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Shining a beacon for disadvantaged people

09:00am April 10 2024

Employees at Beacon Laundry in Bangalow. (Supplied)

Unemployment rates are typically higher outside of Australia’s major cities, so when a new business opens in a regional town it’s a cause for celebration.

Even more so when the employer is focused on hiring people who face barriers to entering the workforce. 

Beacon Laundry is a commercial laundry which has just started operations in the northern New South Wales town of Bangalow. The social enterprise is creating upwards of 60 jobs, with new hires including First Nations people, single parents, people who are in recovery from addiction, and disadvantaged youths.

“Every community needs a Beacon Laundry,” says Luke Terry, CEO of White Box Enterprises, the social enterprise incubator which created Beacon. 

“Individuals everywhere deserve access to a workplace that prioritises people over profit and it’s our goal to see a social enterprise like Beacon Laundry in every town across Australia,” Terry, who was a Westpac Social Change Fellow in 2017, tells Wire in an interview. 

Australia’s social enterprise sector comprises more than 12,000 businesses, contributing over $21 billion annually to the national economy, according to industry body Social Enterprise Australia. But while they operate like any other business, the difference is that their mission is to do good for the community, whether that be to employ people experiencing disadvantage or to use their profits to support social or environmental causes. 

Nothing gives Terry more satisfaction than being able to employ people like Leigh, a mature-age woman who is master of the pillowcase press at Beacon Laundry. She is vision impaired and had previously struggled to find an employer who recognised and supported her willingness to work. 

“Leigh had never had an award wage job before she came here and I had the privilege to train her myself,” says Terry. “There is a huge amount of people who really want to work, and should be able to work, but society doesn’t provide them with those opportunities.”

Another employee is a 27-year-old who had been living rough in nearby Byron Bay and was struggling with mental health issues. 

“While there is a lot of wealth in these communities, there’s also a lot of disadvantage and we need to find better ways to support all of our neighbours,” Terry says. 

The Northern Rivers region has been hit hard in recent years by drought, bushfires and devastating floods, while the unemployment rate of around 6 per cent is well above the NSW average of 3.3 per cent. 

It took the team at White Box nearly two years to raise the $12 million needed to open Beacon Laundry in Bangalow, and Terry says it wouldn’t have been possible without the strong backing of Richard Uechtritz, the former CEO of JB HiFi, who lives in the region.

Luke Terry at the laundry. (Supplied)

Social entrepreneurs, particularly those whose mission is to create jobs for people experiencing disadvantage, face an extra set of challenges compared with traditional entrepreneurs. Most pressing is the need to fund ‘wrap-around supports’ for the people they employ and to find landlords willing to lease them spaces to operate. 

Those supports, which can range from providing additional training and onsite counselling, to arranging transport to and from the workplace, often represent a significant additional cost to the social enterprise and as a result make it more difficult for them to access financing.

White Box Enterprises, founded by Terry in 2019, has a strong track record of building large-scale jobs-focused social enterprises, as well as advocating innovative ways to strengthen and grow the sector.

Still, given the challenges faced by social enterprises in raising capital, there’s scope for the government and private sector to offer more support, says Terry.

“There needs to be an integrated role for social enterprises in the Australian employment and training system. Currently there is none.” 

Specifically, Terry would like to see the expansion of a Federal Government-funded trial White Box is running where jobs-focused social enterprises are paid for the employment outcomes they create. 

First-year results of the “Payment By Outcomes” trial showed that 86 per cent of the participants hired by social enterprises were retained, well above the predicted rate of 62 per cent, according to a study by the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University.  

The report found that positive outcomes for individuals were a result of the unique additional supports provided by social enterprises, such as youth and case workers, access to mental health practitioners, and flexible, people-focused approaches to work.  

Last year, a group of the country’s leading philanthropic organisations, including Westpac Foundation, combined to create a grant program to support the sector – the largest of its kind supporting social enterprises in Australia. 

The Work Integration Social Enterprise (WISE) Grant has provided $4.7 million in grants to help businesses like Beacon Laundry which are focused on improving employment outcomes for people who face challenges getting into the workforce.

Terry is confident there will be strong demand for Beacon’s services, particularly from hotels, motels and restaurants in a region which currently lacks commercial laundry options.

And while he acknowledges that securing funding for Beacon was a major challenge, he’s still hoping to roll out the concept in at least two more locations in coming years. 

Read more about White Box: Turning global spotlight on Aussie entrepreneurs 

James Thornhill was appointed as editor of Westpac Wire in May 2022. Prior to joining the bank, he was a business and financial journalist with more than two decades of experience with international newswires. Most recently, he was a resources correspondent for Bloomberg, covering the mining and energy sectors, and previously reported on a broad range of topics from economics and politics to currency and bond markets. Originally from the UK, he’s had stints working in London, New York and Singapore, but is now happily settled in Sydney.

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