Lighting up the world for special needs employees
Downlights NZ is a social enterprise providing meaningful employment for people with Down syndrome and other cognitive disabilities. Anne Bradley profiles the venture and its inspirational managing director, Jennifer Del Bel. I first encountered Jennifer Del Bel at a meeting of the Tauranga Business Women’s Network in 2020, where her energy and charisma made […]
Downlights NZ is a social enterprise providing meaningful employment for people with Down syndrome and other cognitive disabilities. Anne Bradley profiles the venture and its inspirational managing director, Jennifer Del Bel.
I first encountered Jennifer Del Bel at a meeting of the Tauranga Business Women’s Network in 2020, where her energy and charisma made her a popular keynote speaker.
A self-professed “energizer bunny”, she is an inspirational business leader who has been gaining recognition on the national and global stage for her work promoting ethical, socially conscious business practices.
When Jennifer was introduced by a mutual acquaintance to Tony three years ago, he was desperately looking for work for his adult daughter Emma, who has Down syndrome. Employer after employer had turned Emma away.
It’s an all too familiar story for individuals with conditions such as Down, who find themselves trapped in a cycle of dependence. Ignored by the business community and rejected by employers, this is a section of society that is most often overlooked.
As chance would have it, a divorce had left Jennifer ready for a change, and looking for opportunities to be a positive role model as a single parent to her two daughters. She was already running her own successful luxury candle-making business, and did not hesitate to help Tony and Emma – a decision which resulted in the creation of Downlights, a social enterprise with a vision to provide meaningful employment for people with Down syndrome and other cognitive disabilities.
The move into social entrepreneurship was a natural one for Jennifer, who treasures the grass-roots values of her upbringing in rural Canada and the morals instilled by her father, an electrician in a gold mine. Life was hard, and people helped each other.
Four years on
The Downlights story was picked up by TV1’s Seven Sharp after only a few months in operation, which almost immediately threw them into the spotlight and resulted in exponential growth for the business, as well as attention from international social media. Now in its fourth year, Downlights has developed from its inception as a compassionate response to a young woman’s need, to a well-established, multi-award-winning social enterprise which employs five and helps a total of nine young adults each week through work placement programmes.
As Jennifer says, “it’s not just a story about Emma any more, it’s an inclusive story. It’s a story about our inclusive and diverse workforce”.
“We’re not just a social enterprise, we’re recognised as a mover and a shaker in the business world, and we’re showing that you can combine altruism and capitalism and be successful.”
Jennifer’s business model of meeting stakeholder needs through a unique combination of commercial and charitable strategies, is now being used as a blueprint for other businesses who seek to ‘do well by doing good’.
Downlights also runs a placement programme for adults with disabilities through MIT and supports the Pegasus Unit at Pakuranga College, a learning facility for students with an intellectual disability or special needs such as Down syndrome and autism.
One dollar from the sale of each luxury soy candle in donated to the organisation’s charitable trust, which to date has given $30,000 to its beneficiaries.
As Jennifer says, “we have a unique position in Aotearoa New Zealand. We’re not just a social enterprise, we’re recognised as a mover and a shaker in the business world, and we’re showing that you can combine altruism and capitalism and be successful.”
Moral values reign
Jennifer’s moral values are the beating heart of the business model. Downlights promotes environmental sustainability through a circular economy strategy where possible, and is a proud Living Wage employer.
The organisation seeks to not only support inclusivity and diversity in the workplace, but also to address one of the principle barriers their young employees face in their desire for independence – economic barriers. A core decision-making strategy is to work only with other organisations that align with their values. Being clear about their values is what Jennifer says “gives our business model grunt!”
The most important aspect of her work remains her commitment to providing meaningful employment to individuals with Down syndrome and other disabilities. The organisation has the potential to change many more lives both directly, through expansion, and indirectly through the influence it has on other businesses.
Jennifer also plans to develop employment training programmes to open up more opportunities to the disabled community.
Downlights has felt the impacts of the global pandemic, just like any other, with the cost of raw materials and freight skyrocketing. However, Jennifer describes her team as pretty resilient.
“We’ve been able to think laterally and adapt, and that’s a skillset I’m grateful for,” she says. “I’m probably a bit ADHD, but someone said to me that’s a Superpower. You can use your superpower to help you rise above challenges, just constantly looking at ways to reinvent what we’re doing so we can carry on doing the good mahi that we’re doing.”
Knowing Jennifer, and her unique brand of conscious capitalism, I imagine the sky is the limit.
Anne Bradley is a senior academic staff member at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology in Tauranga. An academic with a 25-year career in vocational business education, she is passionate about promoting ethical, values-driven business practices. Email [email protected]