This month, The Mill House Enterprise Development Manager, Irene, interviews Edwina Robinson on pivots, bush fire recovery and reflections on GRIST 2019.
The Climate Factory is an environmental consultancy Social Enterprise on a mission to plant 100 000 trees and shrubs in the Canberra Region by 2025. Edwina brought her idea to The Mill House Ventures in 2019 and graduated GRIST after a successful crowdfunding campaign and MVP launch. Here, Edwina talks about climate ready plants, pivoting, bush fire recovery, female entrepreneurship and what it takes to innovate a Social Enterprise business model through COVID-19 and beyond.
She also has an ask for a CTO technology expert! Can you help Edwina? Get in contact at The Climate Factory or reach out to us at Mill House and we can connect you!
#socialenterprise #CanberraRegion #makeadifference #MillHouse
IL: all right! Hi Edwina, how are you?
ER: I’m really well Irene, how are you?
IL: it’s so good to see you it’s nice to be GRISTer’s back together again
IL: You went through GRIST season three in 2019 back when, you know, we thought the world was tricky enough as it was.
ER: yeah true
IL: It’s been really hard with bushfires with drought with hail with disruption and now with coronavirus. What’s happening to The Climate Factory? Where are you up to with your Social Enterprise journey?
ER: All the plans that I had developed from 2019, and as being part of the Mil House Social Enterprise Accelerator, I’ve had to put on hold. So, they were around building micro forests in public spaces in Canberra. The ACT Government is responsible for the volunteers who work in those spaces so, basically those projects are on hold. I’ve got about three or four different projects like that. It’s meant that I’ve had to change the way I do things and think about things really differently.
IL: The Downer Center was a critical offer in your crowdfunding campaign…
ER: That’s right. So, building a micro forest in Downer was one of the projects that I ran a crowdfunding campaign for when I was a participant in the Mill House program and that was a successful crowdfunding campaign…
ER: Oh, thank you!
IL: What’s it been like communicating with the supporters around that funding and around that opportunity? Have people been understanding and accepting about what’s happening?
ER: I think very much so. I sent newsletters out to those people but also to the rest of my clients and Climate Factory followers just to let them know what was happening and also on my website. I put up notes saying, you know; these projects are on hold due to coronavirus.
It was interesting, one of the things we did with the crowd funding is you often offer an incentive. This was a packet of mixed pollinator seeds, but we had such an awful summer that I decided to hold off on actually giving those seeds to people. I thought “there’s no point them planting the seeds now because it was such a terrible summer” so, come spring those people will get those seeds from us. That should be good because they’re still connected.
IL: The beautiful thing about your campaign was it was more than putting something into the dirt. It was about people getting their hands dirty and feeling connected to making a change.
ER: What we’re really trying to do with that crowdfunding campaign was to see if people in the community care and were willing to fund a landscape sketch plan and blueprint for the future. We also activated supporters to help us plant 1500 plants. We’re calling them climate-ready plants because with a hotter drier future we need to be rethinking what we do in our public landscape. That proved popular and then it’s had a roll-on effect.
We’ve invited federal Labor member, Alicia Payne[IL1] , along with a conservation group to put in for a community environment program grant for the Sullivan’s Creek micro forest. Although we haven’t been able to do on ground community planting works, we have been able to do community engagement. There seems to be a better acceptance of doing community engagement. Just how you and I are doing it right now! [interviewing and chatting].
Getting people to a zoom meeting where we present but also using surveys to elicit people’s responses to some of the key principles we’re talking about. So, we ask people to kind of vote on what’s the most important principle to them? Is it habitat, is it gathering spaces in the community, is it water harvesting, is it social connection? I think there’s more of acceptance of doing business in a different way.
IL: Something that I was quite curious about just on a personal level, which is around the impression I was getting when I was talking to other social entrepreneurs around the regions, that somehow the bushfire recovery and the disaster recovery of Southern region New South Wales feels like it’s disappeared. Are you getting the same sense, in your community consultation of resilience and recovery stories we don’t see in the media?
ER: I’m based in Moruya New South Wales, in the Eurobodalla district and up to 80% (eighty percent) burned. We actually had fire come to our town, to the periphery of Moruya from New Year’s Eve, when the fires hit Mogo and Cobargo, for all of January. We were at risk either of ember attack or direct fire.
