Robert Pekin & Emma-Kate Rose On Cultivating Community Driven Social Enterprise

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Emma-Kate’s early career in criminology took her into the field of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design and community development. This is where she realised the potential of creating positive solutions through a preventative and strengths based approach.

In 2006, Emma-Kate started Brisbane's first professional Car Share enterprise and after her third child sold the business to focus on family and grassroots activism in the areas of politics, the transition town movement and local economic development.

She joined Food Connect as General Happiness Manager in 2011, coordinating a significant internal restructure. In May 2013, Emma-Kate became a Fellow of the Australian School for Social Entrepreneurs. She is passionate about working with community to bring greater awareness to the issue of food sovereignty, and is currently working to create a local Food Hub for multiple ethical enterprises. She loves her city cowboy, Rob Pekin who helps her with the kid wrangling.

Like tens of thousands of small and medium scale dairy farmers, Robert Pekin was a casualty of the de-regulation of the Australian dairy industry during the 1990s. In what was a deeply traumatic period for himself and his family, Robert, like so many other dairy farmers, lost the farm that had been in his family for generations.

Robert’s path to redemption and healing led him to the discovery and practice of community-supported agriculture (CSA).

In 2004 he founded Food Connect Brisbane, a dynamic multi-farmer hybrid CSA.  

FCB has broken new ground in food distribution systems and innovative social enterprise in Australia.  It has served as a source of inspiration to affiliated and like-minded enterprises emerging in the past few years, such as Sydney Food Connect, CERES Fair Food, Bello Food Box and even smaller-scale schemes in places like post-bushfire community, Kinglake, Victoria.
He loves his blended family of four children, and is passionate about micro-food enterprises that produce beer, butter and artisan bread.

 

Rob and Emma-Kate share valuable insights, experience and lessons on starting, growing and sustaining community driven social enterprises which look to create systemic change and tackle issues at their root cause.

 

Highlights from the interview (listen to full details on the podcast)

[Tom Allen] - To start things off could you please share a bit about your backgrounds and what led you down the path of social enterprise and a passion about sustainable food systems? [3:38]

[Emma-Kate Rose] - The whole social enterprise thing was a bit accidental for me. When I started Gee Whiz Car Share in 2006, it was started as a normal proprietary limited business with an environmental focus. But the term 'social enterprise' didn't really enter my lexicon until I met Rob and that's when I threw myself into the deep end.

[Robert Pekin] - It was an accidental journey. I was thinking about how we could create a new food system (in the words of Buckminster Fuller) that would make the existing food system obsolete. So when I went through the horrible time of homelessness after losing the farm, I was thinking through what would be the key things that would make it wonderful to be a farmer. That came to the concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and how that would work in the Australian context. When I started Food Connect, it was completely accidental that it was a social enterprise. It wasn't until 2007 that Social Ventures Australia (SVA) contacted me, saying they were interested in supporting social enterprise and I said, 'really, is that what I am?' 

Social-innovation-city

All businesses should be social enterprises. They should have a social and environmental conscience. All direct social and environmental impacts should be internalised.

That's why social enterprises exist, to try and amend the malaise of the market-driven business world.

In your roles at Food Connect and the Food Connect Foundation, what projects and work are you both involved in? [5:58]

We're on quite a big leap at the moment in creating this food hub. [Rob explains more about how they have sub-tenants and how last year they brought out Anthony Flaccamento from the States to build momentum around their food hub movement.]

At one end of the social enterprise spectrum are social enterprises that are pretty much bulk standard businesses, but they dedicate a percentage of their profits towards whatever it is (water sanitation projects etc.) But their business isn't really any different from any other business out there. At the other end of the spectrum you have social enterprises that are really involved in systemic change.

One end you've got businesses that are all about prevention and at the other you've got businesses that are all about the cure; putting bandaids on things but not really shifting their focus to upstream to look at how to prevent these things in the first place.

Our enterprise is at that end.

We've got three big issues in the world that need to be confronted:

  1. Decoupling from a fossil fuel based system. [Rob breaks this down and talks about how food and agriculture contributes 70% towards this system (up from 30%) of all industries.
  2. Inequity in the whole world (gender, money etc)
  3. The third issue is 'How do we all get along and co-exist on this planet?'

The food hub is trying to wrap itself around those three big issues in a small way. It's a place based response to a worldwide problem. It's showing what one small community could possibly achieve against those systemic issues. It might not fit for other communities but we treat it as a demonstration project. We don't do this to make money but to address those systemic issues. A community in NZ or Indonesia might address it in a completely different way.

Every geographical space is unique to itself and requires different types of responses.

If you take it from the strengths based approach, a community should be looking at what they're good at and strong in in order to address those systemic issues. 

[They talk about how food is a basic human right but how it's treated like a commodity and how the Australian market has been conditioned to accept that food is something that we take for granted. They discuss how they're getting businesses on board to have a true price based system. They talk about the challenge of getting impact investors involved in a project such as this which is trying to change the system.]

