Kimberley Abbott was volunteering in India in 2012 with the 40K Globe Program on a University of Wollongong grant when she took up a challenge to find an alternate source of income for the people of the granite quarries in Bangalore.
As an engineering student, it would follow that Abbott would have come up with a solution that involved something like roads, water or electricity—the things most of us associate with this highly technical discipline.
However, Abbott looked around and saw an under-utilised by-product of the quarries and found a way to use it to create a business that not only helps bring money into some of the most poverty-stricken villages in the region, but also empowers the most vulnerable in the country—women.
Roka Jewellery is not just fashionable and unique, it is also a highly successful social enterprise that is helping give women in rural India the means to lift themselves out of the poverty cycle and gain financial independence.
Although it is centred on a social cause, Roka Jewellery is still a business and Abbott exemplifies the emerging movers and shakers of today’s money-making ventures—young, socially aware
Rather than looking at global domination, this new breed of entrepreneur is focused on specialisation, creating niche and boutique businesses with a social conscience that get them noticed on the world stage.
For Abbott, the concept to develop a social business model developed as she began to understand the sustainability that social business offers versus charity or non-government organisations.
“We initially had the idea to simply create our business model around the sale of jewellery, as jewellery is a significant symbol for women,” she said.
“Roka’s mission is to do good, and doing business is simply a by-product and a means to do more good. So for us the bottom line is where it belongs—at the bottom. We believe business can be the great engine that lifts billions out of poverty, but it needs to be a new kind of values-driven business, where profit is the enabler, but not the sole motive.
“Many corporations look to philanthropy or corporate social responsibility programs to help their businesses meet the ever-growing social conscience of their customers. However, these often simply end as a feel-good and tick-the-box activity by corporations. I believe it needs to be about doing good business and creatively addressing significant issues that face business and society, not simply feeling good.”
When Abbott saw how hard the villagers in Bangalore worked, mining granite by hand 12 hours a day for a wage of just $1.50 per day, she embarked on her mission and—using the innovative thinking and problem-solving skills she learned in her engineering degree—not only overcame the challenges of finding a way to use granite dust, but also to start a business in a developing country while still living and working in Australia.
“We not only had untrained illiterate women, but we were in isolated villages with no electricity, no water and no way to use tools,” she said.
“We have faced many challenges with Roka. We are a youth-founded, developed and run social business, so none of us have large amounts of experience in start-up business, so even figuring out the basics of simply getting a business up and running has been a challenge.
“Distance has been a huge challenge, as obviously our women are in the granite quarries in rural India and we are here in Sydney. We were only getting contact with the women every six months or so initially when volunteers were sent over with the 40K Globe Program, but now we have hired a staff member in India to manage the women so we have constant contact now which makes things run much smoother and faster.”
Last year Roka was a finalist in the KnowledgeWorks Global Business Concept Challenge, and a team was sent to Virginia Tech University in the US to pitch the business to a panel of high-level US executives. It was awarded second place, which Abbott said, “displayed the potential that was recognised in our social business model.”
“I think social businesses are becoming much more common in the business landscape because people are becoming more socially aware and express desires to want to help society,” she said. “If you can provide people with the business product or service they want, but also address a social issue at the same time, you are meeting the customers’ needs and desires in every way, and social businesses really have the potential to capture large portions of the customer market by covering these two key customer requirements.”
For UOW alumnus Stewart Craine, another engineering graduate, a typical day at his office in Sydney can entail planning the layout of a hospital power system in Liberia, trying to make lamps hyena-proof or salvaging products from a flooded warehouse in Papua New Guinea.
Craine is the founder of Barefoot Power, a business that assists people in developing countries to access affordable renewable energy by providing lighting and phone charging products specifically for low income populations that do not have access to electricity.
