Get a good night’s sleep and tackle homelessness
3 July 2019 at 8:31 am
Each night in Australia, 49,000 women are without a secure and safe place to sleep. It’s a problem that Laura and David Conti are trying to solve through their ethical bedding and bathroom enterprise, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Laura and David believed coming from the corporate sector, they knew how to run a profitable business.
But when they launched their online bed and bath goods store, #GoKindly, late last year they were out to make more than just money for themselves. They have committed to donating half of their profits to two charities providing housing options for vulnerable women, Women’s Housing Limited and Wishin.
Women’s Housing Limited builds affordable housing units, allowing women to rent them for a set portion of their income, and Wishin provides emergency housing for when people first experience homelessness.
Laura tells Pro Bono News the two organisations are tackling issues that will help end homelessness for women in Australia, which is the driving purpose behind their business, given that the most likely person to ask for help at a homeless service is a woman aged between 24 and 34 with a child.
“We don’t understand why housing in Australia is not affordable for women, and we don’t like that there are women going to first responders to ask for help who are being turned away,” Laura says.
For Laura, the choice behind their charity partners is also a personal one.
Growing up in a fundamentalist family that didn’t believe in women working or having an education, she escaped at 19 to study and work but was cut off by her family and community, leaving her to rely only on government and charity support programs to survive.
“That’s my motivation for supporting those two particular charities because they help people in situations like I was in,” she says.
But 20 years on from her period of financial hardship, and she says it’s concerning that levels of government support have remained the same for people struggling to make ends meet.
“I had access to Centrelink, Austudy and Rent Assistance, and while those things were not a lot of money, they enabled me to survive. But people are still being paid the same amount as they were 20 years ago,” she says.
“It bothers me that kids out there might not get the support I got, and can’t even pay the rent with rent assistance.”
While she says she had donated to the two organisations for many years, she wanted to do something that made use of her skills.
“I knew I had a unique skill set in that I care about the world and that I’m commercial. I’ve always wanted to run a commercial business that did good, I just didn’t know that it was called a social enterprise,” she explains.
For the moment, they are keeping things small. Operating out of the front room of their house, the only product they’ve got on the market is their Kindly Pillow, made ethically and with high-quality materials in the outer suburbs of Melbourne.
For every four pillows sold, one night’s worth of accommodation is provided for a woman experiencing homelessness. When making a purchase, customers are also given the option to donate the pillow directly to the charity partners.
The pillow itself is entirely plastic free and delivered in compostable packaging, with a 25 per cent discount offered to students, pensioners, and low-income earners. Laura says this is to try and make ethical goods available for everyone, not just the people who can afford it.
While she says there are other products on the way, they were taken aback by the success of their pillow and got “stuck there”.
“We wanted to start small, and do little bite-sized pieces. We don’t want to grow too quickly,” she explains.
“Growing slowly means that we’ve been profitable since we bought the first pillow. It’s really important that whatever we did, whenever we did it, we gave back to our charity partners.”
Laura doesn’t pay herself a wage, which means the business doesn’t operate at a loss. At the end of this financial year, #GoKindly donated $500 to each charity.
“It’s a small donation, but we still broke a profit,” she says.
If all goes to plan, they hope to draw a part-time wage for Laura by 2020.
The businesses’ aim by the end of 2019 is to provide 200 nights of accommodation and donate 200 pillows to its charity partners.
That figure is currently sitting at 10 nights and four pillows, but Laura is confident they are on track to meet their aim.
#GoKindly was recently selected to take part in the ING Dreamstarter initiative, which offers the enterprise a chance to crowdfund its expansion. This would mean a new workspace to develop the next product.
ING will contribute half of the $20,000 #GoKindly are asking for in the crowdfunding campaign if they can raise the remaining amount, which Laura says they are on track to do.
She explains that taking incremental steps is how they will grow sustainably to have the most impact.
“I know we’ll get our little workspace, and I imagine that in a couple of years, we will outgrow that workspace and we’ll put some money back even to get a bigger one,” she says.
“We are also working on a suite of five products that are essential bed and bath products that you need anyway, but you can buy from us and give back to the world, rather than back to Kmart, Target or Big W.
“I see it as little incremental jumps so that we can build trust and build credibility and really show that we’re serious about it and we’re giving back.”
She says that the next product locked down is a children’s pillow. Work will then start on a tea towel with #GoKindly branding on it.
Looking to the future, Laura’s big aim is to be able to donate $100,000 a year to their partners in five years time.
“That $100,000 will be an ongoing source of income to support those charities and to help them build affordable units,” she says.
She also hopes that social enterprises become more of a mainstream concept as the business grows.
“The biggest challenge we’ve come up against is that people don’t really know a lot about social enterprises, and that’s a shame because this sector has so much potential to make social change,” she says.
“I think there is a place for corporate businesses, but I do hope the social enterprise movement grows to a point where it’s not seen as really niche and more in the mainstream.”