Having recently attended the Canberra Regional Finals for the Australia Post Pitchfest at the National Convention Centre, I had the privilege of hearing five amazing young entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas; the standard was high and the pitches were all most convincing. So much so, that it was a difficult decision to pick the winner, not only for the judges but also for the audience who were voting for the “People’s Choice”. It was an awesome night and live streamed all around Australia, with impressive number one trending on Twitter!
There is no doubt, that the winner delivered an outstanding pitch. Nipuni Wijewickrema presented GG’s Flowers to us; a social enterprise which creates employment for people with special needs, and as it turns out, a family affair to start with. Geetha (Nipuni’s stepmum), had been a special needs assistant in the school system and felt that her students had much unrealised potential, but was worried for their future beyond school. What would they do for a job? Nip’s sister, Gayana, has Down Syndrome too and it was her future they started discussing. Geetha had done a floristry course and started a small floristry business, teaching Gayana some of the tasks involved. The business launched on Valentine’s Day just three years ago.
But having been a journalist and a communications officer at the ANU, Nip thought that the concept could go much wider than just helping Gayana. It could, in fact, help many people with disabilities stay out of unemployment if they expanded it enough, and so, GG’s Flowers was born. (GG came from Geetha & Gayana), and Nip is the ideas girl. As far as the nitty-gritty of running the business goes, Geetha does the floristry, Gayana (with the help of a support worker) delivers the flowers via Nip’s little car, and Nip is the front person – she does the customer service, PR, and networking, and also runs the Facebook page and website.
I chatted with Nip about Pitchfest and what this win meant for them. She said that she had discussed it with Geetha beforehand, and they decided that it didn’t matter if they won or not; what did matter was that they got exposure to a wider audience. So, they never expected to win. And Nip even said that watching the other four contestants strut their stuff, she doubted even more that in her wildest dreams they could ever win. “But even though the $5000 prize money means a lot to a little social enterprise like ours, the exposure and mentorship mean even more,” she tells me.
The judges asked some hard questions on the night. What were her plans to expand and how would she scale? How many people had they employed and how many could they potentially employ? What was her dream of where the business could go?
The questions were answered confidently. This pitch had been thought through, and so had the business plan, focused on solid future growth. Nip even had the audience smiling when she suggested that partnering with Australia Post would mean the biggest explosion in her business. But of course, on the other hand, she also admitted that it was an incredible sacrifice to run a business like GG’s Flowers.
“You can’t go away or take holidays and your customers are a 24/7 commitment. But the dividends are worth it in terms of social enterprise.”
GG’s Flowers already employs ten people after just three years. Four of them are employed weekly with set shifts, and the others are brought in on a casual, needs basis, like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, etc.
“I want to lower the unemployment rate among people with special needs,” Nip says, “And in order to grow I have been doing lots of public speaking at conferences and networking, which I really love doing as a people person and ex-journalist.”
Now GG’s Flowers has another challenge ahead of them: The National Gala Finals on 18th August, where all the winners around regional Australia will come together to pitch for the ultimate prize.
I’m going along to see Nip pitch again because I believe she has a very good chance. Why? Because this 24-year-old is already bucking the trends!