Entrepreneur, social entrepreneur and intrapraneur are all titles I’ve worn through the past 24 years (or maybe a little more). Sometimes comfortably, sometimes not so.
Over the years I’ve discovered I’m wired for entrepreneurial thinking, something that was nurtured in the family home from a very young age. I’ve also discovered that people don’t always appreciate, understand nor support this frame of mind. As I edge closer to 50 I’m OK with that.
Growing up on a dairy farm in regional Australia my dad dealt his lessons in entrepreneurship in numerous ways. Two examples I recall are (1) The lesson of investment via buying, value adding and selling livestock or vegetables. Granted, he did do most of the heavy lifting however he also had the smarts to share the dividends with my sister and I (now THAT was motivational for a young person) and (2) It wasn’t all handouts, we also learned the lesson of hard work being offered opportunities to earn money according to our input. My mum chipped in too paying me to type (yes, on a typewriter) address labels and stuff envelopes for a mailouts from time to time.
My parents taught us to work hard, to have tenacity and to be resilient. Three characteristics I see as essential in entrepreneurship (and life).
Interestingly, my sister and I responded quite differently to the entrepreneurial gene. I embraced it with all my might whereas my sister repelled it. For some time this created a sense of contempt between us. Until we decided it was OK there were different ways to work (and I started earning money from my entrepreneurial pursuits as opposed to dealing in the currency of dreams).
My first business venture was selling earrings I’d made to my primary school friends. When I wasn’t making my own pocket money I was selling raffle tickets or collecting sponsorship for various things. Door knocking as a 12 year old in the 1980s was a thing parents were cool with so my sister, or a friend and I jumped on our bikes and traipsed all over the community with raffle books in hand.
As a teen I set up my own gymnastics club delivering lessons to over 30 little people every week. This complimented two other opportunities that came my way as I neared completion of my school education (which, let’s face it was much more about people than books).
These projects shaped my future experiences and mindset in entrepreneurship (1) a program called Young Achievers Australia where we learned how to set up and run a company from selling shares to product development and sales (we made first aid kits). (2) fundraising for an RSL led charity. I raised funds via events and came first in the state in the youth category for a fundraising competition for the organisation.
When I left my hometown for the big smoke I eventually moving into band promotion and event management. These were fun times of parties, two-minute noodles and living on the smell of an oily rag. I learned how much can be done with a small budget and a very large dose of creativity. Without a doubt this kicked off my lifelong appreciation of the creative industries.
In the meantime I weaved in and out of jobs in advertising and marketing, procurement and business administration all the while building my skill set for the next venture. (Even though I wasn’t consciously aware at that point that was what I was doing).
When kids came along I needed to get serious about earning money and as I searched for jobs as a pregnant woman (I wasn’t showing then but was too honest to withhold the information at job interviews) the employers mostly showed me the door. But one didn’t.
The ‘employer’ required me to trade as a business, a good thing as this also opened up other opportunities. It was an unusual contract that enabled me to use the skill set I recognised — marketing and business development, however there was a catch. I had to supervise a dozen jobseekers at the same time. This introduced me to the world of vocational education, an industry I have worked in or alongside to this current day.
Working in a ‘skills’ environment enabled me to examine my own skills, work out the gaps and pivot to a more profitable (and satisfying) business model.
In 2003 I moved back to my regional home with one baby and another on the way. I knew I would need to flex my entrepreneurial muscles to get working again so I started pitching education projects to a variety of entities. It wasn’t long before I was busy again.
“Service over self” is the way I choose to live my life. I was pleased to learn how to articulate that when another mentor explained my ethos (and his) many years later.
And after witnessing the grotesque waste of the advertising landscape I wanted my work to support the greater good. Is that at odds with entrepreneurship? It doesn’t have to be. Still, many were worried about how I would raise a family and simultaneously bring in money doing things that my former colleagues at a big media company defined as “chasing rainbows”.
I was worried too. But rather than freaking out I worked, and I worked hard. I decided a university degree would be an important addition to my toolkit and not long after my third child was born I graduated the degree I’d studied by distance over several years.
I was right about the degree changing my life, but it wasn’t only about the piece of paper. It was the way my mind changed. Somewhere between ethics classes through the lens of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and change management via William Gibson’s cyberpunk stories I sprouted a view that was more worldly, balanced and critical.
Literally the day after graduating I was offered a contract that would pivot my entire career. This was the first YES! of many as I embraced every opportunity that came my way for years to follow.
And boy did the opportunities come in. Within this time I delivered workshops, ran conferences and events, ran retreats, pulled together strategies and business plans, wrote funding applications and established social enterprises. Most importantly… I got to serve the people in my community.
My business and other work pursuits have always supported my family. However through these years four of the greatest challenges I’ve had as an entrepreneur have been:
- Cash flow
From time to time I’ve thought a ‘job’ would take some pressure off. Back in 2012 a job opportunity arose in an industry I felt aligned with my values. The stable six figure income sealed the deal.
Six months into the contract I was disappointed to discover the core of the organisation was rotten. I gave notice six months into the contract and left six months after with a very sour taste in my mouth.
It took me a year to rebuild my business during this time I learned two important things (1) the importance of saying NO and (2) the value the right mentor can bring and I’ve ensured I have a formal, or informal mentor ever since this time.
A few years later again I became restless in my business. Something continued to niggle and it wasn’t until another job came along in 2016 that I understood what it was.
My closing remark during the job interview was a promise. I promised that I’d deliver to the best of my ability and that it would never be beige.
Although my lack of beige far from pleases some it means I can integrate my entrepreneurial disposition with my social conscience in the best way possible (for now). And I have a seat at the table, something I did not have within my business.
The first day I walked into my new office I knew things would change. I became the first CEO to ask for a smaller office and eventually I edged my desk out of the office to home and now the entire team is working from home.
Over the years we’ve delivered a signature event called Ignite which attracts 170 people each year often to little towns that aren’t usually selected to run corporate events. We’ve developed an online platform that introduces jobseekers to employers and supporting services removing the competition among services that otherwise exists, we’ve delivered research projects and strategies, delivered an outstanding business incubator in an isolated island community and drawn together a bunch of connections that otherwise would never have met.
When I walk out the door I will know, without a doubt that I created change my way. (Albeit not the easiest way).
Is there a new business looming in the future?
Of course there is.
But that’s a chapter for another day.
Kerry Grace is an entrepreneur, community builder and mum. She is based in regional Australia.