Budding entrepreneurs are challenging stereotypes about migrant and refugee women, with a helping hand from award-winning social entrepreneur Violet Roumeliotis.
This week marks the end of Ms Roumeliotis' time as Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year ― a unique accolade for a non-profit CEO that she has used to create opportunities for other business women from diverse backgrounds.
"I'm the daughter of Greek migrants. I grew up working weekends in my family's corner store. I haven't just seen the incredible entrepreneurial potential in Australia's migrant and refugee community ― I've lived it," she said.
"I want to use my own success to show other women from diverse backgrounds that there is no limit to what we can achieve. We are so much more than wives, mothers and daughters.
"Migrant and refugee women are strong, they're resilient and they're resourceful business women. They just need a hand navigating the complex Australian regulatory environment."
As the CEO of community organisation and social business Settlement Services International (SSI), Ms Roumeliotis has been able to offer that support by establishing the Ignite® Multicultural Women's Business Scholarships " a 12-month package of specialised support valued at $20,000 to help women from diverse backgrounds get their business ideas off the ground.
Recipients of scholarships to date include:
Merlyn Hernandez: After migrating to Australia in 2003, Merlyn was unable to find employment in her field of graphic design due to low English levels. Instead, she began studying hospitality and ended up launching Dulce Trio Boutique Cakes, which sells creative cakes and sweets. Despite Merlyn's innovation, talent and passion, her business was not making money, so she applied for an SSI scholarship. With support from a team of experts, Dulce Trio has revived its finances, and sales and marketing efforts. Merlyn has also been linked with food and beverage industry experts and is in the process of pursuing a micro-loan to supercharge her business's growth trajectory.
Parastoo Brahimi: Originally from Afghanistan, Parastoo spent 11 years living as a refugee in Indonesia. To calm her mind during that uncertain period, Parastoo learned beading and began holding workshops to teach other refugees how to use beadwork to create small handicrafts and jewellery. After being resettled in Australia, Parastoo wanted to share her love of therapeutic craft work and came to SSI looking to turn her idea into a business. With support from a team of experts, her business ― Anissa ― was born. Currently in the product development stage, Anissa specialises in the creation of jewellery inspired by feminine concepts from the Quran.
Ms Roumeliotis said there was huge untapped potential in Australia's new and emerging communities, which had much higher rates of entrepreneurialism than their Australian-born peers.
"This is particularly true of people from refugee background, who are nearly twice as likely to start their own business than the Australian population as a whole. Of those refugee entrepreneurs, women are more likely than men to actually earn an income from their own business," she said.
"Budding entrepreneurs like Parastoo and Merlyn already have the skills, courage and work ethic to succeed in business ― all they need is a helping hand to level the playing field. What is often missing for migrant and refugee women is the opportunity to participate and share their knowledge and skills.
"I am incredibly grateful for the chance to lift up other women and use my own success to pave the way forward for other budding entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds."
Violet Roumeliotis is a social entrepreneur who has extensive experience working with refugee, asylum seeker and migrant communities. Violet is the current Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year, and sits on the Federal Government's Settlement Services Advisory Council, the board of national migrant and refugee women's coalition, the Harmony Alliance. Violet was named one of AFR's Top 100 Women of Influence for 2018 in the category of Diversity & Inclusion and has twice been named on Pro Bono Australia's list of the 25 most influential people in the not-for-profit sector. She was awarded the title of Community Fellow from Western Sydney University for outstanding service to the community in 2017.
Question: How did it feel to win Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year?
Violet Roumeliotis: When my colleague originally nominated me for the Telstra Business Women's Awards, the idea of being selected as a state finalist seemed way outside the realm of possibilities " let alone that I would end up winning the national title.
I felt incredibly grateful for the recognition and for receiving the powerful platform to create change in the areas that matter most for me, my community and my organisation.
Question: What has been your best accomplishment, over the past year as Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year?
Violet Roumeliotis: When I applied for the Telstra Business Women Awards back in 2017, I was asked what winning would mean to me. I wanted to show other women from diverse backgrounds that there is no limit to what we can achieve.
The real impact ― the real power ― of this award has been having the opportunity to open doors for other people. I wanted to create opportunities where there are currently barriers ― barriers that pigeon hole migrant and refugee women and keep them from achieving their full potential.
One of my proudest achievements since the award has been investing in scholarships to help up-and-coming female entrepreneurs from migrant and refugee background establish and expand their own businesses.
