YelloHalo to donate 100% of profits to frontline ambulance officers by Madelaine Empson
Graeme Blake is the CEO of YelloHalo, the first social enterprise broadband company in New Zealand. A high-speed, nationwide broadband provider, 100 percent of YelloHalo’s profits go towards supporting frontline ambulance officers. Blake’s passion for giving back to ambos stems from nearly losing his daughter, Pixie, when she was just six days old. We spoke about the life-changing incident and the new company doing more than its share to help.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I’m originally an Upper Hutt boy. I grew up in Trentham, went to Trentham Primary School and Trentham Intermediate. I’ve got a family, four daughters. I’m a partner in an advertising agency, PAN | The Love Agency, and a software development company, Blutui.
Can you pinpoint any childhood or educational experiences that led you to where you are today?
I come from a somewhat creative family. I’m not trained in terms of creative pursuits, I didn’t go to university. I became self-employed relatively early in my life, in my early twenties. I’ve been a creative designer, a brand developer for ad campaigns for 35 odd years. How did living in Moonshine Road shape me? I’m not sure, but I have such fond memories – those were the good old days when you’d grab your mates and go outside onto the field and play bullrush. Tear around the place and get into mischief. You can’t do that now!
So the mischief might have helped a bit?
Possibly [laughs]. PAN | The Love Agency is a bit of a commentary on my personality, there’s a little bit of Peter Pan syndrome in there. I’ve got a significant piece of ink in the middle of my back that attests to Pan and Captain Hook and all those good people.
Why did you establish YelloHalo?
Through Pan, we’ve got a client called Devoli, a wholesale fibre company. In the last budget round, when Grant Robertson stood up and said, ‘we’re going to fund surf lifesaving 100 percent’, my thoughts went immediately to ambulance officers. In my little brain, I went, ‘how come these guys never get fully funded?’ We did our research, and we think it’s because they’re not a single entity; their employers are all different service organisations. The people that we want to give back to could be volunteers, paramedics, frontline ambulance officers, EMTs [emergency medical technicians], that could work for Wellington Free, Garden City, St John. We want to give back to anyone who’s in that field – the person who turns up, rather than the service that turns up.
Why ambulance officers?
We had an incident six days after bringing our new-born daughter home from the hospital. Julie my wife was nursing Pixie and [Pixie] just stopped breathing. It was so frightening, to this day it still gives me chills thinking about it. Within what felt like seconds of calling 111, they were in our living room. The first crew that got there just took control and had Pixie a more healthy colour within minutes. It could have turned out so much worse, so as a family, we’re absolutely indebted to them.
So we put two and two together. We knew Devoli, we’ve got our own software developers, so we created this very lean, finely tuned, totally automated way of delivering broadband to people. The PAN studio team got in and it became a huge passion project for them. We’ve built the brand internally, we’ve built the website internally, and we went and talked to the ambulance professionals first and said, let’s do this.
Your goal is to raise $1 million for more than 1100 frontline ambos in year one. Two months after launching, how is it looking?
We’re nowhere near it! We’re getting people signing up every day, just not in the numbers we had hoped for. That’s not to say we won’t hit our goal, just that it’s been a slow start.
Even after the first year, you’ll still be donating 100 percent of your profits. How do people react when they hear this?
I wonder whether people are a little bit cynical about it. Because nobody else has done it, nobody else is doing a social enterprise broadband at this scale so professionally. Certainly nobody’s worked out how to do it without any wage component. There are no wages, because our people have volunteered all their time to do the setup. There’s no CEOs with flash cars or anything like that. We derive our income out of software development and our creative agency.
All profits go to the YelloHalo Ambos First Trust. What do they go towards?
We’ve got one seat on the board but the rest of it is filled up with ambulance officers, and we’ve just appointed a scholarship director, the lovely Sarah Morrison. We’ve just announced our first scholarship. That’s quite special. During this process, we said to Shane, one of the ambos who sits on the trust, ‘hey listen, we as a family would really love to thank the two crew who did turn up and save Pixie. She’s now five. We’d like for her to meet them and to understand what happened.’ He went through the database and said, ‘from our records I can tell you it’s this person [who would prefer not to be named] and this person [Mike Bowers].’ So one turned up and we asked why the other guy didn’t, and it turns out that Mike Bowers passed away from a brain tumour. We decided that our first scholarship would be a memorial scholarship in his honour. This speaks to how selfless these people are – because they have to fund themselves to get these scholarships, he was in his early fifties before he could put himself through the paramedicine degree and actually become a fully fledged paramedic. He died soon after. But even full of bloody brain cancer, he personally funded two EMTs through their scholarships. What a guy.
Initially profits will go towards funding the Mike Bowers Memorial Scholarship, but that will be the first of many. As we grow we’ll be doing more and more scholarships. In our sights we also have hardship grants, and kind of like respite accommodation, so that frontline ambos who find it really hard to take time out have somewhere nice and affordable that’s just for them to go and take a break.
Is YelloHalo’s broadband what you’d expect from any big provider?
100 percent. Devoli are wholesale fibre, so they are actually supplying some of our competitors. It’s exactly the same, the only difference is that we’re very transparent about the service. There’s no ‘if you want to get out of your contract it will be $700’, no free tablet (that costs the same as your contract break fee anyway), we’re just trying to keep it really plain and simple. What you see is what you get, and you get a great service.
What’s in the name YelloHalo?
YelloHalo is all about all about the warmth, the glow, and the personalities of the frontline workers. It’s about connecting with care – you’re connecting with fibre, but you’re actually connecting with care in your community.