Interview with Ellen Mortfield, Executive Director, Eco-Superior Environmental Programs, Thunder Bay, ON
By Sadaf Kazi,
Enterprise Development and Research Assistant,
The NORDIK Institute
What inspired you to lead the Eco-Superior Project?
I was hired 24 years ago in a communications and public relations position and worked my way up to the Executive Director. I grew up on a small farm, and always felt connected to the land and ecosystems, so Eco-Superior has been a great way to share those connections.
What is the motivation behind your social enterprise?
Initially, Eco-Superior was set up as part of a provincial government initiative for Green Communities. The motivation initially was to work on water, waste, and energy goals for the Thunder Bay and area. Since then, we have expanded a lot beyond the initial mandate. We now work on eco-transportation, climate change adaptation, as well as programs on local food.
Who do you hope to impact/reach through the work of your social enterprise? Why?
It is pretty broad, primarily the general public of the Thunder Bay Area. But the people we serve varies by the programs. Some projects have taken us up to Sault Ste. Marie, and the smaller North shore communities. We generally have 25 to 30 different programs.
Do you consider yourself a social entrepreneur?
While we are a non-profit, some of what we do is probably social enterprise. We do some programs, such as radon outreach and radon test kit sales where revenues go back into the program. We have a small retail store, and our home energy assessment program also help support the office and our resource centre. Not all our projects are supported that way, but some are, others are funded through grants and government funding.
Does the term ‘social entrepreneur’ resonate with you? What words or phrases might you connect with more?
Social enterprise would be a more appropriate term for us to use compared to social entrepreneurs, as we are a non-profit organization, not a private enterprise. Also, it is not just me, but our initiative which is guided by our volunteer board of directors, and supported by a staff of 12.
What barriers/challenges have you encountered?
We can certainly relate these to the social enterprise part. Maybe I can give you an example of one of our initiatives that I would call challenging. One of the changes that we are trying to make is to reduce the use of single-use plastic. And a couple of years ago, we started targeting plastic straws in the food industry. One of the barriers that we found in that specific initiative was that alternatives were more expensive. For a lot of the small businesses, it would be too expensive, and they cannot afford to make that change, and for some of the local suppliers, there wasn’t enough demand for them to bring in a bulk purchase of paper straws.
We secured some funding. We also engaged the public to ask their favourite restaurants to make the change from plastic straws to a paper one. So they had the demand from the public and Eco-Superior made that first bulk purchase of paper straws in all different types. Then we sell them to the restaurants for a better price because we are not in this game to make a lot of money. We cover our cost and support the change that we wanted to see. So now we are a retailer of paper straws that continue supporting more businesses to make that change.
That is very interesting.
There were a couple of barriers we tried to address through this project like the cost of the alternative straws and educating the public so that they demand the change from an organization that they patronize. It wasn’t our intention to sell products, but that’s the way it turned out. It was a barrier that had to be addressed and other restaurant supply companies weren’t able to make it happen because it was kind of a vicious circle: there wasn’t enough demand and the price couldn’t come down until there is enough demand. So we had to sort of work on both.
And now we’re trying to continue that work with food businesses, not just restaurants, but school cafeterias, caterers, and mobile food places. We are working with them to make other substitutions, right, or to get rid of more plastic products, such as take out containers or plastic cups–there’s lots of things. We’ve secured some funding from Environment Canada over the next two years to test out some other products and see what other substitutions they can make. We’ll use the same process for them.
How did you confront those challenges and barriers? What resources did you need? What resources does your project need as you move forward?
We use some of our grant money to bring in some of our products for both the businesses and the customers to try to find out what works. And then we were able to engage businesses in substituting those products.
What is your community of support?
We have more than 50 businesses supporting that paper straw initiative, and it’s growing all the time. That’s just in the city of Thunder Bay, though. Also, our next step is to move that into other surrounding communities.
Any community support for your other projects?
We are a member of Green Communities Canada. It is an umbrella organization that provides a lot of information sharing and provides joint programming opportunities. It is kind of a supportive network for similar innovations carried out across Canada. We also work quite closely with municipalities and local governments here, and also BIAs (Business Improvement Areas), Downtown Business Associations and the Chamber of Commerce, School Boards etc. It is pretty varied.
How important is a local face-to-face community of support?
Very important. It is a significant part of what we do in this community. We need to work directly with volunteers or students or staff at workplaces.
Is there something that would have made this process easier for you?
Funding is an ongoing issue. Finding support for existing staff who are already trained and knowledgeable on these issues. Many funding programs are only support new hires, or other funding programs won’t cover any administrative costs, so that makes it difficult. It would be awesome if there was enough funding to keep our existing experienced people on the payroll. There’s all kinds of restrictions for different funding programs so that those can be a barrier.
