Colin Smith (inset) and Green Event Services (photo: Chris Tait)

Alberta Social Enterprises That are Doing Business Right

By Vickie Reichardt

These days, when the entrepreneurial bug bites, many hopeful small-business owners launch social enterprises—businesses that tackle social, cultural or environmental issues by “being part of the solution” while simultaneously turning a profit. Large and small, there are thousands of these businesses across Canada, and their numbers continue to grow.

But navigating the startup process can be daunting. Whether you’re launching a social enterprise or conventional small business, AMA offers an array of services and tools to help develop and grow your venture—such as business registration from AMA Registry Services, AMA Insurance (commercial auto and property, or employee benefits), and AMA Travel assistance.

AMA has also partnered with Business Link, a non-profit organization that provides small-business owners in Alberta with one-on-one support and guidance, including market research, networking opportunities, training and more.

Looking for inspiration? These three exciting Alberta social enterprises benefitted from Business Link’s resources and advice.

Colin Smith has always had entrepreneurial blood in his veins. An electrician by trade and a music fan at heart, he had a “eureka” moment when he began noticing the problem of garbage at the music festivals he attended at home and abroad.

“At some of these festivals, I saw responsible waste-management efforts being taken—separating waste, compost, recycling, that sort of thing,” Smith says. “And at others, I didn’t.” That’s when Calgary-based Green Event Services (GES) was born.

Despite already having a couple of small businesses under his belt, Smith nonetheless consulted with various Business Link experts for guidance and support, and made use of the organization’s resources and tools, which he says were “really helpful when I was starting out.” He says he’s always liked the fact that anyone can book an appointment or just walk right in to the Business Link offices to get questions answered, and he still drops them an occasional email when he needs advice or information.

Launched in 2013, Green Event Services provides end-to-end waste-management—from planning and execution to final wrap-up—for events, and aims to divert 100 percent of waste to recycling or compost instead of landfill. The company’s first customer was Calgary’s Sled Island Music & Arts Festival. Since then, its client roster has grown exponentially and now includes Calgary Pride, X-Fest, Taste of Calgary and YYCFoodTrucks, for which GES achieved a whopping 99.7-percent waste-diversion rate.

Those numbers are how Smith measures success: The more waste diverted, the prouder he is. He says he also enjoys “seeing how stoked our staff is” when they finish an event, and in the pride they take in the work they’re doing. GES currently employs 60 staff, but the ranks balloon to 80 or more when the summer when festival season is in full swing.

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Smith sees further growth in GES’s future: “We hope to continue to improve our diversion numbers and our customer base. And we’re looking at slowly expanding to other regions.”

GES dipped its toe into the Vancouver market this summer. There are plans for expansion across Alberta and, eventually, to other Canadian cities. Smith also expects to diversify his company’s offerings, so that GES can provide everyday waste-management services for businesses.

Though he didn’t explicitly set out to launch a social enterprise, Smith says social responsibility has always been a part of who he is, so it was only natural that GES follow suit. The company works with the Calgary Drop-in & Rehab Centre to source staff, and Smith’s diverse team includes individuals transitioning out of difficult situations. “It was part of my desire to be a responsible business owner, and caring for the people who work for the business and the larger community,” he explains. “It’s an opportunity to make a difference.”

alberta social enterprises cmngd
CMNGD workers in action; Hannah and Dave Cree (inset) (photos: laundromat studios;

What’s in a name? For Dave and Hannah Cree, co-founders of CMNGD, plenty. When the Calgary couple launched their linen-service company—pronounced “common good”—they wanted its name to reflect their core mission. “Everything that we do within the business is for the common good of people, the planet and profit for purpose,” Hannah explains. They wanted something clever to stand out in people’s memories. They also learned it’d be easier to secure “CMNGD” than “commongood” as a website domain name.

Founded in 2016 out of the Crees’ desire to build a business that would give back to their city, CMNGD rents out linens—uniforms, napkins, table cloths and the like—to Calgary area restaurants, and offers transitional employment to help those in need get back on their feet. The company has a deep-rooted partnership with the Calgary Drop-in & Rehab Centre: not only did it offer CMNGD after-hours use of its laundry facility, it’s also the well from which prospective employees—who range from occasional drop-in workers to longer-term staff—are drawn.

“The Centre has a fantastic attitude and has been a really great partner,” Dave says. “They’ve helped us source the people who need help the most, and the people we feel are going to be successful at transitioning.”

In its infancy, the company also benefitted from Business Link’s webinars and events, including meet-and-greet opportunities with business experts, and a helpful legal-advice chat. Hannah says she was also amazed by the breadth of information—“everything from how to incorporate a company to how to market it”—available free of charge through Business Link.