I know that women from diverse backgrounds are as skilled, courageous and resourceful as they come. What is often missing, however, is the opportunity to fully participate and share those skills and knowledge.
Question: What is Ignite® Multicultural Women's Business Scholarships?
Violet Roumeliotis: In the inaugural round of scholarships, four women received a 12-month package of support, including an individual business facilitator and mentorship from our team of Ignite® experts.
Each scholarship was valued at $20,000 and was open to women from all ages from CALD backgrounds living in Sydney.
Each recipient has access to an individual business facilitator and mentorship. A lot of our resource team members are subject matter experts and skilled professional in their fields in areas including business and marketing. They also act as uber connectors into other industry areas where our entrepreneurs are in need of support.
In addition, they have direct access to a resource team to provide advice on financial management, administration and compliance, effective marketing strategies and business planning. We also offer wrap around support through our bilingual guides and industry experts in their chosen field.
Question: Why did you decide to create the Ignite® Multicultural Women's Business Scholarships?
Violet Roumeliotis: Being named the 2017 Telstra Australian Business Woman of the year was not something I wanted to win only for me. I wanted to win it for all multicultural women, and I wanted the impact of the win to have a legacy.
I'm the daughter of Greek migrants. I grew up working weekends in my family's corner store. I haven't just seen the incredible entrepreneurial potential in Australia's migrant and refugee community ― I've lived it.
Migrant and refugee women are strong, they're resilient and they're resourceful business women. They just need a hand navigating the complex Australian regulatory environment.
Question: What do you hope to achieve with the Ignite® Multicultural Women's Business Scholarships?
Violet Roumeliotis: I hope these scholarships help launch these women's businesses and create a whole new generation on female business leaders.
New and emerging communities have high rates of entrepreneurialism. This is particularly true of people from refugee background, who are nearly twice as likely to start their own business than the Australian population as a whole. Of those refugee entrepreneurs, women are more likely than men to actually earn an income from their own business.
I wanted to ensure women from migrant and refugee backgrounds had an opportunity to realise that potential. We are so much more than wives, mothers and daughters. These scholarships support women to overcome barriers that are preventing them from realising their entrepreneurial ambitions.
Question: How can women start conquering their limiting beliefs, today?
Violet Roumeliotis: In March, I was speaking on an International Women's Day panel and was sharing my leadership journey to date. I grew up in western Sydney, I went to public schools, I've built my career in not-for-profits, charities and other welfare organisations.
I'm not your typical ASX-listed company or board nominee. I am not the first person executive or board recruiters would approach - and nor would I be a 'typical' Telstra Business Woman.
But as I said that, another panelist - who is a senior female leader in banking - called me out of in. She said to me, 'why wouldn't you be the Typical Telstra Business Woman or board candidate? In fact, I think you are'. And she called it out for what it was - imposter syndrome.
This problem is endemic. I read an article earlier this year about a highly specialised orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Sarah Coll, where she discussed her own feelings of inferiority just prior to going in to do complex keyhole surgery.
Dr Coll's advice - and something I've taken to heart - is not to confront and dismiss that negative internal monologue. The first step to stopping it is to stare it down. It doesn't mean it'll go away, but it will lose some of its power.
Question: What's a typical day like, for you?
Violet Roumeliotis: Work-life balance is important to me. I try to start each day with yoga, personal training or a walk with my dog. I do those activities first thing so that if my day goes off track and I end up working late, at least I'll have taken some time that day to prioritise my health and fitness.
But what happens after that changes every day; there's no such thing as 'typical' when you're leading an organisation with operations spanning Australia's east coast.
I might be meeting with government officials in Canberra, discussing new projects with refugee community leaders in western Sydney, or reviewing budgets in our head office in Ashfield. The one constant in my day is meetings – lots and lots of meetings!
Question: What's next, for you?
Violet Roumeliotis: SSI recently merged with Access Community Services, so our focus in the coming year will be bedding down that integration. We are also in the process of finalising a new strategic plan that will guide our organisation into the next stage of growth and maturity.
When I joined SSI in 2012, it was a Sydney-based organisation with 70 staff and revenue of $9.4 million. Today, our operations span the entire east coast of Australia. We have a workforce of 1,000 and revenue of $115 million.
We've multiplied from a small specialist organisation into a large, diverse business, delivering services to both newcomers to Australia and many other vulnerable communities. This strategic plan builds on the solid foundation of our successes to date and sets out a roadmap to take SSI to our next stage of development.
Interview by Brooke Hunter