Andrew Monro is Apt613’s correspondent at Impact Hub Ottawa, writing about the many innovators that call Hub home. Hub is a co-working space at 71 Bank Street for projects with a positive local and global impact.
The Canadian Museum of Nature saw a gathering of social enterprise, community innovators, business leaders and collaborators for the inaugural Ottawa Social Impact Awards, a project created by the City of Ottawa and Impact Hub Ottawa. Mayor Jim Watson took the stage to recognize the two winners, SuraiTea (Social Enterprise category) and Helping with Furniture (Community-based Initiative category).
Apt613 got the opportunity to talk with each of the award winners about their work, the award, and their plans for the future.
SuraiTea began as an idea in Kevin Smiley’s mind to help people in need. Kevin was finding himself going to business school by day, and found himself watching the war in Syria unfold on the news each night. One cold night early this year, he decided he wanted to use the skills he was learning to help the refugees that had begun arriving in Canada, fleeing the devastation in their homeland.
With that, he set about creating a model for a social enterprise that could use its profits and market influence through the sale of jasmine tea.
“My vision is that tea can open doors and become a medium for social change,” he said.
The use of jasmine was particularly important – jasmine flowers are native to Syria, and tea drinking has historically been a feature of Syrian society and that of and many other Middle Eastern countries: Kevin wanted a product that was not only marketable, but that also had significance for the people he was trying to help.
By February 21st, Kevin had made his business plan, seeding the money for the business from his own savings; by March 14th, he had incorporated; and on April 4th – World Refugee Day – SuraiTea’s first production run of one thousand 100g tins (100kg of tea) was ready, with their online store going live on April 16th.
It doesn’t stop there though., Kevin then began hiring people to help him run the business and sell the tea, including employing some of the refugees he is trying to help. At the time of writing, SuraiTea, now almost 7 months old, has had almost two dozen refugees directly contribute to the business, accounting for over 325 work hours. For most of them, it was their first job since arriving in Canada.
When asked about what he believes this means for both SuraiTea and social enterprise, he said, “I think this proves it’s possible to sustainably empower refugees with meaningful employment – it is possible to incorporate them into a realistic business model.” While he’s had to overcome some hurdles, especially language barriers, he is adamant that the effort is more than worth it.
He is excited to have been given this award, which includes membership to Impact Hub Ottawa and to Kind Village, opportunities to meet with municipal leaders, and workshops with the Institute for Change Leaders. He finds the support extremely motivating, especially as the business is increasingly in need of office space and wants to increase outreach within Ottawa.
“I had originally set out to do three things: to advocate that we all share a collective responsibility to do something about what is happening Syria, to build a business network, and to build an entrepreneurial name for myself. I think at this point, I have already reached those three goals, so the focus is really on where we can go from here.”
The company has plans to expand their lines of tea – currently they offer five varieties of jasmine tea, and one variety of ginger – and create new lines of tea based around different social causes, such as ongoing refugee issues in Kenya. Kenya, the world’s third largest tea producer, is also home to the world’s largest refugee camp.
They are currently seeking partners in the community, to support their cause, and to make their tea more available throughout Ottawa.