The business started in 2006 and designs, manufactures, distributes and sells micro-solar lighting and phone charging products that have been designed to target communities in developing countries. He has also started Village Infrastructure, which lends similar lighting systems and more advanced uses of electricity such as milling for three to five years to the poor, removing the upfront cost barrier, similar to leasing solar on residential households here in Sydney.
Village Infrastructure has incorporated and developed a model focused on creating jobs and kick-starting sustainable energy businesses, owned and operated by local entrepreneurs.
It was after a stint working with Australian Volunteers International in Nepal that Craine decided there had to be a better way to help developing nations help themselves, but still be able to create a business that paid his own bills.
“Overall, at the end of university, I had some life reasons to think why I was on the planet and how I might do something useful, so that’s what drove me towards Australian Volunteers International and Nepal, and frankly still keeps me going now,” he said.
“Building another skyscraper or bridge or highway in Australia is one career path, but being a part of a global effort to end poverty before my generation dies, where everyone gets a fair chance to live their potential, for me is where I’d prefer to put my energies. But it doesn’t pay well, nor is there any job or salary security.
“So reality has to come into it as well, particularly when one is trying to raise a family. I’ve done the living-on-noodles and $10,000 a year income once already, and am hoping to find a less painful way this time, which might mean a return to the cubicle.”
Barefoot Power was so successful in both its social and business approach that within a couple of years of starting, the company was selling about $1 million worth of product in Kenya and Uganda and a few years after that its revenue had expanded to around $5 million.
It proved to Craine, and investors that took a chance on him, that making money didn’t have to mean forgetting about the planet or its people.
His latest project with Village Infrastructure is taking that concept to the next level, trying to make solar agro-processing for women in developing nations a reality.
“Access to energy is a goal the UN has set for all poor people by 2030, but this cannot be just getting lights and charging mobile phones,” Craine said.
“We need daytime uses of energy too, like productive uses of agricultural machinery, water pumping, refrigeration and communications, to get the critical mass of village micro-infrastructure in place that can help increase productivity, decrease manual labour, add value to their produce and eventually help them get out of poverty.”
Andrea Culligan, owner/founder of Harteffect (a branding agency) and Unigrad (a student jobs board), and Communications Chair for Entrepreneurs Organisation – Sydney Chapter, says the focus of business and business people has changed over the past decade.
“Ten years ago people were focused on creating businesses out of opportunity but now people start them out of passion and purpose and there is a uniqueness that comes from a passionate purpose that drives business,” she said.
And it is young entrepreneurs who have that passion, says Culligan.
“I think younger people can start a business so much easier than in the past with so much access to knowledge, talent and software systems all at their fingertips,” she said.
“When you ask an entrepreneur what they would have done differently when starting a business they often say they would have gone harder, bigger, faster and riskier. Young entrepreneurs rarely have a house, kids or other areas of financial support they need to supply to—they have the ability to take those risks.”
One of those risks is to throw traditional business models out the window and take the gamble on being able to survive while giving something back to the community as well.
“Social responsibility comes back to the business purpose,” said Culligan. “Not all socially responsible businesses have to be philanthropic, but a lot of younger entrepreneurs have a greater sense of self and realise there is a bigger planet to contribute to.
“These new business models can contribute by doing things as simple as focusing on diversity in the workplace or providing internships, but there is a stronger focus on the community at large, rather than just running a business.
There is a transition towards this model because it is becoming something people are looking for when they invest and they realise they have an opportunity in some way to change their world.”
Investing in a business that has social responsibility is what drives Larissa Robertson’s clients.
Robertson is the Managing Director of SCO Recruitment, which also has a not-for-profit arm called Trim and Proper Property Services that employs socially disadvantaged, long term unemployed and Indigenous Australians as cleaners, gardeners, horticulturalists and handypersons to service its property maintenance contracts.
Over the past three years, SCO Recruitment has contributed in-kind services to the value of almost $700,000 to Trim and Proper, or 15 per cent of its gross profits each year.
