Kara Cooper was scrolling through Facebook one evening when she came across an ad for a business mentorship program.
The New South Wales business owner almost didn’t apply. She was away from her home in the Blue Mountains, on a last-minute road trip to Broken Hill with her family. The internet wasn’t working well, and she’d never had much luck when it came to winning opportunities like this.
But after months of trying to keep going through devastating bushfires, floods and the coronavirus, and “feeling so funny about business”, the founder of design business Mount Vic and Me gave it a shot.
Filling out the application paid off. Cooper is now one of 90 Australian female business owners to be awarded a scholarship to a new mentorship program being run by Jo Burston’s Inspiring Rare Birds.
The one-on-one mentorship program will put business owners such as Cooper in touch with a high-profile mentor for the next nine months, to help them through the pandemic and beyond.
The program is being funded by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Office for Women, through its Women’s Leadership and Development Program.
In June, the government allocated $1.8 million for projects designed to help improve Australian women’s economic security and support them during the coronavirus pandemic, and Inspiring Rare Birds received approximately $200,000 to deliver its mentorship program.
Created by Job Capital founder Jo Burston in 2014, Inspiring Rare Birds started out as an initiative to empower female entrepreneurs and help them secure funding. It has since evolved to also include a corporate mentoring program to help create more diverse and inclusive workplaces.
Inspiring Rare Birds scholarships have been designed to specifically support the female owners of established businesses who are Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander, have disabilities, are migrants or refugees, or are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, including in rural, regional and remote communities.
To be eligible for the scholarships, business owners needed to identify as female and with one of these marginal demographics. They also needed to have been running an established and viable business for at least two years.
Of the 90 successful applicants, 44% come from regional or remote areas, 20% identify as migrants or refugees, 13% identify as Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander, 12% come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and 5% have disabilities.
Speaking with SmartCompany, Burston explained the program has two elements: one-on-one mentorship with mentors in significant leadership positions, which is done over a nine-month period; and online masterclasses in key areas of business growth, such as health and wellness, cashflow and digital marketing.
The business owners selected for the program come from all over Australia, and Burston describes the scholarships as a “door-opening” opportunity.
“Often these women would not have access to this calibre of mentors,” she says, adding that mentorship can help them “see themselves and their business on a much bigger scale than their own postcode”.
Inspiring Rare Birds received funding from the federal government to run a similar program in 2017-18, and Burston says the ultimate goal is to help secure financial independence for more Australian women, which “cuts the heads off” many other social issues, and can lead to greater job creation and employment opportunities for others.
‘The confidence and experience to help’
Cooper tells SmartCompany she is “absolutely thrilled” to be selected for the program, which she hopes will provide “next level bouncing” of ideas, opening her business up to a “bigger picture that I’d probably never dreamt of”.
A graphic designer by trade, Cooper started Mount Vic and Me in 2013 by creating and selling a range of greeting cards. Now she designs everything from tea towels to fabric and cushion covers, in a signature colourful and quirky style, from a retro cafe in Mount Victoria.
“A lot of people say it started with coronavirus, but for us, it was around October,” she says, recalling the bushfires that engulfed the Blue Mountains and the floods that followed. Now, Mount Victoria is “dead quiet” as tourists are yet to start returning, and Cooper is only opening her store once a month.
“I’m surviving now by really pushing my online presence, and I was lucky I already had that, and really good social media so I can talk to people,” she says.
“I have around 90 stockists in Australia, who are all very supportive, but they are struggling themselves.”
While Cooper has a local network of business women, and others she connects with around the country, she is looking forward to working with someone “at that next level” through the mentorship program.
“I’ve always baulked at the idea of exporting, but [this will give me] someone who has the confidence and experience to help,” she says.
Among the mentors involved in the program are KPMG partner and board member Corrina Bertram, Asialink CEO Penny Burtt, and City of Melbourne councillor Jackie Watts.
In a statement, Bertram said coming from a regional background has made her “passionate about creating a level playing field of opportunity for women — regardless of where they come from”.
Burtt said supporting women-led SMEs and startups is both “the right thing to do and vital for our economic recovery”.
“Women are more vulnerable than men, with women’s jobs twice as likely to be under threat due to the pandemic,” she said.
“Having the opportunity to help give women business owners the confidence and skills to drive their businesses, including through tough times, matters to me.
“Their success can make a huge difference to their lives and our community as a whole.”