As a daughter of an entrepreneur father I grew up with a sell sell sell motto like dad, though always questioned things. As a young adult, working by the seat of my pants, there was no time, in our downtown Vancouver bustling Yaletown warehouse district office, for business school (I left fashion design college to work with dad). While I certainly learned the tricks of the trade I also learned social entrepreneurship…. “by osmosis.”
At the age of 26 I had my first child at which time I gave up the commute to set up home office in the suburbs. The trouble was I also took a cut in pay only being able to work part time for dad. I wound up finding myself in a job as a letter carrier for a few years, while raising two boys, and still running my own business that I eventually formed called Last Logos Promos Inc offering customized promotional products for businesses and public safety agencies looking to build PR and rapport with employees, valued clients and the general public.
Social entrepreneurship is the attempt to draw upon business techniques and private sector approaches to find solutions to social, cultural or environmental problems (Wikipedia).
For my entire adult life I have been an entrepreneur “flogging my wares” and tapping into niche markets to sell promotional products to various corporations as well as public service agencies like forestry, fire services, and law enforcement. Smokey Bear, Police Pals, Firehall Swag & Displays, Fire Safe Kids, and Armadillo Merino Head to Toe Base Layers are just some of our exclusive product lines we still sell.
Though safety awareness campaigns have a heavy emphasis on material distribution, for me it wasn’t just about the product sales as much as it was the final outcome for the person receiving that pencil, sticker or pretty balloon. It would take two decades to realize the path I was paving in my business had all the markings of true social entrepreneurship.
It was 1989 when I officially joined my father’s business. Straight away I was given the title manager of the Smokey Bear division. Dad became a licensee in 1979 and provided promotional products for wildfire prevention campaigns across Canada and the US. A real ah ha moment for me was while travelling, attending tradeshows, and meeting public educators, I started to learn more and more about their business and saw ways on how we could help improve on their safety programs for the public. Eventually I found myself in what was more of a consulting role.
Across the board, between forestry, fire services and community policing it was very clear there was no continuity or standardization to any of their community outreach campaigns. Evidently, the public safety education system is lacking the manpower, resources, statistical data, risk assessment and funding to do the job right. I guess I just stayed the course, finding myself completely immersed in my own free willed campaign to further investigate and create solutions to a great deal of the public education challenges that are not being addressed at the agency level.
Transitioning From Entrepreneur to Social Entrepreneur…
Social entrepreneurship signals the imperative to drive social change. It encompasses a lot of things, some of which are fully dedicated to affecting change, while others address issues through indirect means, such as paying equitable wages to vulnerable or underserved groups or providing volunteers to help with local projects. It is a sustainable business model with its lasting, transformational benefit to society, that brings the field and its practitioners together.
By all intents and purposes, I proudly consider myself a social entrepreneur and as I fully embrace it I am finding more support from fire service professionals praising my efforts for changing paradigms.
Mostly through the course of 25+ years observing this landscape, what I have been learning is that much of what I sell for public education campaigns—coloring books, pencils, plastic fire helmets—is not what those departments, or the communities they serve, truly need. The products I was creating, and that they were buying, aren’t truly teaching kids the life skills they need to be not only fire safe but aware and engaged with society. And hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on these so called “educational materials.” It’s catch 22 as I say this, as while I do appreciate and need the business, we are constantly reinvesting profits into Fire-ED, which in a round about way, is our Last Logos corporate social responsibility for giving back to community.
Tracy is seen here assisting firefighters using her newly designed teaching tool, the Fire-ED “Fully Involved” Teaching Tool. Kids, from two elementary school classes, were attending a traditional fire station tour in Burnaby BC when we brought in our Teaching Tool to show the firefighters how teaching fire safety can be as much fun as it is for the kids interacting with the Fire-ED System.
….Kids still dying in home fires!!
To keep kids engaged in their safety lessons, and to keep public educators at the top of their game, the teaching tools (visual aids) really are the deal maker or breaker. Realizing the critical need Fire-ED developed an innovative teaching resource for public educators to use, that is also designed for anyone to use, not just fire officers. At the same time we are structuring a social business model and social enterprise.
Fire-ED is the product of the parent company Last Logos Promotional Inc. doing business as Prevention Connection International with the expressed purpose of becoming an open source of training, teaching tools and new technology for Firefighters, Fire and Life Safety Educators, and Community Safety Facilitators (everyday citizens).
Bringing Modern Solutions to Today’s Public Education Challenges
Having a clear understanding, of challenges that fire departments face in delivering fire and life safety education, we came to the conclusion, that what is universally lacking, is a consistent and standardized method for teaching that capitalized on the learning style that suits most children best—hands-on learning that involves the child, giving them something to do, see and hear all in one lesson. And a system that also involves older children, adults and seniors too, who learn through participating in Fire-ED’s Community Direct Teaching Model.
