All posts in Blog

13 Sep

Study visit in Sofia.

In Blog by Magdalena Jakubowska / September 13, 2021 / 0 Comments

Last week, I represented Art Square Luxembourg ASBL on a study visit to Sofia, Bulgaria, where the Law and Internet Foundation gave me and representatives of three other organisations  a guided tour of the local social enterprise scene.

Art Square Lab, the Law and Internet Foundation, and those three other organisations are participants in an Erasmus+ programme on The Added Value of Social Entrepreneurship in Youth Work. The programme brings together organisations with diverse experiences in these fields from across Europe, for the purpose of sharing insights and ideas.

On this occasion, the focus was on the social enterprise element of the project, but youth work was rarely entirely out of the picture.

Take, for example, Blagichka – Zero Waste, the first of the six social enterprises we were introduced to. The most obvious headline about Blagichka is that it is the first zero-waste restaurant in Bulgaria, and its co-founder and CEO, Blazhka Dimitrova, has now given over 300 workshops on how to convert to zero-waste and published a book on the subject.

WhatsApp Image 2021-09-13 at 14.42.40 WhatsApp Image 2021-09-13 at 14.42.41 (1)

But Blagichka – Zero Waste was originally Blagichka – Kitchen with a Cause. Dimitrova began professional life as an English and Entrepreneurship teacher at a secondary school in one of the roughest parts of Sofia. It was a struggle engaging her students, but she soon discovered she could connect with them through food. Snacks became a feature of her classes, and something she and her students bonded over and started to have broader, more personal discussions over.

Before long, she and some of those students had founded a small catering business together – a catering business committed to employing underprivileged young people. Some were disabled, some fresh out of prison, others fresh out of the foster care system; the sole non-negotiable condition of their employment was a passion for cooking – everything else could be learned, Dimitrova reasoned. Blagichka’s employees, most of them on one-year programmes, would receive additional lectures and mentoring to help prepare them for finding employment elsewhere afterwards. This kind of business was very unusual in Bulgaria at the time, so Blagichka was soon attracting a lot of public interest and some big-name customers, like Hewlett-Packard.

The switch to zero-waste gave Blagichka a further and perhaps more striking unique selling point, and the pandemic forced it to adapt in another, also healthy way – having far fewer large company events to provide catering for required it to start selling more to individuals, and that meant the emergence of a community centred on it. Blagichka in fact shares its composter with the neighbourhood its restaurant is located in. Well, its original restaurant – it opened a second, in the city centre, last year. Through all this though, the commitment to employing underprivileged young people has remained central to how Blagichka operates.

No less inspiring, but with less of an explicit focus on youth work, was the second social enterprise we were introduced to, Maria’s World Foundation, which was established by the family of a girl (named Maria) with intellectual disabilities, following their frustration trying to find opportunities for her to simply be socially involved. Today it functions as a centre of community life and education and support for 37 people, aged 18 and older, all with disabilities similar to those of Maria.

WhatsApp Image 2021-09-13 at 14.44.47 (1) WhatsApp Image 2021-09-13 at 14.44.47

Maria’s World is staffed by a team of ten, some of them therapists, some social workers. It provides a strict programme of activities to those attending it – to imitate and help prepare for working life. The activities are principally of a professional nature too, ranging from cooking and cleaning to making postcards and souvenirs for retail. Maria’s World also has its own cafe and catering business, through which its members gain professional experience of an even more demanding kind. Sometimes its members are commissioned to perform other very basic professional tasks too, like distribute fliers.

WhatsApp Image 2021-08-30 at 14.45.45
If/when one of its members does find work elsewhere, Maria’s World remains available for support, helping mediate the relationship with the employer, manage expectations on both sides, etc. Meanwhile, outside of working hours, Maria’s World helps its members to pursue their own personal interests, and hosts for them themed discussions arranged around any concerns they have. Most of Maria’s World’s current members are between the ages of 30 and 40, but its services are available to them for life.

