Let there be the Big Idea

How it all began…

Early last year I received an email from my PhD supervisors (As/Prof Kirrilly Thompson and Prof Drew Dawson), with the subject heading ‘Does your student have the next Big Idea?’. I was curious, I knew I had some good ideas, but I thought that a “Big Idea” was a bit beyond me.  Despite my initial doubts, I read through the email, which explained:

‘Homelessness, unemployment and social disadvantage are so much more than one of many news stories covered by the media each week, or a set of footnotes on the pages of yet another government report. For many Australians, these issues are all too real, and have had to become a way of life.

The good news is that you and your students can help to make a difference!

Each year The Big Issue runs a national campaign inviting university students to participate in a social enterprise competition known as The Big Idea. The competition allows the next generation of social entrepreneurs to think about a current social need and develop a business plan that has the ability to make a positive contribution to society. The five-month journey sees students working in teams from an initial idea to the presentation of a final business plan shown to a judging panel of Australian business leaders. Along the way they are exposed to: Online seminars, Inspiring lectures; and First hand advice from influential thought leaders from the Australian business sector. Last year an inspiring team of engineering students from CQUniversity took home the top prize for their business plan involving a pallet house shelter.

I was intrigued because my PhD research on food rescue organisations involved working with people that were socially disadvantaged, food insecure, and/or struggling with homelessness.  I was keen to have the opportunity to develop a practical solution that could help to make a difference! However, the competition was for a Business Plan! My background is in the Social and Behavioural Sciences, and although I did well in my Mathematics subjects at high school, I didn’t have an MBA, nor did I consider myself to be “business–minded”. In fact, I spent a long time as a social scientist critiquing corporate businesses, so I was rather concerned about my ability to create a business plan.

Developing our Big Idea…

At the time of the competition, Dr Keri Chiveralls and Prof Drew Dawson were designing the world’s first tertiary level Permaculture Design and Sustainability program.  Keri is passionate about addressing social inequality and has extensive experience teaching and researching in areas of permaculture, sustainability, and social movements. Drew has expertise in sustainability, organisational psychology, social marketing, and a passion for gardening.  They were interested in developing a community garden as a ‘working lab’ for CQU’s new Permaculture students. I discussed the competition with them and they became my competition mentors. We started brainstorming how we could turn a community garden into a financially sustainable social enterprise.

Our brainstorming first involved researching and identifying the problems/issues we were wanting to solve with our social enterprise. The problems we identified were:

  1. The complex problem of homelessness
  2. The eviction of people sleeping rough in the Southern Parklands of Adelaide
  3. The need to utilise and increase the biodiversity of the parklands opposite our CQUniversity Adelaide campus (The Appleton Institute)

Considering these issues and what we had available to us, we though the best way to approach these issues would be to collaborate with the people already working in the area to build partnerships to develop a sustainable and holistic solution.

We met and discussed our idea with a local welfare agency called the Hutt Street Centre. The Hutt Street Centre is a fantastic welfare agency that provides aid to over 200 people struggling with homelessness each day. Their services provide wrap around support including case management and health and support services. From these meetings we began to see how we could collaborate to create a community garden that could support people struggling with homelessness to reconnect with community, rebuild their lives, and build economic independence.

As the project started gaining momentum, my office buddy, PhD student Tessa Benveniste, also joined the team. Tessa has experience working with vulnerable Aboriginal people and has a passion for community engagement.  Four minds were better than three. So our team met every week or two to discuss the project.

While we were developing our idea, we were given access to a range of live and online sessions delivered by The Big Issue management and from key business leaders who taught us about developing a business plan, leadership, and entrepreneurship.  In some of the session we heard from some of the Big Issue Vendors about their personal accounts of homelessness and disadvantage, which enabled us to develop a greater understanding of their experiences and hardships. We were also provided with several resources and suggested readings about social enterprises, and we were given templates for business plans and budgets.

So my initial fear about not being “business-minded” lessened because we were coached through the process and provided with fantastic information.  In fact, armed with this knowledge and being instructed through the competition, I began to realise that I actually have a “business-mind” – I just hadn’t had the opportunity or motivation to tap into it.  So over the weeks leading up to the submission of our business plan, I researched target markets, marketing approaches, and I developed a budget and financial projects for our project. By the time we were ready to submit, I was very proud of the final idea and business plan – The Garden of Earthly Delights was ready!

Our Big Idea… The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights is an innovative social enterprise, which integrates a not-for-profit community garden as a joint venture between CQUniversity and TAFE, the Adelaide City Council, and the Hutt Street Centre. It will provide education and job training opportunities, transitional employment, and support services for people experiencing homelessness, disadvantage, and vulnerability in the City of Adelaide. By connecting educational institutions with the local community, businesses, and socially disadvantaged groups, the aim is to provide a continuity of care, along with fresh produce, flowers, and herbs for the community, and a vibrant outdoor venue for events and workshops.

The competition experience…

We submitted our business plan in October 2015, and that was when the competition really kicked off.  We then had 2 weeks to develop a 15-minute presentation of our big idea that we would first present to our university’s panel judges.  At the time Tessa was in remote Australia for her PhD data collection, and she had no phone or internet coverage, so it was up to me to put together the presentation and refine it with Drew and Keri.  On the day of the presentation, I was so nervous, I had stayed up late the night before practicing the pitch over and over.  But, I’m delighted to say it was very well received.  The judges gave me such great feedback and ideas of how I could further develop the project. The next week we received an email that we had been put through to represent CQUniversity in the semi-finals.

