Social enterprise has always come naturally to Jane Marx.
The Melbourne-based entrepreneur was the co-founder of Long Street Coffee, a cafe that employed refugees, before creating Merchant Road Events — an events-focused social enterprise that provides training and employment opportunities to young women from refugee backgrounds experiencing barriers to employment.
During the thick of lockdown in 2020, she started her next social enterprise — this time, in floristry. The Beautiful Bunch hires women from refugee backgrounds and trains them for a minimum of six months.
“I have always been interested in testing different business models and markets and challenging what can be done with social enterprise,” she told Women’s Agenda.
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Marx also spent years teaching English to public housing residents of inner Melbourne — sharing her passion for the language while indulging in her love of meeting new people.
“I love feeling like I was making them feel a little less lonely and like they had someone outside of their immediate network who they could share their stories with,” she said.
Marx recognised that young women from refugee backgrounds encounter some of the most significant barriers when trying to find employment in Australia — and she wanted to help them.
“When I was younger, I was hired for numerous jobs I wasn’t qualified for, I had a lot of people give me the benefit of the doubt and an opportunity to prove myself,” Marx said.
“However, our trainees aren’t afforded that same opportunity, people aren’t hiring them for jobs with little experience, yet they have so much potential — it’s just a matter of fairness and my own personal belief in their ability to do whatever they set their heart and mind to.”
Before The Beautiful Bunch, Marx had been running Merchant Road Events for three years and the business and its social impact was, according to her, “on a really good trajectory”.
“We were looking to scale when we took on management of a 200-seater venue in Fitzroy North, just two months before the pandemic hit,” she said.
But when the first lockdown was announced in Melbourne, Merchant “went into freefall overnight”.
“I woke up one morning and realised I’d have to cancel tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of outstanding invoices and then follow that up with having to let the whole team know we couldn’t operate,” she said. “It was heartbreaking.”
Marx was also pregnant with her second daughter.
“I had to try and stay positive about the future for her,” she said.
Marx spent a few months thinking about what to do next, consulting the trainees from Merchant, and asking them what their favourite part of training was. They came back to her and told her they most enjoyed the floral elements in the events work.
“It’s very creative and it doesn’t demand intense social interaction in the way that a lot of other jobs do,” Marx said.
She knuckled down, studying economic trends, industry data and other “textbook things you are supposed to do when you start a business”.
“I remember reading somewhere that online retail floristry had grown by 500% during the first lockdown!” Marx said. “From that point, I started to pull together a business plan and the idea really came to life.”
The Beautiful Bunch works with a number of organisations to find the right people to join the team, supporting them to build confidence, skills, and social networks.
Marx credits the Melbourne hospitality community for embracing her ideals and making her social enterprise feel welcomed.
“To succeed we have had to maintain a very outward focus, which, thanks to a really good response from both like-minded businesses and just the general public, has ultimately seen us grow beyond what I could have imagined.”
Ultimately, she wants to take care of her staff and trainees, providing them with a warm, welcoming, supportive work environment they can feel safe in to learn, ask questions, and make mistakes.
“It’s somewhere they know they have a strong network of other women who are looking out for them, and not only a place that will equip them with the skills to grown, but also, I hope they feel that no matter what happens or what they need in the future, it’s a door that will always remain open to them.”
This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.