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After years of volunteer work this entrepreneur used social enterprise to start her business -- and Australians love it

Left to right: The Fabric Social co-founders Fiona McAlpine, Sharna de Lacy and Katie Rose.

At the foolhardy age of 26 I decided to start a company. Those who know me, were a bit taken aback by this. I am someone who, in my younger years, was deeply grossed out by people who decided to study business, convinced they must have been born without hearts. I am someone who thought all money making endeavors were the domain of neoliberal jerks, and that the only noble pursuits in life involved elbow patches and empty bank accounts. I was wrong.

I have decided that you can be both a capitalist piglet, and make positive change in the world, through this marvelous new beast called social enterprise. Let me tell you how I got there.

During years of volunteer work in the international development space, I watched great swathes of money wash through departments and programs, and witnessed reams of paper printed into the world, calling out all government and corporate nasty pasties on their nasty pastie ways. But I saw little change for people on the ground in grassroots communities, which is where I preferred to work. Longitudinal systemic change sounds nice, but is frustrating from the perspective of someone living in a developing community, trying to get through today and tomorrow. Eventually, I got fed up.

The ladies I have been working with for the past few years are in Northeast India, one of the world’s forgotten conflict zones, a place development cash seldom trickles. Almost twice the population of Australia live there, more than a third of them live below the poverty line, and nothing is changing.

I was largely based in Delhi, representing an interest group with a very small voice. In a place like Delhi, where almost everyone is shouting, it is easy for these voices to get drowned out. Any requests for assistance, accountability, recognition, fell on the deaf ears of the central government. Or a shrug of dismissal, that atrocities were alright, even necessary, in order to stamp out the “terrorists” (a disturbingly familiar argument for us Australian spectators).

“Why didn’t you look to the international community!?” I hear you cry. We were a whisper of a whisper in international fora. The Northeast falls firmly in the too hard basket for many of the big international NGOs, who risk revocation of their Indian registration if they go near it with a ten foot pole. These organisations can’t afford to have the plug pulled on all their other poverty alleviation work across India.
It simply isn’t worth it.

Photo: Aaron Hollet.
Photo: Aaron Hollet.

The UN are also flaccid in this instance, where criticizing the Indian government could result in a withholding of peacekeeping forces. India contributes over 8,000 police, experts and troops to the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. By comparison Australia contributes 42. Calling out India in the international limelight over the mistreatment of civilians in the Northeast is one issue that the United Nations isn’t going to welcome into its chambers.

So — the next logical step was to start a business.

No, I am not kidding. After spending a lot of time speaking with people on the ground, taking down countless testimonies and writing endless reports, the resounding request from the ladies in the field was for some cold hard cash. All these capacity building initiatives and reconciliation efforts were bogus without it. How can you be an agent of change if all you’re thinking about is how you’re going to be able to afford rice tomorrow? Or whether you have the 5 rupees to send your kid in the share jeep to school? A teeny bit of cash goes a long long way, and research has shown that if you give people a bit of cash, they know how to spend it best, better than Geneva, better than New York. So that’s what we decided to do.

But we didn’t have any money to give them, we would have to make some. We decided to start from the ground up, work with the existing skill sets. The first two villages we worked with were fabric producers, many of whom had been active members in the armed insurgency over the past 20 years, but now live in a demilitarization camp. One group makes silk, the other cotton. So we started making clothes that are half cotton, half silk, and have a kick-ass story sewn in. And abracadabra, it worked. We’ve more than doubled the daily income of the women weavers with which we work, and brought these little weaving businesses back to life. All we needed was a sexy website and our Australian connections, and we started seeing real change on the ground, with money going where it was most needed – directly into the community’s pockets.

And Australia is into it. People emerge out of the woodwork all the time, curious about this new dialogue of development, one not based on charity, but one with which they can interact and directly contribute. We have had over the past year a stellar flock of interns based in Melbourne, keeping the lights on while we’ve been in the field. We have a collaboration with Illumination Solar, after our ladies requested solar electricity. We are working with CodeCloud, a crowdsource coding platform, to build a smartphone app for the ladies to track their work and incomes. Organisations in PNG, Uganda and Guatemala have reached out and want to get on board. In a nutshell: capacity building and community development follows the money, not the other way around.

I don’t want to call the horse before the race, but I am guessing that social enterprise is going to kick some pretty massive goals in the next half century. Not only are Australians sick of slave labour crap, they’re sick of the old-school charity marketing that relies heavily on guilt. All the research, as well as our direct experience shows, people are willing to pay a little extra for something that doesn’t leave blood on their hands. People need to shop somewhere, and they’d rather get some tangible value out of it. Take our super cute shirts, each one with a story of resilience, each one with the name of the woman who made it hand-written on the label. Not just a direct debit footnote, but a real community connection. And good on them. No more babies on TV with distended bellies and flies, people want positive stories and a way of contributing to the grassroots directly. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

So if you’re a capitalist business type, think about investing in social enterprises like us as part of your corporate social responsibility framework. We are the new wave, so we are high risk, but we can show you exactly how high our impact returns are, and we think you’ll be very pleased. And if you’re a bleeding heart development volunteer like I was, start getting creative with your solutions and check your assumptions at the door. Take a leap, take a risk. You might end up doing something you never expected to be doing, and you might end up doing something great.

Fiona McAlpine is a Melbourne native, who has trained as a journalist and lawyer in Australia, West Africa and South Asia. She is the co-founder of The Fabric Social, an ethical fashion brand working exclusively with conflict-affected women. The Fabric Social work to transform one of the greatest causes of poverty: armed conflict. You can shop, donate, or get involved here. You can find them on Twitter too.

Photo: Marina Vucic.

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