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The Rare Birds founder is one of Australia’s leading businesswomen whose vision is to inspire and build a community of a million women entrepreneurs globally by 2020.
Before starting life as one of Australia’s leading entrepreneurs, Jo Burston remembers standing silently in meeting rooms full of much more experienced senior corporates until the reality struck her.
Here was a choice to stay on the sidelines feeling intimidated, or take an amazing opportunity to step forward and absorb as much knowledge in the room as she could, as fast as she could.
Today, when for Burston that room can include the Prime Minister, daring to keep on asking the right questions is still a key approach, and the first advice she would give to any prospective entrepreneur.
“So often the barrier to entry is your fear of rejection,” she says. “You have to be obsessively curious about the things you want to know about, and never stop asking questions until you are satisfied with the answers you are getting.
“Walk into a room with people who are smarter than you. Dare to be the least successful person in the room – because that’s the knowledge base that’s going to increase your own personal average.”
The decision to take her own path started for Burston at 32, when after having climbed her way to the top of a company in the salary packaging business she found herself living the Australian suburban dream and it still was not enough.
It took a chance sales meeting with a “serial entrepreneur” in his office, surrounded by day trading screens, to have the next moment that would change her life.
“There was this vibrancy, this energy in the room that I wanted,” she says. “I felt it – I thought this was who I want to be, not what I want to do.”
That meeting turned from the scheduled 15-minutes to three hours intense conversation and finally an investor and mentor to help start her own salary services company Job Capital.
Burston has since built and run a series of successful businesses off the back of that initial raising and had her entrepreneurship recognised on the BRW Fast100 Companies list three years in a row.
The businesswoman’s latest venture is the movement Inspiring Rare Birds, which aims to encourage and build a community of one million female entrepreneurs globally by 2020.
“I think we’ll get to a million,” she says. “I think we’ll get to 10 million, that ambition is already there.
“What we’re seeing in the next five years is more than 50 per cent of businesses will be started and created by women, we know that trend is happening – so there’s a lot of money to be made in taking women seriously.
“I see women who will just never give up and who are resourceful – I see resilience. With Rare Birds in particular I’ve enabled that light to shine very brightly and in a very focused and concentrated way on these women.”
Burston and Rare Birds have just published two books telling the stories of inspiring women entrepreneurs (#ifshecanican is the latest) and she is passionate about helping nurture the same sort of vision she had more than a decade ago.
“Walk into a room with people who are smarter than you.”
“It’s this lovely privilege that I’ve worked particularly hard for: to wake up and craft every single day to be how I want it to be. No one makes me do any of it. No one tells me what to do any day.
“It distils down into freedom and it distils down into having, in an abundant way, more choices than I’ll ever have to make in my life. It sounds really basic, but if I wake up breathing I’m having a great day, because I can do things.”
Burston says the mindset of an entrepreneur is built around creativity and logic to solve problems and test solutions. This is something she is convinced can be learned, much like playing a violin can be, but still recalls a relentlessness that has been with her since childhood, growing up working class in Sydney’s south.
“I always wanted to be the leader. No matter what it was. I was also highly argumentative, I was never satisfied until I got my own way – I think it’s probably still the same.
“I’m stubborn. And I don’t like to lose – especially against myself. I know that I’ve stood up in the face of many, many things over many, many years and just accepted that’s part of this journey that I’m on.”
For her, the spirit that fuels her entrepreneurship is she knows she does not want the alternative: “I think I would find it really difficult to sit still, to not do anything, or to not solve a problem or to not build a business. The sense of not being in a business is terrifying for me. I love being in business.”
With the current access to technology she says there has never been a better time to scale an idea for success. She sticks to watching cash flow and sales daily, with a focus on customer satisfaction.
She says the biggest challenge the women she speaks to face is juggling business and family. She urges them to look at what tasks they can outsource, like cleaning, and take their children on the journey with them. She also advocates for more women within existing funds because of the old saying that “you invest in things that look like yourself”.
“People will back your tenacity and your passion and your storytelling capability as much as they will a business now,” she says. “And if you are rejected it might be because you are a women but it might be because your business isn’t ready, or you’ve asked for the wrong amount of money, you haven’t articulated what you will do with that money.”
Telling exactly those stories is the philosophy behind her book Rare Birds: Australia’s 50 Influential Women Entrepreneurs and indeed the movement itself.
Burston says she has come a long way since her first job as a bridal seamstress and is “100 per cent” being who she wants to be as a “modern enabler” of entrepreneurs globally.
“If I spend the rest of my life trying to achieve that and build a multi-million dollar company in the process I’ll be extremely fulfilled doing that. I’ve had an extraordinary journey.”