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The Never Ending Quest – Red Is The New Black

By CARTER HAMMETT - January 8 2017

Despite its humble thrift store origins a century ago, social purpose enterprises have been gaining ground in recent years as a viable form of both employment and skills training. Now, a Toronto-based recycling operation is taking things in a different direction with a new twist on an old model. 

When Graham Lewis stepped up to accept the award for Business Achievement Employer of the Year, from the Job Opportunity Information Network back in December 2016, it came as something of a surprise. 

In business less than a year, Red Propeller has been making a name for itself in a number of ways. As an innovative recycler of materials others have yet to consider; as Canada’s only program dedicated VHS tape recycler, and as an employer committed to hiring people with barriers, including learning disabilities and ADHD. 

“We’re able to take a slower road to profit and we do with a social mission we stand by,” says Lewis. 

This is good news for people with learning disabilities and ADHD, since Red Propeller is an employer that places emphasis on working with the person’s strengths and possibilities, rather than their limitations. 

I’ve always said that job seekers with LDs go from the crisis of having no job to the crisis of having a job.  What this means is that, although they may present well to employers, keeping the job becomes a different matter. As an invisible disability which the employee might not even be aware of, issues like inconsistent work performance, time management and learned helplessness may play a role.  Furthermore, classic LD issues like executive functioning may present problems with self-regulation; auditory memory may be a concern when receiving tasks or remembering names. Issues like this, combined with the impulsivity and/or inattentiveness of ADHD can make maintaining a job extremely difficult, especially if the person hasn’t been assessed or chosen not to disclose their disability. 

“We chose a social mission we feel has been lost in society through automation, and that’s human equity,” says Lewis. “Human equity is the ability to see the good in someone irrespective of the barrier they possess or are perceived to have. 

“It doesn’t matter if the person has a learning disability or an ABI or seizures…they possess lots of other qualities.” 

Although the company has for-profit goals, Red Propeller is probably best described as a social purpose enterprise (SPE) or social entrepreneurship. For the uninitiated, the Toronto Enterprise Fund describes SPEs as “a business operated by a charity or non-profit organization that sells goods and/or services in the market place for the dual purpose of generating income and achieving a social, cultural and/or environmental mission.” 

Indeed, the concept of social enterprise has existed in various forms and concepts for decades. Thrift stores operated by various charities across the world have been around a key source of revenue generation for over a century. Hostels are another example of this. A different spin on the concept evolved during the 1980s when alternative businesses began to dot the horizon as a means of teaching consumer-survivors, homeless people and street youth employability skills. While the number of SPEs is unknown, a conservative estimate would be about 25,000 and these employ thousands of people across the country.   

The concept has proven beneficial to people with LD/ADHD on a global scale. And with crowdfunding, Kickstarter campaigns and the evolution of the shared economy (Uber, Airbnb among others) social entrepreneurship appears to be a concept whose time has finally arrived. When you think about the disproportionate number of entrepreneurs with LD/ADHD—Virgin’s Richard Branson and Apple’s Steve Jobs among them—it makes perfect sense to apply the model: the idea only becomes more fortified. 

In London UK, the social enterprise Goma Collective which exists to foster creative business ideas, partnered with local caterer and rapper Loyle Carner and created a cooking school specifically for youth with ADHD with positive results. Meanwhile over in Spain, the Barcelona-based social enterprise Change Dyslexia gathers researchers globally to improve opportunities for people with the LD. One of their most notable projects is a “dyslexia detector” designed to combat school dropout. Another effort is a gaming app called Piruletras that helps children with reading and writing. 

Closer to home Red Propeller is giving people with barriers experience in a full warehouse setting. The concept began with the idea of recycling old VHS tapes and Project Get Reel was born. The supply of tapes, which are contained in a shell of polypropylene, is not exhaustive so Lewis and partners started sniffing out other recycling opportunities, eventually settling on baby car seats as the recycling item of choice. 

“We realized that car seats are also made of polypropylene so we decided to take these apart and find a use for the parts that we couldn’t recycle,” he says. 

The shell is granulated and can be recycled into products including chopping blocks, ping pong paddles and even furniture. The concept appears to have taken off with Red Propeller operating a recycling program that’s approved by the Ministry of the Environment. 

Lewis prefers to refer to Red Propeller as a social franchise model rather than a social enterprise. That’s because the concept’s being spun off into a non-profit organization with the launch of Green Propeller. 

“We’ve created Green Propeller and removed ourselves from the equation. The Learning Enrichment Foundation (LEF), which houses Red Propeller, has over 300 members who learned of the NGO plan at LEF’s most recent AGM. 

“All we’ve done is license Green Propeller,” says Lewis. “Our board of directors is no relation to Red Propeller.” 

The idea is born from good stock, since Lewis is perhaps best-known as the founder of Klink Coffee, which has proven to be a successful social enterprise for people working their way through the Canadian justice system. 

And with plans to expand first provincially in the next year, nationally within the next three years, the propellers show no signs of slowing down. 

“We work with all people that others overlook. Employers are missing out on some of the most grounded individuals who give you so much. From my perspective we’re a for-profit employer,” says Lewis. “The business principles we’ve developed will stand on their own.” 

Social Enterprise in Ontario 

A-Way Express Courier is a same-day courier business using public transportation for deliveries throughout Toronto. For over 25 years we have done this in a unique work environment that supports recovery for survivors of mental health challenges. A-Way is recognized globally as a progressive enterprise and a model of social responsibility. Our employees appreciate the opportunity to work and the supportive workplace at A-Way, and we all work hard to get the job done. 

Social Enterprise for Northern Ontario (SENO) 

Led by PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise, SENO is a non-profit organization that brings together communities, First Nations, organizations and businesses committed to the purpose of igniting innovation, securing investment, providing education for and financing social enterprise and social entrepreneurship in Northern Ontario. 

The Centre for Innovative Social Enterprise Development, CISED, in Ottawa offers a continuum of supports for social enterprise in the city of Ottawa, including access to technical expertise, coaching, financing, and learning communities, training, and cross-sector partnerships. Check it: http://www.cised.ca/about/ 

Social Enterprise Ontario: The space for social enterprise and the social economy in Ontario is growing. The Ontario website is a community-driven showcase of social enterprise (SE) and the social economy in Ontario. With a platform created by a collaboration of regional, provincial and national nonprofit organizations, SEontario demonstrates the geographic scope and community impact of SE across the province. With a showcase of examples of social enterprise work and a geo-mapped searchable database to explore various types of SE in different regions, it connects to a wide range of resources, marketplaces and events, and provides regional, francophone and co-operative supports. Visit the site at: http://seontario.org/ 


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