Last year, I was a lucky enough to be selected as a finalist for New South Wales in the Rural Women’s Award, a longstanding initiative created by AgriFutures Australia to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of women to rural communities.
The award culminates in a gala awards night in Sydney, the room filled with people who support our work. While it was well attended and a great way to showcase regional women, there was one thing that didn’t seem quite right and really got me thinking.
Was the choice to host the event in Sydney the right one? This event is to celebrate women in rural communities, so why would be not host the gala night in a regional town?
Sydney’s sprawling CBD has little in common with most of Australia’s regional towns, which are often desperately trying to hold onto young professionals they invariably lose to cities just like it.
In many ways, hosting a rural awards dinner in a major city like Sydney is emblematic of Australia’s rural and urban divide. While advances in technology are steadily eroding the digital divide (don’t get me wrong, this still exists), in many ways we are still a divided nation.
Hosting a major event in a city location is not uncommon but it is worth a pause to wonder why we often expect regional people to travel to the city, instead of the opposite way around. What we forget is this very gesture underpins the divide by saying to regional people your time is less valuable than mine; you are not as important as me.
This parochial sentimentality attached to country Australia is a dangerous misnomer. Not only does it dissuade professionals from moving to rural areas, but it makes locals believe that in order to be “successful”, they must move away to major cities.
I have experienced both worlds. I studied in Melbourne and a worked as a consultant in the city before returning to work at my family winery, Tahbilk Estate. After finishing my degrees in agricultural management, commerce and marketing at the University of Melbourne, I worked as a consultant at EY before returning to work at Tahbilk, as its wine club and tourism operations manager.
As someone who has always felt a deep connection with the Australian bush, I was happy to be back on the land among the vines. However, it was my exposure to climate and environmental sciences and the power of marketing at university that encouraged me to think creatively about what role sustainability plays in business and winemaking — and what I can do to inspire the same kind of innovative thinking within my local community.
This is how my social enterprise Big Sky Ideas was born. Based on what I learnt at university and observe daily in my local community, I’ve come to realise that it’s essential we teach people how to reframe the opportunities that exist in regional Australia. The ambition of Big Sky Ideas being to create support networks and entrepreneurism opportunities that will help tackle small town decline throughout Australia.
Contrary to many, I define entrepreneurism as a mindset, a way of thinking, and not a business model. When individuals are taught to turn their own problems into opportunities, and given the confidence to then act on their ideas, the world is at their feet. They don’t have to wait for someone else to come in and innovate: they can do it themselves.
My goal is to unlock what I call entrepreneurial spirit in the heart of the rural community. At Big Sky, we run a not for profit co-working space in Deniliquin, NSW, which is all about providing local businesses with a motivational space from which to work and operate.
The common misconception is there are limited opportunities and jobs in rural Australia. I am here to challenge this rhetoric by presenting another argument. As millennials swell the workplace and increasingly engage in the gig economy, they are undoubtedly finding it difficult to enter the already saturated city markets.
Rural communities are increasingly connected. And while right now we may be struggling to see living in regional Australia as an opportunity, those who do live here see the potential. Take farmland for example, which is a huge asset and an asset that, if marketed properly, can be used in ways that can redefine the great Aussie farm dream.
Apps such as Airbnb offer a diversified income stream to farmers willing to take advantage of the urbanite’s dream for country experience. Clever country towns are capitalising on eco-tourism, sustainable living and organic produce. There is also heaps of space for people in the service industries to tap into supporting regional people to grow their knowledge, expertise and market opportunities.
I believe universities can also play an increasingly important role in turning on the light bulb, individually and collectively. Not just through the provision of education (including access to distance learning), but with their advances in technology research, providing other avenues to up skill, especially in robotics and mechanics. With drones, GPS and other technologies coming to farms and wineries, farms will soon want to hire people to support the technology (such as programming drones, fixing broken systems and more).
To the young professional who wants to give their own idea a go, I say this: come to rural Australia. We have businesses too, and they need marketing, technology, branding and digital strategies. They need accountants and creatives to enhance their product offerings and scale up.
Living in country Australia is not only good for business, it is good for the soul, and that’s got to count for something.