People in outlying areas had greater risks so we were pretty much in the thick of it. I was interested with this question because we’ve had Blazeaid[IL2] set up in the local showground. So, the local showground was a place that people could evacuate to. People who were living on rural properties, say with horses or elderly people in town who needed additional support, could evacuate to the showground. I think they were there for about six weeks.
IL: That’s incredible.
ER: When you drive from Moruya north to Bateman’s Bay, we can see physical evidence of rebuilding happening now. Maybe that’s just people who’ve had appropriate insurance or community volunteers or Blazeaid; there’s a lot of fence rebuilding, there’s a lot of clearing.
We’ve seen some houses being reconstructed. We’re seeing physical evidence of stuff happening. The other really good thing is vegetation is returning. One of the first things that I was so surprised about were the tree ferns. All of a sudden, after a bit of rain those tree ferns would just send out fronds and it’s fronds of hope! You know, this green hope is so beautiful. When you’re building a social enterprise around this idea of these climate-ready plants and being able to see the recovery happening all around you. It helps.
IL: I was born in a community in the middle of regional New South Wales and there were times when floods ripped through and completely changed the landscape, and when fires rip through, there is nothing more heartbreaking as a bush person to see everything charred. You don’t tend to heal from your own grief until you see that first flush of green.
ER: Absolutely yeah. I think COVID has probably taken our eye of climate change being a driver of what’s happening in these landscapes. I was just reminded last week about how raw the anxiety is. There was a big plume of smoke coming up to the east of us. We knew it was from an area that was unburnt and just it actually brings up a series of emotions.
Like not knowing what’s going on, not being in control, being a bit fearful and unfortunately it hadn’t been widely communicated to the public that there was control burn happening. So, if anyone’s involved in local control burns, please let everyone know! That’s the important lesson.
IL: I will certainly help get the message out!
ER: COVID has been a bit of a disrupter, well a huge disrupter in so many ways. We still need to be thinking about climate change and how do we deal with a hotter drier landscape. What we’re seeing at the moment in Europe and in Siberia is temperatures eight degrees above average. That’s thawing of the permafrost and it’s a really rapid escalation of temperatures. We need to be keeping our eye on the ball. Of course, yes jobs and livelihoods are hugely important but if we create a climate we can’t live in that’s pretty difficult for humans!
IL: yeah, it’s all over red rover. I think I’ve found it extraordinary and inspiring that as your work as a businessperson and as a social entrepreneur in this space in particular [environmental impact] you’ve able to hook into campaigns and popular media stories to be part of the local climate change story. We’re still engaged in this conversation within our own sector.
I’m hoping that some of this news and some of this energy from the fronds of hope can also permeate through to the rest of the mainstream. Longevity throughout COVID for any startup or any kind of new initiative in this space it’s going to be challenging!
ER: yeah that’s true.
IL: I’d like to focus on GRIST now. That’s where you and I met!
IL: Do you remember the launch when we gathered at Mills Oakley in the city?
ER: I remember our first day at class you and I sat next to one another and I was amazed at how organized you were! You had folders for everything and sticky notes for everything, so I was suitably impressed!
IL: That’s so me. I do love a post-it-note. I need my colour coding otherwise I have no idea where I am! I’ve held on to that journal from our GRIST days and I’m now using it to manage the program! That’s the big change that’s happened for me. Meeting you, and getting to know our cohort, being involved in this ecosystem in the Canberra region; I completely upended my life to come down here and stay!
I’d really like to know what it was like for you to accelerate The Climate Factory through the Mill House Social Enterprise Accelerator?
ER: I like doing things. I’m a very practical hands-on person. I love ideas and concepts, but I really like to go into that proof of concept. So, taking the idea of this cooling micro forest but really testing if the community would put their money towards it. That meant that I was running that crowd funding campaign for four weeks, but we were supported by Startsomegood[IL3] which was really fantastic. I suppose there was a little bit of a sense of rivalry and competition, but it was healthy
IL: you mean between the other people who were also crowdfunding and trying to raise money as well?
ER: Yeah. I found crowdfunding a really worthwhile experience and then The Climate Factory raised over $20000 with 187 supporters, including a couple of businesses which I was just so heartened to see. Businesses contributed towards our campaign! So, we’re talking about SERVICE ONE Alliance Bank kicked-off our crowdfunding campaign with five thousand dollars. Also, a couple of other local businesses contributed.
