Advocacy and Business a Winning Model

For a few hours on Thursday evening, the deCoste Performing Arts Centre in Pictou was the most forward-thinking and disruptive place in Nova Scotia. An event called Game Changers: The Social Bottom Line invited three social entrepreneurs to share their experiences, advice and energy with a room full of eager-to-listen folks from Pictou County and beyond.

Mark Brand, Tareq Hadhad and Barbara Stegemann were the featured guests, each of whom has put doing good firmly at the heart of their business model.

Stegemann is the founder and human rights activist behind The 7 Virtues Beauty Inc., a Halifax-based company that makes perfume using fair market natural essential oils that have been sourced from rebuilding nations around the world. Stegemann was the first Atlantic Canadian woman to land a deal on Dragon’s Den and has been named one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada. She has spoken at events and conferences across Canada and the U.S. and Thursday night marked the first time she has ever attended an event focused exclusively on social enterprise.

Be at the leading edge

“It tells me how forward-thinking the region of Pictou County is,” said Stegemann, who hails from Antigonish. “Adapting to the changing world is what will help rural areas not only survive, but thrive. I am reignited about our rural communities after this event.”

The event was the result of a first-time partnership between the Pictou County Chamber of Commerce, a business leader in the community, and the deCoste Centre, a cultural leader in the community. The blending of these two worlds, Stegemann says, is exactly what consumers are demanding from all of us.

“Millennials are the largest demographic and they hold the buying power now,” says Stegemann. “Nine out of 10 millennials will switch brands for one with a cause. The chamber and the deCoste Centre are creating the environment for more social enterprises to grow and that will have big payoffs for the region.”

Stand for change

Hadhad brought the perspective of someone who is experiencing that growth first hand.

The general manager of Peace by Chocolate in Antigonish, Hadhad has been featured by media outlets across the country and beyond for his family’s success in rebuilding their life and business in Nova Scotia after arriving from Syria in 2016. Since opening their first store in August 2016, Peace by Chocolate has grown to employ more than 30 rural Nova Scotians, with further expansion coming this year.

Hadhad is on the board of Invest Nova Scotia and has quickly become a well-known advocate for peace, which he says is the “noblest value on earth.” Through his growing business, Hadhad is determined to create as much prosperity and opportunity in Antigonish as he can, against all odds.

In fact, all three of the entrepreneurs featured on Thursday night could identify several ways that the odds have been stacked against them. Fierce competition in their industry, the demographics of their neighbourhood and depressing economic statistics, to name a few. But those odds rarely, if ever, account for passion and purpose.

The latter, in particular, is something that social impact entrepreneur and restauranteur Brand says is no longer negotiable.

“If you’re not pivoting your business or what you’re doing toward social impact, you’re done,” he says. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

Community-led Social enterprise

During a sit-down interview in Halifax, Brand recounted his own journey to this realization and the shifts it inspired him to make as an entrepreneur.

After growing up in Dartmouth, Brand found his way to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), an impoverished neighbourhood that is home to what Brand describes as “the largest open-air drug market in North America.” The economic and social statistics of the neighbourhood would send most entrepreneurs running. But it’s here that Brand discovered his true passion for ending poverty and homelessness in North America.

“I have always liked the challenge of understanding people’s real wants around culture and community and that led me into social impact,” says Brand. About six years ago he acquired the business that would be the turning point in his journey thus far: Save On Meats, a butcher shop that had been a fixture in the DTES community since 1957.

“After I opened Save On Meats, I realized that social impact is what energizes me more than anything else. From there, we closed or sold a bunch of businesses and doubled down on impact,” Brand recalls.

Now, Save On Meats houses a classic diner, full-service butcher, catering department and a community commissary kitchen. It is Canada’s first certified B Corporation Diner and Butcher, and all of the other restaurants remaining in Brand’s portfolio have been pivoted into social enterprises as well.

“We’re living proof that you can have a really cool business and have social impact at the same time,” says Brand, whose mission and intention is as simple as being of service every day.

That service takes on various forms — feeding between 900 and 1,200 people a day who really need the food; launching a token program that empowers both people who want to give and people who need support; and generally building business models that are inspiring others like them to be created to name a few.

But among the most notable expressions of Brand’s commitment to service are his hiring practices. About 50 per cent of Brand’s employees identify with traditional employment barriers such as past substance abuse, a criminal record and mental or physical disabilities. Brand says the energy, commitment and positivity these employees bring to the workplace is immeasurable.

What is measurable, however, is the profitability of these hiring decisions.

“In the service industry, which is what our downtowns are made of, the national average of per annum turnover is 75 to 85 per cent,” says Brand. “People who are facing traditional employment barriers turn over at less than 30 per cent and mine turn over at less than five. You will never see my chef in the dish area because the dishwasher walked out, but you will in every other restaurant. That’s never going to happen to me because I hire people who care about that position.”

Caring — about what others need, about making a difference, and about standing up for the change you believe in — is a thread that ties Stegemann, Brand and Hadhad together. They are changing the game in their communities and industries, and embodying the type of belief in possibilities that so many others have called on Nova Scotians to do.

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