The Social Enterprise Turning Retail Into a Force For Good
18 December 2017 at 8:37 am
Jeremy Meltzer is the founder of i=Change, a social enterprise funding global female development projects through corporate social responsibility. He is this week’s Changemaker.
Meltzer is a Melbourne social entrepreneur who founded i=Change in 2013, in response to the systemic violence and abuse he saw facing women and girls across the globe.
This social enterprise partners with retailers, who commit to donate a proportion of every sale, while customers get to choose where the money goes and can track its impact in real-time.
They have recently hit $500,000 in donations, for causes ranging from ending sex trafficking in South East Asia, to preventing underage marriage in Bangladesh, to providing housing for refugee women in Australia.
In this week’s Changemaker, Meltzer talks about the challenges he faced starting his own social enterprise, how the #metoo movement is related to the broader plight of women worldwide, and why he’s almost at the point of burnout.
What inspired you to found i=Change?
When I was 21 I lived in Cuba for several months and I quite quickly became really disturbed by a lot of stories I heard when I spoke to the women and people I met in the community. I lived very much in a local, small part of town and was very much immersed in the community and quickly heard stories of violence and abuse when these girls spoke about their boyfriends, their husbands, and their partners. And I think even more shocking was that these women thought that’s just what men do and just thought it was the most normal thing in the world. Afterwards I lived in Miami for two years, again working and living with the Latin American community and I heard so many stories and my heart broke a little bit every time. I was shocked at how normalised it was and that they thought that it was just simply part of what men did and was part of their make-up.
So I decided that every time I would have the opportunity to travel, I would go and visit NGOs that work with women and girls around the world. And that’s what I’ve done for the last 17 odd years. Every time I was overseas I’d meet and spend time working and immersing myself in communities and speaking with NGOs and I began to realise that this is possibly the most endemic issue of our times – the abuse of women and girls which men have been doing for thousands of years.
And I come from an entrepreneurial family – my dad and I actually have an olive oil business and were doing quite well in the US – and I was in New York at the time and I had one of those ideas that you sometimes have at 3 in the morning, which oftentimes you just go back to sleep and forget about it. But this one was kind of simple and felt compelling and like something worth pursuing. The idea was simply what if we could use our business to raise money for these organisations? Because in meeting with them, I realised that a small amount of money could go a long way in these communities and could make a big difference.
So this is before I even heard of social enterprise or this whole space. I just thought what if we could use our family business to give back? What if we could possibly create a new funding stream for these extraordinary development projects that I had been meeting with? That was the genesis of the idea.
What were the challenges involved in starting your own social enterprise?
The challenges were enormous. I mean first of all the idea was for a technology platform and I had zero experience with tech. I can confidently say we have built what doesn’t actually exist anywhere else in the world now. What we’ve built is in essence quite simple, but we have a solution that makes it easy for retailers to give back. And in doing so we partner with these extraordinary not for profits which work to empower women and girls in Australia and around the world. And then we partner with retailers, who fund the whole thing and our focus has been on driving retailers as much value as possible for the small donation they give away with every sale, which for most brands is $1.
But to start that I had no idea, so it was really years of stubbornness and some extreme form of resilience and just working out what this thing was going to look like and how it would work. So there were numerous iterations and reaching out to people to get feedback from them and then getting our first customers was really hard. But we were fortunate to get a couple of good brands early on, who were happy to work with us and test with us and help us improve it and believed in the vision. And now four years later, we’ve hit this remarkable milestone of raising half a million dollars.
The sexual abuse allegations and #metoo movement sweeping the world right now are putting increased focus on the plight of women. How do these allegations from the western world tie into the plight of women in developing countries which i=change focuses on?
I mean this is a global issue that’s affecting people everywhere. So there’s an illusion of separation and that’s why I wanted to make sure that we were supporting NGOs in a number of countries, both in Australia and around the world. This way we could address anyone’s concerns about “oh we should just be supporting Australians in our own backyard”, because these issues are global and the fact is we could all have been born anywhere. And in the developing world the money sometimes goes a lot further. So we see this as building a global platform for a global community.
You talk about turning retail into a force for good, do you think this kind of corporate social responsibility (CSR) will soon become the norm?
