26 February 2014 at 9:23 am
Australia’s first social enterprise hair salon is providing a touch of glamour and a glimmer of hope for disengaged young people, writes Nadia Boyce in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Social enterprise Avidity is a unique combination of training academy and professional hair salon, providing marginalised members of the community the opportunity to undertake hairdressing and makeup training programs.
It is both unique and experimental – the first customer-facing social enterprise of the Inner Melbourne VET Cluster (IMVC), a sixteen-year-old Not for Profit providing VET (Vocational Education and Training) programs to the wider community.
Operating out of a beachside Albert Park heritage-listed building, Avidity has engaged over 350 people in its training and re-engagement programs since its launch in 2012.
Now, 18 months on, the process of refining the business model has begun and the salon is proving a platform from which IMVC can build a suite of future social enterprises – continuing to provide an educational outlet for those isolated from pen-and-paper academics.
Concept and Creation
IMVC has moulded a business model that maximises its ability to provide quality services while also meeting the needs of young trainees.
Avidity operates as a professional salon three days a week and as a training facility on other days, with all surpluses generated through the sales of professional services reinvested back into community programs.
The concept was the result of discussions as far back as 2010, when IMVC board and management identified the need for a centrally located training hub.
Haircare was the perfect opportunity to meet the needs of young people disengaged from the mainstream.
“It was an area that we were already doing training in and its an industry that will always be growing,” says Tennille Balaz, Communications and Business Development Manager at IMVC.
She distinguishes Avidity from a classic trainee model where customers can purchase services at a reduced price – a strategic distinction driven by the desire to offer the highest quality services.
“Avidity was the first time IMVC opened a business to the public,” Balaz says. ”It’s allowed us to open up awareness of what we want to achieve and really generate that extra public face.
“[The trainees and professionals] are two completely separate sides of the business. We do emphasise the social enterprise side of things a lot…we’re really proud of it….but what we found is that people having the perception that it was all students wasn’t doing well in promoting the salon.”
Though the only customer-facing model, Avidity is not the only IMVC experiment with converting training facilities to profitable enterprises.
Latte Locks is located within Lynall Hall Community School in Richmond, serving as avenue for IMVC’s hospitality and hairdressing VET in Schools programs, while The Latte Lounge Barista School in North Melbourne provides training facilities that are fitted with the latest fleet of coffee machines and equipment.
The next 18 months will see the IMVC establish the framework to further develop the IMVC’s existing hairdressing, food and hospitality facilities as a joint commercial social enterprise venture.
The Avidity model is emerging as a way of achieving social outcomes that benefits all stakeholders.
Despite the separation of the professional arm of the business, Balaz says it is an incentive for staff.
“For a professional, it’s not your typical full time job. All of our salon staff are very passionate about the purpose of the business. They’re all very flexible and willing to accommodate. We find it’s something that attracts staff – the idea of giving back.”
The prospect of an alternative career path is welcomed by the salon’s young trainees, who come from a variety of backgrounds. Many have elected to leave school and are unable to afford TAFE courses or do not excel in traditional academics.
“I think for a lot of young people it’s something to do because they’re not doing well at mainstream study,” Balaz says. “It’s not just learning how to be a hairdresser. A lot of them come in the attitudes that they might as well do it but eventually go back to finish their studies.”
Social exclusion is a major contributing factor to lower participation in training, education and employment in marginalised groups.
The most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics General Social Survey shows that approximately five per cent of the Australian population aged 15+ years experience disadvantages which impact on their ability to learn, work and engage in their community.
“We try to keep everything quite community-focused….it’s open to anyone who’s interested,” Balaz says. “We will have other training groups through, we cross-utilise the space that way.”
Avidity wears its socially positive tag with pride, but Balaz says there is some way to go in tapping into a ‘buy social’ consumer mindset.
“Right now we actually get more success from the local area and referrals,” she says.
“Social enterprise is a very different market because people who support social enterprises will travel from other areas to visit them.”
Trims and Touch ups
Having launched and operated for 18 months, IMVC is embarking on a process of reflection and improvement to boost Avidity’s potential through the Thrive program run by Social traders, which aims to boost capacity of existing social enterprises.
“We are focused on making ourselves self-sufficient,” Balaz says, describing the most beneficial aspect of the program as self-reflection.
“We thought we were a social enterprise providing employment and training but we’re actually a social enterprise reinvesting profits in a cause,” she says.
“It’s been really valuable to see how others do things.
“The main feedback has been that we need industry knowledge from the hairdressing industry. None of us come from a hairdressing background…that was our ‘weakness’ if you like – we had never had a hairdressing salon before.
“We’re looking at how we operate and how we might do things differently. Right now we’re planning to increase our opening hours and diversify what we offer.”
“It will just be about adjusting the business and being more financially stable.”
The IMVC is also in a position now to begin the process of measuring the salon’s social impact.
“We’re in a place now where we can go back and look at those first few rounds of training,” she says.
“We’re really wanting to step it up.”
Balaz is optimistic about the potential of the salon.
“I don’t think it’s going to be difficult. It’s just the way Avidity navigates that,” she says. “All social enterprises come about from a leap of faith.”