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.