Anouk Bertner says she has always wanted to use the tools of business to accomplish a social good.
Anouk, who studied business at Concordia University, has worked for more than 10 years with social enterprises and non-profit organizations. After earning her MBA, she saw her colleagues going off into finance or management – but she saw herself taking a different path.
“I’ve always seen the potential of business to be a force for good,” says Anouk, who is close to marking her fifth year as Eco Equitable’s executive director.
The social enterprise began in 2002 with a French Catholic nun named Lucille Champagne who worked with refugees and new Canadians to begin a program that not only built people’s sewing skills, but also their social skills, helping with integration into the community.
“She saw that when people were getting together to sew, and they were working side-by-side, and they were supporting each other, then that’s really when community happened and when integration was possible,” says Anouk.
Instead of a formal course, “it was much more about getting people comfortable, getting their language skills up, creating community,” she says. “All those things that are really obvious, but are actually quite hard to put in practice.”
Now, Eco Equitable is one of 18 social enterprises and non-profits in McArthur Avenue’s Heartwood House. It offers a range of sewing courses, from beginner’s classes to pattern-making. These sewing courses are a main revenue source to support the social programming.
Eco Equitable is Ottawa’s only textile recycler, and managed to repurpose 10,175 pounds of fabric in 2017. The textiles come from a variety of places, including individual’s homes, the National Capital Commission’s flags and the G7 summit.
The core of Eco Equitable is its social programming, or sewing for jobs. They work with many immigrant and refugee women in the area, helping them get their skills up for the job market while also providing them with income for their work.
Much of the work cycles back to the community – for example, Eco Equitable makes a lot of conference bags, including bags for the G7 summit that incorporated fabric from recycled Canada 150 flags.
Anouk says Eco Equitable is getting more recognition in the wider Ottawa community – recently, it received the Community Builder of the Year award from United Way Ottawa in the category “From Poverty to Possibility.”
“There’s a lot of values-based organizations that are interested in creating products that have a story to them,” she says. “People are getting sick of mass-processed, mass-made, questionable-origin products.”
That, plus the knowledge that Eco Equitable is helping newcomers get established, makes people and businesses feel good about supporting the enterprise, she says.
Being in Vanier, where many newcomers land when they first arrive, makes sense for Eco Equitable, she says.
“I think Vanier is one of the only neighbourhoods in Ottawa that has real personality,” says Anouk, adding that its location within Heartwood House makes its community impact stronger.
“The great thing about all being co-located in a space where we all do similar work is that we can help each other,” she says. “It’s convenient and supportive.”