Entrepreneurs: they’re not all created equal
“In 2004 I was caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka’s north, a country which at the time was [suffering through] a 30 year long civil war.
“In the midst of the tsunami, a young woman held my hand. She had lost everything: her child, her husband, her home. I had never met her before, but in that moment, as she gripped my hand tightly, I wanted nothing more than to have her be okay.”
This moment changed Abarna Raj’s life. After walking away from her successful corporate career, Raj founded Palmera, an organisation that helps female farmers and rural entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka access profitable markets so they can improve their economic wellbeing.
Current projects include supporting women to improve their dairybusinesses through new production practices, the introduction of high yielding cows and connections to new markets; helping women to better manage their livelihoods by improving their financial literacy and strengthening their savings practices; and enabling families in the Manthai West region of Mannar to access clean water through the construction of bore wells.
Despite the impact that her association has had in Sri Lanka, and her determination to continue to drive change in the region, the term ‘entrepreneur’ doesn’t sit too well with Raj. She does, however, admit to possessing some of the universal characteristics of business and philanthropic leaders.
“I am fascinated by social problems. I get uncomfortable with the status quo. I get excited about making the most out of nothing (probably the result of thrifty immigrant parents), and I get bored the moment we move into ‘business as usual’. I guess, despite my hesitation towards labels, you could call me an entrepreneur,” she said.
While many assume that entrepreneurialism is something you either possess or don’t, Julianne Lever, chef and owner of Julianne’s Kitchen, which makes hand-made artisan pates, pastes and terrines, believes that as long as you’re willing, it can be taught.
“I think entrepreneurship is something that’s in your personality, whether you’re born with it or the attributes are taught to you from a young age. I’ve always enjoyed the responsibility and the challenge of understanding and being able to affect the whole of a business, rather than just one role within it.
“Anyone who is passionate enough about something can make it happen. Creative and academic minds both have pathways to turn their passion into a successful business. I find people who succeed at this are usually self-starters; they are ambitious, enjoy learning, focused, determined and have a passion for excellence in their field,” she said.
After launching Cloudstreet restaurant in Kirribilli at the age of 21 and operating it for four years, Lever sold the business and completed a Certificate IV in Training and Assessing before going on to teach commercial cookery – while also operating a catering business. When Julianne’s Kitchen was small but in full swing, Lever was offered an opportunity to work for a large FMCG as the Head Chef for R&D and Marketing – a role she juggled while growing Julianne’s Kitchen with her partner, Zlat.
The path that Lever took to build Julianne’s Kitchen disproves the assumption that entrepreneurs need to take an enormous leap of faith at one particular point in their career. Skills are learnt gradually and becoming an entrepreneur can be years in the making.
“I learnt a lot from working in larger companies, and I applies those learnings to my own small business. I like the way that my employed jobs gave me confidence and new knowledge to take into my various businesses,” Lever said.
For Palisa Anderson, a second generation restaurateur and a first generation farmer, the entrepreneurial spirit was always alive and well in her childhood home. Her mother, Amy Chanta, established Chat Thai in 1989 and worked tirelessly to create a life for her children and develop a successful and authentic business to help support them. Today, it remains a vibrant business, and while Anderson says her mum has shaped the businesswoman she is today, she says her brand of entrepreneurialism is quite different.
“I’ve learnt a lot from her: the main lesson is to treat people with the respect they deserve and the respect you want in return. Mum is very curious, innovative and open to suggestions. She can also recognise talent and is always helping people to uncover that,” Anderson said. “There are many similarities in how we operate, however she’s definitely much more of a risk-taker than I am. I tend to like to do my research and take my time assessing a situation before tumbling headlong into something. [But this] can be much to my detriment because so much of it is timing. Mum will cut her losses and move on, whereas I’m more retrospective.”
And while not all entrepreneurs are created equal, Anderson says it’s all
about backing yourself and being firm in the conviction that what you’re doing is also what you believe in.
“If you don’t have that conviction, it will [be] much more difficult for other people to trust in your vision,” she said.
Other entrepreneurial essentials that Anderson listed are:
Grit and bear it
Regardless of when and how the entrepreneurial spirit kicks in, or what sort of business you’re getting off the ground, the one trait that all innovators possess is resilience.
