Kim Rollason-Nokes On Creating A Sense Of Belonging For Young Women Of CALD Backgrounds
Kim is a social entrepreneur, passionate about the role of education, training and employment in driving social change. After 12 years in the non-profit and community services sectors, Kim left her role working in refugee and migrant settlement in 2017 to start her social enterprise Ethni.
In 2019, she has gone on to also co-found Mantua Sewing Studio. Both social enterprises are dedicated to providing innovative and meaningful training and employment opportunities for women from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse backgrounds.
Kim believes strongly in the role social enterprise can play in promoting cultural diversity and addressing some of the most pressing social issues facing women from CALD backgrounds, particularly those that arrive in Australia as refugees and asylum seekers.
Kim shares her broad experience in founding two social enterprises that provide opportunities and support for young people from refugee & migrant backgrounds, giving insights into the not-for-profit sector, challenges in setting up and tips for other entrepreneurs.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you on this journey of starting up a social enterprise?
[Kim Rollason-Nokes] - I worked in the non-profit sector for around 12 years, across a few different areas, from working with people with disabilities, through the sport and recreation sector and most recently working with young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds. I was really passionate about working in the non-profit sector and making a contribution to our communities and supporting people.
One of the really challenging things I was finding working in that sector was the increasing challenges around funding that we weren't necessarily able to make the long-term, meaningful, and sustainable change that we wanted because we were so constrained by reducing rates of funding, constraints around funding. It became a really challenging space to work in. I think our contracts in the non-profit sector started to get shorter and shorter, so we couldn't actually plan long-term for the work that we wanted to do.
It almost became a bit of a tick-box exercise, where we would spend time chasing funding, running things, trying to get funding just to chase more funding so we could keep our jobs. That for me was not sustainable. It was not meaningful, and just really challenging. In my work with young people from CALD backgrounds, I really started to see a need with our young women in particular, arriving here in Australia and being really significantly underrepresented in employment compared to their Australian peers.
This was, for a number of reasons, from lack of work experience, lack of recognition of qualifications, cultural and family expectations, and unfortunate, I think, discrimination as well, people being looked over for the name on their CVs and things like that.
I could really see our young women struggling with really finding their feet and getting settled in their new country, and not necessarily having the supports they needed for that.
I drew on an old business model from 12 years ago when I was a student back in New Zealand and I used to run children's birthday parties, and looked at how I could take that business model with the social need I was seeing, and bring those together to create a social enterprise that could not only promote cultural diversity, but also provide opportunities for these young women to gain the training and employment that they really needed. That's how Ethni was born.
Tell us more about Ethni. What is its purpose and what do you do?
Ethni is a social enterprise and our goal is to promote cultural diversity through fun and creative programs and workshops for children and young people. We do everything from kids parties to school holiday workshops and school programs and events. We do it by training up young women from culturally diverse backgrounds, and providing them a platform to share their stories and their culture with the community, while also giving them that really crucial training, mentoring, and employment that they need to create a life for themselves here in Australia.
Ethni, from the work we do with the young women, is really about a stepping stone. It's really giving them the support they need to develop, the knowledge of the work environment here in Australia, giving them the mentoring to overcome some of the barriers and challenges they're facing, whether it's bringing together the two identities between traditional cultural identities and their family expectations versus the identity of being here in Australia and seeing the opportunities, and bringing those two together.
It's really a space where these young women can come and share their stories with one another, come together. As I've found, it's become much less about them actually getting a job and the financial side, which is what I really thought when I started it it was all about, to more about seeing them finding it as a place of belonging and feeling that sense of belonging here which often they've said they haven't felt yet in their journey so far.
That's our purpose. We've been running now for about a year and a bit, and delivered over 800 cultural experiences in the community. We have a team of around six facilitators, and it's growing every day now.
There's some great goals that you kicked there, Kim. I know you've come up against a few barriers along the way.
I'm keen to learn more about them. What were those barriers and how have you navigated your way around them?
There's been a number of barriers, Tom. I think the biggest thing for me, watching the social enterprise sector in general, I think there's two kind of people that come into it. There's people who come from a business background and want to do more good. They feel like the corporate world's just not enough for them, so they bring these amazing business skills in and start social enterprises to address social needs. Then there's people like myself that are coming in from a non-profit sector with the frustration of funding cycles and lack of sustainability and wanting to have, develop, more sustainable models to address the social issues that they're seeing and drive social change.
The challenge with people with business skills coming in is that they don't always necessarily address the social impact. Their social impact necessarily isn't always addressed in deep and meaningful ways. They may not understand fully all of the barriers or the issues at hand, whereas myself, one of my biggest barriers is not having the business skills.
I know how to address the social need, but actually growing a profitable and sustainable business is something that is an ongoing learning curve for me. Balancing, learning those business skills as well as balancing the purpose as well, and I think that's probably been one of my biggest challenges, is learning how to make business decisions.
