The Social Ventures Zone at Ryerson University is home to unique entrepreneurial initiatives that are designed to make a positive impact in a variety of communities, both in Toronto and beyond. See all of our profiles here.
Who’s involved in this project?
Antoine Heuty (CEO), Manu Kabahizi (CTO), Vera Belazelkoska (director of programs) and Arisa Goldstone (director of business development).
What are your goals for this project?
AG: Ulula is a social enterprise that equips businesses with technology, data and analytics to monitor risks of human rights abuses in order to create more socially responsible supply chains. Our mandate is to improve worker conditions across sectors such as mining, manufacturing and agribusiness by sourcing and processing accurate and timely insights directly from workers across the globe. Our solution is accessible in multiple languages, anonymous to protect worker identities and it leverages various communication channels (SMS, voice, messenger applications) to share on-the-ground data between buyers, suppliers and workers.
What is the biggest challenge you’re facing?
VB: Like any innovation that is disrupting the status quo or the way “things are done,” we have to push the boundaries of current standards. In our space, that means reinventing the social audit, which companies traditionally rely on to gather insights into factory working conditions. However, social audits are not frequent, engage a handful of workers and do not ensure anonymity so that workers can be fully transparent about life at work. We deal with the challenge of changing the industry’s mindset that to gather insight on actual working conditions, we need to go beyond the audit, and gather honest feedback from a larger population of workers, much more frequently.
Can you explain the mentorship process available to you through the Ryerson Social Ventures Zone (SVZ)?
AG: The Ryerson Social Ventures Zone has been instrumental in our growth, enabling us to build up our company and gain momentum. With their support we refined our business plan, strengthened our investor and customer pitch and quickly integrated into the Toronto social enterprise and impact community. Since joining the SVZ in the summer of 2016, our team has experienced accelerated growth and demand from our clients and partners. We look back at the last 18 months and it’s hard to believe that we went from working around our dining room table to to the SVZ, and are now based at the IBM Innovation Space in Toronto.
The Ryerson SVZ is all about leveraging innovation to make a social impact. How will your project affect the communities you’re targeting?
AG: Many of our target workers are unable to easily and privately communicate mistreatment or unethical labour practices in their workplace, which means that brands and companies do not have access to real-time worker insights to inform their decisions and ensure compliance. The 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh demonstrates how powerful worker voices can be. Had the workers been able to convey just how unsafe the building was to the right stakeholders, there is a good chance factory could have been shut down or evaluated before it took the lives of over 1,100 workers. Our solution enables workers to anonymously provide insights while also increasing dialogue and engagement among key stakeholders such as workers, brands and facility owners to drive socially responsible supply chains.
Have you been able to obtain any feedback from people who stand to benefit from your project? If so, what have they told you?
VB: During user validation interviews, workers and community members – from places as diverse as factory hubs in India to mining villages in the Peruvian Andes – have told us that an anonymous and free channel to voice concerns is a powerful tool. Workers have also stressed the importance of hearing how their insights will be used, and whether they contribute to any tangible changes in the workplace. Partners from government, corporate and civil society organizations also affirm that Ulula provides them with a unique value-add: integrate reliable, on-the-ground data to mitigate costly social risks.
What kind of public or private partnerships are you hoping to make (if any) to help grow your project?
AG: We’re a small team so public and private partnerships are essential to scale our solution across target regions and sectors. From partnerships with civil society organizations to international industry associations that promote socially responsible supply chains, our goal is to form relationships that allow us to tap into worker voices to improve labour conditions. We would be happy to speak with companies and organizations keen to improve labour conditions and drive responsible supply chains by technology.
Imagine if you could scale up your project to its full potential. What would that look like?
VB: There are about 1.4 billion vulnerable workers according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), so reaching the majority of them could be transformative in reducing the risk of labour exploitation and modern slavery, which would save and improve millions of lives. We are already investing in collecting data on a broader scale in some key hotspots of the supply chains in textile and garment, palm oil and minerals. This enables us to create a unique database that will ensure these vulnerable workers are no longer invisible in the supply chain. This foundation can drive powerful change as banks, investors and insurers would be able to measure risks and incentivize better practice. It may also help reveal the true cost of goods to drive more ethical consumption.
Timing is a crucial factor that contributes to the success of a social venture. Why is now the right time for your project?
VB: In recent years we have seen governments, civil society organizations, business and consumers demand greater transparency and accountability in global supply chains. Every factory collapse or conflict in a mining community has a real human cost, as well as a reputational, financial and legal risk. The time is ripe to leverage this momentum and advocate for the inclusion of worker voices as a central piece in this monitoring and compliance process.
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