On the heels of receiving the Canberra Young Citizen of the Year award in 2014, Nip Wijewickrema gave up full-time work in communications to invest her time into a family-run social enterprise, GG’s Flowers. Named after her trained florist stepmother, Geetha, and younger sister, Gayana, it was started by the family to employ and train people with special needs. Nip’s beautiful sister, Gayana, is currently completing Year 12 and has Down Syndrome. She is the face of the business, delivering arrangements to corporate and private clients around the ACT which Geetha and Nip meticulously create.
When I set out to do this interview about social enterprising and its benefit for people with special needs, I was also seeking businesses run by Women of Colour. I wanted to know if it informed the way Nip and her business work. When I inquired, she paused and thought about it for a second, and conceded that she ‘often wonders about this’. She and all of her siblings were born in Canberra, but have grown up deeply imbued with Sri Lankan culture. They were taught to be ‘generous with (our) time’. This has translated into working for free and working for family.
So when I sat down to interview her it was inevitable that the significant intersection between social enterprising, female-led businesses and the requirement to shift the norm when it comes to skilling those with special needs were to dominate the conversation.
Firstly, I had no idea how a social enterprise actually operated. It is one of those terms I vaguely recognised and supported – a shallow understanding that does a disservice to those who pour themselves wholly into them. Social enterprise generally means that profits are directed back into the business, and the purpose of the business is to address a social issue or empower a disadvantaged group of people.
According to Nip, ‘GG’s Flowers was started when my sister Gayana was 15 and our family worried that there would not be employment opportunities for her after she finished school. We started off on social media and I volunteered my time doing the organisation and managing while working in communications at ANU’.
This means GG’s Flowers is not only a social enterprise, but it is a family-run business, two characteristics that make it unique. Now, Nip volunteers full-time along with her stepmother, Geetha, and they do not draw a wage from the business. Gayana and the other employees with special needs do, however.
Nip recognises that not all families have the capacity to have members work for free for years. She knows Gayana is one of the lucky ones, to have a family that could start this business for her, but she wishes that those with special needs didn’t need to be ‘lucky’ enough to have their families find them employment. All families deserve the peace of mind that their children will lead dignified lives and have the skills to find employment, whether or not they have special needs.
Having watched my own father start a business from scratch I understand that the hours collapse over each other and the days do not stop for a weekend. Small business owners are amongst the hardest and most creative workers, and the added layer of social enterprising means that ‘GG’s doesn’t run like a traditional profit making business’. Having little experience in business myself, I had to clarify what Nip meant by this. In the case of this particular social enterprise, ‘all siblings and family members are on deck to lend a hand’, they work 7 days a week and have an inherent motivation that none of them have to explain to each other. It is obvious that despite its unpaid nature, ‘GG’s Flowers is the most fulfilling thing any of (them) have done’.
It sounded to me like they could never switch off. I wasn’t wrong. Nip recognised that ‘the line between business and family is blurred and there is no division between our household and GG’s Flowers’. So this means they give a lot of unpaid and emotional labour, and their household contributes a lot of resources to the business without them realising.
I asked Nip what she wishes consumers knew about social enterprising.
Firstly, social procurement is really important. ‘The sooner we can show people the value of their dollar in a social enterprise in comparison to the value of their dollar in a commercial enterprise, the more likely they are to recognise the importance of choosing wisely’. This means that GG’s Flowers and other social enterprises need to be competitive, because if it is competitive AND ethical the rational consumer will invest in the product.
But I see that the obvious hurdle is getting customers to understand this in the first place. In fact, besides GG’s Flowers, I couldn’t name another social enterprise in Canberra. Nip provided me with a couple. Krofne Donuts is one that GG’s Flowers partners with on Valentines Day and Mothers Day. It is a social enterprise run by a mother and her son with Down Syndrome, providing skills and employment for people with special needs. The Black Mountain School has also launched the Six Degrees Café which employs and trains students with learning and developmental disabilities.
Secondly, social enterprises are such an innovative way to get people with special needs off welfare and into the workforce to live a dignified and fulfilling life. Nip looked directly at me and repeated what she has said many times before while expanding her business: ‘I don’t need a $100 donation, but I do want a $100 order, because this ensures that people’s lives, like my sister Gayana’s, are changed. Social enterprising is not welfare or charity, it gets people off welfare’. I learnt from Nip that In Australia, there are at least 4.8 million people with a disability and only 27% have employment. This means that the rates of unemployment for people with special needs are disproportionately higher than the rest of the population.
So what Nip described to me was not just an ethical issue but an economic one. And that means that to further GG’s Flowers, economic choices need to be made.
But that all depends on us – the consumers. Consumers need to be socially conscious and care about employment for those with special needs. ‘The only difference between us and other florists is that the lives of those with special needs who are employed, including Gayana, have been changed. Other than that, we are as competitive in price and arrangement’. It is coming to a pointy end where Nip’s family must consider how to generate more money, so they can continue to employ and pay people with special needs, like Gayana, while also not continuing to work for free themselves.
Growing up I was not accustomed to seeing keynote speakers who were Women of Colour. I couldn’t relate to success in many forms because no one who looked like me or grew up like me was being put on these platforms. Nip agreed, and recognises that when she walks into schools and the girls see ‘a brown woman as the keynote speaker, talking about enterprising and creation’ then they will feel it is normal to have Women of Colour in positions of prominence.
We will always need social entrepreneurs, and Women of Colour, like Nip, can lead this charge. Her vision and voice are spreading and it is upto us, as consumers, to listen.
Image: Alisa Anton
Aditi Razdan is a Law and Asian Studies student at ANU, drawn to the country of her ancestors and the stories of her people. She is particularly interested in issues of race, the politicisation of culture and religion and the criminalisation of coloured bodies. She is a Sub-Editor at the East Asia Forum, Editor of Demos and has had her work published in Demos and The Kashmir Times.