Social Enterprise Vision Clicking Into Place
11 March 2015 at 10:04 am
A digital twist on the classic model of supported employment is the culmination of personal struggles with depression, a career as a social sector executive and almost a decade of study for one Melbourne woman, writes Nadia Boyce in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Online store In the Click is the result of social sector veteran Julie McKay’s desire to help others attain what helped her through difficult times: a job.
The organisation was established with the goal of providing sustainable supported employment in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, where McKay says there is a large and growing migrant community, youth unemployment is up to nearly 40 per cent and people with a disability are 50 per cent less likely to have a job.
The store is run simply from an eBay platform and offers a curated selection of high-end lifestyle wares, supporting the employment of local warehouse and logistics workers.
But the enterprising and endlessly ambitious McKay also has grander plans – with hopes to exploit her business model to facilitate the movement of supported employees into white collar territory as the jobs traditionally offered in the disability market go offshore.
On the eve of the launch of her first official community program, Nadia Boyce spoke to McKay about the start-up process, staying relevant and competitive in a saturated market, and how her own motivation has come from a place most personal.
McKay is no newcomer to the Not for Profit sector, but her foray into social enterprise is being driven by heart.
“My family life was filled with lots of ups and downs, with some family members with depression. And for me, in my early 20s, I got into that same unfortunate situation,” she says.
“One thing that kept me front and centre throughout my life was having a job, having to get up and go to work. When you’re battling with the likes of depression, I can’t tell you how much that has helped me in my life.
“When I see people who don’t have a job and I see them struggling…that’s why I’ve got this fire in my belly, because I know it can help.
“It’s quite personal, but I’m here because it’s the sum of a whole. But there is a lot of impetus behind it, and I’m quite passionate about it.
“It’s actually quite hard to talk about it.”
McKay’s professional background certainly made her a prime candidate to become a social entrepreneur. She has spent 10 years working in the Australian disability enterprise and social enterprise sector, including senior executive roles at Scope and Mission Australia. Completing her Masters in Marketing, McKay was also able to add intellectual rigour.
“I’d actually tested my concept through my Masters. I did marketing innovation, a plan for a social enterprise business model, and for e-business [coursework] I used In the Click – almost like a litmus test.
“I was paying myself to write my own business plans….the feedback I got from Monash University on my concepts was phenomenal.
“And yes, I always think that this was where I was going to end up, setting up a social enterprise, but by combining my practical and executive experience with some really sharp university rigour – that said to me that I should give it a bit of a nudge!”
A Twist on a Classic
McKay sees herself having made a transition: “from the traditional, old, sheltered work-type model into working in this new and improved version of social enterprise,” she says.
“Our business model is a sum of the whole of all of those years; rich, hands-on, being in the thick of things.”
Traditionally, much of supported work offered in the disability sector involves warehousing and packaging – a tradition McKay is trying to make more sustainable.
“We said let’s take it outside that realm here – we know that type of work in our sector is going offshore at a great rate. Most of the general packaging work is going off to China.”
“There are transferable skills for disadvantaged workers in a warehouse environment in industries of incline rather than decline. We’re trying to make sure they’ve got sustainable employment.”
McKay and her team examined which commercial offerings were best positioned to offer work that developed those transferable skills
“Hence the online business,” she says. “Online retailing is growing at a rate of about 10 per cent per annum. It’s a strong, robust industry.”
“The bigger picture is that we’ll work with the guys for a period of time, and then we’ll work with local industry.”
McKay’s plan is to mirror everything from mainstream industry in the warehouse – from technology to process – so their employees can from there transition into the mainstream employment space.
She and her team have also dared to ask “what else?”
“The warehousing’s a given, and what we want to do now is step into the office and look at what we can do to support the guys into the white collar jobs,” she says.
“We rely very strongly on social media – digital marketing, media and digital literacy. That then can be part of our program. We can use it as a live, real part of our program for the guys to interact with.
“Retail in [the Northern suburbs] is still one of top three employers, but it’s bricks and mortar. We can still offer retail [training], but in the context of online retail.
“We look at each department and think about how our people can interact with those spaces.”
Taming the Market
Focus for McKay and her team has turned to ensuring sufficient sales, as the organisation seeks to balance its commercial offering with its social programs.
“The more we sell, the more jobs we can offer, so the main challenge is getting people to come and buy from us. That’s where we’d like to focus our attention, getting the market to come to us. For people to say, ‘we really love what you guys are doing,’ – that’s all we need,” McKay says.
“Our product lines are home decor and pet products. We work with organisations that have strong, reputable brands. It’s selected for a particular target market at a particular quality of goods, so at the end of the day people are buying things that they like, that they would put in their homes.
“I think it’s moving with where the action is, targeting and marketing to communities that will really want these goods. It could be as simple as some sharp social media- it’s all about that engagement.
“With the online market space, I look at channels. I think with the op shops, the most important thing is looking at where you can best survive, so I do it multi-channel.”
McKay’s extra sales channel is in the form of a pop-up store, designed to add an element of social capital to the experience of supported employment.
“There’s two reasons why we do that,” she says. “Obviously we want as many sales as we can get, but it also provides us the opportunity to give the guys work experience in face-to-face retailing, rather than just online retailing.”
McKay secured startup funding from Foresters Community Finance with her business plan, which she speaks of with confidence and conviction.
“We find that because [our business plan is broken up into chunks], into phases, the philanthropic sector has been quite supportive – for example, Westpac Foundation funded the development of our Employment Pathways Model,” she says.
“We’ve broken things up in a logical way that delivers our value without having to over-invest or over commit until we get to that point. We get funding for phase one, earn our stripes, and then we move on to phase two.
“I’m really chuffed with how it’s all going. It’s because we have a very strong knowledgeable board of directors, and I have some fantastic advisors. I have a voluntary IT advisor, and an e-commerce advisor… those people willing to engage with Not for Profit organisations, I trust that I can work with those amazing individuals.”
McKay awaits her first program launch with anticipation.
“It would not have happened without it being a sum of the whole. With our work-readiness program about to kick off, that will make it very, very real,” she says.
“There may even be a little bit of a tear! It’s been a long road.”
Join the shop.inspire.change movement at www.intheclick.org.au