Rosie Thomas and her sister Lucy formed PROJECT ROCKIT 10 years ago, fresh out of school, to ‘do something’ about the long-term affects of bullying on young people.
“We saw how bullying could rob a young person of their life’s potential; how having had that experience, perhaps over a period of years, they were now simply not equipped for the world ahead or to make the most of what they had to offer the world.”
What grew from that single-minded observation is Australia’s youth driven movement against bullying, hate and prejudice, building spaces where imagination, leadership, creative expression and acceptance are available to all young people, regardless of their social label, grades, gender, sexuality or cultural background.
Over the past 10 years, PROJECT ROCKIT has worked with thousands of young people in workshops. The team has created an online curriculum, worked with Facebook and Twitter at their headquarters in Silicon Valley, and seen things and worked with people that neither Rosie nor Lucy could have imagined when they started.
What sets the duo apart
So what drives them? Rosie explains: “I love and thrive on mayhem! I think I’m an excitement junkie, and I really get a lot energy being enriched by different activities and by doing things with meaning and purpose. It helps being supported by a great team. It is important to re-energize at some point, but I don’t regard work as work because I derive such a lot from what I do.”
As with many entrepreneurs, Rosie and Lucy had spotted something missing – in their case, that young people were unable or ill-equipped to stand up to bullying. They moved quickly to do something about it – to fill the gap, to fix something and to meet a need.
What sets them apart is how they use young people in the workshops they run in schools, so the audience can relate to those presenting at the front of the room. They also go beyond bullying, once in front of young people, and talk about gender, sexism and racism.
Their shared vision
Rosie and Lucy divide their roles, with Lucy focusing on the psychological and social elements, the program development and content, and Rosie focusing on the business side of PROJECT ROCKIT, backed by their team.
“Our team are wonderful,” explains Rosie. “They all have a passion about improving the lives of young people, and a sense of social justice. Young people deserve access to respect, acceptance, and leadership, and our team are all about making that real and available. We have trainers and a head of growth, who ensures we can scale, so that we have a realistic chance of being in every single school in the country.”
Hostility in the classroom
At the start of the program one of the biggest challenges they faced was overcoming many teachers’ assumptions that it should be them running the workshops and confronting this problem. In the early stage of the business, PROJECT ROCKIT experienced considerable hostility in the classroom. Why should two ‘pipsqueak girls’ – Rosie’s own words – come into school and teach anti-bullying programs, and why should they be paid to do it?
“What was great was that, often within the timeframe of one single lesson, those same teachers turned in our favour to a belief in what we were doing, and a recognition of the positive results our young presenters had with the young people in the classroom,” Rosie says.
“Before we knew it, the groundswell had turned so that teachers and schools were also standing up to the concept of bullying, which was wonderful to witness,” she says.
Using technology to scale
Rosie makes the point that, when they started in 2006, “Facebook was in nappies, and cyberbullying was barely a concept that resonated at all. It simply didn’t exist.” Since then, social media and technology has exploded. Ironically, that explosion has helped bring bullying in general into sharper focus. Technology also helps PROJECT ROCKIT scale. A 90-minute workshop can only address a finite number of young people. An internet connection gives anyone access to their curricula.
The company is launching PROJECT ROCKIT Online, which makes its programs available to anyone on their mobile devices. Part of this will be real-time data which can be shared with teachers, and there are plans to conduct research using PROJECT ROCKIT Online.
PROJECT ROCKIT was also the Australian delegate to Facebook’s compassion research day at its Silicon Valley HQ, and the firm is one of four Australian companies on Twitter’s global compassion program as well.
So what are Rosie’s tips for first-time entrepreneurs?
1. “Look around you. Does it exist already? If so, how can you improve what already exists? Does it really need replacing or improving? Should you collaborate instead with a team that exists already? Or is there no need for your concept at all?” says Rosie.
2. “Test. Get it live and see what happens. Ask yourself whether it works, and keep testing against those initial objectives.
3. “Having gone through numbers one and two, just start. If an idea remains an idea, and doesn’t hit the market, it’s a waste of time,” she says.
4. “Once you’ve started, take feedback on board, but make your own decisions. Growth might hit a plateau, you will have doubts, and others will give you advice. It’s worth considering, but you make your own decisions.”
As to the future, Rosie explains: “We want to scale nationally. We want to find more passionate young presenters. PROJECT ROCKIT Online is a focus, we have a new app planned called CheerMeApp, and we plan to launch PROJECT ROCKIT Online TV as well. We want to create exciting new projects for young people so that they can connect, be empowered and be supported.”
Are you running a social initiative or considering launching one? Women entrepreneurs share insights into how they grew their enterprises from ideas into nationwide and sometimes global movements in #IFSHECANICAN – a book detailing the journeys of 29 emerging women entrepreneurs.
In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd acknowledged formally the wrongs done in the past to Australia’s indigenous peoples in his national apology statement, made in Parliament House in Canberra.
