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Jean Madden Street Swags founder

Social entrepreneur Jean Madden on charitable business

As the 2012 Telstra Business Women’s awards open for nominations, Dynamic Business is chatting to twelve former winners about the impact the program has had on their businesses.

After a decade’s worth of volunteering with the homeless and seeing the mental and physical toll of sleeping rough first-hand, Jean Madden was inspired to create a product to ease this suffering.

So, in 2005 she developed a swag for all the homeless in Brisbane, made of lightweight, waterproofed material and a mattress, which rolled up to become a bag with room for belongings. From this generosity, the Street Swags charity was born, and this social entrepreneur enjoyed backing from the community and the corporate world to sponsor, produce, pack and distribute the swags across Australia.

For her contribution to Australian society, Madden won the Nokia Business Innovation Award in the 2011 Queensland Telstra Business Women’s Awards, as well as the 2009 People’s Choice Award at the prestigious INDEX design awards in Denmark and was named 2010 Queensland Young Australian of the Year.

Here, Madden talks about the role innovation has played in her success and reveals how winning the Telstra Business Women’s award has impacted her confidence as an entrepreneur.

Q.   How important do you think it is for a business owner to have an innovative spirit?

Unless you can problem solve and think outside the square, you’re never going to be at the forefront of your industry. There are so few situations in Australia where it’s O.K. to be different, so my advice is to embrace what makes you special and run with it.

Q. How has innovation impacted your business in past year?

As a charity with no government funding, we have to constantly be creative in how we raise revenue – it’s like continuously being in start-up mode!

With each natural disaster, we’ve faced a sudden increase in demand coupled with a dramatic loss in donations. As a result we’ve tried to diversify our income streams, so we now produce a swag for the general public, The Walkabout Bed and a Christmas CD for companies to buy for their staff. I guess you’d call it innovative social entrepreneurship at it’s most raw.

Q. What one piece of advice would you offer other aspiring businesswomen and female entrepreneurs?

Determination is key. If you say “I’ll give it a go and see what happens,” you’re destined to fail. Whereas if you say “I will do this” – you will. When you go in with that much determination, you don’t have time to worry about what people think of you or to feel helpless, you just do it.

Q. How has being nominated and winning a Telstra Business Women’s Award impacted your business or organisation?

For someone who still adds up on her fingers, winning a Telstra Business Women’s award gives me some kudos in a world I don’t feel I would otherwise legitimate.

My background is theology, not business, and just between us – I think my business plan is the reverse of the rest of the business world. In my business, you give us money and get nothing in return and you couldn’t buy a street swag as you’ll only get one if you can’t afford it! Needless to say, my needs always come last. But, I think it’s because of this altruism that we’ve now given our basic beds and shelters to 22,000 homeless people. Most of these are women and children, who are now safer and healthier because of me.