Vulnerable women supported by Griffith business program

Lorraine said the Sisters program had a huge impact on her — "I feel blessed to be a part of it."

Empowering women aged 50 and over with the skills and knowledge to start micro-businesses is the aim of a Griffith University project.

Sisters Support Business Together, created and led by Dr Dhara Shah, from the Department of Business Strategy and Innovation, recently welcomed its second group of Sisters following a successful first class in early 2019.

The program draws on resources from across the university, including the Yunus Centre, the Griffith Tax Clinic, the School of Human Services and Social Work, and the School of ICT.

The first Sisters cohort comprised women who are currently in social housing or receiving rental assistance, and the second is made up of women who are at risk of landing in that situation.

The women are trained in business, finance, marketing and self-development under the guidance of a mentor and are eligible for a small grant to launch a business.

Working in groups of three, they are encouraged to either form a business partnership or to support each other to form individual businesses.

The interdisciplinary collaboration aims to address the declining workplace participation rate for women over 50 in Australia, an issue compounded by the casualisation of the workforce, age discrimination, gender-based wage gaps, and shortfalls in superannuation.

Dr Dhara Shah.

“Like most of the world, Australia is being confronted with the social and economic realities of an ageing population, and these issues weigh particularly heavily upon older women,” Dr Shah explained.

“With 53% of Newstart recipients being women — and 32% being aged 50 or over — it is clear that tangible action must be taken to help empower individuals in this demographic to reassert control over their financial and residential status.”

Dr Shah has received $682,000 support from the Try, Test and Learn Fund — an initiative of the Australian Government Department of Social Services — to deliver the program. It is the first Griffith project to have received a grant from the fund.

Dr Nancy Spencer, the Griffith Policy Innovation Hub’s Executive-in-Residence, played a key role in identifying the opportunity and gathering support from the Queensland Department of Housing and Public Works for the development and submission of the project.

She said Sisters Support Business Together was an example of Griffith bringing together an interdisciplinary response to the needs of vulnerable sections of the community. In this case, Sisters from Logan and Gold Coast are being supported.

“When we put in our bid for the grant, it was about showing how Griffith University is an anchor institution for place; if you have university with all of these services available, they are an integral component of the community and can connect these women and their families with the university,” she said.

The grant will allow the program to continue facilitating employment opportunities for women in the area, who must meet a range of eligibility criteria, including being unemployed or underemployed and receiving government benefits such as the Newstart Allowance.

A Sisters success story

A success story from the first Sisters group is Lorraine. She is planning to start her own online home décor store on Shopify, which will sell predominantly horse-themed products.

Lorraine has experience in the retail sector, and she was able to rediscover those skills and combine them with her life-long passion for horses with the support of the Sisters team and the other services offered by Griffith.

“The program has had a huge impact on me, and I feel blessed to be a part of it,” Lorraine said.

“The biggest impact I have felt is a new confidence that I have interacting with other people, and I have become more resourceful as I have sought out knowledge to build my skills.”

At a low point in her life, Lorraine was given a flyer for the program by a counsellor in Beenleigh and decided to go to an information session in Robina. Following an interview, she was accepted into the program.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “I haven’t come across this kind of support many times in my life, and I want to honour Dhara and her team for creating this environment for the Sisters, which will be vital to our success.

“Each day I am so excited by the thought of what I will be able to achieve and what new things that I can learn. It definitely gives me something to strive for.”

Living the Griffith values

Associate Professor Ingrid Burkett, Co-Director of the Yunus Social Business Centre, said the Sisters project is a perfect illustration of interdisciplinary, collaborative research for public purpose generating community engaged outcomes.

“It really demonstrates the strength of our promise to be a civic university and how we’re leading and driving this at Logan and more broadly,” she said.

“Griffith University is putting its core values of Excellence, Engagement and Ethics at the core of its operations and the Sisters project rolls those virtues into a single project that is positively impacting the lives of vulnerable people.”

Having the support from the Sisters project, particularly to develop skills in digital commerce, is vital for the women’s success, says Dr Shah, as technological innovation is a commonly cited barrier for mature-aged people wishing to return to work.

“A self-help approach will be encouraged among the small groups, which will enhance the women’s confidence and help build a sense of community.

“This, in turn, will help with combating poverty, feelings of social isolation and will divide the risks associated with running a small business.”

In addition to Dr Shah and Dr Spencer, the Sisters team includes Research Assistants Simon Fraser and Ainslie Meiklejohn, and Administration Officer Maria Georgas.

They are working to make an impact that’s broader than the women immediately involved in the project. A key goal is to deliver an intergeneration outcome for the community.

“Children model the behaviour of their parents, and when they see their mother going to work and making a difference in the word, it influences them in a positive way,” Dr Shah said.