Yes I believe it will. I believe there is a profound reimagining of CSR going on. It started with these sort of ad hoc efforts to do good and no one really knew what it would look like and what was required. It’s been generally well-intentioned, but sometimes it’s sort of been taken over and tempted as a marketing initiative but overwhelmingly consumers know when brands are doing it for marketing and they switch off. So what’s interesting is that millennials especially want to know what brands are doing and it must be authentic. So it’s been a really strong evolution of CSR where most brands still do nothing and those brands that do something will generally have a philanthropy link saying “We support. We give 1 per cent of profits”, which can mean everything and nothing.
And of course it’s astounding people say “we support”, I mean that doesn’t really mean anything. But a lot of brands still often say that. So the idea of i=change was to actually radically reimagine this as a customer experience with every purchase. So now every time a customer checks out from one of the brands that we partner with, there’s a little platform that appears post purchase and engages the customer in the brand’s giving, and the customer gets to choose where it goes to, with one or three different development projects.
So it’s actually the last experience of your purchase and then you could track the impact in real time. We host a live giving page for each brand, where you can see how much your purchase helped raised and where it’s going. There’s been some reticence from brands, who said they didn’t want to let their customers know about this, and I said “why not?”. Customers want to know what you stand for. Customers want to support purposeful businesses. Customers want to and will build tribes around brands that they know are committed to doing good in the world, and they actually build that into the DNA of the brand. And it becomes a non-negotiable part of who they are.
How do you find time for yourself amongst all the work that you do and what do you like to do in your spare time to get away from it all?
That’s a really good question. There is no spare time. And I’m just now sort of thinking how we’ll finish at the end of next week and I think I’m going to sit on a mountain and meditate for a week to recover. But it’s an interesting question because there’s no balance and I’m almost at the point of burnout at the moment and that’s a shadow side of these very purposeful pursuits – that we often don’t know how to stop, which isn’t healthy. I’m sort of struggling with that. I have some good habits around exercise and eating well. But still it catches up with you. And we can’t hope to do our best work if we’re not taking care of ourselves.
What advice would you give to a budding social entrepreneur like yourself, who may be passionate about addressing a social issue but doesn’t know where to start?
It’s so exciting because there’s fantastic people now who are wanting to devote their professional lives to solving social issues they care about. And I’d say the first thing is it’s going to be hard. To do anything well is bloody hard, to start a business and grow it is hard, to start a not for profit it’s hard. You put these things together, it’s another level of nuts. So let it be for an issue that wakes you up at night. Let it be an issue that burns, that you actually feel you must become part of the solution.
And once you define that, then reach out. There’s really some fantastic people around Australia, who are generous with their time and their wisdom and the knowledge they’ve gained and look at different models. I mean there is a certain degree of hubris in this industry where people are calling themselves social enterprises for all sorts of reasons. And without going into the nature of discussing what it even means, I think you need to check in with your intention. Are you in this to make money or in this to make impact? Are you in this to do both? There’s no right answer. But just be aware of your intention. I would say it is important for all of us in all our pursuits in life.
Then it’s a journey. Reach out and look at the way you can do this in a way that perhaps hasn’t been done before. Do it world class or don’t do it at all. Don’t do anything mediocre. I’d be less inspired by what others have done before and more inspired by what you feel your truth is. Can you come up with a new creative solution to an old issue? Can you use the powers of the market to create change in a way that hasn’t been done before?
Do you have a favorite saying that guides the work that you do?
It’s mentioned a lot but Gandhi’s “be the change you wish to see in the world” I think is profound, not so much for the obvious reasons but because unless we truly embody what we want the world to be, the change won’t occur. And we also need to create that within our communities. We’ve been talking with men about how we must hold each other accountable for the abuses of women. Not just in the Congo, but in Richmond, in South Yarra, wherever anyone is.
Any opportunity when a comment is spoken that makes you uncomfortable, you need the courage to remind that person, even if it’s friend, by saying “hey mate, what if someone said that about your sister?” Because chances are if you feel uncomfortable, someone else in the group does also. So think globally, be bold, but also act very locally in respect to the issues that you want to impact and embody that change. Only in doing so will you be authentic.