Ophori Cosmetics: How Romanian Social Business Creates Jobs for People with Disabilities
Ophori Cosmetics, a social enterprise offering handmade 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 a job. Across the country, just over 7% of people with disabilities aged 18 to 64 were employed as of January 2019, according to ANAF tax authority data cited in a report. report* of the Foundation for the development of civil society. Drawing on previous experience in the NGO community, the founders of Ophori Cosmetics, based in BraÈov, decided to do their part to change this and set up a workshop that employs vulnerable people.
All products are handcrafted and come in durable packaging. The company strives to have fair wage levels and strives to strike a balance between the complexity of a product or packaging and the employee’s ability to manufacture them. They also plan to improve some production processes so that they can be undertaken by people with a wider range of disabilities.
Although the products are well received, the company still faces preconceptions associated with the work of people with disabilities, as some do not trust the company’s products as disability is often associated with poor quality, says Bogdan. Dimciu, administrator of Ophori Cosmetics.
Learn more about the company and how it works to grow its business while serving its cause in the questions and answers below.
How was Ophori Cosmetics born and why did you choose to develop a social business?
Ophori Cosmetics was born out of an occupational therapy workshop set up in a center for disabled people, where, under the guidance of therapists, the beneficiaries made cosmetics. While working, they acquired skills in recognizing raw materials, differentiating flavors and consistencies, packaging, labeling, but also maintaining cleanliness. The most important thing was for them to learn that they had a responsibility for the final product, which was then donated to the community. This responsibility was also accompanied by better self-esteem for those involved in the project.
A major problem encountered in many occupational therapy centers arises from the fact that beneficiaries are not engaged in activities required by the labor market. An activity often encountered is manual labor, with the manufacture of tables or paper articles, which certainly develops the fine motor skills of the beneficiary, but it is not something that employers demand. They are looking for more diversified and well-established skills.
Finally, despite all our efforts in the cosmetics workshop, the beneficiary still did not find a job. Another problem crept in, this time on the employers’ side: the fact that workplaces were not adapted to the needs of people with disabilities. I am talking here not only of the physical layout of the workspace (for example, access ramps for wheelchairs) but of wider ones, such as relations between colleagues, level of work, simplification of processes. work, etc.
With our colleagues, therapists and volunteers, with whom we started the workshop in the NGO I mentioned earlier, we decided to create an NGO: AsociaÈia INSERT. Its goal is to create work integration social enterprises, like Ophori, aimed at employing vulnerable people. Specifically, if other companies don’t hire people with disabilities in an environment specially developed for them, we will.
A social integration enterprise combines aspects from associative and commercial circles. The social economy borrows the principles of enterprise and corporate sustainability, to which it adds the social impact specific to the NGO sector. We thought that was the solution to fulfill our mission of employing as many vulnerable people as possible.
What determined the time of the launch?
After European funding via the Social Enterprises Accelerator program set up by the AlÄturi de Voi Foundation in IaÈi, we moved to the workshop phase, an independent laboratory: Ophori Cosmetics. The validation of the business idea took place during the opening of the workshop at the NGO because the products were appreciated by those affected. Even though the products are also popular now, we believe that the local and national market is not ready to buy products from companies like Ophori. Disability is often associated with poor quality; we often come across people who don’t trust Ophori products because they were made by adults with disabilities.
I often ask, “If you knew that Restaurant X employs people with disabilities, would you eat there?”
What does the founding team look like?
The management of Ophori consists of four people: three engineers and volunteers, an occupational therapist. The whole team was formed within the NGO I mentioned at the beginning, working with people with disabilities.
You are a social integration enterprise. What does this imply for the activity of the company?
By virtue of our status, we are a social integration enterprise registered under the name of SRL (Limited Liability Company). This was due to the fact that our social impact is generated by economic activity, and SRL was the form that suited us best. It also means that we pay the same taxes as any other business. This also means that we have the same problems as other companies, especially in production: lack of service providers in the territory, rise in the prices of raw materials, competition etc.
But, in addition to all this, we are a social economy structure. This comes with constraints that we have assumed, all for the benefit of the community:
Social impact – hire people with disabilities and sell all products in recyclable packaging. For these, we present annually to the institution that authorizes us (AJOFM – National Employment Agency) the social activity report of the Ophori company.
Allocate at least 90% of the profits to the social cause – this is a very important feature of social enterprises, ensuring that the money generated by economic activity goes back to the community. Unlike traditional firms focused on profit for partners, we generate profit for the community. The allocation of profits to a social cause can take many forms: creating new jobs, adapting them, offering counseling services to employees, etc.
Fair Wage Levels – to combat the maneuver of “hiring cheap labor but getting big wages for the owners”, within Ophori there can be no more than 1 to 8 between the smallest and the highest [salary].
All this and many more ensure the social impact and come with the guarantee to the community that the money obtained from the economic activity is reinvested.
Practically, a big difference from other cosmetic companies is in the working capacity of the employees. With Ophori, all people in production have a disability and a work capacity reduced by at least half. This results in higher costs because less products can be produced in a defined period of time. At the same time, the support measures necessary for professional integration come with additional costs. All of this, added to the lack of state support, makes it very difficult to run a work integration social enterprise, which is why there are few of them.
What did the start of the project involve? What investment was needed? Were there any aspects that were difficult to resolve?
In addition to the small funding projects obtained in time in the small workshop of the NGO, the Ophori lab needed funding of 70,000 euros. When it comes to the problematic aspects, there is something difficult to solve every day, both in production and retail and with the personnel. But hey, we like it.
How many people do you employ? How to recruit and train them?
Today, Ophori Cosmetics has five employees, three of whom are disabled. The recruitment of vulnerable people is done by working with local NGOs. We run ads with these NGOs and those interested can send Ophori a CV and interview them. Within the interview, we are interested in the social capacities of the person, previous work, Ophori’s expectations, etc.
Since production trades are suitable for people with disabilities, initial qualifications are not necessary. To do this, people are supported in hiring until they are independent in carrying out the activities entrusted to them.
Are you planning to increase the number of employees?
The mission of the social enterprise Ophori is to create as many jobs as possible for people with disabilities. It depends on the selling ability of the products.
What was the impact of the pandemic on Ophori’s business?
The Ophori laboratory started up during the pandemic. The effects of the pandemic were not necessarily felt because we had the time to train and optimize the work processes. On the other hand, there have been collaborations with many legal entities that were not possible due to the pandemic.
What does the Ophori Cosmetics product line look like now? Do you plan to add more?
There are ten Ophori products: four bath bombs, two body scrubs, two solid shampoos, fragrance-free activated charcoal soap, and a purifying exfoliating paste.
We will definitely add more products! When developing new products, we always make the compromise to be able to integrate the people we target. For example, we need to strike a balance between the complexity of a product or packaging and the employee’s ability to manufacture them. There were times when we gave up certain products because the manufacturing process was too difficult for people with disabilities.
How do you see the medium-term development of the project?
In the medium term, we want to increase production and retail capacity, increasing community confidence in Ophori products. This will automatically lead to an increase in the number of disabled employees. At the same time, we aim to improve certain production processes so that they can be undertaken by people with a wider spectrum of disabilities.
(Photos: Alex Ratoi, courtesy of Ophori Cosmetics)
* Diana Chiriacescu & Simona Constantinescu – Companii incluzive pentru persoanele cu dizabilitÄÈi – provocÄri Èi recomandÄri (Inclusive businesses for people with disabilities – challenges and recommendations)