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Meet Gemma O’Brien – HEAT Catering, Melbourne City Mission

May 4, 2016

Last updated on March 16, 2021

HEAT aims to empower disadvantaged and disengaged young people through re-engagement, education and pathways to employment in the hospitality industry. HEAT Catering is a professional catering social enterprise that provides employment opportunities for young people who have graduated from the HEAT program. HEAT Catering also generates income to sustain HEAT.

Gemma O’Brien is Melbourne City Mission’s Social Enterprise Manager. She shares the history of HEAT, and the work they’re doing through Social Traders’ Crunch to map out its future growth and development.

Tell us about the HEAT Training program.

The HEAT Training Program is a rigorous 12 week program in hospitality run four times each year providing skills and accredited qualifications to over 60 disengaged young people each year in hospitality.

Each cohort works with a William Angliss Chef who trains them up with the skills that they need to be employed in the hospitality sector. Participants are enrolled in a Certificate III in Kitchen Operations from William Angliss. We also have a fantastic youth worker who provides holistic support to many who face challenges relating to unstable accommodation, alcohol or drug issues or mental health

For the HEAT participants, it not only provides a career pathway to getting a job but it also provides them with a purpose and to feel validated which is particularly important for young people facing structural disadvantage.


HEAT Training


Why do you think hospitality lends itself so well as a pathway to providing employment opportunities and skills development for at risk young people?

Hospitality is a pathway that allows people to travel, work in a diverse range of organisations and roles and is a very accessible industry for people of all abilities. For instance, young people  with lower levels of literacy or numeracy are very able and capable of thriving in the hospitality sector.

Also, the career trajectory is often easy for young people to understand and identify with – whereas in other industries it it might not be as clear where you might end up.

What prompted you take part in the Crunch program?

HEAT has existed for ten years and has a really strong history and brand, working with big organisations like Victoria Police, big industry partners and patrons , such as Guy Grossi who is really supportive of the program. About five years ago, Heat Catering was born with a view purely to generate income to offset some of the costs of the training program.

The reason we are participating in the Crunch is because we are wanting to take HEAT to the next level. We want to have greater social impact for our HEAT graduates, to build on and strengthen our long-history and have greater integration between the training and catering arms of the business.


Melbourne City Mission’s HEAT Training & Catering


How have you found the Crunch so far in assisting you to work on those aims?

I think the Crunch works as a mechanism where you have cause to step out of operations to ask “why are we doing this?” What is our primary form of social impact? How do we measure this? What can we do better?

Settling the primary social purpose has been a key takeaway from the Crunch thus far. It has informed many subsequent questions like what the HEAT model looks like, why HEAT exists, how we measure our impact and so on.

How have you found the cohort experience and working with your mentors?

It’s comforting to hear that others in the cohort are facing similar challenges and that you’re not alone. I completed a Crunch program in 2012 with another social enterprise of Melbourne City Mission and it’s a very different experience this time around – it’s become more of a shared learning experience.

Working with the mentors is always hugely valuable, we’ve got a mentor at Westpac who sees things through a different lens. It’s really helpful to speak to someone who has limited experience in the social and community impact space who is purely looking at the business and financial model, that’s helping us to find our place in the marketplace.

As the manager of multiple social enterprises for Melbourne City Mission and with a personal history in social enterprise development, what attracts you to continue working in the space?

From a big picture level, I think it’s a perfect storm in the community services sector.

I work in a really large organisation at Melbourne City Mission where we cover a large number of service areas from homelessness, justice, education, employment, early years and disability. The huge change internally has been the imminent rollout of the NDIS. The NDIS will see individuals more able to use their market power to decide on who their service provider is. This has reframed the way we deliver our services, as we now need to not only deliver quality services – but also be competitive in the open market.

From an external perspective, in the work that we do with CQ Cultural Consulting social enterprise, I’ve had the opportunity to navigate between coming from a community services organisation that houses social enterprise to working primarily with corporate and government organisations where there is an increasing pursuit of ‘shared value’. Corporate organisations that have historically been driven by profit and business motives, are now realising the opportunity to use their market power and position to have broader social impact and societal relevance. They’re seeing that they can play a key role in addressing social, economic or environmental issues.

So I think you have those two worlds collide, where internally we’re trying to become more business minded and externally we’re seeing commercial organisations shift to having the ability and the capacity to contribute to solving social issues…. It’s a really exciting time to be in social enterprise.

hc mcm

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