Next up was Synergia Foundation, which supports the local deaf community through employment opportunities, advocacy and purchasing and donating white canes. Synergia offers a massage service – all three masseurs are visually impaired – and organises tactile tours, participants in which are blindfolded and guided by Synergia employees. The latter are particularly popular with companies, who use them as team-building exercises, for cultivating trust and out-of-the-box thinking. Synergia also organise or co-organise ‘in the dark’ events, including at the first ‘restaurant in the dark’ in the Balkans, which they work closely with, regularly referring potential waiters.

One striking feature of Synergia’s story, and also of Blagichka’s, is how little support they’ve received from the Bulgarian state. Indeed, those we spoke to at Synergia said that what they dream of most is a government more serious and proactive in its care for the blind community in Bulgaria. While Synergia’s commercial activities of course generate income, it has relied extensively on crowdfunding too. Maria’s World has benefitted from significant financial support from local government, but Blagichka has basically had to be self-sufficient all along.

Our next stop helped further clarify what the state of play is for social enterprises in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian Center for Non-profit Law (BCNL) is a team of mostly lawyers who provide free legal advice to non-profit organisations in the country, host training events for them, and advocate for them politically. It is part of both the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law  (ICNL) and the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), and most of its funding comes from abroad. BCNL informed us that, while there is in Bulgaria a history going back more than a hundred years of social cooperatives providing employment to people with disabilities, and while over 1700 Bulgarian companies currently define themselves as ‘social enterprises’ in their reports to the National Statistics Office, the Bulgarian state first created a regulatory framework for social enterprises only in 2019, and the criteria it set out for being a social enterprise are so difficult to meet that, as of today, there are officially only 33 social enterprises in the country, and only three that qualify as A+ social enterprises and so are eligible for all of the benefits the 2019 legislation lays out. BCNL added that those benefits do not in any case form a particularly strong incentive for organisations to pursue social enterprise status. We’d heard at Blagichka that the main way they’d benefitted from being officially a social enterprise was simply by being able to say, in their marketing, that they are. BCNL regard this situation as a work in progress; they are trying to persuade lawmakers that the current legislation needs improving upon.

Social Travel, the second last of the organisations we became acquainted with, struck a pragmatic note. Social Travel provides specialised travel services and equipment to people with physical disabilities. It’s founder and CEO, Borislav Boychev, is a serial entrepreneur, with seven businesses and two non-profits to his name. Social Travel was initially a regular business, but he converted it into a social enterprise a few years back so he could compete for EU funds. It’s at the EU level that support is really available, Boychev told us. He won those EU funds, using a consultancy to help prepare the applications, and this enabled Social Travel to expand dramatically, from two to three employees to more than 20. Asked whether it could sometimes make simple business sense to operate as a social enterprise, he said the ideal seems to him to have a social enterprise and a for-profit business that work closely together, the one eligible for the EU grants and the other free of the limitations of social enterprises. His own companies often work together.

Our final stop was Taratanci, a company taking innovative approaches to teaching young people about traditional Bulgarian culture at a time when it’s seemingly being forgotten at an alarming rate. They started out by mapping the patterns of the circular folk dances originating from different parts of the country. The maps spawned a Twister-like game and a series of prints, which have appeared in exhibition spaces across Bulgaria, and also in Germany and Belgium. More recently, their work has concentrated more on folktales – they’ve led drama workshops in schools, adapting and discussing those folktales, showing their relevance today. This year they won a European Heritage Award. It is also only in the last year that Taratanci’s four employees have started being able to pay themselves wages – for around seven years, it was a passion project for the four of them.

If the limited support from the Bulgarian state was one striking feature of these stories, another was the clear importance of the work these organisations are doing, and yet another was the passionate commitment of the individuals involved. I also had persistently the sense both of a real social enterprise community – these organisations know each other, and often come into contact, particularly through BCNL initiatives – and of a public receptive to their causes. Blazhka Dimitrova, of Blagichka – Zero Waste, summarised one key element of her own philosophy as follows: ‘you need to involve people; I never do anything alone’. Even her book, she told us, was really a collaborative effort. Understood broadly, it seems a good basic principle of cause- rather than profit-motivated enterprise.