Last year I took on my first part-time staff member, her being a young person who has been unemployed for a long time. She was with me for about six months, and at the end we just financially couldn't maintain her position. I knew that the role also meant a lot to her, and in terms of building her confidence and things as a young person. Unfortunately, (and it was probably one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make), was making the business decision that I had to let her go.
I swear, I actually think I cried more letting her go than she cried. For me that was a moment where I was able to weigh up both obviously that I have a social purpose, but to make it work and be meaningful for many people, is that sometimes you have to make really hard business decisions as well. That has probably been one of my biggest challenges and one that I'm continuing to work through every day.
One of a thousand things that social entrepreneurs seem to constantly come up against, right?
Yeah. I think that's the challenge of social enterprise is that you do have to balance both sides of it, which is a really challenging space to be, and a very exciting space, but a very challenging one.
Kim, I'm really interested to hear more about the business structure. As you know, there's no specific legal structure for social enterprise in Australia yet. I know you've experimented with a couple, and you've recently changed it to a not-for-profit legal structure. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. What would you recommend to other social entrepreneurs that are weighing up which business structure they should form if they want to be a social enterprise?
I started off as a sole trader. It was a simple and easy way to get underway. For me, when I first started, social enterprise was a business and that was the only, I guess, structure that I thought that social enterprise was. As last year went on, and I stayed in that structure for a year, I started to see the pros and cons of what that was, and towards the end of the year started to consider making the change to a non-profit structure.
For me, weighing that up, because I'd had a couple of negative experiences in the non-profit sector, particularly around governance and having poor boards that weren't necessarily positive for the growth of the organisation, constraints around their funding cycles and reliance on funding cycles, I really had shied away from the non-profit sector when I left.
Really, for me, it was dismantling some of those experiences that I had to see the benefits of the non-profit structure again. Everyone is different, so what I would recommend is to separate the idea of legal structure and business model. I'm not sure if I'm using the right terms, but there is your legal structure which can be a business or it can be a non-profit, but it doesn't change how you operate as a business.
With Ethni, although I've made the change to being a non-profit, we still exist as a social enterprise in the sense that we use user paid services to generate our core revenue. We're not grant reliant or donation reliant, so we're not existing essentially as what you might consider a charity.
Essentially the change to the non-profit is about us making a commitment to reinvesting all of our profits back into our purpose.
Also, one of the reasons I made the decision to change, was also that for us it provides us a lot of benefits, particularly in these early years around gaining some grant funding to support our early growth, with the goal of that reducing over time and becoming really just a small portion of where our revenue comes from.
It, [grant funding], was quite crucial for us in these early days.
I would recommend to people to consider what their purpose is. Look at the individual businesses for what they are. There's no one right structure for any social enterprise. For me, with Ethni, it was about building something sustainable and creating a legacy, so there is ongoing employment opportunities for young women.
I'm quite realistic that Ethni's not something that someone is going to come along and offer me a billion dollars to buy, so ultimately it's not about me generating something that I can sell or that's going to be hugely profitable in the future. It's about creating, ultimately if I can pay myself, pay a team, continue to create growing employment opportunities for young women and promote cultural diversity, then my goals are reached. Being a non-profit for me, that structure fits with my purpose and my goals for what Ethni is going to be in the future.
Other people, particularly product-based ones who really do want to grow and grow quite a larger business, starting it as a business is a much more sensible structure for them.
I would definitely just recommend people look at what they're doing, what their purpose is, what their long-term goal with it is, and be really realistic about what that is.
It's been a pleasure to watch you grow over the last year or so, Kim, having you go through the Elevate+ program as well, and recently, in co-founding Mantua Sewing Studio. I'd love you to share a little bit about Mantua Sewing Studio. You work alongside Mady Taue and Leah Andrea. Tell us a little bit more. What are you doing?
Well, Mantua Sewing Studio has been a big vision particularly of Mady's and it's something that I have jumped onboard to co-found with her. Mantua is really about bringing to life a local and ethical sewing manufacturing industry here in Australia. With the rising trend of fast fashion, and people really wanting to see more ethical sewing manufacturing, more Australian brands are wanting to manufacture locally, but unfortunately there's been a significant loss in sewing skills in our country.
Mantua is really about drawing on the under-utilised skills of women from refugee and migrant backgrounds and providing them, similarly to Ethni, a supportive and meaningful training and employment pathway, so that we can draw on their skills and also provide an amazing service to Australian clothing brands. It's still very much in its early days, but we've had our first brand come onboard, which is very exciting.
That's great. Experimenting in a few different social enterprises now, and having that experience over the years, what do you believe is one of the most important mindsets or traits that you see in the more successful social entrepreneurs?
I think the first thing I'd say is that success and successful entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes and forms.