What do you hope to see social enterprise’s role in your organization in the future?
I’d like to do more social enterprise initiatives. We kind of got into social enterprise a little bit with the paper straw project, but it would be nice if we could see more social enterprise projects and be less dependent on government funding for non-profits.
You would like to be more independent through funding from your initiative rather than the government?
Yes, that would be the reason why we initiate social enterprise ideas here.
What other community initiatives are you involved in?
Primarily environmental issues, but there is a lot of crossover into health issues. For example, another sort of social enterprise venture is in the area of radon testing and home energy assistance. We provide goods, services, and products to homeowners, which gives us the revenue that we put back into other programs. We work quite closely with the District Health Unit on the radon issues, and so we do some outreach and education around that issue. We also sell the radon test kits, here at the office.
Are you aware of any youth social entrepreneurs or those with innovative ideas that need support and resources?
There are few in Thunder Bay that I know of. One of them is Roots to Harvest. I believe their work is based on the social enterprise model. There is another cycling group called Co-operative X that is trying to do social enterprise work as well.
While still being a non-profit, Eco-Superior Environmental Programs have utilized the principle of social enterprise in operations of certain projects, where they fundraise via business initiatives and reinvest the profit to expand the initiative!
Grocer4Good Ability Development Program
Interview with Lisa Vezeau-Allen, Founder Grocer4Good Ability Development Program
By Sadaf Kazi, Social Enterprise Development, NORDIK Institute
What inspired you to start the Grocer4Good Ability Development Program, and what is your motivation behind it?
My inspiration came from having a son on the Autism spectrum and working with a marginalized population in my work, also knowing not many opportunities are available for paid employment and skill development for people facing barriers. I resided and worked in Boulder, Colorado, for three years from late 2014 to early 2018 and was exposed to different social enterprises employing youth and adults on the autism spectrum. I attended the Autism of America National Conference. I had the opportunity to experience different models in terms of what would work and what wouldn’t work — moving back to my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie in early 2018, I intended to start a social enterprise I waited until I could determine what would be the best model as well as what would be sustainable.
The sustainability piece is key here. The announcement of the closure of Downtown Walmart was the catalyst to create a small grocery store in the food desert, mainly because the social enterprise model lends itself well to assisting various groups in overcoming barriers to employment. My motivation was a little bit of everything: because I am personally affected, the opportunity to work with marginalized populations, seeing the downtown Walmart closing, and then confirmation that something needed to happen because we need a sustainable revenue-generating model.
Who do you hope to impact/reach through the work of your social enterprise? Why?
Our articles of incorporation define our objective to employ people on the Autism Spectrum or other mental disabilities, and those chronically underemployed. After consultations, I included the chronically underemployed because the chances are they have a barrier to employment, so it gives us a broader spectrum to reach out. That is the goal of the social enterprise to ensure that we are giving people the opportunity for skill development, paid employment, and also just being part of the working community. So initially, it will be a small pilot group of recipients from Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support program that will support the day to day activities and then we will expand from there.
Would the store be any different than a regular store, for example, being music-free or dimmed lights to support the employees?
It depends. Everyone is different. It is true that if you have met one person with Autism, you have met one person with Autism. That’s why the social enterprise model works well. If someone does not like crowds but has a great computer understanding, then we are going to have an online store that could sell merchandise, so they could run the online store. For someone social, they could be a greeter. For someone who needs a simple task, they could do inventory, unpacking, cleaning. There are a lot of things to do. There is a wide range of functions that can enhance their chances of success. That’s why we are starting with a small group because it will be very much about putting the right person in the right task so they can succeed.
Would you consider yourself a social entrepreneur? Why or Why not?
I do consider myself a social entrepreneur. Throughout my career, I have come to understand that I am motivated by creating change for the greater good, and that’s what social entrepreneur does. The primary goal is to employ people but also to do something positive for the community on a broader scale. So while, yes, we are going to have placements for people who are not able to get employment or minimal employment, we are also providing a basic need in an underserved community in terms of food security. We will have everything from toilet paper, produce, to dairy goods, and giving people access to life essentials at a low markup. I wanted there to be an underlying social benefit over and above the employment piece.
Does the term’ social entrepreneur resonate with you? What words or phrases might you connect with more?
I think there are so many titles we have out there in the nonprofit social sector, which makes it interesting. I also relate to the term ‘advocate’ not just because I have autistic son, but I have the ability, and I am at a place in my life when I can do these things. I think it is our responsibility to do that as citizens of our community.
What barriers/challenges have you encountered?