In the Frame ” The Added value of Social Entrepreneruship in Youth Work” project, co-finance by Erasmus Plus Programe.

Author: Benjamin George Coles

29 Jul

#MeetSISLux Société d’Impact Sociétal

In Blog by Magdalena Jakubowska / July 29, 2021 / 0 Comments

In the series of interviews, we would like to share with you some stores of social entrepreneurs in Luxembourg.

This time, we would like to introduce you to ‘Storytime’  SIS (social enterprise ) and the owner, Charlotte Reuter

Interviewed by: Laura Roof

June 24 2021

bonzennenbonzuewen

L: Thank you for chatting with me today, Charlotte. I’m excited to hear about your

company and thoughts on the ecosystem of Social impact Societies (SIS) here in

Luxembourg. A small introduction to the project; SEYW is a 24 month strategic

partnership, a transfer of good practice under the KA2 of the Erasmus + program. The

project aims to create a framework where youth workers can benefit from the

experience of successful initiatives of social entrepreneurship developed by youth

organizations. So, we are looking to explore, then share, our findings about the existing

ecosystem of social entrepreneurship in Luxembourg. This is where you come in! You

are a social enterprise here in Luxembourg. Please introduce yourself.

C: Well, ‘Storytime’ has 2 parts: one is ‘The Story Cafe’ (Bonzennen Bonzuewen, in

Diekirch), it is a place families can come to reconnect with their children, other family

members, or other adults through the use of stories. The second part is ‘Potty Lotty’, a

fictitious personality who goes to schools, private people or to other organizations and

offices for readings.

L: Nice! And why did you decide to start a social enterprise? What were your past

experiences or motivation?

C: I have had a certain amount of experience working in a marketing and sales

environment, which has definitely helped, also, experience working as ‘Potty Lotty’,

which started earlier. This experience working with children, mostly, and then with

families, led to trying to connect people to each other, through the medium of stories.

The ‘lightbulb moment’ I think, was while offering sessions for families. I thought initially

it was about me interacting with the families, but then I noticed that the family members

would interact with themselves after the sessions using the stories as a connection

point. And so that was really the key to saying it would be great to offer parents a space

where they could interact with each other and their kids, as well as the children

interacting with each other in new ways. The cafe as a place where people can meet, is

trying very hard to fit into the concept of a secular/social economy. Everything I do is

motivated by this, whether it’s telling a story, trying to minimize the negative impact on

the environment or also building up partnerships with local organizations who are

equally involved in the secular and social economy. These, together, gave a sort of

initial footing from which to start the business off.

L: I like that, a conglomeration of experiences and ideals, you’re really drawing from a

series of events that led you to this point. It wasn’t a cut and paste idea. What would

you say your biggest challenges have been, then?

C: The biggest challenges… well the first obvious one has been trying to launch a

business such as this, which is mostly based indoors, in the current covid restrictions,

but also just trying to launch, really, two things at once, and figuring out exactly what

customers are going to be wanting and what not, without having done a prior, full,

marketing analysis.

L: Interesting, I’m guessing there isn’t a lot of market analysis to be had regarding your

type of business here in Luxembourg? What about the idea of a social economy or

enterprise? And what do you think it will look like in 5-10years?

C: The social economy is definitely alive, it is there. In my opinion not enough people

know about it, that is, too many people still conflate a social enterprise with the definition

of a charity, which is more the case with an ASBL, than with that of a commercial

venture, which an SIS is. I think there is still quite a lot of information that needs to be

spread to make people aware of the possibilities that exist with an SIS. In my

experience, I’ve come across a lot of people who do not understand, for example, how

the company can work, because it’s goals appear to be very different from the traditional

economy, ie, the bottom line. So there’s quite a lot of surprise, still, that I would have

anything OTHER than the bottom line (laughter) in sight, and that it’s ok for me to go to

work for something other than the bottom line. There have been a lot of big question

marks and various reactions to that choice. I think the role (of a social enterprise) is

definitely to show that there are different alternatives available, and those alternatives

are equally valid and possible even in some cases, better. That they can work, that it

also entails a different kind of management, a different living together in the city, a

different kind of working together in the company. I think it’s work that can financially

have gains and the other less traditional gains make up for, perhaps , any losses in

profit that might occur. As for where the social economy will be in 5-10years…I think,

especially in small towns, like Diekirch for example, we will see a lot more cooperation

between local businesses. Cooperation at the very local level not only in, say, planning

events together, but also making use of products in new ways that, for example, they

haven’t sold, or waste products being produced that could then be used by someone

else.