My name is Robert Avsec, I am a retired Battalion Chief doing freelance writing work for various fire service publications. Tracy Last, whom I’ve had the pleasure of working and collaborating with since 2013, is a true social entrepreneur with 25 years experience in the area of promoting public fire & life safety. Throughout my fire service career, and well into retirement, I’ve never found a person–especially someone who’s not an actual fire service professional by trade–who’s as passionate and committed to public education. I took some time to interview Tracy to learn more about “what makes her tick” as a social entrepreneur.
What makes Tracy Last a social entrepreneur? An entrepreneur creates a product or service that meets a willing consumer’s need. It might be a need that the consumer didn’t even know that they had; or it might be a better solution to a known need. A social entrepreneur sees the opportunity to change the paradigm with tools or technology that meets a need in ways that make people wonder afterwards, “How did we ever do the job before?” You could say that social entrepreneurs are “game changers.” What a game changer it was when Steve Jobs introduced the PC, yes?
Changing the Game as a Social Entrepreneur is not for the Faint of Heart
Last’s initial efforts at being a social entrepreneur, in a fire and life safety educator’s space, met with great resistance. Rather than fire service organizations endorsing, adopting, or promoting the “PC” that she’d developed for the industry experts to use, namely, the Fire-ED Interactive System, Last found an uphill struggle.
“It’s a little archaic” said Last “meaning the interactions that we are having with those heading the associations, or government agencies, who say they care about fire and life safety education. In reality, some of those, in positions of authority, seem to be narrow sighted and resistant to change. Especially involving new ideas or concepts for reaching people, particularly children….”
One of the governmental entities chose to get into the entrepreneurial space by purchasing the same fire prevention and promotional items as those marketed by Last Logos.
“In 2005 we lost our NFPA contract that we had for developing and distributing Sparky The Fire Dog materials and that cuts deep when we worked so hard for 7 years (1998-2005) to build this up and we were the only licensee in Canada. This arm’s length government entity in Ontario Canada got into selling “educational materials.” They contacted me to talk about partnering and asked me to send samples. They did not partner with us at all, they started a distribution center of grand proportions. Promotional product distribution is a profitable business yet with those profits we do not see them actually developing sound educational resources , like we are, for properly educating kids and families.”
“The Legitimate distributor company whose only form of income is selling promotional products having to compete against an arm’s length organization such as a government body or another Association as the end user raises the concern of unfair competition in the marketplace.” Read More
“Tragically my first business (Last Logos) took a “tailspin”, going from steady incline of growth, to grave loss when the Ontario Fire Marshal ‘s Public Fire Safety Council (aka Fire Safety Canada) formed its Distribution Center, that was the turning point. The clear indication was that I could not compete on an uneven playing field, while Last Logos still exists, we have lost 90% of our clients to the new “competition” so I had no choice but to venture on.”
Venturing on requires Tenacity, Time, and Constant Reinvesting
Realizing that the critical need—teaching children to avoid becoming victims of fire—still exists, Last decided to work against the odds, and to reinvest, recreate, restructure, build a network and be fully prepared to address the issue. “I believe with every fiber of my being that The Fire-ED Interactive System can be that ‘game changer’ for fire and life safety education,” said Last. “I believe that because it’s more than just a box with colorful and well-designed teaching materials. The system includes a community involvement strategy that revolutionizes the way fire and life safety education is taught to kids all around the world.”
Last is currently building upon the successes that she’s had in selling the phase 1 Home Safe Teaching System. Fire departments across Canada have purchased this resource in its original form. Those communities include: Burnaby, Victoria, Qualicum Beach, Charlie Lake, Port McNeill, Malakwa, West Kelowna, Parksville, and First Nations’ Emergency Services Society in BC; Airdie in Alberta; Middlesex Center and Six Nations in Ontario; and Nunavut. “Even Greenwood, the smallest city in BC has the kit,” said Last.
Now Fire-ED is gaining traction in international markets. “Recently we’ve supplied fire departments in the USA,” said Last. “Mammoth Lakes Fire Department in California and the Elko Fire Department in Nevada.” Fire Rescue TV helped out too and created a kids training video using the Fire-ED Teaching tool. Fire-ED broke ground in Florida where Fire Marshal Aaron Johnson “The Code Coach” teamed up to collaborate on the Community Safety Facilitator Curriculum. Read this article Developing Public Education Programs.
What’s next for this social entrepreneur?
Last is hopeful to soon add CCC to the end of its name by incorporating Fire-ED Interactive as a Community Contribution Corporation (C3), a relatively new organizational structure under Canadian business law. “The C3 provides a vehicle with the potential to inject investor capital from the private sector into areas normally dominated by government and charity.
Part regular for-profit corporation and part non-profit organization, a C3 is required to contribute 60 percent of its profits to qualified charitable causes. “By making Fire-ED a C3 entity we can then readily donate our teaching tools to fire departments and communities that don’t have the funds to purchase the resources on their own,” said Last.
Any sponsor of Fire-ED is going to help develop an impact business that’s revolutionizing the way fire and life safety education should be done. We’ve got a Direct Teaching Model–of which the Fire-ED “Fully Involved” Teaching Tool is central–that will bring prevention education to more people, more often, and for less money than traditional teaching methods.