There is an assumption among the general public that there is a lot of money, multiple funding sources, etc. that you can access when you start a social enterprise. The reality is that the majority of funding organizations require a minimum of one year in operation before an application will be accepted. After researching specific social entrepreneur funding, I did discover grants, but they are for a tiny amount and would not support a start-up. There are multiple loan programs, but I don’t want to have liability as soon as we start. Realizing that barrier, I took on the challenge and just asked people and organizations for the cash investment needed to get Grocer4Good off and running. Being a registered charity was a significant benefit due to the ability to give donors charitable receipts. But on a broader scale, when there are a lot of assumptions that you can get a ton of money, it becomes a barrier. I have found that when starting a new organization, there is not a lot of grants, but some loan programs.
How did you confront those challenges and barriers?
It is taking a look at your connections, and knowing who could assist with the community outreach. We have been fortunate that way. One way is not to be afraid to ask. For example, I just asked people and organizations, can you give me $10,000 or $5,000? Part of it is just being fearless about rejections. Not everyone said yes, but enough said yes. I also have a great board of directors. That means not having ownership of everything, and being able to delegate work to people. I have learned as I grow older, that you don’t have to do everything. The treasurer deals with everything government-related, and I have another board member who is going to be in charge of all the employment-related things and another board member who is working on distribution. It is a hard thing to do when you are the founding member. I think it doesn’t benefit you when you are trying to do it all by yourself.
What resources did you need? What resources does your project needs as you move forward?
I was fortunate to have the knowledge and experience that enabled me to do all the incorporation myself. I have worked in the nonprofit sector, and I understand incorporation paperwork. There were some tasks that I lacked the skills for, such as getting a rental agreement. I had a local professional who did it for free. It is really about taking a look at who can help you. We have a local design firm that is doing all the shelving and setting up the store at a discount. A vital resource is our collaborative partners Ontario Works and Ontario Disabilities. We have also had many more individuals and businesses offer assistance. It has been humbling and overwhelming
Who is your community of support? How important is a local face-to-face community of support?
The face-to-face community of support is essential. If you don’t have buy-in from the community, then you are not going to succeed. I didn’t even send out a press release. It was just a word of mouth that this was happening, so all the press almost happened too soon. I filed incorporation papers in June 200 and received approved in mid-July. I wasn’t anticipating such a quick turnaround. I was expecting the winter to mull this over because the incorporation would take 6 to 8 months. Most rewarding are people stopping on the street and saying they want to volunteer, make a donation, or insisting on being invited to the grand opening, or just mentioning that they wanted to shop at the store. I got a lot of questions asking if anyone shop at the store, and I want to say that everyone can shop at the store. It is open to the public. So it has been incredibly humbling and also very much confirming that this needed to happen.
What would have made this Is process easier for you?
Having more actual start-up grants and, not just an assumption, that there is a lot of start-up money. It helps that our community has been very generous. But it would be challenging for someone who does not have the same level of community connections as I do. My journey through this has made me realize that we need real money for people who want to start social enterprises, not just small amounts like $5,000. Something that can sustain them for more than a month, for example, hiring someone until the revenues start coming in. I think social enterprise is the wave of what we need in terms of economic growth and development. Many social enterprises are unknown, and many you don’t even realize that they are a social enterprise. I think in terms of economic development in our community, we look at the impact of nonprofits, charitable organizations and social enterprises and understand their impact along with the challenges they face, like a more holistic approach to developing some solutions.
What other community initiatives are you involved in?
Currently, through my seat on the City Council and various committees that I am on right now, a sub-committee of the accessibility committee will be struck to draft a Municipal Autism Strategy. So, if all I do in the four years as a Councillor is to help create a Municipal Autism Strategy, then I am completely satisfied. We all have different strengths and abilities that we bring in terms of government leadership, and we need to connect our initiatives. That is something I am proud of. I am happy with the support of my colleagues. It won’t necessarily solve all the issues with families that are dealing with intellectual disability. Still, I think I will identify it, and I think it will make the struggles more well known within the community. It could serve as a springboard for lobbying other levels of government. Autistic kids become autistic adults, who then become autistic seniors. And what are we doing through that life cycle? We do not see a lot of support for that. It is really taking inventory for what’s there and what we can do in terms of planning on the municipal level, and also what we can do to put pressure on other levels of government to identify this as something we need to have a strategy on−not just parents off on their own journey. For a lot of adults and seniors who have been on the spectrum who have had a fulfilling, successful life, have so because of the support of their families, not the community, not government programs. It is solely because of parents and siblings. So that puts a lot of stress on family and siblings, and we need to be better at supporting those families as well.
Are you aware of other youth social entrepreneurs or those with innovative ideas that need support and resources?
Sault Ste. Marie’s Centre for Social Justice and Good Works have launched a production facility for chocolate. They are training new entrepreneurs. And their facility will be on the corner of Queen Street East and Gore Street at Queen.