You never know which experience will change the course of your life.
As entrepreneurs, Dave and Hannah Cree are creative, resourceful and intentional. The pair has an impressive set of resumes, with decades of experience working in the marketing and start-up communities in Edmonton and Calgary. But it’s how a brief encounter with living homeless changed everything and led them to take action and make meaningful changes in their community that’s truly inspiring.
For Dave, the first sparks of his passion appeared during a leadership course where he was asked to spend a day living on the street, asking passers-by for money. The challenge changed his perspective on those living with poverty and homelessness. After the completion of the course, he began volunteering at the local drop-in centre to give back. But the impression of that day never left his mind.
In 2013, after heavy rainfall and floods devastated much of Southern Alberta, the Crees experienced their next brush with homelessness. Their basement was destroyed, and they were left relying on the generosity of family and friends to get by. The support they received was overwhelming, and as time went on the Crees realized it was their turn to give back.
“It really hit us at that point, we have an urgent need for housing every day in our city. We can react this way in a flood situation but turn a blind eye to people who are experiencing this every day,” says Hannah. “So after we rebuilt our house, we started giving back by volunteering at the Calgary Drop-In Centre.”
As the Crees reflected on their experiences, the idea for CMNGD (Common Good) Linens began to take shape. They wanted to apply their entrepreneurial experience to a social good, creating a self-sustaining enterprise that could help individuals experiencing poverty build a better life.
“There are so many barriers to employment: no one will take a shot on me, my address is still the shelter, I don’t have a photo ID, the list goes on. There are so many little barriers, we knew we had to do more to help people overcome those barriers,” says Hannah.
In 2016, they launched CMNGD (COMMONGOOD) Linens, a laundry service providing cleaned, folded and ironed linens to Calgary’s hospitality industry. The company hires barriered employees, such as those experiencing homelessness or in recovery programs, and pays $15/h to start. For these barriered employees, the repetitive, easily learnable tasks involved in laundry services can be a lifeline – the first chance at a better life, and long-term success.
At first, CMNGD operated out of the Calgary Drop-In Centre, using the facility’s commercial laundry machines to wash and prepare linens for restaurants. But before long, demand for CMNGD’s services was outgrowing this small, part-time facility. Within a year of launching, Dave and Hannah began looking for a commercial laundry plant that could allow CMNGD to expand.
“Operationally, we were maxed out, we couldn’t take on another client,” says Hannah.
An industry contact connected them with an opportunity to buy out a commercial laundry plant in Calgary’s Northeast. The prospect was promising, but the purchase of a warehouse would require more capital than they had. That is, until, a local non-profit contact recommended they reach out to the Social Enterprise Fund.
“We knew of SEF, but we thought we were a bit too small,” says Hannah.
Luckily, they were wrong. From the company’s launch in September 2016 until the end of December 2017, CMNGD completed 5,200 hours of employment of barriered employees. A larger plant could mean an equally great impact.
In December 2017, with financial support from SEF, CMNGD purchased the commercial laundry business. Not only was the facility larger, but the previous owners had included a client list with it which allowed CMNGD to take on a host of new customers. By of the end of July 2018, their number of barriered employment hours grew to 13,000 — a 150 per cent increase from just seven months before.
The past two years have brought many learning experiences for Dave and Hannah on everything from the scientific side of water pH and soap composition, to the human side of working with vulnerable populations. And while CMNGD’s journey is only just beginning, it has already offered many touching experiences as employees move up and out of the drop-in centre to find accommodation of their own.
“Just imagine sitting down and making yourself a meal in your home for the first time. When you’re just fighting for survival, you’re not enjoying your walk in the park, you’re not enjoying being with friends. You’re worried about your stuff being stolen every day,” says Hannah. “Our first employee who moved out sent us a picture of a home cooked meal… Those are the stories you need to think of when you’re in your startup hell.”
Entrepreneurs, and in particular social entrepreneurs are usually moving pretty fast.