Twenty-six-year-old Nipuni Wijewickrema is still reeling from the news that she is one of the ten recipients of this year’s Westpac Social Change Fellowship, recognising her as an inspirational individual committed to creating positive change in Australia.
“I’m just really touched,” she says, “to know an organisation like Westpac supports you, and with such a substantial sum of money.”
The money is indeed substantial – $50,000 to be exact – but it’s not just the money that this young entrepreneur values about the Fellowship.
“Westpac really picked up on my weakness, which is that I am bad at confrontation. They encouraged me and were willing to invest in me so that I could work on that,” Nipuni claims.
How does one work on that, exactly? By investing the Fellowship money in a Negotiation and Conflict Resolution course – at Harvard University. Nipuni is also keen to undergo training exercises and meet other social entrepreneurs during her time away. She also wants to delve deeper into social franchising and licensing as she says it is a subject that has not received a lot of attention.
And to think, all this began in a humble shop down Denman Street, where Nipuni and her family started GG’s Flowers and Hampers with her sister, Gayana, in mind.
GG’s ambition is to “provide meaningful employment for people with special needs”. The flower shop has grown in the past six years to include 35 employees, most of whom have been diagnosed with an intellectual disability. Nipuni says her screening process involves a casual chat and a trial, much like any other business. At GGs, everyone gets a fair go.
When the Wijewickremas started the social enterprise, Nipuni utilised her background in journalism and her media skills to get the word across and get Canberra behind them. “Six-and-a-half years later, and we have gone from strength to strength,” Nipuni states.
But honing her skills would be a much-appreciated investment for the young business-owner, who is currently the HR Manager, councillor, coordinator, and any other position that is required at GG’s. Indeed, when the conversation was cut short by one of her delivery people calling in to ask her what to do about a potentially dangerous dog at one of their delivery addresses, the calmness in Nipuni’s voice as she advised him made it abundantly clear why she is pursuing a course in conflict resolution.
In addition to being a multi-tasker, what makes Nipuni so inspiring is her tenacity. This was her sixth attempt at applying for the Fellowship, driving home her motto: “consistency gets results”. Now empowered by this Fellowship, it seems the world is her oyster and there is no saying where she will go next with the skills she will receive. But social enterprise will always be her passion.
“[Businesses like] GG’s is a good example of how we can survive without government funding. We don’t run a charity organisation; we take people off welfare dependency,” she says, emphasising the need for more social enterprises like GG’s, which has even managed to procure large contracts with businesses like Flight Centre in New Zealand.
As for her sister, Gayana, who was born with Down Syndrome and who is front and centre representing the flower shop, Nipuni says that she seems unaware of the Fellowship but also seems excited.
“She thinks of me as her minion,” Nipuni quips. “She probably will be sad when I leave for Harvard but distance makes the heart grow fonder!”
Indeed it might, as it looks like the love between the two sisters is the vital ingredient for the blossoming of GG’s.