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From cold calls and closed doors to impact and experience: Equal Ed’s social enterprise journey

5 December 2022 at 2:48 pm
Danielle Kutchel
Social enterprise Equal Ed has impact front-of-mind, leaning right into its mission to use education to change lives in Melbourne’s west.

Danielle Kutchel | 5 December 2022 at 2:48 pm


From cold calls and closed doors to impact and experience: Equal Ed’s social enterprise journey
5 December 2022 at 2:48 pm

Social enterprise Equal Ed has impact front-of-mind, leaning right into its mission to use education to change lives in Melbourne’s west.

Equal Ed, a social enterprise based in Melbourne’s western suburbs has made it its mission to alleviate education inequity.

It’s a vision that first came to founder and managing director Jeffrey Lai when he was in his late teens. 

Equal Ed began life in 2016 as a homework support program that Lai ran after graduating high school. It was a way for him to give back to his community; Lai realised he had received amazing opportunities in his schooling life and that others had missed out, and he wanted to support these students to achieve their educational goals.

He began by cold-calling community centres to offer free tutoring. Not everyone was interested, but finally the Wyndham Community and Education Centre picked up. Lai sprung into coordination mode, recruiting volunteers from local high schools and among his friends to provide free education support after school for refugee communities in the area.

“Everyone was a volunteer, myself included, and it was just this desire to support our communities and the young people around us,” Lai explained.

But he could see the potential in the program, and began working on a plan to scale up the impact.

Transition to social enterprise

By 2019, Lai’s program was working with over 120 students a week across two or three locations, some in community, some through the local councils, and some through local high schools.

The team, which at this point included volunteers studying teaching and psychology, was considering how they could better support year 12 students, and a study skills, mental health support and advocacy program sprung to life.

Academics at RMIT and University of Melbourne also provided some advice to guide the volunteers.

With clients now offering to pay money for the program, Lai and the team knew it was time to look at transitioning to a social enterprise model.

“It wasn’t so much that we were actively looking for clients or customers, it was more so that we saw social enterprise as a potential pathway and were open to exploring it,” Lai explained.

The move coincided with a number of paid projects that came their way, so it wasn’t long before Equal Ed became a social enterprise, undertaking fee-for-service projects and reinvesting into homework support programs.

The social enterprise model provided stability in staff and a sustainable source of funding, Lai explained.

It also allowed the organisation to develop its two guiding principles, he added.

“One is, is this new project going to be aligned with our mission? Does it make some sort of impact? Does it give people more opportunities to engage with education, with learning, with employment? And two, is it something that we believe we’re well positioned to do? And in that case, it doesn’t necessarily need to be something we’ve done before. It’s just asking ourselves whether we have the skills. Are we uniquely placed? Do we have a lived experience to deliver this in a particular way?”

If the answers are yes, Equal Ed will say yes to the project. 

Over time, the organisation’s suite of services has evolved to adapt to the needs of stakeholders, clients and the community. It now offers two broad categories: school-based programs, including study skills and mental health programs, and community-based programs including strategy, consultation, implementation and program development with local and state governments, not for profits and schools.

The social enterprise model has generated revenue that has allowed Equal Ed to self-fund its impact-based programs and keep staff working on what’s important, rather than taking them away from delivering programs to write grant applications, Lai said.

With that growth has come a shift in perspective too, to working with communities more broadly rather than just vulnerable young people.

Leaning in on lived experience

Every effort is made to be inclusive, Lai said; when Equal Ed consults on strategy with councils, they try to bring in the voice of the people whom the program will serve.

For school-based programs, the facilitators are usually recent high school graduates who clearly remember what school life was like. They are also drawn from similar cultural backgrounds to students, so that the students feel safe and supported. 

Lai said Equal Ed values lived experience because it facilitates deeper connections.

The programs are not prescriptive, he added. Rather, they’re designed to foster conversations amongst peers. Facilitators listen to what is said and draw on their lived experience to further that conversation.

A large part of the programs is about creating peer support so that students understand that they are not alone.

Though it primarily works in Melbourne’s western suburbs, Lai said there is “a lot of scope” to potentially expand Equal Ed across the country in future.

“For example, the school based program isn’t necessarily confined by region or geography; high school students needing support with regards to stress management as they transition through their studies into potential further education or apprenticeships and so on, is something that is common across different demographics, different geographies,” Laid said.

“Again, it’s about leaning into our ability to understand the nuances between different groups, but also understanding that at its base the same supports are required, just maybe delivered slightly differently.”

Lai said he is also focused on positioning Equal Ed to not just run its own programs, but provide assistance to other organisations to run projects where Equal Ed might not be the best positioned to carry them out.

He is interested too in how technology can be used to enhance education and make teachers’ lives easier, and is exploring how Equal Ed could be involved in this.

At its heart, Lai said the future plans all lead back to creating scalable impact for Equal Ed and the communities the organisation serves.

Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting. Reach her on or on Twitter @D_Kutchel.

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