Meet the up and coming Australian based social enterprises that are challenging the norm. During this series, we'll interview the finalists that made it to this year's Early Ethical Entrepreneur Pitch Competition and we'll find out what drives them, what their big vision is and how they are tackling social or environmental challenges. You will learn their stories of resilience, their discovery of purpose, and their visions for the future.
Winner of the Early Ethical Entrepreneur Pitch Competition
Interview with Grace O'Hara Co-Founder
Q. Describe your journey so far as an ethical enterprise – what is your purpose, and why you embarked on this journey?
Growing up, I was a total bookworm. Living in New Zealand meant that I was in many ways disconnected from what was happening in the rest of the world. I turned to books to fill in the gaps, but found, while there were many characters and stories that reflected my own experience, there weren’t many that showed me what other places were like. When I got a bit older, I started watching TV and was surprised by what I found on the news and in advertising: stories of war, of tragedies, of things going wrong and people helpless to solve them.
It wasn’t until I grew up a bit more, had the privilege of traveling and visiting some of the places I’d seen on TV before I realized that the stories I’d been told were exactly that – stories, not fact. In the places I’d expected to see suffering, I found people just like me, happy and healthy, and working hard to make the world a better place to be.
The books that I needed to teach me about the world didn’t exist when I was growing up, and they mostly still don’t. These days, a children’s book is more likely to feature an animal as the main character, than a character that isn’t white. What’s even more troubling is only about 23% of children’s books authors are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. That means there’s a whole lot of stories and storytellers we’re ignoring in publishing.
Q. While everyone talks about innovation and novelty, describe how you came up with your idea and what it means to you to see it grow? The idea for Small Fires came gently over time. I knew after traveling that there was work to do in creating and amplifying better stories about the world. It was when my sister was having her first baby that I realized starting earlier with diverse stories was going to be most effective (and to be honest more fun). The business model took some figuring out, through lots of chats with people in the impact space, and hugely inspired by the work of ygap who are pioneers of backing local change. And finally, an idea was just half the process, I needed partners to help me bring it to life. I knew I wanted to work with people who were making change in their community, and who were part of cultural groups not often featured in books. I reached out to my friend Lillian, who is a community volunteer in Nairobi, Kenya, and asked if she was up for working on this wild idea with me. Incredibly, she said yes, and so we’ve been on a journey since!
Q. How did you select a business model to achieve your vision, and what model works best for your enterprise? I don’t think we’ve mentioned exactly what we do yet, so, here goes: we make kids books in partnership with change-makers around the world. We do this to give people traditionally excluded from publishing an opportunity to tell their own stories about their own communities. A part of the revenue from each book and overall profit then goes back into supporting their work, empowering them to continue making local change. We’re a for-profit social enterprise and we chose that model for two reasons. Firstly, because we want to be able to sell our books and eventually grow a thriving business in doing so. This model allows us to keep the door open to investment funding at some point down the track later. We also realised quickly that most publishing companies have a huge amount of financial and power inequity in them: in that often the authors of stories have little creative control over their work and aren’t highly compensated for their work. We wanted our books to do more than just educate young minds. We wanted to also show that these stories, that are often overlooked and undervalued, have immense worth. So our process is about leveraging someone’s lived experience, and turning it into a product that can continue to provide value and serve the storyteller (as much as the reader).
Q. What is the best part of being an ethical enterprise on a mission? It’s amazing the creativity that emerges when you don’t have profit as your key driver.
Q. How do you extend your impact across to reach and engage with your stakeholders outside your direct clientele and partners?
There are of course two big areas of impact for us which are: 1) helping a new generation of kids access better resources about different cultures, to build empathy and understanding skills from an early age, 2) providing a sustainable source of income (from book sales) for our authors / change-makers, so they can continue to scale their impact in their own communities.
Like most impact-driven ventures though, I feel like we hold our standards quite high in everything else though! And we know there are lots of different ways that small contributions can add to bigger change. Diversity in literature is, unfortunately, still a massive problem. So another form of scaling impact for us also looks like actively advocating and supporting emerging authors in this space. We’re also big on sustainability, so making a plastic-free business and communicating how we make that happen is one way we can contribute to positive change in that space. Lastly, we have a couple of teeny, tiny, donations built into our product costs which are helping to get us into the habit of giving back based on what we get right from the start: we have committed to the 1% for the planet initiative and also use 1% of revenue to pay the rent.
Q. Where do you see your enterprise 10 years from now, and what is your big vision?
Being a book lover, I would love our venture to move offline and into space one day so that we could host learning cross-cultural experiences beyond just books. But I feel that’s a goal really nestled into my own wants! The biggest goal we’ll be striving towards is a book for every country in the world, and eventually multiple books for each country. Because one story by no means captures the experience of everyone in a particular place. Beyond ourselves, we’d also love to see a thriving industry of publishers creating books that represent the diversity of people around the world, and sharing more of the wealth generated with the makers.
Q. What message would you like to share with any other aspiring entrepreneurs who are interested in building their own vision?
As a very privileged, middle-class, white woman, I’ve spent a lot of time reckoning with the role of people like me in aid or impact work. I’ve been lucky to have mentors show me that sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is step out of the way of others, and use the power and privilege you have to amplify the work of others. I would say to people like me if you want to make a change, identify who you want to help and then go and sit with them, listen deeply to their experiences, and if they’ll tell you, their needs. Try to see how much is possible for that community to do or lead for themselves, step back when you’re not needed, and fill in the gaps where you can (even if they’re not the most exciting ones). It’s the work you can do when others can’t do for themselves, that will be most beneficial. Knowing what that is can take a lot of work in itself!
If you want to make a change, identify who you want to help and then go and sit with them, listen deeply to their experiences