I think sometimes we have an idea in our head of what a successful entrepreneur looks like. I have to say from my journey that that is just not the case. We have six team values with Ethni, and one of the team values we have which I really push with my young women is…
Dream big and dare greatly. Anything is possible with passion, perseverance and persistence.
This for me really represents that idea that the most successful entrepreneurs I've found are those who have a passion for something and they persevere with it, that it's not going to happen overnight. The ones that happen overnight or we think that happen overnight...
Took 10 years.
It's really easy to believe that it was instant success, and they have some magic skill set or this magic knowledge that we don't have that made it possible. Whereas, actually they just hit brick walls for so long, but they just kept hitting that brick wall until they smashed through it.
I think some of the people I see as the most successful and the ones that I really respect a lot are those who have stuck with it and seen themselves through what I've heard someone describe, which I really love is called the messy middle.
There's a point where you're over the honeymoon period of your great idea, and you've hit the hard middle phase where cash flow is hard. You'll get your no's, and you'll get your hard moments, and you're wondering what the heck you're doing, and you're working these massive days, and you're trying to balance X number of things to pay your bills. It's tough. It's tough going, but persevering through those times to see the end result is what I think makes someone successful ultimately in this game. It's not an education or skill set, or a background, or anything.
It's about how you can take what you know and how you can draw on the support of those around you.
One other side thing is collaboration. I think social enterprise presents such a beautiful space for collaboration across industries that doesn't often get done very well.
One thing I try and do a lot in Ethni and I think I see other successful people doing, is drawing on the knowledge and the resources available across industries, whether it's non-profit, government, education, business, and drawing those all together to address social needs in a cohesive way.
I think it's some fantastic advice. Drawing to the end, are there any other inspiring projects, initiatives, social enterprises around that you want to share with our audience?
I thought about this and there's so many. One initiative that I've been involved in for about six months now, down in Logan, in Queensland. I'm sharing it because it's a beautiful example of community working for community. It's called Barber Talk. It's an initiative that was; the vision came from a guy down in Logan who runs a barber shop, Spasifik Barbershop. His vision was to open up a shop originally to people experiencing homelessness, and provide them a experience where they could come and they could have their haircut and they could have conversations with the barbers.
They could bring back a bit of that dignity and get that support so that they could go and apply for a job or do what they needed to do. It was just one piece of the puzzle, but one he really felt he could contribute. I got brought in to help him take that vision to making it actually get up and going. We set the first date, and we ran the first event in November last year, and we had around 30 or so people come through that day.
It's been this beautiful evolution. We just ran our fourth event for International Women's week last week. We have a different theme now every month, and that was supporting hard working and struggling mums. We had 81 mums through that night, and as we've grown, it's been this amazing coming together of community. We are just so beautifully, organically, people rock down with a bunch of drinks saying, "I've just moved community. I heard what you're doing. Here's a bunch of drinks for the night." Or a business jumping onboard and they're going, "I'm going to donate the barbecue food," or the bakery donating all their bakery food for the night.
Hairdressers and barbers donating their time and skills every month. Ethni now goes down and runs all the kids activities to keep the kids occupied. We had a firetruck down there last time. It's very small, but often when we run community programs, we're working in a non-profit for so long is that we run them from organisations, and we run what we think the community needs. That's not necessarily what community needs.
Watching a project start from the ground up and seeing everyone coming onboard to see it grow has been amazing. Our next steps now is to actually to develop the systems and processes to allow other barbershops to take that on, and to run their own one so it can scale up beyond what we're just doing.
It sounds like a great initiative.
It's small, but I think it's just a really beautiful example of how when we actually empower community, really amazing things can happen.
Fantastic. To finish off then, Kim, what books would you recommend to our listeners?
Two books that I regularly recommend is Originals by Adam Grant. I really love this book, and I was talking about a little bit earlier that idea that success comes in all shapes and forms. This is a really beautiful book that talks about that, and talks about you can be young, you can be old, you can be a woman, a man, you can have had no education, you can have had all of the education, and everyone is capable. I really love that book.
If you're sitting there thinking, "I can't do this because," and I hear that a lot sometimes with my young women who say, "I couldn't do this, Kim, because I'm not a great leader. I'm not an extrovert. I'm not this."
I think it's really important that people see that everyone has strengths that can lead to success in whatever form that's going to take.
I really love that book.
The other one I would recommend, too, is Chapter One, the Thankyou story by Daniel Flynn. Like I said before, the idea of perseverance and persistence. His book, I sat down and read it in a day because it just spoke so much of just the brick walls he hit, and the fact that no matter how much it broke him, he kept persevering. He kept his purpose so strongly at the centre of what he was doing. His idea of giving 100% profits to his projects overseas which got criticised and abused over the years, he stayed so true to that and he kept going.
What he thought was going to take him three months, took him five years, and has become incredibly successful now through that perseverance. I read that at early stages of my journey, and I always think back to that now when I'm having that horrible messy middle stage, to keep pushing through.