Robertson, a UOW business graduate, bought SCO Recruitment in 2009 after working with the agency—which was then called Spectrum—since 2005.
“The charity side of the business was one of the reasons I decided to take it on after it went into liquidation,” she said. “And it was the reason that a lot of the existing clients we had stayed with the business as well.
“I believed in what Spectrum was trying to do. Some recruitment companies are cut-throat and to know that we are not is why clients are happy to stay with us. If running this business was just about the money I think it would be easier to go and work for someone else. For me it is definitely about making a change.”
SCO Recruitment is one of the fastest growing recruitment companies in NSW and Robertson believes the way in which the company gives back to the community sets it apart.
“A lot of entrepreneurs are already giving back. It is capitalism with a conscience. You don’t have to go into a socially responsible business just to be nice and not make money. You can also have a high social impact and make a profit,” she said.
For Mona Tavassoli, founder and director of Mom Souq—a parents’ online bazaar that gives everyone an opportunity to buy and sell their baby products—helping others achieve their goals has been the basis of her business in Dubai.
Tavassoli, who graduated from University of Wollongong in Dubai with a Bachelor of Computer Science and a Master of International Business, started her business after moving to the United Arab Emirates from France with her husband.
“One of the hardest things about living outside of one’s own country as an expatriate is that often you do not have an extended family with whom you can interact. I decided to create a community where people can meet and interact and communicate to fill this gap,” she said.
After the initial concept of an online classifieds for parents in the UAE was officially launched in March of 2012, Tavassoli says she listened to what her audience was saying, and tried to help grow the community by providing other services that were needed.
“As a result we relaunched in September 2012 with a whole load of new features and segments such as Expert Corner, Mompreneurs, Mommy Bloggers, events,” she said.
“We are now promoting over 200 mum entrepreneurs on our website and we gave them media exposure to promote their business, such as magazine interviews, radio and television. As a start-up, it has been always very encouraging to support and help other start-ups.
“We started promoting mum entrepreneurs for free on our website and social media platforms. This was a support from our side to promote and help other entrepreneurs to market their products and services. Mentoring, sharing and contributing are different ways to support the community and I believe it is essential to consider some sort of corporate social responsibility activity for your business from the beginning.”
In just two years the business and website have grown and so has Tavassoli’s profile and her passion for social causes, especially helping to empower women in countries where they have few opportunities for education or independence.
In July this year, Tavassoli, embarked on a challenge to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise $6,000 to secure two years’ stationery supplies for 12 schools with around 24,000 female students in Afghanistan.
UOW Dubai was one of the main sponsors of the expedition carried out under the banner World Peace through Women’s Empowerment, and Tavassoli says by supporting the education of the next generation of women, she hopes to empower them to shape the future and accelerate progress in their communities.
“The ‘why’ behind every business is the key to its success,” she said.
“The ‘why’ cannot be financial growth and success, it’s the main reason that you start the business and it is a way to serve others and add value to their life. My big ‘why’ is women’s empowerment, especially in the Middle East. I am a strong believer that empowering women leads to a more peaceful family, community and world.
“Women raise the next generation and their belief has a direct influence on their children. I dream of a world where every mother raises their children without teaching them discrimination and judgement. This is the big ‘why’ behind both my businesses, Mom Souq and Mompreneurs Middle East. It helps me to carry on and not give up especially during the challenging times.”
- KIMBERLEY ABBOTT
UOW Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) in Mechanical Engineering 2012
UOW Bachelor of Science (Exercise Science) 2012
- STEWART CRAINE
UOW Bachelor of Engineering (Civil Engineering) 1999
UOW Bachelor of Mathematics (Mathematics & Applied Statistics) 1998
- LARISSA ROBERTSON
UOW Bachelor of Commerce (Accountancy) 2004
- MONA TAVASSOLI
UOWD Bachelor of Computer Science (Software Development) 2004
UOWD Master of International Business 2007