challenges they are facing and what impact they wish to have. Social Shifters gives users the opportunity to talk to people who may have already tried to solve the problem and will guide them towards the relevant tools and resources they need to make a start.
As you develop your enterprise, you need to make sure that you have a sound business model. I can't say this enough. It's a Social Enterprise. Social is very important, but the 'enterprise' is key. You can have the greatest idea about how to make an impact, but if you don't clearly understand what's needed, you won't be able to execute the plan. How are you going to make money and is your model sustainable? It's important as a social entrepreneur that you take the time to develop your skillset and to spend the bulk of your time on the things that you might find challenging. This is why we created Social Shifters! So, if you're not someone who's really comfortable on the financial side of things, we've got resources to help you.
SEE encourages you to learn more about social enterprise and the social economy by visiting these websites.
Social Value UK
Impact Hub Ottawa
Social Good Impact
Pillar Nonprofit Network
Common Good Solutions
Social Enterprise Institute
Social Enterprise Alliance
Centre for Social Innovation
Each website offers a variety of tools, resources and articles pertaining to social enterprise and the social economy. Many of the websites also offer mailing lists you can subscribe to as a way of staying up to date when new content becomes available.