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“What struck me was how much they offered. The fact that you can call them anytime and say, ‘Hey, I need some advice,’ is so important,” Hannah says. “The work that they do to support entrepreneurs in all of Alberta is really important to our [entrepreneurial] ecosystem.”

CMNGD currently services 15 local restaurants and their response has been tremendous, due in part to the affordability of CMNGD’s services and the unique relationship the company builds with its clients. “We promote the restaurants on social media,” Hannah says. “We look at them as partners… We always talk about them and they talk about us too.”

For now, CMNGD is operating locally, and will expand its services thanks to a new, much-larger laundry facility. Going forward, the Crees hope to be able to service upwards of 50 restaurants, and want to share their business model: They believe CMNGD’s approach could help develop transitional job-training programs in other industries. At the very least, it could inspire other business owners to follow their lead. “We’ve had a lot of businesses come to us and say, ‘I want to do that, but I don’t know how,’” Hannah says.

“Maybe your company hires one person who has a barrier to employment. Maybe you look deeper at how you’re sourcing your materials. There are so many ways you can be thoughtful in your business and community, and that’s what we want to encourage others to do.”

alberta social enterprises girl gotch
Katie Nedjelski (inset) produces organic Girl Gotch undergarments (photos: Lori Andrews)

Losing her finance job in the oil-and-gas sector in 2016 turned out to be one of the best things to happen to Katie Nedjelski. Four years earlier, the wife and mother had bought out the founder of Girl Gotch—which produces high-quality underwear for girls sized 2 to 12—and had been working on the company as a side project. Suddenly, she was available to devote herself to it full time—and to take it in a new direction, switching to organic fabric and a healthier manufacturing process.

“It was perfect timing,” Nedjelski says. “I had been planning this [new direction] launch and delaying it for different reasons, but when I was laid off, I had the opportunity to do it.”

A key lesson was making the switch from working for a company to running it, which she now does from her home and out of the ATB X co-working space, with two employees. “It was such a change for me, personally, to be an entrepreneur and to come out and be the brand,” she says. “I couldn’t hesitate. I just had to do it. I needed to make money and I needed to make really smart choices.”

One of those choices was investigating the tween market. Nedjelski is currently looking to Business Link for invaluable market research—data such as: Where do tweens shop, and who makes the purchasing decisions when it comes to tweens’ clothes?

“I would have had to pay a lot of money to a marketing agency to do that research,” she says. “Business Link is sort of this unknown resource that entrepreneurs like me—people who don’t have a lot of extra cash—can rely on.” Nedjelski says she’s also attended Business Link events at the ATB Entrepreneur Centre, and taken part in one of their marketing webinars.

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With her label, Bloom by Girl Gotch, Nedjelski aims to create supremely comfy, long-lasting underwear for girls, with a focus on good construction and ethical, sustainable manufacturing. “The fast fashion movement is a problem,” Nedjelski says. “Underwear is one of those things you can easily buy 10 or 20 pairs of, and then toss them out when you’re done with them.” Girl Gotch products are intended to last long enough that they’re outgrown.

Securing a factory that would align with her company’s mission proved difficult, but Nedjelski found a fellow mother, in the Netherlands, who owned a facility in China that met all of Girl Gotch’s criteria. “Although I’m a world away, we Skyped and had phone calls, and the factory sent me photos of the process and made me comfortable with what they were doing,” Nedjelski says. In addition to sourcing organic materials, the factory also manufactures Girl Gotch products using hemp thread and non-toxic dyes.

Girl Gotch continues to expand beyond boutique sales; Nedjelski hopes one day to see her products sold at large retailers across Canada and internationally. In her eyes, the company’s foundational garments are providing a proverbial foundation for young girls’ success.

“I feel like there are all these little girls running around with comfortable underwear, who have this sort of superpower because they’re comfy and they can do whatever they want,” she says. “I really believe that. It starts with something you don’t think about: your underwear.”

AMA is a one-stop shop for services related to launching and growing your company

For startups:

• Advice about setting up a business in Alberta, including selecting a business structure and name
• Registering a business name
• Registering a corporation
• Access to Business Link services, like one-on-one startup guidance, regulatory and licensing support, market research, training and networking services

For existing businesses:

• Corporate search
• Assistance with filing an annual return
• Legal Ease do-it-yourself kits
• Help with changing your corporate records, name or business structure
• Shutting down a business or corporation
• Fleet driver education and registries

AMA Insurance services for any business:

• Business property insurance
• Commercial auto insurance
• Key person insurance
• Event liability insurance
• Employee benefits programs
• Commercial general liability insurance

Enterprising AMA members can save on business services and products, in-store with AMA rewards partners and at the AMARewards Online Store.