Ophori Cosmetics: How a Romanian social enterprise creates jobs for people with disabilities
Ophori Cosmetics, a social enterprise offering hand-made cosmetics, has its entire production staff made up of vulnerable people, and strives to create and adapt jobs according to its social mission.
A small percentage of people with disabilities manage to find employment. In the country, a little over 7% of people with disabilities aged 18 to 64 were employed in January 2019, according to data from the tax administration ANAF quoted in a report* of the Foundation for Civil Society Development. Using a previous experience in the NGO environment, the founders of Brașov-based Ophori Cosmetics decided to do their share to change that and set up a workshop that employs vulnerable people.
All products are hand-made and come in sustainable packaging. The enterprise pays attention to having equitable salary levels and strives to strike a balance between the complexity of a product or packaging and the employee’s capacity to make them. They also plan to improve some production processes so they can be undertaken by people within a wider spectrum of disabilities.
Although the products are well-received, the enterprise still deals with preconceptions associated with the work of people with disabilities as some do not trust the company’s products because disability is many times associated with low quality, Bogdan Dimciu, administrator with Ophori Cosmetics, explains.
More about the enterprise and how it works to develop its business while serving its cause in the Q&A below.
How did Ophori Cosmetics start, and why did you choose to develop a social enterprise?
Ophori Cosmetics started from an occupational therapy workshop implemented in a center for people with disabilities, where, under the guidance of therapists, the beneficiaries made cosmetics. While working, they gained skills in recognizing the raw materials, differentiating scents and consistencies, packaging, labeling, but also maintaining cleanliness. The most important thing was for them to learn they had a responsibility for the end product, which was later donated to the community. This responsibility also came with the benefit of increased self-esteem for those involved in the project.
A major issue found in many occupational therapy centers arises from the fact that the beneficiaries are not engaged in activities required by the labor market. An often encountered activity is handiwork, with the making of paintings or paper items, which certainly develops the beneficiary’s fine motor skills, but it is not something that employers require. The latter are looking for more diverse and well-grounded skills.
In the end, despite all our efforts in the cosmetics workshop, the beneficiary still could not find a job. Another issue interfered, this time on the side of the employers: the fact that workplaces are not adapted to the needs of people with disabilities. I am talking here not just about the physical layout of the workspace (for instance, access ramps for wheelchairs) but to wider ones, such as relations between co-workers, the work level, simplifying work processes etc.
Together with our colleagues, therapists and volunteers, with whom we started the workshop in the NGO I mentioned before, we decided to set up an NGO: Asociația INSERT. Its purpose is to establish social enterprises of insertion, like Ophori, aiming to employ vulnerable people. More specifically, if other companies do not hire people with disabilities in an environment especially developed for them, we will.
A social enterprise of insertion combines aspects from the for-profit and non-profit environments. Social economy borrows the business and sustainability principles of companies, to which it adds the social impact specific to the NGO sector. We thought this was the solution to fulfill our mission of employing as many vulnerable people as possible.
What determined the time of the launch?
After a European financing through the Social Enterprises Accelerator program implemented by Alături de Voi Foundation in Iași, we moved on to the workshop stage, an independent lab: Ophori Cosmetics. The validation of the business idea happened while the workshop was opened at the NGO as the products were appreciated by the people they reached. Even if the products are also appreciated now, we think the local and national market is not ready to purchase products from enterprises such as Ophori. Disability is many times associated with low quality; we often encounter people who do not trust the Ophori products because they were manufactured by adults with disabilities.
I often ask: “If you knew that this restaurant X hires people with disabilities, would you eat there?
What does the founding team look like?
The Ophori management includes four people: three engineers and volunteers, an occupational therapist. The entire team was established in the NGO I mentioned in the beginning, working with people with disabilities.
You are a social enterprise of insertion. What does this entail for the activity of the company?
Through our statute, we are a social enterprise of insertion registered as SRL (private limited company). This was due to the fact that our social impact is generated through economic activity, and SRL was the form that fitted us best. This also means we pay the same taxes like any other company. It also means we have the same issues as other businesses, especially in production: the lack of providers in the area, price increases for raw materials, competition etc.
But, besides all these, we are a social economy structure. This comes with constraints we have assumed, all for the benefit of the community:
The social impact - hiring people with disabilities and selling all products in recyclable packaging. For these, we present yearly to the institution that authorities us (AJOFM – National Employment Agency) the social activity report of the Ophori enterprise.
Allotting at least 90% of the profit to the social cause - this is a very important particularity of social enterprises, guaranteeing that money generated from the economic activity return to the community. Unlike classic firms focused on profit for associates, we generate profit for the community. Allotting the profit in a social cause can take several forms: creating new jobs, adapting them, offering counseling services for employees etc.
Equitable salary levels - to combat the maneuver of “hiring cheap labor but having big salaries for owners,” within Ophori there can be no salary differences greater than 1 to 8 between the smallest and the highest [salary].
All these and many more ensure the social impact and come with the guarantee to the community that the money obtained from the economic activity are reinvested.
Practically, a big difference from other cosmetics enterprises is in the labor capacity of the employees. With Ophori, all people in production have disabilities and a work capacity reduced to at least half. This brings higher costs because fewer products can be made in a set period of time. At the same time, the accompanying measures needed for professional integration come with additional costs. All these, together with a lack of support from the state, means that managing a social enterprise of insertion is very difficult, a reason for them being few.
What did the start of the project entail? What investment was needed? Were there challenging aspects to solve?
Besides small financing projects obtained in time in the small workshop in the NGO, the Ophori lab needed EUR 70,000 financing. Related to the problematic aspects, every day there is something difficult to solve, both in production and retail and with staff. But, hey, we like it.
How many people do you employ? How do you recruit and train them?
At present, Ophori Cosmetics has five employees, three of them people with disabilities. Recruiting vulnerable people is done by working with local NGOs. We run ads with these NGOs, and interested persons can send a CV to Ophori and have an interview with them. Within the interview, we are interested in the person’s social abilities, previous work, expectations from Ophori, etc.
Given that the production jobs are adapted to people with disabilities, the initial qualifications are not needed. For this, people receive guidance at hiring until they are independent in carrying out the allotted activities.
Are you looking at increasing the number of employees?
The Ophori social enterprise has the mission of creating as many jobs as possible for people with disabilities. This depends on the products’ sale capacity.
What was the impact of the pandemic on the activity of Ophori?
The Ophori lab started during the pandemic. The effects of the pandemic weren’t necessarily felt because we had the time to train and optimize work processes. On the other hand, there were collaborations with many judicial entities that were not possible because of the pandemic.
What does the Ophori Cosmetics product range look like at present? Are you planning on adding more?
There are ten Ophori products: four bath bombs, two body scrubs, two solid shampoos, one scent-free active vegetal carbon soap, and a purifying exfoliating paste.
We will definitely add other products! When developing new products, we always compromise with being able to integrate the people we target. For instance, we need to achieve a balance between the complexity of a product or packaging and the employee’s capacity to make them. There were times when we gave up on certain products because the manufacturing process was too difficult for people with disabilities.
How do you see the project’s medium-term development?
In the medium term, we wish to increase the production and retail capacity, increasing the community’s trust in the Ophori products. This will automatically lead to an increase in the number of employees with disabilities. At the same time, we aim to improve some production processes so they can be undertaken by people within a wider spectrum of disabilities.
(Photos: Alex Ratoi, courtesy of Ophori Cosmetics)
*Diana Chiriacescu & Simona Constantinescu - Companii incluzive pentru persoanele cu dizabilități – provocări și recomandări (Inclusive companies for people with disabilities - challenges and recommendations)