The power of purpose: inside the growth of a refugee empowerment social enterprise
At a glance
- Welcome Merchant is a social enterprise that connects consumers with refugee-owned small businesses across the country.
- The enterprise exists first and foremost for purpose – supporting refugees.
- The business’s success is partly due to the team of driven volunteers who help to organise events and push the business onwards.
- The best part? Welcome Merchant customers have only good things to say about the business and its intent.
Positive social impact is now a core expectation of customers when they turn to businesses small and large alike, with small business owners needing to balance purpose with returning a profit, alongside the many other hats they wear.
A social enterprise takes this notion to heart and offers a business solution alongside social impact. Purpose is at the very core of its overarching strategy and day-to-day operations.
Welcome Merchant founder Marjorie Tenchavez shares how purpose has helped guide her decisions on the growth path of her social enterprise, and the reasons why her volunteers and customers alike are drawn to supporting refugee businesses.
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Purpose-driven social enterprise
Starting up a social enterprise wasn’t always on the cards for Marjorie, but she was driven by a powerful purpose.
Inspired by initiatives such as Buy From the Bush, which encourages consumers to invest in rural small businesses, she set up Welcome Merchant in 2020 to provide a platform for refugee-owned businesses in Australia.
Welcome Merchant does not charge refugee businesses for their listings, instead relying on revenue from public events including dinners and cooking classes, donations, and the sale of goody boxes and merchandise on its online store.
Marjorie, whose background is in community development, refugee campaigning and refugee casework, initially launched Welcome Merchant on Instagram in March 2020. She says the trajectory of the enterprise since has been unexpected.
“I always tell everyone that I’m an accidental entrepreneur,” she says. “When we first launched, I had no intention of turning it into a business. It was going to be an online platform for refugee-owned businesses in Australia.”
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When Welcome Merchant did launch as a small business social enterprise in November 2020, Marjorie set out recruiting a team of similarly driven volunteers to assist the enterprise’s purposeful endeavour.
She says she can’t overstate the value, passion and skills those volunteers, many of whom reached out to her directly, bring to the business.
“You wouldn’t be talking to me about Welcome Merchant if I didn’t have my team,” she says. “My WordPress officer, for example, said she’d always wanted to help people from refugee backgrounds.”
To illustrate the value of her volunteer team for the social enterprise, Marjorie provides a pertinent example of the effort they put into making the business a success.
“Recently, I came down with COVID and couldn’t go to Melbourne for a pop-up market,” she recalls. “But I have four volunteers there, including one whose role is in events and communications. She led the event, was the main organiser and did an excellent job.
“But the other three volunteers, who don’t usually have anything to do with our events, also put their hands up and volunteered on the day. Without them, there was no way we could have run the event. It shows the commitment they have to what we’re doing.”
Purpose-driven customer engagement
A good idea and a talented team mean little without engaged customers. And that same purpose that spurs on Marjorie and her team is a boon for customer engagement – it’s often the central point of the positive feedback Marjorie receives from consumers.
“The customers who buy our goody boxes do it because they know it directly benefits refugee-owned businesses,” she says. “A lot of them say they search for gift hampers or ethical shopping, and that’s what leads them to us.”
As for in-person events, Marjorie says most attendees go away feeling “very full” – both from food and from knowing they’re supporting a good cause.
The lesson for small business owners? An investment in purpose – whether that’s becoming a social enterprise, taking on pro bono clients, providing coffee for the local school’s fundraiser or sponsoring a local sports team – can pay off.
And as Marjorie says, “People are very supportive of what we do”. The payoff in telling your brand’s story and sharing the purpose behind it is not just in the warm and fuzzies – it’s in loyalty of both employees and customers.
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