A social enterprise was something she’d planned for a long while, partly from working in the community most of her life and following the motto non nobis solum (from her father’s school and family ethos) Pip Robertson grew up with ‘we’re not here for ourselves alone’. ie We’re here for something more than looking after our own needs.
Although it’s like extracting teeth to get her to admit the good she is doing and has done for other people she has positively touched the lives of quite a few people around the world, and the plan was to later put something back into her own community here in Victor Harbor.
Early skills from training as a paediatric nurse and midwife and then working in public health made the transition to a wider target easier. She spent much of the 1970s working in development and humanitarian projects in northern Australia, Africa, Europe, Asia and South America.
It was here, and while accompanying her husband Andrew in locations around the world in his role with the UN (and herself working for the UN and other organisations) she further developed her skills.
“On weekends I’d often spend some time training some of the staff from the UN who were drivers and guards, for example.
“Their literacy skills weren’t good, so they couldn’t get better jobs, so I’d help out teaching them computer skills and literacy.
“I also taught environmental and horticultural studies on the weekends within the Ministries of Agriculture in some countries, mostly in relation to town planning, but also to pastoralist groups who in the past had lived solely from animals, but who were becoming more settled and did not have agricultural or horticultural skills.”
And, although it’s hard to get her to admit to it, all of this was on a volunteer basis.
After years of travelling, including working in Kenya, Sudan, Malaysia, Italy and New York, the couple have now “retired” to their property in the Victor Harbor area … and Pip has turned entrepreneur, setting up a six-day a week café, co-working and function space in the heart of the town.
“I had been looking around for a piece of property for a few years, and this place became available,” she says.
Coomunga House is located at 10 Railway Terrace, Victor Harbor, opposite the railway station and next to the Grosvenor Hotel. About 20 years ago the house was home to the Victor Harbor Tourist Information Centre, so it seems almost full circle that it should once again be involved with hospitality and serving the community.
“I wanted to set up a community venture that involved developing a space in which people could interact and meet.
“My aim was to combine job development through a café, but I never planned to run it myself.”
Pip has had to learn a wide range of skills herself, including being a barista and cook at the café, which is staffed by volunteers who are wanting to learn or practise skills, so that they may become employed.
It’s clear from a coffee and chat with the volunteers at Coomunga House that they’re made to feel welcome and are grateful for the opportunity.
Social enterprises are willing to take risk/initiative to develop a business model for a social goal, eg to combine commercial strategies to meet community need; reduce reliance on external factors; create positive change to maximize improvements in human well-being through e.g. tackling social problems; improving communities; people’s life chances; or the environment. The aim is to be the change
And, unlike many of us keen to keep the staff we’ve trained, for Pip her greatest satisfaction is when they say goodbye and move on to paid employment.
“The aim is for people to move on. It should be a stepping stone.”
She beams when she tells how one of the volunteers has just gained some work with a local hospitality outlet. And so, when you ask her if she stays in touch with those she has assisted overseas, the answer is obvious, of course, she does.
A humble and reserved soul, Pip finds it hard to acknowledge the magnitude of the contribution she has made and continues to make in the lives of others.
As well as a financial investment in establishing the social enterprise, she has also had to put on hold semi-regular overseas trips to visit her children, but she’s hoping that will mean it might be their turn to come to Australia for the next few years.
The establishment of Coomunga House was anything but a spur of the moment decision, despite Pip admitting she’s a “fly by the seat of my pants” person with minimal formal planning undertaken.
“I did do a bit of homework, visiting co-working places in Adelaide and speaking with others who had set up social enterprises.
“I thought about how I might make it economically viable and what’s going to be the points of difference, and why would people come here.
“It was a calculated risk as any new venture is.”
When you talk to Pip you start to get some realisation of the many volunteer roles she plays and you can tell her mind is constantly ticking over how she can help someone.
The Coomunga House kitchen provides soup for Whalers Housing clients; she helps out the Royal Society for the Blind with the Talking Times project and she has a passion to see the Kickstart for Kids program further developed on the South Coast. And these are just the ones she can think of as we chat, but there are several others she’s involved with too.
“I’d love to see more community interaction at Coomunga House – community groups meeting here, art and craft workshops, book clubs, poetry readings, cooking; anything that can help bring people together.
She has several other plans in the wings, with new ventures coming on board quite regularly.
“I’d also like to see the co-working and hot-desking spaces utilised more.”
Pip would also love to see more volunteers, perhaps learning more skills in areas like account keeping, marketing or gardening.
If you or someone you know has some time to assist, or you know of anyone looking to employ people with hospitality skills, contact Pip on 8552 2180.