Migrant women gain freedom and friends by starting a business


Starting a new business can be daunting for anyone, but if you're a woman, a migrant and have little support it can be even more challenging.

A Victorian program has helped dozens of women tap into their entrepreneurial skills to become financially independent.

A group of about 30 women gathered on Monday to share their stories of success and exchange ideas about their businesses.

Many didn't even think their ideas could be turned into money-making ventures.

But the Stepping Stones to Small Business program, run by the not-for-profit Brotherhood of St Laurence, has helped dozens of women turn their ideas into a reality.

Hend Harb migrated to Australia from Turkey with her husband in 2014 and now runs a Middle Eastern sweets business.

"They are the one who opened the light in my mind because I didn’t know that I am able to do something like that, so they support me very well and actually it's been three years (and) they are still supporting me," Ms Harb said.

Hend Harb says she didn't think she could run a business until she participated in the Stepping Stones to Small Business program.
Hend Harb says she didn't think she could run a business until she participated in the Stepping Stones to Small Business program.
SBS News

The 15-week program, which also receives state government funding, provides mentoring and financial advice, along with support and training.

Malaysia-born Lily Hessan said the program gave her the confidence to start baking after years of working in finance.

"I still remember the first time when I started I was like 'I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know why I have this idea'."

But program staff reassured her she was making a good quality product that people would buy. 

She now lives in Ballarat and sells her sweet treats at farmers markets, sourcing her ingredients from local producers.

Stepping Stones program manager Andie Basdekis said nearly half the women who've been through the program didn't waste any time putting into practice what they'd learned.

"Some of them are already up and running and have businesses and really just took advantage of all that training and just got into it," Ms Basdekis said.

More than financial independence

The program isn’t just about empowering women by helping them towards financial independence.

Graduates said it’s also helped them form new friendships and made them feel less isolated in a country where they often have limited or no support networks.

"Before that, I was at home, I was depressed, I don’t have any family, just me and my husband," Ms Harb said.

"That’s why I’m saying Stepping Stones small business program is very good, it even helped me mentally, not only about business." 

Lily Hessan sells sweet treats at farmers markets.
Lily Hessan sells sweet treats at farmers markets.
SBS News

Running her own business has given Lily Hessan a sense of freedom. 

"Now I’m my own boss, I’m doing my own work, I do like it and I think that’s the best part."

Tafy Seade came to Australia from Zimbabwe and has been running a physiotherapy business for the past year.

She said after being a stay-at-home mum, getting out and meeting other like-minded women has been refreshing.

"It was quite empowering that you're kind of in the same room as women who face the same challenges as much as you do, but we also have that passion and need to want to create and do something in terms of the business space so it was quite a supportive community in that regard."

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