L: These would be examples of social gains, the connection and cooperation, not just

financial gains.

C: Yeah

L: What did you find worked well in the program from the state, or would you like to

have more of?

C: For me personally, what worked very well was the guidance of the initial set up of the

company, the program that was offered from the Ministère du Travail, to accompany me

through the initial months. I appreciated very much having been designated a mentor

that I could turn to who was active in the industry that I am active in. That was very

helpful initially. Also the resulting networking that was inherent to meeting the contacts

that make up this ‘House’. The challenges… The biggest has been trying to make sure

that the impacts that I’m having are measurable, and trying to grow that impact using

those measurements. For example the impacts that I suggested I would have, would be

an impact on people, to make them feel more included, to make them feel less

excluded. Families, to make them feel more connected with their children or, that the

time they’re spending together has a better quality than it did before. And also, the

impact on the environment needs to be positive. There are certain quantitative

measurements that I need to take care of. Part of the challenge is trying to understand

exactly what will be important to put forward to the Ministry later on. In terms of

quantifying somebody’s satisfaction. Do I have enough people who will reflect, truely,

what the business has been doing? It’s very intangible. One thing that hasn’t been

addressed in the current program that I’ve been following, is actually HOW to capture

the information. What different tools are available, for example client satisfaction

surveys, things like that. That hasn’t been part of the program. As such, that’s

something I have to work on myself.

Another element that is definitely missing is a certain clarity on the aid that is available

to SIS’s, not just financial. From where is aid available, for what support does an SIS

qualify, which kind of people qualify for working under these aid programs, with an SIS.

In terms of employing people: everything related to this challenge.

L: You and I have spoken a little bit about that before and it seems one other issue is

the disconnect in, maybe, what is offered and what is the actual administrative process

for that happening.

C: I think the disconnect is due to a time issue, I certainly think the willingness is there.

One department is working really hard to promote this type of company, however, the

communication between the different ministries, on the subject matter of SIS, I think, is

still lacking. There are various areas such as this, that just haven’t been fully ironed out,

down to the last detail. For example, in my case it would have been helpful to have a

program that wasn’t based within traditional working hours. It’s my understanding that a

lot of people start to plan, or launch, a company while employed full time. Or maybe

they’re not in employment. But for me certainly everything happened so quickly. A lot of

the training courses that were available were during the hours that I actually had time to

be in the cafe physically. I couldn’t take part in the courses… there were a lot of

interesting things that I personally couldn’t take advantage of due to the hours they were

being offered.

L: On a little bit of a lighter note, what do you think are the next steps in developing

your business?

C: The next steps in developing my business… So I’ve been up and running now for 6

months, and it’s definitely time to take a little step back and evaluate what has worked

and what hasn’t. I will try to hone in on things that really worked and make sure that the

financial side of things is on solid ground. That is the most important step to me now,

there are a lot of projects that I want to do, and it’s really about making sure they also fit

in with my requirements. I would like my business to be a happy place. A place where

people enjoy coming to work, and that employs people who are equally keen to make a

difference within the community. In 5-10 years it would possibly have a staff of 5-6

people, nearly all if possible customer facing and who take on different roles to really

make a change to the people coming through the door, but also, make a change within

the community where the business is based.

L: To find employees like this, we return to the ‘educating the public’ line of thought. Do

you know if the Luxembourgish school system teaches on the topic of social economy

or social enterprise? This would seem like a logical place to start.

