Harry Sillett: Creating bold change in the social enterprise sector

Photo of Harry Sillett. He has short dark hair, and is wearing a white shirt and blue blazer. He is smiling at the camera.

Harry Sillett is studying an MBAX (Social Impact) with the Centre for Social Impact UNSW and received a CSI scholarship in 2021.

Transformation is at the heart of the social enterprise sector but in a bustling business focused world, a passion for creating ripples of change isn’t always enough to spark long-lasting, tangible success. This revelation rings true for Harry Sillett.

As the dedicated General Manager of Vanguard Laundry in Toowoomba, QLD Harry is currently studying an MBA Social Impact in the hopes of becoming a better leader.

With thanks to a scholarship from the Centre for Social Impact, he is confident his studies at UNSW are part of an emerging shift towards business-based thinking within the social enterprise sector.

As a commercial laundry with an impactful twist, Vanguard Laundry provides short-term employment opportunities to help propel people who have a lived experience of disadvantage, to gain the confidence and skills to transition into the workforce.

“We help people from a range of different backgrounds who can't get a job, and we help them to get a job in our laundry. Alongside the employment program, we also help people to get back on their feet, develop themselves and get ready to start careers,” Harry explains.

A new heart-led era

Although Harry has spent the last few years supporting new beginnings for hundreds of folk from all walks of life, his life wasn’t always impact-centred.

Having worked in a “soul-destroying” bank environment before being shifted to a new role in rural Queensland, Harry never felt like he was making much of an impact.

Toowoomba changed that for him, touting that the community-centric spirit flipped his world-view upside down.

“It’s such a nice community and everyone tries to help each other. There’s a lot of community outreach here, and my wife and I started getting involved,” Harry says.

From participating in charity sleepouts to raising money to build houses in Cambodia, Harry started to develop an unwavering passion for impact-led work.

“It made me feel like this is what I’m meant to be doing. I thought that there had to be ways to turn it into a career,” he said.

Shortly after that, he applied for a role with Vanguard and settled into the social enterprise sector. But creating impactful, long-lasting change wasn’t as easy as Harry first thought.

“Things can be very difficult for a not-for-profit. You don't have a lot of money to work with. I think the thing that can be missing across the sector, and certainly in my practice, is hard business skills.

"The great thing about social enterprise is that it tries to make changes through the power of business. And there's lots of people, including myself, who want to make change, but the business part is key because that's the vehicle that we use to make that change happen,” he said.

Blazing the path for better lives

Through partnering with local organisations and businesses, Harry and the Vanguard Laundry team have supported over a hundred people.

“Since our launch we’ve employed 107 people, and transitioned 43 to employment outside of Vanguard. Those people have transitioned into roles including hairdressing, domestic services, manufacturing, transport and logistics,” says Harry.

In fact, a three-year evaluation study completed by the Centre for Social Impact Swinburne found that Vanguard’s impact stretched further than anyone first imagined it could.

Having paid over $1.5 million in employee wages, reduced participants’ gross Centrelink payments by 30% and lightened the load on hospitals - with participants spending 241 less days in care since working at Vanguard - it’s clear that Vanguard has been a pillar of change since day dot.

But while there’s no doubt that Vanguard has changed lives over its five-year-lifetime, Harry is adamant that the social enterprise has more up its sleeve.

Business skills create bold change

With the belief that harnessing the power of business and leadership can shift the impact into a whole new dimension, the team have dreams to expand Vanguard Laundry to every major city in the country.

“There's no reason why Vanguard shouldn’t be all across Australia,” says Harry.

“It’s not always easy but the fact is that every day when you go home, you feel satisfaction that you are doing something positive for the world. And that’s important.”