A wish list for a mentor back in 2007 turned out to be very fortuitous for STREAT co-founder and CEO, Rebecca Scott. Recalling the attributes she wanted in a mentor, her initial belief was that such a person did not exist. “It was during a course I attended at The Ethics Centre that I wrote down all the things I wanted in a mentor,” she says, “and I remember thinking this amazing woman does not exist.”
However, this all changed after she was introduced to Dawn O’Neil AM. Scott’s wish list had consisted of someone who worked in both the not-for-profit (NFP) and corporate sectors, someone who was collaborative in their approach and who behaved in a highly engaged manner. “And one whose style wasn’t command and control,” she adds. A mutual friend of the two women said to Scott: “I know exactly who that woman is, and that’s Dawn O’Neil.”
The subsequent meeting between Scott and O’Neil would see the women forge a strong connection that would last for almost a decade. O’Neil recalls their first meeting and admits she was not ready to take on a mentor role due to her workload as chief executive officer (CEO) of Lifeline.
“I wasn’t prepared to take on a mentee,” she says. “But our mutual friend Jen raved about Bec and her amazing vision. She told me that I would love meeting her, even if I decided against the mentoring role. When I met Bec, I was gobsmacked; she had so much energy and passion for what she wanted to do.” Over the course of the year, the women met regularly. “There was an instant camaraderie,” recalls Scott. “Coincidentally, we lived no more than a suburb away from each other and this made it easier to catch up. We quickly became friends.”
In 2008, Scott received funding for her social enterprise vision, STREAT, from a Danish philanthropist. The aim was to provide life-skills, support, work experience and hospitality training to disadvantaged and young homeless people aged 16–25. However, Scott says she had a crisis of confidence and asked O’Neil to come on board.
“I remember thinking that there was no way I could run an organisation this size. I knew Dawn would be perfect so I rang her and pleaded with her to come on board. She jokingly said she didn’t think I could afford her, but that she would indeed support me, that it was my vision and reassured me that I did have the required skills.”
As STREAT was coming into being, O’Neil became more involved with strategy. She joined the organisation as chair and has remained on the board for the past decade, although not always as chair.
“Dawn walked alongside me over the early years and she has been involved in every part of this vision,” says Scott. “When you start an organisation, that first group of people at the core are often your most trusted friends and family.”
STREAT began in 2010 with one coffee cart, three staff and nine young trainees. It now has 55 staff and eight interconnected businesses, including five cafes, a catering company, an artisan bakery and a coffee roastery. In 2016, STREAT opened a new, modern, flagship site encompassing a café, bakery and training centre in Melbourne’s Collingwood. STREAT has now trained and supported over 520 disadvantaged young people.
In 2016, Scott received the EY 2016 Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award for her work with STREAT. “I knew that this would be Bec’s life work, she was hungry for it and ready for it.” says O’Neil.
The need for support
When it comes to her yearly performance reviews, Scott still gets very nervous. “Dawn gives me a phenomenal amount of freedom,” she says. “It would be very foolish of a CEO to assume, even if you’re the business founder, that you’re the boss of your organisation. It is easy to get blind-sided and fall into the trap of not seeing the forest for the trees. You need people outside to keep you in line.”
The trust between the two women is obvious. Scott says there is a deep abiding trust in the chair. “It is the worst scenario when the chair and CEO relationship is strained and this can tear an organisation apart. When there is trust it brings enormous gains for an organisation.”
O’Neil adds: “Of course there are times when we have different ideas about how we reach a solution, whether it is how much risk we take, or what our focus may be. We have worked really hard to not take positions on things. We don’t vote on issues and we try as much as possible to have openness in expressing views.”
STREAT’s board comprises legal, social and finance members, and the board tries to engage as much as possible so everyone has their say, and views are not just aired, but discussed.
“We have a high level of trust on the board and this starts with Bec and myself. I have enormous trust in her judgement and skills. I see myself as encouraging her rather than guiding.”
“We have good people and this is the hallmark of how we operate. We are a porous operation, in that we are not insular. We bring people in where needed,” adds Scott.
O’Neil agrees and adds that they do not see themselves as experts.
Scott says over the last seven years she cannot think of a single time when there has been discontent over the roles of the board and management. “We have never disagreed on where the board and management stop and start. I believe this is a problem of a micro-managing board and it’s never been an issue here.” O’Neil attributes this to STREAT’s “very detailed governance charter.”
Innovation and the future
Innovation is a hot topic for the company. With five other projects on the boil, Scott says that innovation is critical for STREAT’s future and has requested that the board allow her to spend 10 per cent of her time on innovation.
“I’m fairly creative in the way I solve problems,” she says. “My belief is that the most complex problems require a cross-disciplinary approach. What I enjoy most is the cross-fertilisation that you get with youth workers and psychologists sitting across from chefs and baristas. You need diversity to solve complex issues.”
O’Neil says the innovation agenda was an easy decision for the board to make. “Why would we want to squash innovation or creativity? We need to give it the breadth and room to grow without jeopardising the organisation.”
For anyone looking to start their own social enterprise, Scott has several words of advice, including volunteering. “Learn the ropes elsewhere, before you have the cash flow nightmare. Do it in incremental ways. What you learn with experience will give your own enterprise a far greater chance of success.”
Of her time at STREAT, Scott says: “This is the most fun I could ever have in my life; or doing anything else in the world.”
O’Neil agrees. “Being chair here is the most fun I’ve had in all my roles. I’ve felt this from the start. It has been inspirational, fun and enjoyable to watch the organisation grow.”
As for the future, sustaining the organisation without external grant funding continues to be the key objective. “We are working our way to that goal, we are almost self-funded. We’re so close.” says Scott. “We are also looking at further scaling this model to another venture in regional Victoria. We want to go to where there is need.”