October 14, 2015
Kate Wiechmann has a history in social enterprise and working to provide new opportunities and career pathways for those facing barriers to employment.
Living in Chicago, she was the General Manager of Café Too (now Inspiration Kitchens) a restaurant with a skills training program for the long term homeless, ex-offenders and others facing significant barriers to self-sufficiency. After 4 and half years with Café Too, Kate then became Executive Director of the charity “Dress for Success” in Sydney, promoting career development opportunities and providing professional attire to disadvantaged women.
We spent five minutes with Kate to find out what draws her to the social enterprise sector and about her latest social enterprise venture, “Mates on the Move”.
How did you get started in social enterprise?
When I arrived in the US in 2005 I was looking for a change in careers, I had a background in finance and I was looking for something new. I found an innovative NFP called Café Too and they were just getting started and doing the fitout of the café. I took a job as their General Manager and I found myself spending more and more time with them because I was just so fascinated with what they were doing.
We ran a program to train the homeless in hospitality and we would also feed homeless people in a café environment, it was all about dignity and respect. The café was located in an area with a high rate of homelessness, there was a lot of tension between the public living in the area and the social services working with the homeless so having this café in this suburb was a nice bridge to facilitate positive interactions and to help educate the locals on the situation.
During my work there, I could just see with my own eyes the pride growing in people. They were doing something they could be proud of and that gave them a sense of purpose – people living on the streets were turning up at class everyday which is pretty awesome and you could see the benefit of these people having a good interaction with the public.
This made me realise that the idea of social enterprise had so much value. Charities are awesome and offering services to feed and take care of people is really important but the value add that social enterprise can bring is really inspiring to me. After that experience I was sold, I’d drunk the social enterprise cool aid.
What has inspired you to continue working in the social enterprise sector?
When you get the chance to work with the individuals and see the change in them seeing hope when they previously thought there was none– that’s what inspires me.
Social isolation is a huge issue and many people think it’s a geographical problem affecting people in rural areas but people can live in the middle of Sydney but be isolated for days and have no interaction with anyone. So giving the opportunity for people to not just survive but to grab onto life and give things a go and is what drives me, it’s being able to give the gift of self-realisation that really keeps me going.
How did the idea behind Mates on the Move develop?
In my previous roles I’d come across people exiting correctional centres and realised very quickly that this was an area of huge need. There are a lot of assumptions made about people coming out of prison – people tend to assume that they don’t need help or that because they’ve committed a crime they shouldn’t be helped – but I believe that once people have served their sentence, they deserve a fresh chance just as much as you and I do after we’ve made a mistake.
What’s you aspiration for the social impact of Mates on the Move?
In a couple of years’ time, I’d love to see 20 bright blue ‘Mates on the Move’ trucks cruising around Sydney, all staffed by people who wouldn’t necessarily have been given a chance or who would be back in prison.
We also have the ability to scale into the future, we could bring this program to Melbourne, to Queensland – anywhere that has people coming out of prison which is pretty much right across Australia. In New South Wales we have 37 different correctional facilities and a site in each one of those areas could really help people coming out of those facilities.
How does it feel to have worked on this idea through the Crunch and presenting your idea at the Pitch?
The Crunch really forced me to focus – going into it, the Board and I really believed in this idea but getting that to a point where you could convince people that your idea is what society wants is harder than you think it might be.
You have to put rigorous business investigation into your idea and Social Traders and the mentors really helped me do that. They asked me the hard questions, pushed me a little bit harder than I may have pushed myself and as a result I think we have a really strong business case to support hundreds of people over the next few years.
What would be your one piece of advice for something thinking about starting to work on their social enterprise idea?
Do it! Seriously just do it! You will need more support than you think you will need so make sure you ask for it because there are a lot of people out there who are more than willing to help and have the skills to help you.