How Insertech Sets High Standards for Social Enterprises
Insertech repairs and refurbishes IT equipment. It also employs and trains individuals who find it difficult to enter the job market.
A Discussion with Agnès Beaulieu, Director General, Insertech
Even motivated individuals can find themselves down on their luck. Perhaps they immigrated to a new community in which their skillset doesn’t match the labour market. Or perhaps a decision in their early youth has branded them in a way that makes it difficult for typical employers to look past.
In situations like these, the Insertech business model offers a solution. It is a non-profit organization that repairs and refurbishes IT equipment, while employing underprivileged individuals, training them in customer service and developing their technical skills to make them more attractive to future employers.
This is Insertech in a nutshell. Thanks to our discussion with Insertech’s Director General, Agnès Beaulieu, we learned much more.
NBS: Ms. Beaulieu, how would you describe Insertech? How did it start?
Beaulieu: The concept of Insertech emerged in tandem with the development of Technopôle Angus, a technology park founded on urban ecology principles and community wellbeing nearly two decades ago. When Technopôle Angus was proposed it offered the prospect of economic revival for an area within the heart of Montreal East. It would provide employment opportunities that local youth would normally not have access to.
But socio-economic issues in Montreal East ran deep. School dropout rates meant that even if the tech park created jobs, it would be challenging to fill the positions with qualified employees. But Insertech saw a clear opportunity: to develop skills of young adults, specifically in the field of information technology (IT), which would benefit the economic, social and environmental revitalisation efforts.
Today, Insertech has evolved into a business that serves multiple customers and community stakeholders. We offer an eco-friendly computer hardware recovery service. We help troubled youth become more attractive to employers through training and the development of social and professional skills. We help fight e-waste by providing affordable, refurbished IT equipment to the community. Since our inception, we are proud to have helped 900 young adults and have given 150,000 computers a second life.
NBS: How would you describe the Insertech business model?
Beaulieu: Every business decision, product or service is based on a comprehensive approach based on the three pillars of sustainable development. Is it useful for young adults and the community? Is the product harmful to the environment? Will the project hold up financially? We do our best and put in a lot of effort integrate environmental components into all of our operational processes, which is sometimes not the case for other social enterprises. It is difficult to determine which aspect of our mission we invest most of our energy into; everything is so intertwined. For example, our hardware reuse program has great environmental value, but also always takes social impact into account. We had several phases of development in the last 17 years. After the initial start-up, we opened ourselves up to the community to fully understand the needs. Then we focused on the professionalization of our operations in order to improve the quality of our products and services. After that, we led a demonstration phase through which we sought to prove that small businesses can compete alongside larger companies in terms of quality and environmental standards. At this stage that we were awarded the ISO14001 certification.
More recently, we extended our range of services and now we are going even further within the social dimension. We are conducting an awareness campaign on the use of electronic products in which we educate the community on consumption practices and our own responsibility. This goes beyond our original mission.
I believe our social concern is also what distinguishes us from more traditional businesses. It puts us in a state of constant innovation, which has been the case since the beginning of our existence, when we decided to invent something that had never been done before.
NBS: Tell us about the biggest challenges running this type of business model?
Beaulieu: We work in a developing area – provisioning computing devices – and so there are several challenges. We go to great lengths to explain to businesses and consumers how reuse is more environmentally beneficial than recycling. Although recycling is complementary, extending the life of a computing device creates much more shared value than simply recycling it. Right now, recycling and reuse compete, creating a supply challenge for us.
Embedding social benefits and economic performance is also a major issue. The youth that constitute our main labour force have particular educational needs because they are new to the sector; it's very different than working with a stable workforce that’s already well prepared. We work very hard to train them and help them excel by setting aggressive goals and helping them achieving those goals.
We are proud of our mission and our achievements, but walking off the beaten path has its share of insecurities. I think if we could have done things differently, we should have had more confidence in ourselves to push even harder. We might have taken less time to reach our goals.
NBS: How does Insertech stand out? Does the organizational mission help?
Beaulieu: More and more! What is particularly interesting is the evolution that we see in our business partnerships. The development and adoption of corporate responsibility has transformed the 'charitable' vision that businesses had about us. Insertech has always offered an environmentally friendly disposal service to businesses.
As more and more companies became aware of their own responsibilities, they were attracted to partner with Insertech by our efficient business model – not only by the opportunity to make a philanthropic contribution.In a way, we are like a prism that helps reveal how businesses can contribution socially and environmentally.
NBS: How do you see the future of social entrepreneurship?
Beaulieu: With the widespread adoption of social responsibility in traditional businesses, I believe that companies like Insertech will attract more partners and that the social economy sector will expand. More and more, I believe, employees want things to make sense. And the community supports reintegration of young adults, intelligent disposal of their waste, collaborative work and so on. These types of goals are increasingly attractive to the workforce of today.
I cannot say whether the model will become generalized, but what seems certain is that the social economy is here to stay. Quebec is even preparing to launch a social economy policy. New business partnerships between traditional businesses and those of the social economy also promote responsible relationships; there is cross-pollination between these different types of businesses.
NBS: What is your advice to entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs?
Mobilize your teams and governance structures. You can find ways to become more efficient at the social and environmental levels, and you will see that it is also profitable.
Work in collaboration with the community in which you operate, ensuring that you include your business community. You will identify on one hand, the measures that will allow you make a positive impact, and on the other hand, you will work in non-parallel but complementary sectors.