Lighthouse Architecture and Science[IL4] and Federation Financial [IL5] supported us as well. We’ve had other people contribute smaller amounts which is fantastic. Since then, I’ve also had another business, Thor’s Hammer[IL6] , who are a timber recycler. They’ve chosen three different organizations to support this year and we’re one of them. They’ve come on board and given us five thousand dollars in kind.
So, that will go towards building a seat at the Downer micro forest out of recycled hardwood. Plus, The Climate Factory will be an additional 300 climate-ready plants thanks to Thor’s Hammer. So, that’s really cool. Other businesses like what we’re doing.
IL: I think small businesses in regional communities are the heart of how people share their wealth. The people who own those small businesses are part of the community so there is a culture of “giving back” as it were. There’s something called extraordinary about being a local person with access to profit, or access to community, and change the world just by being involved in something as socially innovative as a local social enterprise.
I’ve certainly found it with my own connections back home. I can walk into the music store and they’re asking “when’s the next round of music producers you’re going train starting up? When do we get to see the new, fresh faces and artists”? In the pubs and clubs especially and I’m like “this is fantastic”! That was my biggest learning from this whole process of GRISTing. It’s not about something as straightforward as just a product or service that you just put out there and hope that somebody buys!
For a social entrepreneur, it’s that story of showing our communities how they actually get involved in this world-changing opportunity that’s so exciting. Would you do it all over again? Putting your idea through a social enterprise accelerator?
ER: oh definitely yeah! Yes definitely. I really enjoyed it, and it was quite good for me because there was a series of milestones we had to reach along the way. It wasn’t ever about just selling for the sake of it. You didn’t have to create one product just at the very end. You’re building on your original idea and learning the whole time. Yeah, I’d do it again in a flash!
IL: you’re a brave lady! I don’t know if I would!
ER: It was more difficult for you because you were coming down from regional NSW whereas I lived in Canberra at the time, so it wasn’t particularly difficult for me to turn up.
IL: Travelling so much meant I got the opportunity to get all my homework done on the train!
ER: that’s right, and you were pretty organised! Make sure your sticky notes were all in place
IL: Exactly! You don’t want to get the purple ones and the blue ones confused! So, your business model has pivoted since the end of the accelerator program. I’d really like you to take us through that journey and in particular if you can reference what you learned at the accelerator that has helped you figure out how to pivot.
ER: I suppose the introduction of COVID-19 gave me time to reflect on what I was going to do! I’d set myself a mission to plant a 100 000 (hundred thousand) trees and shrubs by 2025. After the Mill House program, I attended some marketing online professional development courses through a design membership, and they were talking about branding and the importance of creating a unique brand.
Each of us offer unique qualities and learning and it made me reflect. I’ve taught landscape architecture subjects in face to face classes and I thought “well maybe I could teach people who’d never designed before how they could design an outdoor space that nourished them and kept them cool during heatwaves. This has been a focus of some of my thinking recently. So, I learnt a bit about marketing and sales funnels, and I started to work out what they were in my own Social Enterprise.
Basically, you create a free offering, and what you’re trying to do is gather people’s email addresses. That helped me build my database. I already had a bit of a list because I ran that crowdfunding campaign last year, so I built on that. Because I’ve got a website, the Climate Factory encourages people to connect with me, but I also ran a free seminar. I had a hundred people book in, and 40 people showed up. My free seminar was on seven ways to create a cool outdoor haven and what I then offered at the end of that seminar was this four-week online course; How to design your outdoor haven.
This is an e-course for people who had never designed before or never drawn before. I teach the grid method that is based on principles established by the famous landscape designer John Brooks. The grid method makes it really easy to create a design. It gives you a formula. That doesn’t mean you have to stick to it rigidly. But I’ve taught hundreds of people to design this way and it seems to work! I gave that offering and a few bookings trickled in. So, that’s how I’ve pivoted during this time. Offering online courses and running community consultations online.
Here I am in Moruya NSW, in a little regional town where there’s very few jobs. Now I could have my job from home rather than going back and forward to Canberra. I’d always felt conflicted because I’ve got fairly strong sustainability feelings, and that I had always felt conflicted that I was driving a petrol car backwards and forwards on a relatively regular basis. So, this new model means that I can run my business most of the time, digitally! The other thing is, I’ve been talking about writing a book for a long time! So, pivoting also means looking at other products.
I’ve been working on a book that deals with the principles around creating a cool outdoor haven. The idea is I will self-publish an e-book. Actually, running the webinar helped me with some of the writing, that’s so exciting!
IL: I remember when you first told me about the book and I’m like “I know at least 30 women back home where that’s the perfect Christmas present!