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What have been the biggest challenges in running these organisations? [11:24]

People getting over themselves! [Emma-Kate talks about this further and how their children succumb to peer group pressure.]

One of the biggest issues isn't money, resources or education of customers.

I do believe the market is educated enough to know what is the right thing to do, I think the biggest challenge is ourselves.

[Rob talks about his time as a dairy farmer and how the farmers weren't aware of what was happening to the end product and how it made him start to think about how to address the system.]

Having that sense of purpose has always been the thing that has kept me going.

[Rob talks about the challenges of running the social enterprise which is trying it's best to create systemic change.]

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Social-enterprise-queensland

What advice would you give to someone who is keen to get a purpose driven organisation off the ground? [14:24]

Don't do it alone. The joy in sharing your vision is worth more than just trying to change the world on your own.

The more people you can gather around you, even if it's just a shoulder to lean on.... It's a great way to test out your capacity for teamwork, for leadership, your ability to be humble. It teaches you a lot about yourself going into business.

Sometimes the purpose can be secondary to the life journey that you're undertaking.

Look for something that you have had experience of. [Rob talks about having an issue that is close to the heart.] Once you've identified the essence of something you can really see yourself putting effort into, the community will come around you to support you in that journey. The tricky bit is having your intuition alive to work with people who you can really see will be of great benefit and rejecting the advice of others.

The social entrepreneur's task is stay 'in the moment' and take on board learnings and back track where necessary.

On a week to week basis, we're constantly questioning, 'is this really worth our time?' We are 'yes' people and sometimes have issues with boundaries. We're getting a lot better at discerning things. We also like to attribute a big portion of our time mentoring other entrepreneurs.

It is mandatory that anyone who enters this space (particularly if they're entering this space from the 'cure' end and putting bandaids on an issue), they need to be really cognisant that there is a system that that is a part of. They need to be part of that ecosystem. 

The new buzzword is 'build the ecosystem'.

[Rob talks about systemic issues and how people need to be very aware of this and how they should join and build the ecosystem. They talk about Orange Sky Laundry and how they have responded to this challenge.]

It's important to build the size of the pie and not just your portion of the pie.

That's systemic of the competitive culture of the business world. There are so many issues that need addressing that we don't need to say, 'hey, that's my issue!' It's sharing the workload and looking at the system that is causing that and looking at how you can address the problem. That's about building a collaboration of enterprises that are addressing a problem, like QSEC have done around policy.

[Rob tells a story about how the organic farming industry has changed and some key lessons from this.]

Food-Hub-Brisbane

Looking at social enterprise from a policy perspective, what do you believe needs to be done by government to help foster and support an innovative social enterprise sector? [22:40]

A legal structure would be handy.

At the moment in Australia, all you have available is the proprietary limited (privately owned) or not-for-profit. Having said that the cooperative model is gaining a lot more traction which is really exciting. We've always been interested in the dynamic between mission-driven businesses and being able to return a portion back to investors, but most of the profit back into the mission.

There needs to be a Minister for Food and Agriculture. If government policy started to measure all the social and environmental impacts (the negative externalities) of the highly marketed and very cheaply processed food industry... if they measure that and started to penalise that... because at the moment social enterprise has to prove its impact. We put a lot of money and effort into that, and meanwhile the rest of business doesn't have to do that.

If there was some sort of broad measure of the negative impacts that would really make social enterprises come to the fore.

[They talk about B Corps and the current legislation.]

We want to raise the profile of local food in our region and be able to expand our offerings to institutions. [They believe the B Corp certification may help in doing this and explain why.]

Victoria in a lot of ways is leading the space from a policy point of view. [They talk about cooperatives and CCUs.]

What other inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently which are creating positive social change? [28:01]

I love place based solutions. There's a fantastic organisation in Buffalo, U.S., from a community development point of view. [Emma-Kate talks about some of the great initiatives happening there. She also mentions some great local initiatives such as the Nundah Co-op, Sandbag and SEED.]

I think the key to future resilience is slow and small solutions. That's where people feel most empowered; when they see their neighbours making changes and their local community organisation doing innovative things with not many resources.

[Rob discusses a range of the interesting initiatives listed below, from local ones to Patagonia. They also talk about a list of compulsory reading for staff, which appears below.]

Are there any particular business or design tools which have proven to be invaluable in the development and daily running of your different projects? [33:39]

The business model canvas is a good tool to help you clarify the different moving pieces in a business in one sheet. [They talk about communication as key and finding ways to communicate without spending endless hours in meetings, as well as mind-mapping and blackboards.]

Things change very quickly, day to day.

It's good to have a plan, but also be flexible enough to say 'that plan's not going to cut it, we need to start again.' Being flexible and adaptable is a pretty key quality.

 
 

You can contact Robert or Emma-Kate on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. Please feel free to leave comments below.


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