Flowers for opportunity
4 August 2021 at 8:25 am
For the past eight years, GG’s Flowers and Hampers has been bringing a smile to Canberrians with beautiful floral arrangements. But behind the scenes, the business has been working hard to smash disability stereotypes, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on social enterprise.
Gayana Wijewickrema is a cheeky, 15 year old girl who loves frozen yoghurt and hanging out with her family.
But with 73 per cent of Australians with disability dependent on welfare, her family knew it would be a long hard road for Gayana, who was born with Down Syndrome, to find meaningful employment.
So Nip Wijewickrema, the co-founder of GG’s Flowers and Gayana’s sister, told Pro Bono News the family put their combined skills to use to think outside the box and find a solution.
“It was about creating customised employment and not just run-of-the-mill work like gardening or cleaning, which are typically the jobs that are presented to people with a disability,” Wijewickrema said.
“We knew we had to do something about it… but we wanted to think outside the box by starting our own business.”
They named “GG” after Gayana and their mum Geetha, who is a trained and accredited florist. The business sells a range of floral arrangements, gift hampers and products from local social enterprises such as Paperworks Inc.
The enterprise is also a registered National Disability Insurance Scheme provider and employs around 45 people with disabilities to deliver flowers and gift hampers across Canberra, as well as to assist the florists pack and put together orders.
Its mission is to lift people with disability off welfare and into paid employment, as well as providing a safe, compassionate workplace where individual needs are recognised and embraced.
Wijewickrema said that for Gayana, having a place she can go to each day and work towards personalised goals has made a massive difference to her life.
“She has a uniform, she has meaningful friendships with colleagues… the difference that it has made to her life is just astronomical,” she said.
The Canberra community has also embraced the business with open arms, with a supportive network of employee families and customers supporting the business from the beginning.
“We’ve got amazing support from the general Canberra community,” Wijewickrema said.
“I think we’re lucky that Canberra is such a small place because there really is that sense of tight-knit community.”
Not all smooth sailing
For the past few years, GG’s has been running at a financially sustainable level, mainly thanks to social procurement deals with businesses such as Flight Centre, and signing up as an NDIS support agency.
But Wijewickrema explained that there were obstacles getting to that point.
“A lot of people think that if a flower arrangement or a gift hamper is made by a person with a disability, it might not look as professional as they need it to,” she said.
“We were left defending ourselves because our products are actually exactly the same as our competitors, if not better… The only difference is that we provided meaningful employment for a person with a disability in the process.”
But she said while the first few years of GG’s were tough, if the business wasn’t financially sustainable by now, she wouldn’t be here.
“I love GG’s, I’m a diehard social entrepreneur, but I don’t think I would be here if the business wasn’t financially sustainable by now,” she said.
“It’s really important that you work hard and you give up everything, but I think it’s also really important to know when something isn’t working and step back.”
As the social enterprise sector slowly recovers from the impacts of 2020, Wijewickrema said the focus for GG’s was to strengthen what they already had, rather than making it bigger.
“We are always busy, so I think at the moment, instead of trying to grow bigger, it’s just about keeping the business as stable as possible so that we can create those opportunities for years to come,” she said.