A Social Enterprise Champion
14 December 2016 at 11:23 am
Walter Villiagonzalo’s passionate support for migrants, refugees and his local community earned him the title of Social Enterprise Champion at the recent Social Enterprise Awards.
Villiagonzalo moved his family from the Philippines to Wyndham in Melbourne in the 1980s to escape political instability.
As a skilled migrant his first job was as an analyst for an insurance company but he says he was always drawn to community involvement.
“It was something that I loved doing,” Villiagonzalo said.
Volunteering at migrant resource centres in Footscray and Altona inspired him to establish one in Werribee to cater for its increasingly diverse community.
“I wanted to set up a migrant resource centre in the Wyndham area, because we had a growing community and there was no migrant resource centre there,” he said.
“We thought it’s important that we set one up… because we have the expertise, many of us were already involved in community and with migrant advocacy.
“We presented our proposal to council to set up the migrant resource centre, and council said ‘no’.”
It was at this point Villiagonzalo decided to pursue the social enterprise model, and he set up The Migrant HUB.
“Instead of not going ahead, what we did was we started a community cafe and then the idea was if the cafe is able to pay for the rent of the space then we have a meeting place,” he said.
“That’s how we started and then it just grew. In the first 12 months of operation we were in the local papers 20 times… bringing the community together, not just the migrants, but getting the migrants involved in the wider community.”
Running a sustainable social enterprise cafe was the starting point for Villiagonzalo’s string of other for-purpose ventures.
The intercultural connections formed at the community centre, including with local businesses, led Villiagonzalo to his next social enterprise venture, MiREUGE.
“There were people who were looking for work and [businesses] looking for workers, so we matched them, he said.
“We helped some of these developers and they were building houses for renovating facilities and making apartments, so we partnered with them and we made a proposal to Red Cross to provide accommodation for asylum seekers who were coming out of detention.
“We were able to make the proposal, we were able to provide accommodation to more than 1,000 asylum seekers with no government funding.”
Passionate about the potential of the social enterprise model, and wanting to support others to set up their own, Villiagonzalo created WynCUBATOR, a co-working space and incubator.
It has helped around 30 projects, and he also partnered with the Work for the Dole program to support unemployed local residents.
“When we set up the WynCUBATOR we had also 60 Work for the Dole clients, people who had talents and were made redundant or lost their job, but they have skills, they have experience and so we were able to help them with meaningful activities to enhance their employability,” he said.
“But at the same time we were reaching out to our community and saying, we can help you set up social enterprises and start-up businesses.
“We found it very satisfying and, as a result, our Work for the Dole participants came back even after their contract had finished as volunteers.”
He says his main “lesson” from creating a number of social enterprises is appreciating how valuable the model is.
“I am convinced that social enterprise is the best business model for community organisations who want to be sustainable,” he said.
“That would be my first suggestion to community organisations, because too many community organisations want to achieve something for their community members but are unable to because there is not enough funding available.
“And [they should be] looking at opportunities to create an income so that they become sustainable and not depend on grants.
“They can be self sufficient, so that’s how we did it and I know it can be done for others as well.”
The difference Villiagonzalo has made in the community has won him a number of accolades.
He said he was “honoured and humbled” to win the Social Enterprise Champion award from Social Traders. He was also recognised by the City of Wyndham with the Community Engagement Award and was the Citizen of the Year in 2015.
He says the community showed their support for him by electing him to Wyndham City Council in October.
Villiagonzalo will now travel to the Social Enterprise World Forum in New Zealand, where he will compete in the global social enterprise awards.
But he says learning from others in the field will be the highlight of the trip.
“There’s always something to learn, even from just meeting other people doing social enterprise – there’s a lot to learn from them and how they’re doing it. Not all models are the same, and we keep learning,” he said.
“We are starting something now with regards to recycling… and even the two other finalists [for] the Social Enterprise Champion, both of them were in recycling, so just speaking to them at the event I learnt some lessons and I’m planning to visit one of them in Ballarat.
“Maybe in the future if we could have documentation of how things are being done, then new social enterprises don’t have to start from zero. They can use what is already proven to work in other areas and replicate or use it as a benchmark and then do something that would apply for their locality.”
Villiagonzalo also hopes that others will learn from him, and that his successful social enterprise models in Wyndham can be transferred to other communities.
“It’s easy to just think of an idea and just try to implement it in a wider area, but implementing something in the local community gives you more control and you can also measure the impact of the work that you’re doing,” he said.
“Anything that… we’re doing in Wyndham can be replicated, but we need to make sure that it’s working properly.
“All the things that we’re doing can be replicated in other suburbs, but we have to do it right in our own place first and measure the impact of the work that we’re doing.”