ER: Well that’s really interesting that you say that because it’s mainly women and I didn’t realize that I had that particular demographic, but I do! The other interesting thing is quite a few of these people are folks I already know. They have signed up! One of the things about building a brand is it’s also building trust; so, people need to trust that you can deliver what you say you’re going to deliver!
IL: Clearly, you’re taking your business model into a digital realm and offering digital services, digital access, digital products! Do you think that women are a little bit more open to social innovation when it is democratised through digital access? This this new digital opportunity gives us a little bit more transparency, and I think it levels the playing field.
ER: I understand what you’re talking about. There is a certain stereotype I guess about women and the environment and nurturing. I see a lot of the followers on my Climate Factory social pages, maybe about two-thirds are women, so something that I’m doing resonates with them.
The message I am sharing is “we need to be creating these cool outdoor spaces not only in our own homes but in our streetscapes and in the public too” and a lot of women seem to really like that. Having a business that’s digital takes a lot of barriers to starting up because you don’t need that many resources like an office or a shop front. Basically, a laptop and a webcam are enough to start something.
I actually enjoy working from anywhere at the moment. I do have a desk set up elsewhere in my house, but right now I’ve got a folding card table here. It also means I can keep an eye on our new dog who’s been bothering the chickens! I can take this card table outside and work where she is. I can see what’s happening with her and the chickens.
IL: Is this that little border collie puppy I saw on your Facebook?
ER: Yes! So, like a number of other people we got a puppy during COVID-19 shutdown. We’ve had her for five months
IL: she’s a teenager now!
ER: Yeah! She’s 7 months old now
IL: I had a beautiful caramel coloured border collie, and when I first moved to Canberra, we’re doing the long-distance thing and my husband’s been at home looking after my dog and just no time to brush him or take care of him. So, just last weekend, we brought him down to Canberra for a test weekend and see how’d go in an apartment and it was disaster! We found him anew owner who loves him and bathes him and takes him for walks every day and there’s no elevator! I love border collies, they’re my favourite.
ER: We’ve got two of them
IL: It’s nice to be home with them, I’m sure! I’ve noticed with this new way of working, there is a type of transparency that happens with technology now supporting people coming together. The things that used to make business inaccessible to marginalised and non-traditional business founders, especially for groups of people that have always felt disadvantaged and uncomfortable working in that mainstream, cis-male and white privileged dominated spaces is changing.
Now we’re a little bit more visible, and we’re a more active in these conversations about trading and start up. Lots of women have seen the power of trading for purpose and decided “I’m gonna do that too”. Thank goodness, because we need more incredible people like you out there and changing the world! We had a conversation, just a little while ago, that there are all these skills around the digital business model. Building these digital products and offering these digital services must be a new learning curve around the technology component! How much of a struggle has that been with the impact mission and with pivoting and iterating this model really quickly?
ER: My original vision when we were writing our business model, and it had to be something that you could measure, was to plant a hundred thousand (100 000) climate ready trees and shrubs in Canberra by 2025. Before COVID-19, I was having a conversation with a mentor and he said “well, you don’t have to do that all yourself. If you enable other people to do join the mission, then those people can record what they plant”.
That takes the onus off me to plant all those trees and shrubs. So, if I can empower people to know the right climate -ready plants, how to plant them and how to look after them maybe we can use technology t track the impact. I thought maybe an app that people could then record and geo-locate what they planted. Maybe using GPS or something along those lines. I thought that a Climate Factory app could be wonderful. I’d actually applied for some additional funding that would help me to develop that solution and I was unsuccessful so, that piece is on the back burner at the moment.
For now, I am counting the old-fashioned way! I know we’ve got 1500 plants plus an additional 300 going in for Downer. In the Sullivan’s creek micro forest, we’ve got a thousand plants. There’s another project I’m consulting on that’s a Climate Factory directed project but I’m doing the designs for it! We can probably count those plants in The Climate Factory impact as well. But we really need to ramp up our efforts of people planting climate ready plants, particularly trees because trees are the most important part of the landscape. They’re the part in the landscape that will give us shade for the coming summers.
IL: What can we do to help?
ER: If there’s any app developers out there who want to work with me, maybe this would be a fantastic community engagement and environmental project? If anyone out there who is a technology master can point us in the right direction that would be wonderful!