C: I think it should be taught more in depth, I think it does appear on the curriculum in

different schools, perhaps not all, but I do think it’s an important discussion to have

because it leads to questions regarding how we want our society to work. The prime

audience for that question is the next generation and for them to be able to discuss and

to be clued up about it is something that needs to be discussed in schools. In a wider

discussion, though, of what we want our society to look like and how we want it to work.

I have noticed the amount of support that is being given to the young entrepreneurs

within the lycee. So, what they call ‘mini enterprise’ where school friends get together

and have to launch a product or a project. There are these types of initiatives that really

encourage them and seem to be supported within the school and also ministry level.

I’ve seen certain mini enterprises make it to the local press, they seem to have a

certain amount of backing from ministries.

L: If I were a young adult, let’s imagine you are speaking to my daughter, we’ll pretend

I’m her. I’m thinking about starting a social enterprise that promotes the use of local art

student’s work in the community. What advice would you give me in order to either start

the social enterprise or things to think about specifically for Luxembourg or things you

found motivating or mentorship. or you know what.. if I came to you and I was like what

did.. how… you now. What would you say to me?

C: I would, as with any commercial venture, advise you to do your market research and

find where the demand really is, or whatever solution or product you are offering to the

market. The second thing would be to think about what impact you are hoping to

achieve by having this company, and to really understand the difference between the

options. You know, is the impact solely to pay your wage at the end of the month or is it

a different kind of impact that you are hoping to achieve. Once you can pay wages and

make sure the company is financially viable, if the willingness is there to also make sure

the company is having a positive impact on society, there are people around who are

capable of helping you create that.

L: And that’s what the social economy is about, at its foundation. Strengthening

resilience and growth through community cooperation and collaboration. The younger

generations, even with all the information at their fingertips, don’t have to figure it all out

by themselves. There are willing community members to help and be mentors.

Charlotte Reuter, alias of the storyteller ‘Potty Lotty’ is the owner of the story cafe

Bonzennen Bonzuewen, in Diekirch, in the north of Luxembourg. Both entities are

grouped in the SIS ‘Storytime sarl’. For more information take a look at the websites

www.pottylotty.com and www.bonzennenbonzuewen.com or check out her Facebook

and Instagram pages, both handles are: @pottylottystorytime; @bonzennenbonzuewen

 

Interview was done in  the frame of SEYW project on “The added value of social entrepreneurship in youth work” funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union.

 


Screenshot 2021-04-13 at 09.55.01

21 May

Laura – welcome to our team!

In Blog by Magdalena Jakubowska / May 21, 2021 / 0 Comments

Welcome to Laura

PSX_20210512_082016

 

 

Hello hello and thank you for this moment to introduce myself. I find it always a bit uncomfortable to talk about oneself but I believe that is common for a lot of people.

To begin, I am a graduate from the University of Washington (Seattle) with a degree in Landscape Architecture, specializing in environmental resource management and ecosystem restoration. After graduating, my daughter and I moved to Luxembourg, getting to know aunts, uncles and cousins and starting a small business in the eight years since moving here. As for many, this pandemic has changed our lives and I now have an opportunity to utilize the varied skills my education, work experience and community have given me, with Art Square. I’m very happy to be able to work with a company that mirrors my own motivations, actions and views and, in today’s world, I can recognize this for the opportunity it is. I look forward to working with our community, new and old, to help facilitate these same opportunities for others. Thank you for this moment of your time and talk to you soon,  Laura

16 May

Imaginarium Project – kicking off the preparations!

In Blog by Magdalena Jakubowska / May 16, 2021 / 0 Comments

The countdown to Imaginarium project has started and we are visiting the great venue: Centre Ellergronn in Esch -sur- Alzette where the Design Challenge will take place on 12th-13th June.

More information and registration for the teams:

https://bit.ly/3h8W4fu(fr)

https://bit.ly/3h52BrL(lu)IMG_3166 IMG_3172

07 May

Registrations for Imaginarium Project open!

In Blog by Magdalena Jakubowska / May 7, 2021 / 0 Comments

Imaginarium Poster FR latest