The pandemic hit Australian women hard. Now one social enterprise is helping them start businesses built for the future.

The pandemic hit Australian women hard. Now one social enterprise is helping them start businesses built for the future.
Senior woman is sitting in a restaurant and working on a laptop
  • Women have been hit harder economically by the pandemic, new research shows, with women’s jobs impacted more than men’s during COVID lockdowns.
  • Mandy Richards, founder and chief executive of the non-profit Global Sisters, said her social enterprise has helped women found micro-businesses that enable remote and flexible work.
  • She says her organisation is working to address the systemic barriers that overwhelmingly disadvantage Australian women.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

“We see what we’re doing as a movement to democratise entrepreneurship,” Mandy Richards, founder and chief executive of social enterprise Global Sisters, said.

Founded just under 10 years ago, Global Sisters helps get women back into jobs and achieve financial independence after they’ve suffered setbacks, whether that’s a job loss later in life, separation from their partner or mental health challenges. 

Following the hit to women’s employment and economic security since the pandemic, her organisation’s work is more important than ever, Richards told Business Insider Australia. 

Before founding Global Sisters, Richards began her career in NGOs and the social enterprise space. 

While travelling extensively in Asia, she experienced the diversity of goods being sold by women. That, together with her deep understanding of how micro-loan-driven NGO programs have succeeded in helping develop small, sustainable businesses, informed Richards’ next move.

“I thought that there’s so much opportunity here to support business in a way that is more cost effective and really uses tech to achieve economies of scale.”

Richards said she wanted to take wildly successful NGO programs like micro-loans and apply them in an Australian context. 

social enterprise
Mandy Richards (right)

“I’m particularly passionate about supporting women,” she said. 

“So I [was] really interested in it in a way that I could help a lot of women get micro businesses off the ground with the support that they really needed.”

The venture started with a small cohort of refugee women, while Richards built out an advisory group, many from her social enterprise days, to fill the leadership team. 

To date, the organisation has invested in the economic future of 5,207 women facing unemployment or underemployment in Australia, along with a multitude of other social and economic barriers.

A ‘third possibility’ for women

Richards said the pandemic only reinforced structural disadvantages that overwhelmingly harm Australian women, particularly those who are older or single parents. 

A report published by the Grattan Institute in March this year showed that women’s jobs were hit harder than men’s during COVID lockdowns.

At the peak in April, almost 8% of Australian women had lost their jobs, and women’s total hours worked were down 12%, compared to 4% and 7% respectively for men.

It also highlighted concerns raised that the government’s early release super scheme – which allowed people hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis to withdraw up to $20,000 from their super – will widen the gender gap in retirement incomes.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated economic inequality for women due to existing gender inequalities, as well as magnifying barriers to business ideation and growth.  

Further to this, “the two groups that we really focus on are single mums and older women,” Richards said. 

“Those two huge groups in Australia that are completely underserved, we can really make a difference to their quality of lives.”

Richards said Global Sisters helps women overcome these systemic barriers, by offering them the ability to work both remotely and flexibly – two elements of work that have become more widespread since the start of the pandemic. 

The women the organisation works with need a long-term, sustainable alternative to welfare dependence and low paid, unstable jobs, Richards said – something that self-employment in micro businesses provides. 

“The goal with Global Sisters was really to open up this third possibility for women who were facing barriers to mainstream employment to be able to create an income for themselves, and to be able to create their own job and be self-employed,” Richards said. 

“A micro business is wonderful for employees because it provides a woman with the opportunity to make money for herself around whatever circumstances she’s dealing with.” 

The program guides participants through three stages, over a three-year process. 

This begins with an education program that helps women generate business ideas, followed by a business development process that provides education, tools, networks, coaching and microfinance to help them gain momentum.

Finally, the organisation offers ongoing support to help them maintain and grow their business long-term.

Richards said the program now supports a massive range of experiences and backgrounds. 

“There’s lots of migrants, refugees, a growing number of Indigenous women, lots of women that have some sort of mental illness or disability,” she said. 

There’s also a significant cohort of women in regional areas where “the jobs just don’t exist,” Richards said. 

‘I’d always been thinking about starting my own business’

Amber Bennett, a single mother based in Melbourne, is a recent participant in the program. 

During the first Melbourne lockdown, she was let go from her job and faced unemployment during a period of intense uncertainty.

Bennett said that before having children, she had a career with a big financial institution as a training consultant, and was surprised several years ago at how much more difficult it was to find work than she expected.

“I had this perception that I’d be able to go back to it at any time, it was going to be easy,” she said. 

“Shortcut to a divorce and two young children, [and it] wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be.” 

Through the program, Bennett now runs her own micro business selling botanically dyed eye pillows filled with crystals; the idea for which came from her experience using rituals like meditation and journaling to rebuild her mental health following her divorce.

She said that along with the supportive community and structure provided by the program, the key factor in her success was having a program that helped her stay on track with her business goals. 

“I’d always been thinking about starting my own business,” she said, “and I played with the idea a few times, but I just didn’t quite think I had the skills to be able to do it. And didn’t exactly know where to go or what to do to get started.”

Richards said the organisation is set up to ensure almost no woman who wants to set up her own venture can fail.

“What we’ve built up now over time is a very unique, extremely comprehensive, but very, very flexible program or suite that helps women no matter what stage they’re at with their micro business,” she said. 

A mission to ‘make it a whole lot easier to start a business’ 

The organisation has also developed partnerships that have seen more than $2.6 million in pro-bono support & sales provided to emerging businesses from companies like Ebay, AfterPay, Minter Ellison and Unilever.

Richards said offering pro bono opportunities to the corporate world has been a hugely successful part of the venture. 

“They get the opportunities for their employee engagement programmes; their staff come on board as business coaches,” she said. 

“It’s something that doesn’t take a lot of time, but it uses their skills, and it creates, you know, genuine impact. So it’s providing a lot of value to the corporations.”

Richards said the next step was around exploring how organisations like Global Sisters can better address structural barriers to women’s employment. 

“I think the key thing that has been a real realisation for me is that most of the barriers that women face in Australia are, you know, they’re not internal, they’re external and systemic,” Richards said. 

“That’s something that we’re really working to change as well; to make it a whole lot easier to start a business.”