Meyssam Ghasemzadeh is an asylum seeker who fled his home in Iran and, with limited English skills, has struggled to build a new life in Australia.
“In the detention centre when I first arrived [seven years ago], it was really hard because when I wanted to talk with someone and I was talking in English, but they couldn't understand me.
“I found out I needed to learn more English. And so [my wife and I] went to study English as a second language,” he told SBS Small Business Secrets.
Finding a job two years ago really changed outcomes for this softly spoken 37-year-old and his family.
Meyssam works at Green Collect, a social enterprise in Melbourne that recovers resources for reuse and recycling and diverts waste from landfill, while creating jobs and employment pathways for people who face barriers to mainstream employment.
“I'm here as a driver and I'm going out to the councils, to the libraries, to some offices in the city and collecting items,” Mr Ghasemzadeh explained.
The father of two young girls says the best part of his job is explaining to people how many of the materials will be reused.
“Even the plastic bags could be usable again. That's what I learned. I didn't know before that so many things could be recycled,” he explained.
Green Collect was founded in 2005 with the dual purpose to create employment opportunities for people who've experienced disadvantage, and to find environmental solutions for hard to recycle items, to create a world without waste.
It has since prevented one million items from ending up in landfill and created 400,000 hours of employment and training, said Co-Founder Darren Andrews.
“Perhaps someone's had a long period of unemployment or they've had a period of homelessness,” Mr Andrews explained.
“So [we are] increasing work in the sustainability sector for people who normally wouldn't have the chance to find employment and in particular meaningful employment,” CEO and Co-Founder Sally Quinn added.
Australia generates 64 million tonnes of waste each year including 85 tonnes of ‘hard to recycle items’ Mr Andrews said.
Last year alone, Green Collect collected 40,000 discarded office folders, many repurposed and sold through their retail stores.
“Previously most folders would end up in landfill. The folder is made of PVC, cardboard and metal, and they're low value commodities. They need to be separated by hand,” Ms Quinn explained.
“So we created an upcycled notebook that uses the card inside. We also sell that card to a folder manufacturer who incorporates that in the production of new folders.”
Green Collect is among 7,000 employment focussed social enterprises in Australia. They operate like any small business, but with a social or environmental focus.
Support from the corporate sector, including grants from Westpac Foundation, helped this business to grow. Westpac Foundation is a corporate foundation with a goal to help social enterprises, like Green Collect, create 10,000 jobs by 2030.
“When I first met Sally [Quinn] eight years ago, I was really attracted to her vision for Green Collect and how strongly it aligned with Westpac Foundation’s goals,” explained Lisa Waldron, Westpac Foundation Senior Advisor.
“And at that time the [Green Collect] model was still developing, and we were in a pretty tough spot,” Ms Quinn explained.
“Westpac Foundation granted us $50,000. And that was life-changing for the enterprise at a point where we were really struggling.”
Over the years, Green Collect has continued to grow and in 2018 Westpac Foundation awarded the business a further $300,000 grant over three years, along with non-financial support.
“And over the last 18 months, it's been really incredible to watch Green Collect achieve so much,” Ms Waldron added.
However, like many small businesses, it has struggled during the coronavirus pandemic, reporting a 70 per cent drop in trading revenue.
“A lot of our collection points are in council depots, libraries or civic centres. And as they closed down our activity decreased quite quickly,” Ms Quinn explained.
“So we had to look at some strategies to stay afloat. One of those factors was going to Westpac Foundation and asking for a pre-approved grant to be brought forward.”
Westpac Foundation agreed to fast track $50,000 of a $100,000 grant that was originally planned for later this year. This has helped Green Collect maintain and sustain jobs during COVID-19.
“We have recently started working with Westpac on branch refurbishments, making sure that all the items that aren’t needed any more receive a high environmental outcome.
“And [since then] we’ve collected 2,300 items weighing a total of 16 tons, which has created more than 800 hours of employment,” Ms Quinn said.
“The opportunities for Green Collect to service Westpac and other corporates, will really help it get back quickly to the pre-coronavirus business levels,” Westpac Foundation’s Lisa Waldron added.
The extra work has enabled the social enterprise to retain its staff through the economic challenges of COVID-19.
By staggering start times, and separating employee work areas, Green Collect has been able to comply with social distancing restrictions.
And the pandemic has even led to rising demand for some items.
“We had lots of office chairs, desks and desktop items that people who were setting up their home offices needed. So suddenly the commodities we had, became really valuable,” Mr Andrews explained.
Westpac Foundation's support has enabled Green Collect to expand their business into new markets and adapt the business to manage economic challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Since 1999, the Westpac Foundation has provided over $40 million worth of support to over 700 not-for-profit organisations [including Green Collect],” Ms Waldron explained.
“It is an outstanding success story and I'm really proud of the support that Westpac Foundation has been able to provide to help Green Collect achieve some major milestones,” Ms Waldron said.
Co-Founders Darren Andrews and Sally Quinn take satisfaction in watching staff grow in skills and confidence.
“Some people were told ‘they would never work in a paid capacity’,” Ms Quinn explained.
“So to see them rise up to become a co-ordinator or rise into new roles here, is such an awesome thing to be able to see in people’s lives,” Ms Quinn said.
To find out more about Westpac Foundation and its goal to help social enterprises create 10,000 jobs by 2030, visit westpacfoundation.org.au