This is Part One of a three part series.
I was recently invited to tell my personal story on Eric Perez’s podcast ‘Talking Leadership’, where we talked all about mentorship, entrepreneurship and – you guessed it – leadership (you can check the podcast interview out here).
The day before the interview was to take place as I sat preparing my notes, I found myself having a few noggin scratching moments. They intrigued me so much that I thought I’d write a blog post about them…. it turns out, there was a lot that I wanted to say, so I’m going to share it over three separate posts.
This first post is going to be about the journey into entrepreneurship, from a rural perspective of course!
How do people become entrepreneurs? For some it is a calling. Others take a course.
My personal journey into entrepreneurship was one of ‘happenstance’. I didn’t plan it.
I had returned to the area where I grew up, recognised that communities I cared about were battling, felt pain, knew that I had relevant knowledge/experience that could fill a need locally… And voila! Before I knew it, I had become a social entrepreneur.
(Not that I actually knew that’s what I was, at the time).
What is a social entrepreneur, I hear you ask?
In a nutshell, a social entrepreneur is a person who goes into business with the intent to influence positive change of some sort in society. In other words, the act of making a profit is about fixing a social problem.
In the process of preparing for my podcast interview, as I reflected more deeply on my own entrepreneurial experience, it occurred to me that my first foray into entrepreneurship had actually occurred a long time before my return to Eyre Peninsula in 2012 where I began the work that I am known for today.
And it, too, was a rural business.
The budding entrepreneur
At the age of 10 I started a car wash business with a friend from down the street. It was called the Wish Wash, and it was marketed at people who wished their car wasn’t dirty.
In a small rural community, surrounded by dirt roads, you can imagine that there were a lot of dirty cars. I Was convinced it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. If that barrel had a population of around 160 fish.
It was your typical Startup ‘boom and bust’.
We lasted about a week.
- Apparently when you own a car wash, you are expected to wash the entire car – roof and everything (not just the parts you can reach).
- You are also expected to know that car wax is for the outside of the car.
- Thanks to a pro tip from the school cleaner, I did learn about putting methylated spirits in rainwater to get clean windows. So not a complete fail, then.
After that, there was a business that was passed down through the children in my family – the community recycling depot, in the town of Darke Peak.
People would drop off their empty bottles and cans in our garage, we’d count them, pay the equivalent refund in cash to the local community member, sort the empties into wool packs and plastic crates, then order trucks to pick them up once we had a full load.
It was a great little money spinner for a kid, especially with such minimal overheads (mum and dad never charged us rent on the garage).
By the time I was 12 years old I had accumulated $800 of net profits doing this work, which I’m pretty sure went on high-top roller skates, surf t-shirts and CD’s.
It wasn’t long before I wanted to spend my free time doing something other than counting empty beer cans (probably rollerskating), and I passed the business on.
For a while, things went quiet on the business front.
More than likely, due to all of the rollerskating.
But when I turned 14, I decided to put an idea to my parents.
My pitch was: instead of them paying me a $10 allowance on weekends, they could pay me $100 at the beginning of each month, and I could take responsibility for my own personal spending.
The idea was that they still cover the basics (provide a roof over my head, three meals a day, school etc), and I would pay for anything that was a ‘want’ rather than a ‘need’. For example, if I wanted some trendy brand name sneakers, a hit music magazine, or buy my lunch from the school canteen instead of packing it at home, I’d have to fund it myself.
I figured I would come out way ahead!
I figured wrong.
This is what I learned:
- People tend to live to their means, whatever they are ie. Just because I received a higher monthly income, didn’t mean I would ever actually end up with more – the more I had, the more I spent (generally on things that were of little consequence);
- The pinch of never having spare cash led me to learn the concept of budgeting, which helped enormously when I moved out of home at age 17 and into my first flat in the city; and
- I realised I probably should have held on to the profitable family business for a bit longer and stashed some savings away, instead of blowing it all. This lesson was painfully obvious when I resorted to selling my heater and printer, so that I could afford to go out and see my friends band play!
Emerging as a different kind of entrepreneur
Fast forward the blur of young adulthood in Adelaide, a two-year stint in the Kimberleys and a 10+ year corporate career in business services and economic development in Cairns, and there I was, back in Eyre Peninsula South Australia, where it had all begun.
But this time I was looking less inward, and more outward, noticing what the people around me were going through.
I was seeing the disappearance of rural communities that were once vibrant, even in my own lifetime. Schools had been closed, general stores and post offices too. There was now minimal local commerce and trade.
Primary industries continued to thrive, but over the years as farms had come to implement more and more technology, they grew size but became less reliant on human labour. As a result jobs had disappeared, families had relocated to find health, education and employment opportunities elsewhere.
Once the critical mass had shrunk to a tipping point of no return, it seemed that those with any sway had decided further investment in those regions couldn’t be justified (certainly not on a per capita basis), and hands been thrown in the air as if to say “oh well, it was always going to happen, you can’t stop progress” — never mind the fact that the people that still farm in those regions, still need support systems and services to meet their basic human needs.
Before you answer that question, perhaps look at the food on your plate and the fibre in the clothes you wear and ask yourself where it comes from.
Families still need to live in agricultural production areas (which happen to be rural and remote) and they deserve to thrive, not just exist in a holding pattern of survival.
The entrepreneur inside me now says something different
The inner voice that motivates me to get out of bed in the morning no longer asks “how can I make enough money so that I can live comfortably” but “why shouldn’t people in rural regions be entitled to the same rights as people who live in more densely populated areas?”
This is because I’m feeling a sense of social injustice and inequity in the world, and it’s making me really frustrated.
When I look around at the lay of the land in rural Australia it makes me want to get on my high horse, stamp my fist on the table and shout rural people shouldn’t have to travel a two or three hour round-trip to see a doctor, do their grocery shopping or post a parcel!
But they do. And this is, quite simply, the way it is.
It doesn’t mean it should be.
So THAT is what drives me as an entrepreneur.
The entrepreneurship journey for me, has been one of empowering people in rural communities to understand how they can catalyse positive change from the ground up faster than they can by waiting for others to do it from the top down.
My business involves showing individuals how to use what they’ve got at their disposal to have a positive influence on the people and community around them – that is, how to drive change, if they wish things to be different.
The irony here, is what I have learned from the process of becoming a social entrepreneur: that entrepreneurship is one of the fastest and most powerful ways to drive systemic change in rural communities.
I reckon if we all knew the scale of social and economic stimulus we were capable of creating in rural communities by starting a new business venture, a great many more of us would be having a crack!
Life as an entrepreneur is never dull (let’s just say there continue to be plenty of learnings). But every day I wake up excited to see what I can achieve, in order to have a positive impact on the rural people and communities that I am working with.
If you are an entrepreneur who is based in a rural area, I’d love to hear your story! Feel free to share it below in the comments, and give your business a plug 🙂
A great article Sarah. I worked in economic development for 20 years and addressing regional/rural decline was an ongoing challenge. There are solutions but none will happen without leadership from people like you.