Small Business

Nipuni Wijewickrema's blooming social enterprise

Nipuni Wijewickrema's blooming business has put her among an elite group of young Australians. The social entrepreneur is one of eight finalists vying for the 2016 Young Australian of the Year.

Wijewickrema, 22, co-manages a Canberra florist designed to give people with special needs employment opportunities. The idea was conceived with her 16-year-old sister Gayana, who has Down syndrome, in mind.

Nipuni Wijewickrema and her sister Gayana who has Down syndrome.
Nipuni Wijewickrema and her sister Gayana who has Down syndrome.  Photo: Jamila Toderas

"I want her to do something different, to live her own live and have a bit of responsibility," she says.

"I think it's important to create opportunities that are safe, because they are vulnerable people in our community.

Tony Bautista (left) and Michael Jager (middle) make use of mobile van Orange Sky Laundry as Steve Cook (right) looks ...
Tony Bautista (left) and Michael Jager (middle) make use of mobile van Orange Sky Laundry as Steve Cook (right) looks on. Orange Sky Laundry's founders have been nominated for Australia Day Awards.  Photo: Simon O'Dwyer

"It scares me that she could go to work one day and could be bullied and she wouldn't be able to tell us. The other thing that really scares me is that she could sit at home and do nothing for the rest of her life."

Deliveries with hugs

GG's Flowers is run from the family garage and employs four casual staff with special needs including Asperger and Prader-Willi syndromes. Like Gayana they help arrange and deliver flowers, particularly during busy periods such as Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. The business counts big names such as Audi, Mazda and Aspen Medical as regular customers.

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Gayana is well known in the community, particularly for her hugs that accompany her flower deliveries.

"People ask to have photos with Gayana, she's a bit of a rock star!" Wijewickrema says.

Rebecca Scott founded social enterprise Streat in Melbourne and is another nominee for an Australia Day award.
Rebecca Scott founded social enterprise Streat in Melbourne and is another nominee for an Australia Day award.  Photo: Angela Wylie

"It's really cute and it's teaching people a bit about inclusion."

Wijewickrema's stepmum, Geetha Wijewickrema, left a career as a school integration aide to set up the floristry business two years ago. And Wijewickrema left a fledgling career in media to join her soon after.

"I still kind of wonder what made me leave safety of a full-time job," she says.

"I saw the potential of the business and wasn't investing enough time into it because I didn't have the time. I just really wanted to give it a go."

You can't put a price on how phenomenal it's been for her life.

Nipuni Wijewickrema

With a turnover of just $40,000 last year, neither Nipuni nor Geetha has been able to draw an income from the business. But that could change this year as they aim to reach more corporate clients and increase turnover to $60,000.

A socially sustainable business

Nipuni Wijewickrema describes the florist as socially sustainable, but says many consumers often don't understand the difference between a social enterprise and a charity.

"The business isn't a charity, we're not asking for charity handouts, we're not asking for anything," she says.

"I think that's unique because I think our society is forever thinking 'we need to donate', but actually we're trying to challenge that and say, 'no, you can have a successful business in every pocket of your community that is doing good'.

"My definition, my bottom line, is if you have social good and you're doing it for the community, for the greater good, and making a profit you qualify as a social enterprise."

Long-term, Wijewickrema hopes to expand the business across Australia. But she says making a difference to the lives of people with disabilities is her top priority.

"Financially I can't say we're making millions, but a really good outcome you couldn't measure by profit is Gayana's social and communication skills, which have really improved," she says.

"It's an intangible benefit. You can't put a price on how phenomenal it's been for her life."

The growing social enterprise sector

The latest data on Australia's social enterprise sector was collected by the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Non-profit Studies at Queensland University of Technology in 2010. It revealed there was an estimated 20,000 social enterprises in Australia, accounting for between 2 and 3 per cent of GDP.

That figure grew by 37 per cent in the five years to 2010 and is expected to rise again when 2015 research is released this year.

Entrepreneurs striving for social change received wide recognition in this year's Australia Day award finalists.

The founders of Orange Sky Laundry, Queenslanders Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett, are in the running for Young Australian of the Year. Their fleet of mobile laundries helps the homeless and people in crisis to not only wash clothes, but also to raise hygiene standards and ultimately lift self-esteem.

Another finalist for the Young Australian of the Year is Robert Gillies, co-founder of Homeless of Melbourne and charity clothing store HoMie.

Melbourne's Rebecca Scott, co-founder of STREAT, has been nominated for Australia's Local Hero award for her work providing hospitality training for hundreds of young people at risk of homelessness.

The Australia Day Awards will be announced in Canberra on Monday.

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