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Jo Burston of Rare Birds: “Don’t believe the hype, believe the data”

Don’t believe the hype, believe the data. Many years ago when starting in business I got really excited about how things felt — landing a big meeting, a verbal confirmation of a deal, but really what I should have been excited about was the data. What was really happening from a numbers perspective. Today, it is all […]

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Don’t believe the hype, believe the data. Many years ago when starting in business I got really excited about how things felt — landing a big meeting, a verbal confirmation of a deal, but really what I should have been excited about was the data. What was really happening from a numbers perspective. Today, it is all about the numbers for me. I can read the business story simply by looking at the data, be that financial performance or impact.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jo Burston.

Jo Burston is one of Australia’s most successful female entrepreneurs. She has launched six businesses to date, including Job Capital which she grew from nothing to 40 million dollars turnover in five years. She has worked in partnership with the Prime Minister, Cabinet and Office For Women in Australia on several initiatives. Her most recent launch was startup.business, which runs entrepreneurial programs for school children in every state across Australia. She also runs globally recognized social impact business, Rare Birds, which is designed to inspire, support, educate and empower women in business.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Back in 2014 when I launched Rare Birds, there were very few role models for me as a woman entrepreneur. Nor had there ever been, come to think of it! Growing up, the idea of being a founder and running my own company never really occurred to me. But then one day, I met a man who would change everything. He was a client and I had flown to Melbourne to meet him. His office was a hive of activity and I felt instantly energized by it. He asked me to sit anywhere I wanted and in a cheeky moment of exuberance I walked around the back of his desk and sat in his chair, declaring I was going to sit there someday anyway!

Now this won’t impress a lot of people, in fact it might have the opposite effect. But this man and this moment proved to be a huge turning point for me. He liked my confidence and that I backed myself and he was impressed by my level of expertise. Six weeks later, we had started a company together and he became not only my business partner, but also my mentor and he still mentors me today.

My advice is, no matter where you are in life, seek out mentors. They open doors you don’t even know exist, they make you accountable for reaching the goals you set, and they always have your back.

This man and I built a very successful business together in a very short period of time. It is a visa and migration services business called Job Capital and I still run it today. The success of that business, going from 0 dollars to 40 million dollars in just 5 years, received a lot of attention and awards. I was on the BRW Fast 100, the Smart Company Smart 50, named as one of Australia’s Top 30 Female Entrepreneurs, and more. You could say that I was flying pretty high.

However, as I was winning all those awards and being asked to speak at a lot of events, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of women in the room. It made me uncomfortable, to be honest, and it actually made me question whether I was there on merit or just as a way of waving the diversity flag.

I wanted to know where all the women entrepreneurs were and so I decided to do a bit of an experiment. I contacted my old high school and asked if I could give a talk to the students about my success and experience as an entrepreneur. I was really excited to be able to inspire them by sharing my story and I also planned to film them talking about their ideas about business and entrepreneurship.

My bubble burst pretty quickly that day. When I began to talk about entrepreneurship, I was both disheartened and amazed by the fact that these schoolgirls didn’t know much about it. I asked for a definition and the only girls who thought they had an answer, said it was when a man has his own business. It was bad enough that at that time I was giving thank you speeches and delivering business event keynotes to rooms full of men, but to have it made so clear to me by a group of young girls that they had no idea — no concept at all — that entrepreneurship was open to them as a pathway to a successful and fulfilling life … that just about broke my heart.

My mission there and then was to give every woman the opportunity to become an entrepreneur by choice. I wanted to help women and girls imagine and create a different and inspiring future for themselves. And I wanted to provide them with role models, because you can’t be what you can’t see.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

As the CEO and leader of the organization, I have made it my priority to engage government, academia, industry and corporates alike about the benefits of our work and I have really walked the pavements to garner support on the back of my success as a serial entrepreneur.

In our very early days, it was the Sydney Office Managing Partner at EY, Lynn Kraus, now Partner, Strategy & Transactions and a Sydney YPO member, like me, who was brave and impact-focused enough to back me and the movement and provide our first private funding. This enabled us to publish our first three books — “Australia’s 50 Influential Women Entrepreneurs”, “#IFSHECANICAN” and “Brilliant Business Kids”. EY hosted our book launches and provided resources for over 300 people at that very first event. From there, they supported me with a national roadshow of every major city in Australia. It was a real leg up for the launch of the brand and the awareness of the work we were doing. It was the backing their Chief Executive Officer and Regional Managing Partner at EY, Tony Johnson, that made me believe we were on our way. Tony endorsed our first publication and stood out as our first real male Ambassador and advocate.

More than 60,000 people of all diversities are a part of the Rare Birds Community now. Every one of them brings something unique to the table. We have some very high profile, active and influential Ambassadors such as Winitha Bonney, Phil Hayes-St Clair, and Corinna Bertram plus hundreds of mentors from all areas of industry that provide time, wisdom and experience and thousands of individuals that simply want to help in whatever capacity they can.

