As a daughter of an entrepreneur father Tracy Last grew up with a sell sell sell motto like her dad, though she always questioned things. As a young adult, working by the seat of her pants, there was no time, in their downtown Vancouver bustling Yaletown warehouse district office, for business school (she left fashion design college to work with her father). Here she learned the tricks of the trade, and social entrepreneurship “though 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.
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. We were distributors for Smokey Bear, Sparky the Fire Dog, Police Pals, Firehall Swag & Displays. And I sold it all, from teddies in t-shirts to custom apparel and uniforms.
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. Without formal education, I was given the role of manager of the Smokey Bear division. I was kept very busy taking orders and shipping educational materials for wildfire prevention campaigns across Canada and the US.
My ah ha moment was while travelling, attending tradeshows, and meeting public educators. I learned more about their business and saw ways on how we could help improve on their safety programs for the public. I was quite a busy body into their world.
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.
Having closely observed fire and life safety programming across North America, for three decades, I’ve been learning that much of what educators push for public education is more materialistic than educational. Coloring books, pencils, plastic fire helmets are not what the fire departments, or the communities they serve, need. These promotional items, that my former company sells, aren’t teaching the important life skills most people require to be fire safe, and engaged as positive contributors to society. Each year, 24 billion dollars are spent on promotional products. It’s catch 22 as while business has been good in the past, mostly the profits went into developing FireED. Which is completely self funded with no fire service backing.
….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 FireED 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.
The FireED Interactive Community Inc is a social enterprise 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 (civilians).
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 FireED’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 (PRO BONO) 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?”
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 educators 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 FireED Interactive System, Last found an uphill struggle.
“It’s 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 Last Logos Inc. lost the NFPA contract for developing and distributing Sparky The Fire Dog materials. That cuts deep for a small business as for 7 years (1998-2005) they worked diligently as the only NFPA licensee in Canada. The arm’s length government entity in Ontario Canada got into selling the same educational materials. “The FMPFSC 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.” Said Last.
“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 (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 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 FireED 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 tried 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 FireED is gaining traction in international markets. “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 FireED Teaching tool. FireED 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?
There’s no quit for social entrepreneur Tracy Last. She is working with coaches and learning all about making a dollar and a difference with her newly founded social impact business. With a much stronger network she plans to forge ahead with her social change mission to raise awareness for the need of improved fire and life safety education curriculum. With a “few good years left,” Last is planning to keep creating. One of her projects is developing the FCN (FireED Social Network) which is much like Facebook or Linked In, but exclusively for those serious about the FireED mission for changing the way fire and life safety education is taught worldwide.