“Accidental entrepreneur”: Sarah Liu on why she left the corporate world to create training and mentorship company The Dream Collective

sexism in startups

The Dream Collective founder Sarah Liu. Source: Supplied.

It was while working in the corporate space at the mid level of her career that Sarah Liu came to the realisation there was a distinct lack of development opportunities for ambitious women at the start of their careers. Taking things into her own hands in 2012, Liu founded The Dream Collective, a training and mentorship community focused on empowering and developing young professional women.

Juggling both running a business and working as a corporate brand manager, Liu finally split from her corporate roots and dedicated herself to running The Dream Collective, which immediately resulted in 368% growth in its customers.

Today The Dream Collective turns over just shy of $2 million per year and has recently expanded to Japan and Singapore. Liu spoke to SmartCompany about the many pivots of her business, and why she thinks the concept of balance for entrepreneurs is “overrated”.

I started The Dream Collective about five years ago, coming from a branding and marketing background. I had never run my own business, and I was working a corporate career as a regional brand manager for large cosmetic conglomerates.

I was always quite ambitious with pursuing my career in the corporate space, but as someone at the middle level of my career, I realised there was a lack of development opportunities for young women.

For women wanting to get ahead quickly, there was a lack of access to mentors. I didn’t know where to start, or how to look for it.

I needed to find a way to understand and equip myself with the skills and knowledge I needed to take my career to the next level. There was no platform available to help me do that.

I was so confronted by this lack of opportunity that I decided to take it upon myself and start The Dream Collective. There were a lot of women specific programs targeted at senior level executives, but I believed if we wanted to see the dial switch, we needed to look at the start of the pipeline.

The business began as a passion project as I wanted to maintain my corporate career at the same time. I juggled both for a couple of years, and it wasn’t until I saw the high growth coming through The Dream Collective that I decided I needed to focus wholeheartedly on the business.

In my first year just focusing on The Dream Collective we grew 368%, so I must have been doing something right.

Moving from the corporate world was a significant decision to make. There’s this growing concept of “corporate refugees”: corporate workers who are dissatisfied with the corporate inability to adapt and the overall bureaucracy and hierarchy.

I’m an accidental entrepreneur, it just happened organically. Now I’m in the space, I look back and I don’t know how I survived the corporate world.

It was like a fish finally finding water.

I do think there is an over romanticisation of entrepreneurs. I don’t think you have to run your own business to have a purposeful life; there’s still a great need to retain top talent in corporate organisations.

In the early days of running the business alongside my corporate job, the biggest challenge for me was time management. The gig economy wasn’t truly on the rise yet, and flexible working was typically something reserved for the working mother.

That was the biggest challenge I faced, as businesses were nervous about their employees having something on the side, and many didn’t think you needed flexibility.

As a result, I actually started a second business, called Gemini3 — a job share platform that was born out of my desire to have flexibility in those early stages.

In its infancy, The Dream Collective pivoted a number of times, as we started off mainly as an events group. We would invite senior executives and speakers to come and speak about various topics.

That was okay, we had good attendance and growth, but it got to a point where I felt that wasn’t having the biggest impact. People were only being inspired once every two or three months, and they needed support every day.

We realised having the bottom up approach was not having the greatest impact, so that’s when the business pivoted. We also had to start to look at ways to monetise it and scale it properly.

We ended up with a business-to-business model where companies nominate their top talent to go into our program and go through our training course. We’re also about to unveil a three-day “bootcamp” for managers who can’t do the full six-month course.

The space we’re operating in has grown tremendously. It specifically used to be something that large global companies would come to us and do, but now we’re seeing a rise in the amount of SME owners wanting to invest in themselves and their staff.

We’re also growing as a society, and there is a growing awareness and diversity of thinking. The conversation around female empowerment is a lot more mature and sophisticated, and people are understanding it’s time to put action behind it.

The Dream Collective was set up as a global business from day one and taking it to the world was always the intention. Female empowerment is not a topic specific to Australia.

We’re working through a three-step process: first thinking about what we can influence in our backyard, then in our local Asia-Pacific region, and then the world. We’ve just announced our expansion into Tokyo and Singapore as part of that second step.

The challenges with expanding globally have been mostly cultural, as a place like Tokyo has a very individual culture. The vast majority of organisations in Australia are fluent in diversity and no one needs to talk about the validity of female empowerment, but in Japan, the discussion is still very much in the early stages.

By 2020 we want to be not just about presence globally, but dominance. We don’t just want to participate in the market, we want to lead the market.

In Australia, we’re working with huge companies to create far-reaching content which changes the narrative, like our recent micro documentary series on corporate women empowering young women in the workplace.

I can see that happening across the world, and I want the opportunity to go into more challenging markets like India where we can make a lasting change.

I get asked all the time about how to have a strong work-life balance, and it’s recently come to my realisation I’ve never had much balance in my work — and I absolutely thrive on it.

Balance in itself is overrated. Everyone’s trying to achieve balance, and for what purpose? Your starting point shouldn’t be a balanced life, it should be a purposeful life.

My work occupies 90% of my life and I couldn’t be happier, and it doesn’t mean I don’t have a balanced life. It doesn’t need to be 50% work and 50% life; balance is about whatever works for you.

This is a conversation I want us to start having as a society. Don’t use balance as an ultimate pursuit, and it shouldn’t be a destination.

Don’t let balance become an excuse for mediocrity.

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