We were so excited to be representing CQUniversity in the semi-finals.   However, when the semi-final date was released for the 17th November 2015, Tessa was back from remote Australia, but I was scheduled to present my PhD research at a conference in Spain on the same day!  It was an unfortunate coincidence. But I was determined to do both.  I did some calculations of the time-difference and I worked out that if I woke up at 3am (Spain time) I could skype Tessa at 1:30pm (Adelaide time) and then we could present together online to The Big Issue panel judges at 2pm (Melbourne time). It was a challenging experience to make sure our presentation could be delivered from different places and different time-zones. But we rehearsed it over the internet several times to make sure there were no technical glitches.

And then the day (or night for me) of the semi-finals arrived.  My alarm woke up me up at 3am, I drank an extra strong cup of coffee, got dressed into business-attire, and Skyped Tessa from my hotel room in Spain.  The judges then added us onto the video conference and we pitched our idea to them.  Again, we received great feedback and ideas about the project, and we were told that we would find out if we made it to the grand final in Melbourne within the next week.

Well, the next day we received an email that we had made it to the grand final and we were going to be flown to Melbourne to present to a judging panel of CEOs from Telstra, PwC, Australia Post, Macquarie Group etc… The list of judges was impressive, and although I was excited, I was also really nervous that we were going to present our business pitch to them.  During the week leading up to the grand final, we worked with Drew and Keri to polish our pitch. We also practiced presenting it to all of our colleagues at the Appleton Institute, who gave us some really helpful advice. Then we boarded a plane and were off to Melbourne.

On the morning of the grand final we had the “breakfast of champions” at a local Social Enterprise Café – we thought it was a pretty fitting way to start the day.  We then met and rehearsed our presentation with Associate-Vice Chancellor Lara Carton at CQUniversity’s Melbourne Campus.  Lara’s advice was so helpful, it really helped to perfect our presentation. The morning of rehearsals went by so quickly, and in no time it was time to leave the campus and for the competition to begin.  We drove to the PwC building in Southbank, where the panel of judges were waiting for us.

When we arrived, the PwC building was so impressive. We were taken up to the 19th floor, offered refreshments, and then we had to wait until we were called to present.  I really think this was the most nervous I have ever been in my life!  I remember trying to bring a glass of water to my mouth and my hands were shaking, I could barely manage it.  And then our names were called – it was our turn to present.  We were escorted down a long dark hallway towards the boardroom, I remember being so nervous and telling Tessa and Lara that I felt like I was being led to the arena for The Hunger Games! We shared nervous smiles as we opened the door to the boardroom.  But, when we walked in, we were greeted by a group of smiling judges.  Seeing their smiling faces, I realised that the judges weren’t the scary CEOs I had envisioned – I felt much more relaxed.  We presented our Big Idea, we confidentially answered all of the judges’ questions, and then we were done –  it was all over so quickly.

Permaculture launch 3

That night, we attended the awards ceremony.  I was nervous, but confident that we had done all that we could, and now it was up to the judges.  The teams were introduced and interviewed one by one about their project.  I was the spokesperson for our team, and I was asked how we developed our idea, what the judging process was like, and why we were passionate about our social enterprise.  The interview went well, we sat down, and then it was time for the big announcement…

The announcer said that it was between us and Deakin University, and then… <drum roll please>… They announced that the 2015 winner of the Big Idea Postgraduate Competition is the Garden of Earthly Delights from CQUniversity!  We were thrilled! All of our research, hard work, and rehearsals had paid off – we’d won!  We turned to see Drew and Lara in the audience, they gave us the biggest smiles as we walked up to the stage to collect our prizes.  The rest of the night was a bit of a blur, we were inundated with people congratulating us and giving us their business cards as they offered us all sorts of opportunities to collaborate and further develop our Big Idea – it was a fantastic night!

Reflecting on the experience…

I am so thankful to CQUniversity and The Big Issue for the Big Idea competition experience. Tessa and I are especially thankful to Drew Dawson, Keri Chiveralls, and Lara Carton for their ongoing support and encouragement throughout the project.

Since winning the competition I have received employment offers, guest speaker engagements, and have conducted several radio interviews about the project. The competition gave me the opportunity to expand my knowledge of the corporate and not-for-profit sector, and it enabled me to grow and develop a “business-mind” that I didn’t know I had. The business skills I have gained in project management, budget development, leadership, and entrepreneurship have improved my employability and job readiness. I also realised during the competition that I had a talent for graphic arts and logo design, which I am keen to utilise in the future.

More personally, the competition gave me confidence to more effectively present my ideas and strength to overcome my nerves. I know this strength and confidence will help me in my future endeavours, and especially now as I work towards turning this Big Idea into a reality.

I look forward to sharing with you about the future of The Garden of Earthly Delights project in my next blog, and I strongly encourage CQUniversity students to enter this year’s competition – let’s defend our title for a third year in a row!

Elisha Vlaholias is a PhD candidate in the social and behavioural sciences with a concentration in sociology at the Appleton Institute, Central Queensland University.  Her project examines the socio-cultural experiences of giving and receiving food through food redistribution programs in Australia. Her broader research interests include the cultural meanings of food, sustainability, and the socio-environmental issues of food waste and food insecurity.

cqunilifeguest (https://cqunilife.com)

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