Sydney women get down to microbusiness
Where can new Australian resident, Jiraporn go to improve her English, meet with friends, access childcare and learn social media all while developing a business plan for the clothing shop she hopes to open later this year? The answer lies within the doors of a small cottage on a quiet street in Sydney’s multicultural Lakemba, home to the newly developed Migrant Women’s Microbusiness Program. Presented for the first time this year as a partnership between Sydney Community College and the Canterbury City Community Centre, the course is paving new ground in adult learning for women.
Developed in response to community need for home-based business opportunities for women, the core program consists of nine months of weekly one-day classes and delivers a Certificate III in Micro Business Operations.
In addition to coursework, the program provides individual mentoring; numeracy and literacy support; and childcare in the very next room. “For some it is their first childcare experience. It’s nice that they’re only a room away,” says Tonya Cook-Pedersen, who oversees the program with a specific focus on the mentoring component. “It was a condition of the DEC funding that the program offered support strategies and was not just a course.” The program also includes new business Pathway Planning and case management.
“I came from Thailand about two years ago,” says student Jiraporn Temiyatanapong. “I would like to open a high fashion and children’s clothing shop called Miss Woof. The name comes from my husband’s Dalmatian dog. I import good quality clothing from Thailand.”
Tonya worked with Kate Maclean at the Canterbury City Community Centre to recruit the eighteen participants through fliers and advertisements in local papers. “We wanted people with a concrete business idea and they had to have 2 on the English Language and Numeracy scale to function in a Cert III environment,” Tonya explains. “We held an info session and for those who were interested, we did an English language assessment right then and there.”
Tonya believes the relaxed setting got the program off to a good start; “On our first day a lot of women were accompanied by their husbands and coming to a local cottage rather than going to a big centre far away really helped.”
Trainer, Joanna Maxwell runs all the weekly sessions, bringing in specialist teachers for the social media and finance classes. The training covers all aspects of business planning, marketing, workplace health and safety as well teaching visioning and creative thinking, Joanna’s specialty. “Several students have said that the creative thinking had opened them up to a real sense of possibility,” says Joanna who runs a creativity and careers training business. “A lot of them aren’t familiar with questioning but have loved that part of the program.”
The sustained duration of the course has allowed friendships to develop that are not only enjoyable, but enhance learning. “What’s palpable in the room is the sharing between women,” says Joanna. “Most of my teaching is done through discussion as a group so we can share ideas and experience.”
“It’s very communal,” agrees Tonya. “To go from the first class which was silent, to ‘could you all please shut up!’ has been the most important part of the course.”
Not all students are new migrants. Others include longer-term migrants and under and unemployed women; women who are facing a range of challenges in accessing adult education. “I engineered that because I wanted the learning amongst each other. Different women have stepped up to become a role model in the group,” Tonya says.
“We always knew there’d be a large social inclusion component to the course,” says Joanna. “We have a very active Facebook group and every day there’ll be twenty posts asking for opinions on their business name or sharing a link, or I’ll put out homework in case anyone missed it.”
“We’re doing the structured component that gives them a Certificate III, but much of the real benefit and learning comes around the edges,” says Joanna. She describes a particular student who’s doing flower arranging; “She wanted to do a mother’s day flower stall from her garage, but decided it would be too much of a stretch for her. We pitched in as a group and helped her deal with council and her neighbours and worked out how to do a flyer. I know several of the women came on the day to help her.”
Many of the women have degrees from their country of origin but have not been able to use those directly. “We’ve got engineers, botanists; a whole range of background degrees,” Joanna explains. “Some of their business ideas have come out of their academic backgrounds, but most have come out of their countries of origin—cultural clothing, food, importing spices. We’ve got someone who was an engineer in Indonesia but is now doing flower arrangements and teaching knitting. We’ve got Sahar from Egypt who wants to have a kid-friendly coffee shop with Egyptian sweet treats.”
Almost all of the women are expected to finish. “A few will be happy to just complete. Others will continue with their business plan and enter the workforce as microbusiness owners during the course.” says Tonya.
Both Tonya and Joanna attribute the program’s success to its robust support strategy; the mentoring, language support and childcare. “They’re more than add-ons,” says Joanna. “Once the women get over that first hurdle of contacting (English tutor) Anna and getting help, it gives them the confidence to finish their written assignments. Some of them have been working with Anna to write business letters or prepare a survey for potential clients.”
The mentoring is focused on getting a business to actuality as well as supporting their learning and keeping on track with assessments. “The minimum mentoring hours is 10 but most will well exceed that,” says Tonya. “Everybody has different goals and needs different support strategies to meet them.”
Tonya believes the program is responding to real needs. “These women already understand microbusiness but they need to know how to do it in Australia,” she says. “I want to sell clothing—how do I do it? Back in my home country, you’d just pull a table out and set up on the street.”
“A lot of these women have not worked for some years because they’ve been raising families here and have done the whole migrant thing,” says Joanna. “Now their needs have changed and they want the kind of work that they can balance with a family.”
Both Tonya and Joanna are employees of Sydney Community College, the lead partner in the project. (Sydney Community College has a history of running successful mentoring programs for migrants and won the ALA “Adult Learning Program of the Year” award for their Skilled Migrant and Refugee Mentoring Programs in 2010.)
Joanna suspects that there is a need for more of this kind of sustained, supported learning that falls between a short course and a formal program; “I think this bridges the knitting circle and the TAFE course, it’s delivered in a very flexible user-friendly way,” she says. “There’s quite a few other micro business courses but they tend to be run as 2-3 week intensives,” agrees Tonya. “This is the only one that runs over a year with childcare and language support.”
There is definitely interest in running the program next year if funding is extended. “It’s certainly been one of the most joyous experiences of my entire life,” says Joanna. “I was so excited to connect with a group of people who really wanted to learn and were really appreciative of the opportunities in learning.”
Single mother of one, Viktoria, grew up in Greece and came to Australia at 21 with a diploma in fashion. She spent the next few years travelling back and forth (“I just did not know where my heart was,”) before settling permanently in Australia.
Viktoria came to the micro-business course after a long period out of the workforce spent caring for her son and elderly parents. She started mentoring students in a sewing group through a TAFE outreach program and discovered a passion for assisting others in developing their skills. When Tonya approached Viktoria’s students about the microbusiness course, Viktoria asked if she could do it.
“The first day was very, very quiet,” Viktoria says. “Come the third day, it did not stop and we haven’t stopped talking since.”
Viktoria’s dream is to hold sewing classes all around Sydney and develop a label for eveningwear and custom-made leather goods.
“The course gives women like myself a second chance. It gives us a space and a place where we can be ourselves share that common thread. We raised families, we made a great deal of sacrifice and now it’s time to look after ourselves. And we need that to develop; to be good mums and decent people in the community.”
Former legal secretary and mother of two, Colleen, is just about to launch her website selling gifts and jewellery online. “I just love handcrafting and finding beautiful jewellery pieces to share and I’d been thinking about doing something for myself for about six years,” she says. “The course just gave me the confidence to take the plunge.”
“The teachers have put together this really interesting package that’s very interactive and personalised. It’s okay to talk about the bad stuff as well as the good and it’s not overly formal,” she says. “I think it’s evolving for the teachers too, so they change things or see where the gaps are and respond to that.”
Having grown up in multicultural Earlwood, the course has given Colleen a whole new perspective on her local community; “I’m learning so much about these women; where they come from, what drives them and shapes them. I think they’re learning a lot from me as well.”