For Nipuni Wijewickrema, Valentine’s Day is special in more ways than one.
“I love the buzz and I love the love,” says the managing director of social enterprise GG’s Flowers & Hampers.
“But of course, (it also means) we provide a lot more hours of paid employment for people with a disability, and ultimately that's our goal.”
Her socially sustainable florist and gift hamper business was founded in 2014 in Canberra, with the support of her sisters and mother, an accredited florist, after being inspired by her younger sister, Gayana.
“It was made for my little sister Gayana, who has Down Syndrome,” Wijewickrema explains.
“As a family, we decided that we wanted her to have meaningful employment and … a beautiful community in which she could really, truly flourish.
“And that's what we've built – a beautiful little social enterprise that employs people with disabilities and provides them with meaningful employment.”
Gayana is among more than 35 people with special needs to have been employed by GG’s (named for Gayana and mum, Geetha), along with many other support staff.
In addition to creating beautiful floral arrangements with guidance from Geetha, and packing gift hampers for delivery around Australia and New Zealand, Guyana and her colleagues personally deliver the flowers and “spread love” throughout Canberra.
“The person that receives those flowers hasn't received just a bunch of flowers,” Wijewickrema says.
“They've received this bunch full of love and full of joy.”
A by-product of the business model is that it’s also helping to create greater inclusion and visibility for people with disability.
“I’ve been blessed to have a sister with a disability and have grown up with her,” Wijewickrema says.
“But for a lot of people…they don't quite understand what it's like to have a person with a disability in their life. When they meet through casual contact – delivering flowers or visiting our shop – their whole world changes because they realise the power of acceptance, the power of inclusion and the power of kindness.”
In 2019, Wijewickrema as awarded a Westpac Social Change Fellowship enabling her to invest in her management and leadership skills, which she says have been instrumental in guiding the business through the pandemic – a period through which, after an initial halt, the business has grown “exponentially”, almost tripling turnover and quadrupling the number of staff.
“People were no longer able to go out for dinner, go out and visit their family members,” she says.
“So, instead they ordered flowers (and) hampers. We delivered every single day of that lockdown and all through the pandemic to ensure people had beautiful gifts. People relied on us to send joy for birthdays and anniversaries and celebrations, but also send sympathies in really hard and harrowing times.
“Being able to be part of their story (makes) you just feel so grateful every day.”
Wijewickrema says she counts her lucky stars every day that she works with her family while supporting Guyana.
“Being able to see her work in a really great, supportive workplace with staff, knowing that she is safe and knowing that she is occupied and doing things she loves – I am just so grateful to all of the support workers that make that dream a reality for her.”
She also looks forward to growing numbers of people considering utilising employment social enterprises like hers on special days, like Valentine’s.
“Giving gifts is always going to be nice,” Wijewickrema says.
“But procurement from a social enterprise is always going to be nicer. The flow on effect, the ripple effect of your purchase via a social enterprise will make a lot of people happy in the process.”
Nipuni Wijewickrema was awarded a Westpac Social Change Fellowship in 2019, one of five scholarship programs offered by the Westpac Scholars Trust.