Rural and Regional women use social media to support communities

Rural and regional women use social media to support communities during unspeakable devastation 

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In January 2020, Sarah Britz and Lauren Hateley were at home in their respective regional towns, watching the news about the devastating bushfires raging across the country.

Britz, a web designer from the Central Coast NSW, and Hateley, a clinical psychologist from rural Victoria, felt they needed to do something in order to overcome their feeling of helplessness as rural towns and communities were being destroyed.

The pair decided to create Spend with Us, an online initiative that gathers businesses who want to help those experiencing trauma and for people who want to do more than simply donate to charities.

The site evolved to support small rural businesses in bushfire affected communities. 

A similar initiative, Buy from a Bush Business, was created by Jenn Donovan, around the same time. Donovan went on Facebook to connect a growing community of people who wanted to support small rural and regional businesses throughout.

Donovan created the Facebook group where small businesses from rural parts of the country could post their products and increase their sales. 

The group expanded to more than 260,000 members in less than 6 months.

This week, we sat down with these inspiring women, to ask them what it’s like to operate businesses and champion women-led initiatives outside of metropolitan cities.

What is one thing people misconceive about running a business as a woman in rural  and regional areas in Australia?

Jenn Donovan: I think one of the biggest misconceptions when running a business in a rural or regional area is that you’re an expert in what you do!  

Perhaps it’s just me, but when I started my business (my marketing business) I honestly thought that if people knew I was from a farm, running a business from a home office (remember, it’s pre-pandemic) that they (a) won’t take me seriously and (b) would think that someone from the “city” would definitely know more than me!

This was a real fear of mine, and it took me a few years, like 4, to embrace my rural-ness in business.  Now I believe it’s my superpower!

With my rural location on the border of NSW and Victoria now inundated with new residents who have escaped the City since the pandemic, realising who much better rural living actually is, I now know that people can see the superpower of working and living in a rural area of Australia.

Sarah Britz: I would say that people often believe that because we live in small rural or regional towns, we are less capable, professional, and experienced than those in cities, this is not the case. There are so many rural and regional businesswomen in Australia and worldwide who are at the forefront of their niches.

Rural & regional women are also some of the most resilient and hardworking women I have been lucky enough to get to know. Starting or running a successful business through bushfires, the pandemic, or floods is one mean feat! 

So many have diversified their products and business model and embraced online selling to keep their businesses running and money coming in when others would have just given up.

How has the last 2 years for you and your business been? What were the greatest challenges you faced during the pandemic?

Jenn Donovan: The last 2 years in business for me have been extra-ordinary. 

As farmers, the years have been amazing.  It’s hard to see that in 2019 we were completely crippled by devastating drought.  Last year’s crop was possibly a “once in a lifetime season”, that’s how good it was.

For our marketplace we have been expediential growth. That alone comes with a double edge sword.

On the one hand, our platforms (Facebook group and marketplace) have grown dramatically, and we have been able to help more and more rural and regional small businesses to get sales, brand awareness and growth in their businesses at a time when business growth was not easy to get.

But on the hand, being a platform that supports rural and regional small businesses, we have seen those businesses suffer so much devastation.  

From drought, bushfires, floods, COVID 19 and even a darn mouse plague – it’s been horrendous in the bush (and many of these areas have suffered 3 or 4 different adversities, not just one!).

So, in one way we wish our growth wasn’t quite so big when it comes to help out businesses who are suffering financially from situations way outside their control.

Sarah Britz: The greatest challenge I faced during the pandemic was juggling and keeping a balance between business and family life.

Homeschooling my two young children and at the same time running the Spend With Us marketplace, supporting hundreds of small businesses that were having a difficult time, and also my web design consultancy was exhausting and draining. Yet, somehow we made it through!

As Jenn has noted, the last two years for our business have been challenging but rewarding ones. The growth of our marketplace has been incredible – we’ve been able to help so many rural & regional small businesses and their communities and raise awareness of their unique stories and resilience.

Yet, at the same time, it’s been devastating seeing many small businesses not survive. Hearing the stories of those that have lost so much is heartbreaking.

Who has been your greatest supporter since the 2019-2020 bushfires and how did they support you and your business?

Jenn Donovan: There’s 3 of us running Spend With Us – Buy From a Bush Business marketplace and I would have to say we have all been our biggest supporters, together with our husbands.  

