21 August 2023

UOW's business acceleration incubator launches program for social enterprise startups

| Dione David
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Jessica Clark sits on Earth Worthy blanket

For her business Earth Worthy, Wollongong entrepreneur Jessica Clark won an Australia Post Local Business Hero Award. Photo: Lisa Grant Photography.

The saying goes, “It’s lonely at the top”, but when it comes to starting a business, it can feel very much the same at the bottom according to Wollongong entrepreneur Jessica Clark.

Bad timing saw her starting her social enterprise Earth Worthy just as COVID-19 hit.

“It was week one of lockdown, I was at home alone with the kids because my husband worked long hours as a paramedic, and this truck backs into my driveway with a massive delivery of jute bags,” she laughs.

“I’m laughing now, but at the time, it was a lot.”

Earth Worthy makes sustainable and ethically sourced gifts including its signature compostable jute bags, the idea for which sprang from Ms Clark’s experiences working in Bangladesh for the Australian Government.

READ ALSO Riding the wave of success: 14-year-old Illawarra business owner celebrates major milestone

In 2019 she connected with an organisation that employed survivors from the Rana Plaza collapse – a horrific nine-storey collapse in 2013 that killed 1134 and injured thousands more.

As a social enterprise, Earth Worthy helps create employment opportunities that offer ethical conditions and living wages for former garment factory workers.

“I wanted to be part of the solution to create safe and flexible workplaces for women who survived the accident, who needed to continue working to provide for their families,” she says.

At the same time, Australia’s addiction to plastic was coming to the fore and the first single-use plastic bans had come into effect.

In Bangladesh, jute grows prolifically – a sustainable fibre with a short growth cycle, that requires a fraction of the water of cotton, none of the pesticides and leaves the land in which it grows more enriched. For environmentally conscious Australians needing to fill the gap left by plastic bags, Earth Worthy produces an alternative out of this miracle fibre.

When COVID-19 threw a spanner in her spokes, Ms Clark had to pivot. But she was new to the game.

“Starting a business can be very isolating at the best of times. Starting a business in lockdown is next level,” she says.

Women in Bangladesh weave Earth Worthy blankets

Earth Worthy products are made by former garment factory workers in safe and fair conditions. Photo: Little Drum Productions.

Fortunately, she was part of the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) “pre-accelerator program” and startup business incubator iAccelerate.

“Joining that cohort connected me to an ecosystem of like-minded people, many of whom were going through the same challenges as I was, or who could see things – opportunities or red flags – that sometimes I didn’t see,” she says.

iAccelerate has now launched its social enterprise program, a tailored pre-accelerator program specifically for social entrepreneurs, with the support of internationally recognised social enterprise leader and former Green Connect CEO Kylie Flament.

“Social enterprises must be both commercially viable and have long-lasting social or environmental impact,” Ms Flament says.

“Their founders can really benefit from being part of an incubator that connects them with other social entrepreneurs, guides them to establishing strong business models, and sets them up for success so that they can achieve great things for people and the planet.”

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Participants will learn the foundational business skills needed to go from initial idea to sustainable business, but Ms Flament says it’s much more than that.

“At iAccelerate startups and companies are taught to understand the impact of their business, supplementing those ‘hard’ skills in business development with a focus on sustainability, collaboration and building a social conscience into their business model from the outset,” she says.

“I’m excited to see what social enterprises emerge from the next iAccelerate cohort, and how the Wollongong business community can get behind some of the most promising ethical entrepreneurs in our region.”

The Social Enterprise Program will support underrepresented groups in the innovation ecosystem, including women and people with diverse backgrounds, and focus on concepts and individuals who want to drive positive change and deliver social impact.

Participants will visit leading social enterprises in the Illawarra, be mentored by social enterprise leaders, and be given networking opportunities to develop entrepreneurial leader engagement and connections to the vibrant local startup community.

They will also gain access to investors and connections to world-class researchers, facilities and university interns, providing a significant runway of support.

Following the completion of the 12-week program, participating social enterprises may be selected for an ongoing nine-month residency at iAccelerate.

Woman in Bangladesh holds up a black Earth Worthy jute bag

Earth Worthy’s signature product is its sustainably made, durable yet compostable jute bag. Photo: Little Drum Productions.

Earth Worthy went on to collaborate with charities such as Action Aid, which helped raise funds for COVID-19 relief in Bangladesh and pivoted into custom-made gifts for environmentally conscious businesses including Glenbernie Apple Orchard in Darkes Forest and Wollongong’s Easy Agile.

In three years, it has sold more than 50,000 jute bags and won multiple Clean and Conscious awards, recognising its commitment to people and the planet.

“Running a social enterprise your heart can be in it but building a sustainable business requires balance and a long-sighted approach,” Ms Clark says.

“I’ve had some really great mentors and valued that critical eye and even sometimes, just reassurance that you’re on the right track.”

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