This is particularly evident in Abarna Raj’s world. Through her work with Palmera, she has developed a wide network of inspiring entrepreneurs from all around the globe, with varying degrees of wealth, education and access to resources.
In Sri Lanka, for example, the challenges faced by poor rural women are many and varied, and unlike anything experienced by the vast majority of female entrepreneurs in Australia.
“In the market place, it may be the inability to get quality inputs, or it might be predatory middle men. In the community, it may be discrimination you face because of your class that has others refusing to include you in collective marketing discussions. In the home, it may be that everyday your husband, fuelled by alcohol (resulting largely from trauma faced by the atrocities endured through a three decade long civil war) takes out his anger on you,” Raj said.
The biggest difference between leaders in Australia and those she’s working to empower in Sri Lanka is that the latter haven’t got a choice.
“You are a woman, you have three children … You may not be an entrepreneur in the truest sense; you are an entrepreneur by necessity, not by choice. You are not risk taking, but you are resilient and you must survive. So the biggest challenge is continuing.
“Being an entrepreneur out of desire (largely in Australia) or necessity (like the women we work with) – you need resilience. You must continue. The drivers may be different, but the result is the same. You press on, even when you look like a crazy person to everyone else, you press on. It may be part of the entrepreneurial spirit, it may be part of sheer survival, but I see it in all the women I work with – whether it be my peers in Australia, or the women we work with in the villages.”
And when you’re dealing with Mother Nature, resilience is essential. This has been an unavoidable lesson for Palisa Anderson, who operates Boon Luck Farm in northern NSW, supplying restaurants (including her own) with organic Thai herbs and vegetables.
“We started growing because of the lack of organic options in specialty South East Asian produce. When it comes to challenges, you name it, we faced it. It’s not been an easy road up to this point and obstacles come thick and fast … Luckily we were [at the farm] during one of the biggest cyclones two years ago. Just after our shade-house netting was completed and we’d planted out half of the orchard, the cyclone blew the orchard netting apart, completely ripping off the sides. It was heartbreaking to witness and then to restart, but at the same time it gave us such reverence for Mother Nature. Whatever we think we can do, and no matter how much we prepare, nature is always going to be the boss. And now we are of course in drought, so with farming it really is a year to year concern as to how successful the outcome will be.”
Entrepreneurs are usually navigating unchartered waters, and as such it can be a scary and lonely path to pursue. The value of building a network of people who have taken similar risks and come out the other side is therefore invaluable. Thankfully, the hospitality industry -perhaps more than others – has no shortage of passionate and creative thought leaders.
Anderson has a long list of mentors who’ve been critical in her evolution as an entrepreneur. She lists a few…
“My mother, Amy, obviously. Peter Gilmore who I consult with constantly to talk about produce and how to apply things to menus. I respect him immensely for his knowledge and experience, and also his humility and generosity in fostering an inclusive attitude with everyone around him. Kylie Kwong is also someone who brings people under her wing and offers invaluable advice. Kenrick Riley is someone who I look up to for his great wealth of knowledge in organic farming in my area. [And] Martin Boetz, who I’ve known forever. I watched him leave the conventional kitchen to pursue his love of the land, and his courage to just do it helped push me.
“I admire so many people in hospitality, many of them my contemporaries who I think are just incredible at what they do … One commonality all these wonderful people have is a generosity in sharing experiences and knowledge. They are encouraging to us sprats who follow them, they care to teach and impart important life lessons.”
Julianne Lever agrees that the industry is brimming with creative and talented leaders who are only too happy to help. But it works both ways: entrepreneurs are often inherently curious, and never under the illusion that they’ve learnt all they need to.
“For me, it’s a pleasure to train someone and see them learn and benefit from my experience. To share information and offer advice to growing businesses is a lovely recognition of how far you’ve come. I’m happy to be asked for advice and to share what I continue to learn along the way.
“I’ve learnt so much from others who have very successful businesses and they still offer me their time and lend their expertise to my business. I’m grateful for all the help and support I receive from professionals, our staff and other small business operators as we work our way through the minefield of the all-encompassing world that is running a small business.”