Jellaine Dee says she knows that despite a tough upbringing she is “the lucky one”, and ten days living on the streets has helped inform her ideas on how to transform that luck into social change through her business.
The founder of multi-million dollar cosmetics business Cherry Blooms was one of five wealthy individuals to take part in the SBS documentary Filthy Rich and Homeless, a three part program that put some of Australia’s most successful entrepreneurs and young professionals on the streets of Melbourne for ten days, in hopes of engaging with the reality of homelessness.
Dee tells SmartCompany she was drawn to the program because of her own difficult upbringing, which saw her stay in women’s refuges to escape a violent step-parent when she was a young woman. Having come to Australia as a child from the Philippines with her mother, Dee says she had some idea of the difficulties of poverty.
However, “within a few hours” of being left on the streets without a mobile, wallet or ID, Dee says her own faith in her ability to problem-solve started to erode.
“The thing is that as soon as you are holding those plastic bags, and on a cardboard box in a sleeping bag, nobody looks [at you],” Dee says.
There’s been plenty of debate in recent weeks about the value of projects that attempt to engage the business community in issues like homelessness, with this year’s CEOSleepout prompting criticism over the use of virtual reality technology to “simulate” the concept of homelessness for chief executives.
However, Dee’s experience with Filthy Rich and Homeless revealed the power of any public project that aims to start the conversation on making a change to a social problem.
‘”I think anything that gets people talking about a cause that’s really important is doing its job. It’s really about the awareness and it’s about what people are going to do next, once they have these stats.”
Dee says one of the most insightful moments of filming the program was meeting a man who lived on the streets of Melbourne, who had been receiving cancer treatment but made the effort to walk many kilometers each night to check on women he knew, look after them and give them support.
“He should have been at home but every night he would walk 5km in the cold,” Dee says.
“He was really there for others, and he was doing that every single day.”
The engagement within the community Dee found on the streets of Melbourne also drove home the importance of conversation, she says. She believes entrepreneurs should always be looking beyond both their circumstances and the circumstances of others.
“I think being a social entrepreneur is the ultimate type of entrepreneur. We are the ones who have the impact to change the world through what we do, through the impact of our businesses and our staff. Businesses have more of that responsibility to be the ones that make that impact.”
For Dee, this responsibility is two-fold: It’s about talking to people you encounter about their strengths and their stories, and then backing this up with support through your business.
“This [experience] made me realise it’s about the right type of information. The reason I think I’ve overcome a lot of the kind of thinking you can get stuck in is that I invested in my own personal developments. I got to use that and apply it to my own life… and a lot of the people [I met], I feel the only way is if these guys can do the same,” Dee says.
The first step, particularly for those that run their own business, is to talk to all the people they meet about their lives and experiences.
“I feel that everyone goes through levels of hardship, and I think if you were to chat to a homeless person, just chat to them,” she says.
Dee has also been focused on building her Cherry Blooms business, which Fairfax reports turns over around $10 million annually, into a platform that can be leveraged to support people in poverty.
She has pledged “several thousands” two Philippines-based charities SOS Children’s Services and Concordia Children’s Village, pledging a percentage of production costs for her new line of lipsticks as she looks to new ways to leverage her business into tangible social contributions.
“I’ve picked the Philippines because that’s where I was born and I know the absolute dire situation,” she says.
However, the role of entrepreneurship in fighting social problems should be as much about setting the expectation that customers and the community take whatever action they can on the things they care about, she says.
“Take some action: It’s the only thing we can do as a society.”