Community, connection, and the secret sauce: The women making small businesses work in regional and rural Australia

Pip Brett (third from right) and the Jumbled team. Source: supplied.

The small business community is still reeling from the COVID-19 crisis, and the economic fallout that came with it.

For women entrepreneurs based in rural and regional areas, connection — with their local communities and with each other — has never been more important.

Yesterday, Vogue Australia‘s inaugural Vogue Codes Regional event saw women business owners based in regional and rural Australia come together (remotely, of course) to talk about their experiences doing business in the bush, and the power of the communities around them.

Pip Brett, owner of Orange-based fashion and homewares retailer Jumbled also pointed to the power of a small business community in regional areas.

In Orange, local business owners work together to create an overall experience for visitors. People don’t come to a destination only to eat, to drink or to shop. They want a bit of everything.

There is “power in numbers”, she explained.

Orange has a strong tourism board, and it’s telling that this is headed up by Brett herself — a small business owner. The entrepreneurs in the area effectively act as tour guides, she explains, all recommending each others’ stores and experiences to give every visitor a well-rounded and personalised day out.

“That’s the great thing about community,” Brett adds.

“It is about businesses coming together and working towards a common goal … that’s where the magic, the secret sauce, happens.”

Regional businesses are coming out of a rough few years of drought and bushfires. But the COVID-19 pandemic has led to windfall of domestic tourism, providing an unexpected boost to some businesses.

The question now is how do we continue that momentum. Asked how people in cities can support regional businesses and support an upwards trajectory, Brett urged people to continue exploring what’s in their own back yard, visiting regional towns even when there are other options available.

But at the same time, she asked consumers to consider their purchasing power.

“Who are you buying from? Are you buying from a big American company?” she asked.

“It’s about thinking where you want to spend your money.”

Businesses in regional towns have been through a lot, she added. But things like the Buy From the Bush campaign and events like Vogue Codes Australia are only drawing more attention to them, and Brett doesn’t see that slowing down any time soon.

“I think it’s only upwards from here.”

“So big but so small”

Mea Campbell is the founder of Connected AU, a purpose-led organisation that strives to tackle isolation and loneliness, including through its flagship Letterbox Project, which connects people through classic, old-school, handwritten letters.

Connected AU is based in Dubbo — not exactly considered a quintessential hub of entrepreneurship. But, Campbell said her rural location hasn’t felt like a disadvantage.

In fact, she’s connected into a “really accessible and supportive” community of other women-led businesses based in rural and regional ares, she said.

“Most of my external support network are all women based in the bush,” she explained, including the PR manager, graphic designer and photographer she works with.

“I’ve found this resource of amazing women, all connected. I don’t think I would have had access to that if I wasn’t based where I am.”

These women also step outside of their professional roles, acting not only as service providers or partners, but as mentors, sounding boards and friends.

Campbell is a lawyer by trade, and is completely new to running a business.

“I’ve had to rely on funding some great people to help me navigate it, and really give me some trusted advice.”

Simone Kain, who co-founded George the Farmer, a range of educational books, toys and resources, also noted the importance of the network.

Australia is “so big but so small”, she said. Once you start networking with other people running regional businesses, you discover all kinds of cross-connections.

“It’s so important to keep talking and find out who knows who.”

The power of connection

Jillian Kilby, founder and chief of The Exchange, a co-working space and entrepreneurship community in Dubbo, has seen this happening in real time.

Kilby set out to launch a space for innovation and connection, that also delivers social impact.

One of the most important ways it does this is through its ‘Seats for the Brave’ initiative, which sees corporates and philanthropists to sponsor spots in the space for small businesses just starting out.

It allows entrepreneurs to test and develop their ideas without having to incur too many expenses.

For women, in particular, it can mean getting off the farm, perhaps away from the kids for a few hours, and — crucially — to a space that has a decent internet connection.

Currently, Buy From The Bush is a recipient of the scheme, and is using The Exchange as its headquarters, Kilby explains.

But having founder Grace Brennan around is a motivating factor for everyone else.

“When Grace Brennan gets up to boil the jug and make a cup of tea, all the business owners get up,” Kilby says.

“The whole place lifts and moves across the room to talk to Grace Brennan.”

When it comes to networking, she urges business owners to start out locally, reaching out to other entrepreneurs in their area.

Then, people are generally ready and willing to connect you to others who might be able to help.

At the same time, she urged them to consider what it is they actually need or what, and be upfront about it.

“Always put your ask upfront.”

She designed The Exchange to be a place that inspires confidence, she says. That comes about partly through connections.

“You walk out with this feeling — you’re inspired, you’re motivated, you’re passionate, you’re re-energised.”

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