Compassion Through Fashion
13 November 2013 at 10:25 am
Melbourne social enterprise The Social Studio is stitching the first thread in what they hope will become a tapestry of mainstream employment opportunities for those new to Australia.
The organisation was established in 2009 by a group of community members who shared the belief that fashion could bring together newly arrived communities and the wider Australian community.
The passions of the group saw the establishment of a retail clothing shop and a cafe, both providing targeted employment and training opportunities in Collingwood in Melbourne’s inner north.
Young people from affected communities are able to undertake training and on the job learning in The Social Studio’s cafe and retail store, from which profits are reinvested in the organisation to help it deliver its programs.
Patching the holes
While the social enterprise trades under the ‘impact through operation’ model that other successful employment-based social enterprises have thrived on, The Social Studio distinguishes itself through strong performance and a unique approach to addressing refugee absence from the work force.
Former refugee Susan Yengi is on board for the ride.
Having arrived in the country two decades ago, Yengi is now the Operations and Development Manager at the Social Studio after a six year career in the private sector.
“I’ve been able to go through the whole process. I felt like I wanted to give back and work with young people sharing some of the experiences I had.”
Yengi says there are key challenges new arrivals face in Australia that make gaining employment more difficult.
“For many, there are language difficulties, a lack of education or experience for work and they just don’t have those networks.”
Fashion, Yengi says, has proven a logical way of addressing these issues.
“Through fashion, everyone is able to express themselves,” she says. “It is something people have in common.”
“Many of the people we help, they used to be tailors back home, or their parents were tailors.”
The structure at The Social Studio is polar to formal education. Students have a flexible schedule and not the classic nine to five model to allow them to also manage the issues in their personal lives.
Young people become involved in a variety of ways, from referral from community organisations through to those who literally come off the street.
The Social Studio is indiscriminate as to the backgrounds of those it helps. The origins of its students range from the Horn of Africa, to Iran and Afghanistan and Asian nations such as Burma.
“We don’t have specific selection criteria but we have a preference for newly arrived people or those who have been here for less than five years,” Yengi says.
The approach the Social Studio takes in caring for its students requires that they be discerning.
The Social Studio assists its students by providing additional welfare support, such as access to services and housing assistance.
“Its a holistic approach that we take. They don’t just come and study Monday to Friday and that’s it.”
The impact of this approach on the lives of students is clear, Yengi says.
“Many have no networks so we are a family to them. We have close relationships with a lot of our students,” she says.
“Its a very homely place.”
The impact of this arrangement is clear: many students continue to return to visit, months or years down the track.
On Pins and Needles
Development and growth of The Social Studio has not been without its challenges.
The flipside of the all-encompassing approach, Yengi says, is that is impossible to render that kind of assistance on a large scale.
“It can’t be done with a mass group of students,” she says.
It is one of the challenges that The Social Studio has faced.
Competition is another key factor that remains an ongoing consideration.
The uniqueness of the business is currently helping it stay afloat amid the competitiveness of the retail and hospitality markets, Yengi says.
Clothing is produced in an ethical and sustainable way, using only donated fabrics.
“We’ve got a very niche market,” she adds. “Because we don’t mass produce, we often produce signature, one-off pieces.”
Yet marketing these goods is an area where The Social Studio is forced to be thrifty, not unlike many other small Not for Profits and social enterprises.
“It’s a bit hard for us, we operate very lean,” Yengi says. “We don’t have a marketing budget.”
Also complicating the equation is government policy.
Yengi says that while they are impacted by government policy such as the recent cuts to TAFE programs, the organisation’s focus has to remain firmly on its social mission.
“We try to keep a bit of distance,” she says. “It’s too much to get involved in that political sense.”
“We try every now and then to lobby for things that impact our training outcomes.”
Stitching the pieces together
The future of The Social Studio looks bright.
As it has grown, The Social Studio has come up with new and original ways of engaging young people and fostering creativity.
A digital fabric printing studio, a new addition to the organisation and the only operation of its kind in Melbourne, now provides work opportunities but also in turn offers art and design students a way of having their designs printed without needing to outsource their projects overseas.
Partnerships with William Angliss TAFE and RMIT University have ensured that formal qualifications in hospitality, clothing production and textile design and development can be offered while participants get experience by having the programs offered in a business setting.
“For us its really important to have these partnerships,” Yengi says. “We wouldn’t have had these successes without them.”
She says that given the high failure rate of social enterprises in the first couple of years of operation, she is pleased to see the organisation overcome that first potential stumbling block.
Not only has the Social Studio grown its physical space since its inception, it has steadily grown financially.
“It’s been faster than we all expected,” Yengi says. “We’re pretty happy with where we’re at.”
“We’ve been able to keep ourselves sustainable and afloat without any debt.”
Roughly 50 per cent of funds are self-generated revenue, while the other 50 per cent come from contributions and other fundraising initiatives.
Yengi says the intention is to grow and increase that figure to 75 per cent over the next few years.
“What’s really hard for a lot of social enterprises I think is taking that next step without having additional support,” she says.
There is also the prospect of scaling.
“There’s potential to scale. We are looking at scaling but not in the usual way.”
“A lot of communities have really great entrepreneurial capabilities so they themselves can open up their own social enterprises.”
“What’s great is how social enterprise is part private sector, part community sector. We’re more on the community side of social enterprises than the business side.”
Going forward, Yengi is confident the Social Studio has found its perfect positioning.
“We work really hard on our mission,” she says. “I tend to think if we were more on the business side, we might not be able to do that.”
“If we could help the whole world, we would.”