From your experience at Meld, FYA, StartSpace and other places, what do you enjoy the most about building communities and facilitating their growth?
The process in itself is enjoyable - each time I do it, I ultimately don’t know what the outcome could be. Building communities involves intentionally opening up spaces. Part of the process is figuring out what barriers might currently exist, busting your assumptions about things and providing people opportunities to join these communities. Then when you create that space, and people feel comfortable coming in, and the community starts growing - that's where some amazing things can happen. People start to make connections when they begin working on things together, collaborate or just, go on the journey together. For whatever reason I've been given the opportunity to do just that professionally, and I love it.
Why do you think belonging to communities is so important?
I think we're just innately communal. Life happens. So having people around you, be it family and friends and peers, is vitally important - not only for the celebrations but for the rough times too. That's why it's important to actively build communities, find them, defend them and be a part of them.
I've had the privilege of being in a lot of amazing communities over my life. My family got the opportunity to migrate to Australia when I was quite young. And then growing up there was always the Chinese-Malaysian, Southeast Asian diaspora surrounding us, and that eventually ended up opening up opportunities for me working in the international student space. For migrants and international students, under the intense pressure of leaving all you know, and entering a new environment, I’ve found that it's vitally important to have a good support network around you. From there, it’s so much easier to navigate life together. Speaking from my experience at Meld and growing the international student community despite not innately belonging to it - I think there's a responsibility for Australians, not just migrants and former international students, to really support the international student community. The way I frame it is when these international students come, there's two outcomes - they're either going to stay and become future Australians, or they're going to leave and then almost become ambassadors of Australia, reflecting on their time here. Either way, it's vitally important to support them and leverage that opportunity to learn from them too.
Then through a few professional roles, I've had the opportunity to work in both the social enterprise and the startup community where people are trying to start a business be it for profit, for purpose, or a social enterprise. It’s scary and daunting. But having people around you that might be going through the same thing, or are a little bit ahead is so comforting. It’s so incredibly important to find peers or others that may understand what you're going through, listen and offer timely advice, or help with warm introductions and their networks.
Another community that I've had the absolute privilege of getting to know since I was in university is through volunteering on a weekly soup van. On face value it’s about providing food to people who may be experiencing homelessness - but it’s not just about the food. For the individuals, it’s about having some semblance of a community - when they’re waiting for the van to arrive, and get to just chat about the day, current events or sports. Community is about sharing your life with people.
How do you ensure that StartSpace reaches individuals belonging to diverse communities traditionally underrepresented in the start up and small and medium-sized businesses?
So StartSpace is a part of the State Library Victoria, and it's a business support service for early stage founders and people with any kind of business idea. State Library Victoria has all these services, programs and spaces- we want to afford this opportunity of starting something, to all members of the community. And more importantly, people don’t get to work alone and in isolation, but get to work alongside other amazing groups of people from diverse backgrounds doing something similar.
One issue in the current startup ecosystem is that very low levels of funding are given to female founders and founders from culturally diverse backgrounds. What we seek to do is partner with organisations that are already doing amazing work with their communities, support them and leverage those relationships. I can’t speak highly enough of Usman Iftikhar and his work at Catalysr
, a pre-accelerator that empowers Migrapreneurs (migrant and refugee startup founders) in Australia to create a better future for themselves and Australia. There’s also amazing female founder communities out there like One Roof
founded by Sheree Rubinstein and The Creative-Cooperative
founded by Priyanka Ashraf. There’s also SENVIC
which connects, supports and develops a thriving social enterprise community in Victoria. It's finding these groups that are already engaged with their communities, and then working in conjunction with them to connect and support where possible.
What are some new initiatives that StartSpace is working on that you are excited about?
I think what excites me most about the StartSpace initiative is that it takes advantage of a civic institution such as the library, and converts it into a doorway into business and entrepreneurship. It takes away loaded words, and the mystique around the startup culture, and just provides a space that is intrinsically community-focussed, and creates opportunities for people to have a go.
StartSpace operates in a library, a place where most members of the community feel comfortable walking into. When I moved to Australia, I have fond memories as a kid going to the school holiday programs at the local library - because there’s a strong sense of belonging. We transform this public space and use it as a doorway into other programs, incubator programs or accelerator programs, which may then help founders and teams to go down the investment stage and further.
So, the most exciting thing has always been - how do we scale this? We've been running for a few years now at State Library Victoria. The next question has always been - how do we partner with other libraries around the state? How do we work across the 51 public library services in Victoria and their hundreds of branches? What does it look like for sites around the state where there is not only physical infrastructure, which is vitally important, but staff that know their community. How do we connect these libraries with this early stage business support service, so that Victorians no matter where they are geographically, could get a level of support from the library sector?
What is one of your favourite ideas and founders that StartSpace has supported?
I love the work of Shimroth John Thomas, who runs PhycoForms
. Shimroth was a former international student who has been involved in a few of our programs that we run in partnership with Study Melbourne (a Victorian Government initiative that supports international students in their study journey in Melbourne). His work involves creating products made with a seaweed-based composite to address sustainability in the building industry. He operates in the space of thinking how we can use natural resources to change the face of the building industry. That’s just one of the many founders I’ve had the privilege of meeting over the years.
You’ve helped in facilitating so many founder journeys from the very early stage - around 800 people have gone through StartSpace so far. What do you think are some of the most potent barriers to entrepreneurship?
I think that there's a dominant narrative of what a startup founder looks like. For example there's a handful of individuals in the world that the majority of the world knows on a first name basis - and they may think - that’s what a startup founder looks like. There’s an identity piece where you question if you can be a founder and start a business - especially if there isn't the ability to include much risk in your life, be it financial or time-wise. So a combination of feeling impostor syndrome, as well as just not having enough resources to be afforded the opportunity to work on an idea.
So with StartSpace we’re really including, showcasing and finding founders from all walks of life. Anybody from the community can be a founder. And with the cost and time side of things, StartSpace is able to leverage the physical offerings of a library to give back to founders. Instead of mulling about an idea, chatting about it around the kitchen bench for years and years, people can surround themselves with other like-minded people working on their businesses, attend events and workshops, and try to move the dial on what they're working on. It may fail gloriously. But that's okay. What’s important is taking the first step in trying your hand in this idea you’ve had for so long, and seeing where it goes. Over time, whether the idea is commercially successful or otherwise, so much growth and learning experience will come from it.