Quite by chance, two weeks beforehand, Amanda Lear co-founded Gilimbaa with partners David Wilson and Ben Johnston, based on a clear insight that there was a need to incorporate indigenous cultural understanding, values and protocols, and social and historical contexts, into contemporary, commercial creative briefs.
It’s an extraordinary concept, rooted in one of Amanda’s heroines and inspirations, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was pivotal in establishing and enshrining the concept of natural justice, especially for indigenous peoples.
“The three of us were all working at Ben’s creative agency at the time. David came to us with a brief from a government department for training material, and we realized that it was actually completely inappropriate and was missing a basic understanding of the realities of life in remote indigenous communities.
“This was our gap that we spotted in the market, the realization that there was a need to incorporate indigenous social and cultural history, and connect points, into contemporary, commercial creative briefs.
“That government department took on our feedback about how to handle creative briefs such as this, and halfway through this particular brief, we realized that there were few, if any, creative agencies capable of responding appropriately and respectfully to this type of brief.
“And when Kevin Rudd issued the national apology two weeks later, quite by chance, we realized that our moment had come.”
Gilimbaa means ‘today’ in the language of the Wakka Wakka people, who were the indigenous culture in central Queensland. “It’s where David’s community comes from,” explains Amanda. “We chose the word, and love it, because it brings sharp focus to what we do. We’re about responding to a brief today, not tomorrow, and definitely not far into the future, and we’re also about making relevant and meaningful connections to communities today. So it makes us oriented very much towards actions now, but with a beautiful connection with such an ancient culture.”
Amanda’s journey and Gilimbaa’s is fascinating, and has had its challenges. The firm started working on perhaps the more obvious briefs around community engagement, social health, general awareness about domestic violence, smoking and alcohol dependencies. It also worked on projects involving real estate developments, which were found or known to be on aboriginal land. It now embraces commercial work as well, and has evolved models that allow giving communities control and approval over content created on their behalf.
Its success was nearly the firm’s downfall. “We had a pretty quick start out of the blocks – a really strong first two years – and then we hired too many employees too quickly, without paying due attention to our cash flow. One client then took two months to pay us, and we nearly went under, and it’s only when you come to realize what you don’t have that you hit rock-bottom, and then of course recover,” Amanda says.
“So I was grateful to that client, because while it was obviously painful at the time, it taught me how to be accountable, about planning, and about careful, planned growth. Spreadsheets are now my favourite things in the world! The more you know about your business, especially about your financials, the more productively risk-averse you can be, because you know which decisions to take. Balance pipeline and cash flow and you have most of what you need I think! When I hear an entrepreneur say, ‘I quit my job to start my own company’ I actually hear, ‘I don’t have a plan’.”
Focusing on the fundamentals
The Gilimbaa team consists of eight people, including the three co-founders. “It’s a lovely, inclusive mix of indigenous and non-indigenous individuals, which is unusual in a creative agency but, as you can imagine, hugely appropriate for the company we are,” she says.
“We can respond pretty quickly to most things thrown at us, and the scope of the work we do has grown over the years as well, but the team share the values of the company and why it was founded. They do amazing things.”
She firmly believes in building companies for the long term, which means having a plan, managing finances, recruiting the right people carefully and building the right infrastructure to support the business. Her advice for other entrepreneurs? “Risk aversion is really important. Focus on the fundamentals, on infrastructure, on cash flow. Know your margins, know what you’re producing, know what you’re charging. Apply that formula, even on the back of a napkin.
“With a strong vision and a strong idea – one that you can measure – you will get there and when you do it will be glorious.”
Technology and storytelling
Gilimbaa is about gathering, telling and sharing stories. Sharing and connection is about communication, so technology, and its continuing evolution, go hand-in-glove with the evolution of Gilimbaa. “We love technology, because technology helps us focus on the end-user, the reader or listener, the consumer of the content we create for our clients. You need to be a vibe in their lives, and technology takes us there.”
It’s no surprise that Gilimbaa’s near future is well mapped out. “We’ve just opened in Canberra, for a new focus on working with the Federal Government, and we love working with the Federal Government because they are on the front line working with the communities we care about.
“We’re starting a new non-profit organization called the Gilimbaa Foundation, to bring new community ideas to life, including a gallery space in Brisbane, and the foundation will let us be more active without being confined by client briefs.
“The third is enterprise collaboration. We think some of our best work has yet to be done and we think we can make that happen by collaborating with some large companies. I’ve seen it work elsewhere, so we want to start new conversations with new partnerships,” she says.
Amanda’s ‘profitable smart-heart business’ is at the forefront of the evolutionary trend in social entrepreneurship in Australia. She will sharing her insights on creating social impact at Rare Birds Con this week (8-9 June), at the University of Sydney Business School.
Are you running a social enterprise or considering starting one? Come and join in the live discussion during Amanda’s session. Conference tickets are available now.
Every entrepreneur has their own trigger for starting a business and for Kate Weiss it was heartfelt.