IL: That’s a beautiful ask, Edwina. I am more than happy to spread that message far and wide because I think there’s so many opportunities for other people to come in and help us when we’re building our ventures to come and be part of the impact journey! I am by no means a tech expert and yet I’m working in the music industry which is, in my opinion, one of the most tech-enabled creative sectors. Being able to ask for the right type of expert to come in and help us translate our vision is such an important part of social enterprise.
ER: if I can add to that Irene, it’s really important we use technology wisely because the experts are saying we’ve got the next 10 years to take action to save the environment. If people are serious and really want to start cooling down our environment and particularly our urban areas, we really need to be working together.
Our urban areas are up to eight degrees hotter than our surrounding countryside so planting appropriate trees in our cities and towns, including in our personal spaces in our backyards is just the first step. Being able to track the impact will help even more, by galvanising communities. If Climate Factory followers can add the trees they plant in an app then, I was thinking, we can demonstrate how we are a whole army of backyard warriors. There’s also the Canberra nature map[IL7] which is a bit along the lines I wanted to draw. So, models already exist for what I want to develop.
IL: I read some really scary articles around the tipping points, and some of the predictions are talking about the next six-months. That’s terrifying!
ER: I try not to talk about that. It’s a bit scary. I just try and do what I can do, and the best thing I know is plant! Plant trees in your own backyard, grow things from seed and that sort of thing
IL: I have shared your webinar[IL8] , which is now available on YouTube, with my children. We have a massive backyard and they’re full of energy and commitment to the environment. They’re ready to take the next steps. What does the future look like for The Climate Factory? How is your energy as a social entrepreneur feeding this journey and recovering from all of these challenges?
ER: That’s a good question! One of the things I’ve realized now, being in my sixth decade is you don’t know where you’re going to end up! So, you might start at a point with a completely different idea of how your life will turn out. I studied landscape architecture as a mature age student and studied ecology and resource management at the same time.
I worked in that field and then I made a declaration about 18-months ago; I said, “I’m never going to be a landscape architect again”. I gave away all my drawing stuff! Now, I’m now doing landscape architecture! It’s in a different format so I’m taking everything I’ve learned plus my own capital to invest in this social enterprise. Having built a house and a sustainable garden in Moruya and using those as examples of how my thinking around climate change and trading for purpose can be brought together.
I’m creating packages so instead of being a landscape architect to individuals, I’m trying to create a model where it is scalable. I can teach other people what I’ve learned in my journey so far. I can’t retire for another at least another six years! If we can get a hundred thousand trees planted in the Canberra region that would be awesome! But also, if I can inspire people in other projects and other regional centers then that’s more powerful.
That’s about scale. Personally, I am doing my best to be prepared for change and just to be flexible and reassess and re-evaluate as I go along. So, I’m running this e-course starting on Saturday the 4th of July; how to design your outdoor cool outdoor haven[IL9] . Once I’ve run that course I’ll take feedback and then I’ll reassess, re-evaluate and investigate “is that an appropriate offering” for the market. Then we will look at a September intake. I think we’ll get more take up! I think people are very focused on COVID_19 recovery. But, I think hopefully by September there’ll be a bit more certainty about what’s happening around COVID.
IL: People will be getting closer to summer in September too, so maybe we can connect heat and planting when we are out of winter. I always feel every time we get that first bite of winter that I’m never going to be warm again! Which is silly I know! I listen to my Elders and I listen to the stories of the Country and I know that summer comes again it just doesn’t feel like it in that moment
ER: Definitely down here (South Coast of NSW) there’s this sense of “well we don’t know what this summer will bring”. Given that we had a summer where people felt they didn’t have a summer holiday, or any break from last year there was high anxiety. Summer’s often a time of celebration well summer’s a time of concern. If we can create outdoor spaces that nourish us and cool us down and cool our homes down well that’s a really good thing. Not to mention the incredible health benefits of gardening; not only physical but mental health too. We can’t rely on our governments to take action so we need to take personal action.
IL: That is so exciting Edwina! You’re incredible. You’re the original leader of the army of the backyard warriors my friend!
IL: Costa’s so cute! Can I just give a quick plug? So, if people want to go and look at the online course its climate factory dot com dot a u. go to the LEARN page[IL11] . We’re wizards of this technology stuff!
ER: We are!
IL: I’m also going to make sure that the link for the course is in every single piece of media that we put out there because I’m really excited by the community coming together to hit the target! 100 000 trees and shrubs! Well, we’re at the end of the interview. Thank you again for your time!
ER: oh you’re welcome!