I’m not sure what they made of what we have been trying to achieve during these adverse times, but they have been there to listen, comfort and distract!

Our enormous community has already been kind and generous, understanding when we took a little longer to approve a post or answer an email.

In the world of corporate, Oz Minerals have been an outstanding supporter and advocate for our marketplace, supporting us by purchasing eGift Cards for their workers to support them and in doing so supporting 1300+ rural and regional small businesses.  

Sarah Britz: Everything Jenn has said above applies to how I feel too. However, I also need to add how I would not have been able to cope with the strain of business and family life the last few years without the support of my extended family.

My parents-in-law have been advocates and absolutely amazing in supporting my husband, myself and our children while we have both worked. I don’t know how we would have been able to get through the pandemic and home-schooling without them – I would have had to give up work.

They say it takes a village to raise a family, and without my extended family support, our family life would be very different.

What is a mantra, or quote you live by, and why do you find it empowering?

Jenn Donovan: Mine is READY, FIRE, AIM (yep, in that order!).  The Facebook group – Buy From a Bush Business with over 355,000 members simply won’t exist if it wasn’t for my ready, fire, aim mantra.

With a similar trending hashtag on Instagram and knowing most of my clients didn’t know how to work Instagram but knew how to work Facebook, the simple thought of “I should start a Facebook group” turned into a movement.

If I’d overthought it or thought, do I have time, or should I or should I not – perhaps it would never have some to fruition – but ready, fire, aim – I just fired and thought about the longevity of what I was building months and months later!

Sarah Britz: Mine is “The only way to do great work is to love what you do!” – a quote from Steve Jobs which really resonates with me. 

I am so passionate about the work I’ve been doing – helping people to grown and sustain their businesses during hard times.  It’s so true that when we love what we do we will never get tired of it. I feel it’s important to keep challenging yourself to improve yourself. If you are not happy with your work life, then find something that you enjoy and are passionate about instead. 

What is unique about running a business as a woman in rural / regional areas compared to in the city?

Jenn Donovan: This question is a little tricky as I’ve never actually run a business from the “city” as such!  But if I had to highlight the best bits of running a business in a rural area, which I think might be different to the city, I would have 1 word – COMMUNITY.

Community encompasses every aspect of rural life.  From footy to business, from being a school mum to working at the local Vinnies store – it’s all about community.

If you involve yourself in your community, your community will support you back 10 fold.

Sarah Britz: I agree with Jenn that community spirit and connections are the main things that differentiate rural/regional living and working compared to city life. When I lived and worked in the city, I felt like a tiny fish in a vast and busy ocean. 

I never saw or spoke to my neighbours, there would always be someone different serving you at your local shops or cafes, and I found it hard to connect with other like-minded women in business. Local community spirit seemed non-existent, and everyone had such busy lives.

In comparison, since moving to regional Australia, I have met so many fabulous businesswomen who take the time to get to know who you are. I have built great relationships with my neighbours and other local community members. If someone is having a difficult time, the community will band together to help.  

What lesson have you learned in the last 2, 3 years that has been most impactful?

Jenn Donovan: I think I’d first refer back to my manta – ready, fire, aim.  This will serve you well.

Secondly, I would say I have seen and experienced the power of collaborations and collaborative marketing.  This marketing and being open to collaborations can change your business and empower enormous growth – and we have seen it time and time again first hand.

And lastly, I would say there’s a super power in showing up for your audience – human to human marketing.  Letting your audience get to know, like and trust you.  The good, the bad, the ups and downs and the reality of what life is like in your corner of the world.  People love this stuff and if you show up for them, they will show up for you – often with their wallets in hand!

Sarah Britz: I agree with Jenn that collaboration and networking are key. You’ll almost always be able to build something great by collaborating than by trying to do everything yourself, getting burnt out and going nowhere!  

Be kind and open to other people’s opinions and beliefs, even when they are very different from your own! I’ve learnt that even if I disagree with how some people behave or feel, that’s ok. We can still learn to work together.

Life would be boring if we all liked the same things and had the same views! I’ve seen a lot of divide in the past few years on so many levels, and one of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is to accept my view might not always be the same as someone else, but that doesn’t mean we can’t come to a compromise or work out solutions.  

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