Stepping up to run a business

Rebecca and Minerva at a Stepping Stones expo

Rebecca and Minerva at a Stepping Stones expo.


When Minerva couldn’t find a suitable source of protein to feed her baby she decided to invent one.

She came up with a spread based on legumes that has no added sugar, preservatives and is allergen-free.

It proved a hit with her daughter and, being a food technologist, Minerva saw market potential.

“I always wanted to have my own product,” she said, but, having recently migrated from Mexico, there were a number of hurdles.

“I am new in Australia and I didn’t know anything about regulations,” she said.

Thankfully Minerva was able to turn to Stepping Stones to Small Business for help.

“The program helped me to understand what I needed to start a small business. They helped me with all the basic tools,” she said.

Minerva is currently market testing her three flavours (raspberry, chai and chocolate) of legume-based baby food.

Stepping Stones is a micro-enterprise training and support program tailored to women from refugee, migrant and asylum seeker backgrounds. It is run by the Brotherhood of St Lawrence as part of a range of ecumenical supports to people from those backgrounds.

Coordinator Rebecca Meddings said starting a business can be daunting for migrant, asylum seeker and refugee women.

“A lot of these women are finding it so hard to find work that it’s actually a last resort to earn income for their family,” Rebecca said.

“But when you are a woman from a refugee background having gone through a difficult journey to get here, having English as an additional language, having caring responsibilities without much support there are a fair few barriers in accessing mainstream small business support or in setting up a small business.”

Rebecca said many migrant women are extremely entrepreneurial but lack local experience and understanding.

“Our role is really about providing that knowledge around the Australian context because there’s a whole lot of regulations and ways of doing things in Australian business that’s different to all the countries that they come from,” Rebecca said.

“Many are scared of doing the wrong thing. Some of the people are fleeing governments who persecuted them. We’re trying to really be the conduit and build trusting relationships.

“We hope by the time they’ve gone through our program that they know they have every right to access all the mainstream small business support.”

The Stepping Stones course runs for 15 weeks, one day per week, and it teaches all aspects of starting a small business, including financial literacy, market research, business regulations as well as income support and tax aspects.

Participants are set up with a one-on-one mentor and, after the course is completed, can attend workshops, networking events and markets.

“There is generally around three years of support but all of graduates stay within networks and we have this growing alumni that come back and support other women,” Rebecca said.

Rebecca said the course does not push women into forming a business, but rather teaches them about what is involved.

“You really get a chance to think ‘Is business for me and is it for me right now?’,” she said.

“It’s more about economic participation in general rather than starting a small business.”

Since its modest beginning almost seven years ago with a few women making beaded items in Fitzroy, the program has seen 268 graduates from 57 countries.

Of those, 48 per cent have started a business, which range from food and catering to handmade goods to imported products and professional services.

“One woman from an architecture background was designing caravans for dogs. The business ideas change all the time,” Rebecca said.

While many businesses are sole traders some have expanded considerably, such as the Somali Street Food Café in Glenroy, which employs five people. Another graduate has set up beauty salons in Prahran and South Melbourne.

Stepping Stones participants have ranged in age from 23 to 67 and, while some have been in Australia for many years, others were newcomers, with one starting the program on only their third day in the country.

“The diversity in how long people have been in Australia is really important because you could be sitting next to somebody who is a lot more settled than you or someone who isn’t and you are helping each other,” Rebecca said.

“You might also get a group of women in a room who are from completely different cultures, so there is difference to share but there’s so much similarity in being new to a country, all the challenges they face in settling and starting a business.

“A lot of the program is just as much learning from who else is in the room rather than just us.

“The bonds they build, some of them have long-lasting friendships beyond the class. A lot of women, if they don’t start a business, still choose to come back to networking events we have on because that is their sense of belonging, it’s their community and they love it. It’s women supporting women.”

Rebecca said the program has seen women blossom and take on leadership roles in their communities.

“The biggest success stories I love seeing are the changes in someone’s confidence, and improved English and seeing someone from the start who might hardly speak doing a speech at graduation or coming back and speaking at an alumni event and becoming a leader in this program,” Rebecca said.

“Those are the things that blow me away and really move me.”

Rebecca said a “critical” aspect of Stepping Stones is the partnering with a mentor for six to 12 months.

“It’s quite a long-term trusting relationship we’re building and mentors generally meet with someone every two weeks for an hour or two,” Rebecca said, adding that this schedule is flexible.

Stepping Stones is always looking for more volunteers and, while some have particular skills in finance or marketing, that is by no means essential.

“Mentors can come from any background,” Rebecca said.

“A lot of people think ‘I haven’t run a small business before and how can I help?’ but most skills are transferrable because the main focus of working with someone is helping them do their business plan.

“There are so many different ways you can get involved. You could help run a market or a workshop, lots of people help participants with the English side of their homework.

“If people want to come and help we really will work out how they can best do that.”

Female mentors are especially welcomed, with induction training running two or three times a year.

Recently Stepping Stones has also been piloting classes with men and women.

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