Taking big steps to small business success

Originally published on smh.com.au

When Rebecca Pinney Meddings started her first business, she was a 21-year-old single mother of two, trying to balance her family and financial obligations. Now, 20 years and two more children later, she is acutely aware of the needs and limitations of mothers who create small businesses.

After studying anthropology at Latrobe University, Rebecca transferred to international development and became involved in the Refugee Studies Unit. She volunteered at the Brotherhood of St Laurence in their multicultural team, developing a refugee health program.

When the job with Stepping Stones to Small Business came up she knew it was right for her. “I
had an interest in gender studies, entrepreneurship and women’s empowerment, so it brought everything together,” she says.

As the team leader of the Stepping Stones program, which offers small business training, mentoring and support, Rebecca has been instrumental in developing a program that gives women from refugee and migrant backgrounds the knowledge and the confidence to overcome significant language and cultural barriers to entering the workforce in their new country.

The program offers a 15-week small business course, followed by one-on-one mentoring and three years of follow-on workshops to support women to establish viable businesses and increase social and economic participation.

Most of Rebecca’s days involve a training program or an event, as well as planning and reporting for the program. “What I really love doing is building a sense of belonging and friendship with people who are really diverse,” she says. “The highlights of this kind of work aren’t the events that people see on social media. It’s the changes in a person’s life that make the big difference”.

Recently, Stepping Stones was awarded a $1.2 million grant from the Victorian government, which Rebecca hopes to use to extend the current program. “I want to see the program available to all women, hopefully nationally one day, so it reaches the women who are isolated and not able to access everything,” she says.

“What I want, really, is for women coming through the program to be showcased in a way that they’re seen as job creators, not jobseekers. They’re contributing, not only socially, but economically, to Australian society.”

Through her work, Rebecca aims to influence the average Australian’s opinion on migration, refugees and on settlement. “It’s important to me that we become a more welcoming society, not just that we have empathy for people’s journey but we actually value and respect the important contributions that they make,” she says.

This is a sentiment keenly felt by Mexican immigrant and former architect, Ita Lopez Alonso, a graduate of the program. She is about to add gastronomic value to our society with the launch of her small business, Salsitas. Her salsa sauce is the product of her family history and years of practice.

“In Mexico, everything is passed on from the grandmothers and the mothers,” Ita says. “Food is a very easy way for me to share the culture of Mexico with my Australian friends.

“Stepping Stones takes you by the hand and teaches you how to start your business in Australia.”

At 47 she was nervous about starting something new, but the Stepping Stones leaders gave her the confidence and the tools to build her brand, register the business name and pursue her idea.