When we think of innovation, we are probably inclined to think of digital technology or other ‘new and improved’ versions of everyday products, but innovation isn’t just about product, it’s also about process.
After 15 years as a social worker, working with young people in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, Louise Nobes was frustrated by the lack of impact – young people were ‘just as disengaged, just as unemployed’. Young people who were feeling that they weren’t good enough just couldn’t access employment through normal routes. Necessity (or perhaps it’s frustration) is the mother of invention, so Louise developed an approach that put young people front and centre to develop their own businesses (and jobs) based on a model that brings together entrepreneurship, design thinking and co-design. KiK was born and – within two years – now has three coffee shops, a chocolate business, a cleaning company and catering service. The target is to open five coffee shops in five years. Each business has been established – and is run – by the young people that KiK works with, based on their entrepreneurial ideas. This is where Louise acknowledges that the products and services aren’t necessarily new or innovative, but the process clearly has been. Young people have driven the selection and development of businesses and the brand, and they’ve deployed evolving technology to reach new customer segments. For example, 3D printing of chocolate moulds means that they can cost effectively supply branded chocolates to client organisations, as well as selling KiK’s own branded chocolates over the counter in their coffee shops. They’ve taken the skills developed in running their own business – such as cleaning the coffee shops’ kitchens – to offer commercial cleaning services. KiK deliberately operates with a high level of transparency. Every young person working in the business understands the financials and sees the accounts on a regular basis so they all know how the business is performing. And high performers have a chance to progress to leadership roles in the organisation. As Louise explains ‘if you get the culture right for young people, their ability to move and shake is much quicker’. There’s still a sound commercial sense that sits behind the model – each of the businesses is working in a highly competitive environment, so market validation is essential in ensuring that the young people aren’t set up to fail.
What’s striking about the KiK model is that it demonstrates the entrepreneurial drive and the work ethic of young people who have essentially been written off by mainstream education. Muhammed Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of microfinance institution Grameen Bank, talks about the inherent entrepreneur in each of us, and how we should be job creators, rather than job seekers. During his recent Australian tour, he gave an example of a Grameen Bank program to work with beggars in Bangladesh. Beggars were encouraged to take small loans to purchase a stock of products that they could sell door to door, rather than simply begging. The impact was immediate. As a beggar, they never got further than the doorstep; as a merchant, they were invited into the house, asked to sit down and to show their products. Many then progressed to providing a shopping service, being trusted by local families to go to markets to purchase groceries and household goods on their behalf. As with KiK, the products that the beggars were selling were not new (lollies, household items etc), but the process of providing microcredit for them to purchase their first stock catalysed new relationships and new business ideas.
Both Yunus and Nobes attribute the success of their models to the power of trust. Grameen Bank took six years to ‘peel away the layers of history’ and convince Bangladeshi women that they could handle money. Placing trust in uneducated, village women was transformative for the women, their families and communities, so much so that 97% of their Grameen’s micro-finance loans are now made to women.
At KiK, placing trust in young people to create their own jobs and run their own businesses has developed their workplace skills, built friendship connections and improved mental well-being. Young people have meaningful jobs, with opportunities to progress within the business or through other employers, as Louise says ‘they are ready to be believed in, and to give everything a go’.
The common aim of both Grameen and KiK – to move people into work – is not new. The businesses that they have catalysed are not innovative, but the way those businesses have been catalysed is. The concept of investing time and resources in untested, socially excluded individuals and trusting in them to ‘come good’ is an anathema to traditional bottom line investment decision making, but surely it’s the essence of social entrepreneurship.