As the second wave of COVID-19 took hold in Victoria in mid-2020, many of those in the international student community, feeling the pinch of stretched finances and an inability to return home, were becoming stuck between a rock and a hard place.

These factors, as well as the unique demand for face coverings due to a state-wide mandate, were the catalyst that gave cancer researcher and Deakin biological science graduate, Ritika Saxena, the idea to create a social entrepreneurship.

Identifying specific community needs

With most of those affected living far away from any support network of friends and family, the detrimental effect of losing work was compounded by the fact they were not eligible for any of the coronavirus-related government assistance programs such as Jobseeker or Jobkeeper.

‘International students were one of the groups severely impacted as they are unable to return home due to border closures,’ says Ritika.

‘They could not sustain themselves here due to the closure of hospitality, retail and other industries that international students usually work in.’

Creating a business for good

The situation had given Ritika an idea for not just a business, but a social enterprise. The company she had in mind could help struggling international students stay afloat by designing and selling fashionable floral face coverings. The name for her endeavour would come from the very situation they were in, selling floral face coverings after increasing restrictions handcrafted by international students – FLORALRESTRICT.

The biggest difference between a business entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship is around profits and where they are directed. Although both engage in for-profit activities to make money, a business enterprise will direct those profits to shareholders or to increase personal wealth, whereas a social enterprise directs profits to a charity or other philanthropic efforts.

For Ritika, it made sense that struggling international students would not only receive profits from sales and donations, but they would be directly involved in the face coverings making process.

‘International students were one of the groups severely impacted as they are unable to return home due to border closures.’

Lessons learned along the way

The exercise of starting a social enterprise from scratch provided a lot of on-the-job training and experience for Ritika. With many different aspects and moving parts to manage, entrepreneurship, business or social, can be an intimidating challenge. For Ritika, when facing challenges, she found it helpful to ignore any self-doubt and push on with confidence, believing that what she was doing was for the greater good.

When attempting to develop a production chain, Ritika faced a number of logistical challenges such as:

  • Sourcing quality material
  • Maximising the number of involved students
  • Making, packing, and shipping orders within a week

‘We had to move quickly because people were in crisis, and I didn’t want to waste any time in thinking what if this failed. I chose to believe that somehow it will work, and I am grateful that it is,’ says Ritika

Ritika was able to rely on support from a network of people she has made contact with over the years through SPARK Deakin. They believed in her goals and made sure to ask Ritika the tough questions in order to see the project succeed.

Donating profits to those in need

Social entrepreneurship is a perfect way to blend an interest in business and entrepreneurship, as well as a heart for philanthropic efforts. Ritika says that it’s important to recognise a need in the community that either isn’t being addressed or is under supported when developing a social enterprise.

‘Do your research, take the plunge and don’t be afraid to ask for help and accept the help when it is offered,’ says Ritika.

‘You will never have a perfect plan but that is not an excuse to not start! If you can dream it, you can do it. And if anyone can do it, it’s you!’

Ritika Saxena

PhD student @ Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI)

Ritika (@stemcellmum) is a commencing PhD student at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI).

Ritika was born in India and moved to Australia at 18. While she originally struggled to settle away from home, Ritika went on to be a stellar student both academically and through her involvement in various peer mentoring programs. Her contributions were recognised widely at Deakin University where she started her journey as well as internationally. She continued her association as a teaching assistant with the university for a few years. In 2018, she was awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Medal for Outstanding Contribution to University Life and the Australasian Outstanding Senior PASS Leader award.

Ritika then moved to study Master of Cancer Sciences at the University of Melbourne where she undertook a small research project with MCRI in understanding blood development to help model childhood blood cancers. She received the Melbourne Research Scholarship to continue working with the research group as a PhD student starting later this year. Her doctoral studies will focus on improving haematopoietic stem cell development in vitro.

Ritika has studied and worked across 4 different countries and 5 cultures. She is an avid supporter of getting involved in everything that uni life has to offer. She is passionate about women in STEMM and is an inspiring role model teaching international students how to fit in and stand out at the same time in a foreign land. A frequent invited speaker to panels and keynotes, Ritika can help you build your confidence. This mentoring is a passion project for Ritika, currently under development.

She likes making a difference wherever she goes because being average was never a choice, nor an option to her.