Her daughter Amy was diagnosed with Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome, a genetic developmental disability affecting one in 300,000 individuals, when Amy was five years old. Kate wanted to be there for Amy and to ensure, to the best of her ability, Amy would be cared and provided for throughout her life.
The result was Table of Plenty, a fast-moving consumer goods food business built on the back of what was very much a life changing experience, which turned into an opportunity to find deeper purpose.
Kate had previously been a senior IT professional, as had her husband who works with her in the business. She knew that particular lifestyle would no longer work and sought a creative outlet, built on a specific notion: “I firmly believe that none of us needs to be defined by our personal life circumstances in what we set out to do, and what we set out to achieve. If we are unfulfilled or don’t enjoy what we do how can we possibly give everything we need to those we love?”
For Kate, food was that outlet and moving to the food industry was a big sideways step from IT. “Table of Plenty creates food with integrity in its ingredients – food that is nourishing and good to eat – and we are stocked in the major and independent supermarkets here in Australia, and we also export to some countries. Our products include breakfast cereals, especially muesli, snacks and meal bases, and seasoning products.”
Interestingly, although Table of Plenty reflects a personal life experience, Kate didn’t create the company because of any food intolerance experienced by Amy. She explains: “The motivation was the trust each of us puts in the food we get from our mothers and I wanted to replicate that trust from one mother to another. I wanted to make a difference and make good, nutritious food available to other mothers around Australia.”
A life of plenty
With such a personal back-story, I was intrigued to learn more about Kate’s approach to managing her time. As well as Amy, she has a son, so describing her life as ‘busy’ is an understatement.
“Occasionally, I can feel overwhelmed, but I often feel I have everything well and truly under control. I guess no two days are the same and we have designed plenty of tools and methods over the years to help us operate at our best.
“I firmly believe that if you do work you love, work becomes something you want to do, which means any new venture flourishes.
“In fact, our whole business is built around a concept of living an integrated life, which we call a ‘life of plenty’ – one in which you take care of all the departments in your life, which is much different from a concept of trying to balance one part of your life with another.
“You do though, pivot around moments in your life. I recently found a photograph of Amy just moments after she had been born, taken with me in the hospital, and at that moment I had no idea that our lives would change so markedly. Those changes do in fact run back to that one special photo taken at that one particular moment. Table of Plenty almost certainly would not have existed had Amy not been born.”
Creating points of difference
Kate says Table of Plenty is about care, encouragement and trust. “Customers can trust that our product is what it says it is on the packet and that care has been taken in finding the right ingredients to put into that packet.”
“One example – we were one of the first companies to introduce dukkah to supermarket shelves and our competitors at the time were using rice flour to dilute their spices, as a way to cheapen materials and improve margins. We don’t do that.
“Another point of difference is that we actually talk to our customers. My email address is on our packaging and I actually will reply to anyone who sends me an email.
“We also believe in giving back and creating opportunity, so we have partnered with NGOs over 10 years and created hundreds of thousands of work hours for people with disabilities. We wanted to make sure there was space for everyone in the world.”
Kate’s team has expanded to 10 in the Table of Plenty head office, building off the first five years that saw Kate and her husband working together from home. “I think we ‘survived’ because we are a good team working together in the business. We ‘tick-tock’ very well together, creating a lot of good, creative mess!”
Give and take with the market
There were many challenges at the start. Kate is of the view that life quickly lets you know where your strengths and weaknesses lie. In her case, starting a business with a young family and a disabled child, without the resources the family needed, was difficult. “We won by working very hard, and we scaled as quickly as we could. Now we are putting the foot on the accelerator.”
Kate’s perspective on starting a business is well defined as well: “Do what you love, this is vital, but don’t be too attached to that dream. Listen to the market and be prepared to change. Being an entrepreneur is like being a dance partner – you have to give and take with the market.
“Don’t let the business consume you. Not every day has you on top of the mountain – some days you’re down in the valley with a shovel, digging.”
Technology also plays its part, but its role at Table of Plenty remains rooted in the basics of helping them be connected, including with their main customers, such as Coles and Woolworths. Market and sales intelligence comes from data, not assumptions, which lets Kate make decisions with much more confidence. “Numbers don’t lie, that’s for sure.”
Daughter Amy is, of course, an inspiration. “She lives each day in the moment and enjoys each of her days because she’s actually unencumbered by many of the worries the rest of us have. She’s a very happy person which, of course, is always wonderful to see,” says Kate.
Away from Amy, Kate believes inspiration comes from inside each of us, working off that mindset that we each have plenty to offer in life and that there is plenty to go around. “You have to be motivated to want to go to work, so choose an inspirational career that’s right for you,” she says.
Kate has grown a FMCG brand with an authentic message that enables her to create a dialogue with consumers before they even get to the supermarket. She will share her strategies for global expansion and her insights into social entrepreneurship at Rare Birds Con 2016 this week (8-9 June), at the University of Sydney Business School.
Do these challenges affect the future of your business? You can still purchase tickets to the conference and join in the conversation live during Kate’s sessions.