I would in no way be able to have the impact that I do without the support of so many amazing people who make me incredibly humble and grateful every single day.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I have made so many mistakes over the years. Lots of learnings. One of my funniest mistakes (not that funny), is getting names wrong. I am terrible at remembering names of people when I meet them for the first time, especially as I meet so many people. I have on the odd occasion addressed a politician or professor incorrectly. I do now take the time to say their names out loud a couple of times somewhere quiet so it sticks a little better!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

I am honoured to be working with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Office for Women with Minister Michaelia Cash and Minister Marise Payne, both representing the Minister for Women portfolio, who have selected the Rare Birds program to aid in Australia’s post-COVID economic recovery, as well as increase women’s economic security and participation.

We have been fortunate enough to be granted government funding to provide 190 scholarships for our 12-month mentoring and education program to women from marginal demographics who are running their own businesses, to provide them the opportunity to grow personally and professionally. This represents true diversity and inclusion on a national scale. The program represents Indigenous, Torres Strait Island, Migrant, Refugee, Remote, Regional, Rural, Disabled and Low socio-economic women.

Our latest cohort is being mentored to help their business recover from the economic pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are now half-way through the program and already we are seeing extraordinary results. 100% of women surveyed say they are happy with their mentor, 94% of women surveyed say the program has improved their business confidence, 96% say the mentoring and education workshops have positively contributed to the success of their business, whilst 94% say the program has helped their business to become more sustainable and better prepared for post-COVID recovery.

We are also running a program with support from the City of Sydney for female founders who have lost work due to COVID and are now looking to launch their business idea. We are providing 1:1 mentoring to support these women, with a mentor handpicked from our pool of more than 500 business leaders, as well as expert-led workshops and online networking sessions.

Another opportunity for me to create positive social impact came when a prominent academic, Dr Richard Seymour (previously of Sydney University Business School), now passed away, noticed my work with women. Together, over a period of 3 years, we developed a pedagogy of entrepreneurial learning in action and launched a business called Startup.Business which teaches the mindset of entrepreneurship in school curriculum to secondary students. This was the way I was able to connect all the dots of impact in diversity and inclusion; by educating young men and women early about entrepreneurship, allowing them to access mentors and then taking those skills into the real world once they went to University or to the workforce.

Rare Birds is also currently working on a project that brings together a major global partner, and a local partner, to provide the mentoring and education program to First Nations people in a significant way. This will be another highlight of our journey as we start to provide large companies the opportunity to make a positive impact, particularly with regards to supporting Australia’s indigenous business owners with CSR and Reconciliation Action Plans (RAP).

I was recently made a YPO Global Impact Award Honoree, an award given to CEO’s that have achieved significant and sustainable impact. It was such an honour to receive this recognition and a testament to the impact we are making with Rare Birds and the other initiatives I run. I truly believe that mentorship is invaluable in supporting women’s career progression and encouraging more of them to take on the top jobs.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Indigenous Australian woman, Leah Cameron, is the Founder and Principal Solicitor at Marrawah Law. She was one of the first 100 women to receive a scholarship from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Office for Women in order to take part in a 12-month mentoring program with Rare Birds. Leah had previously been reluctant to reach out to potential mentors, mostly because she didn’t think anyone would really understand her needs.

Through our detailed matching system, we took Leah’s key focus areas and matched her with a few mentors who had the exact experience and expertise she required. Our team then took into account notes from interviews about her personality and communication style to find Leah her match.

Leah said: “I was incredibly fortunate to be mentored by Monica through the Inspiring Rare Birds Entrepreneur Mentorship Program supported by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. I had specifically sought a mentor who would work with me to develop my personal brand, an overall marketing strategy for the firm; and a program for continued growth through marketing.”

“Prior to connecting with my mentor, Monica, I had found it difficult to find a mentor that would appreciate my way of doing business. Monica ticked all the right boxes in this regard. In the 12-month period in which she mentored me not only did I gain knowledge/skills in marketing me and the business, I gained confidence in putting it into practice. Because of this confidence, my business has (no joke) doubled in size. Monica assisted me greatly with this transition by providing practical tips and really helped in ironing out any issues along the way.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The government needs to continue to provide adequate funding to enable hundreds of marginal women to have access to mentoring and education programs. And at a political level — walk the talk on fair representation of women in politics, in all parties, on a merit basis.

Society should start young and educate young men and women that women are equally capable of any career pursuit (or indeed anyone of any gender identity). We need to smash old stereotypes from home and in schools. We need to understand that when women have children it takes them temporarily out of the workforce, which means their career may progress slightly more slowly, however this has equal value and they should be welcomed back to the workforce without any stigma.

Politicians MUST walk the talk, face the tsunami of public pressure and act accordingly when crafting new policy to enable equality. It is a very hot topic in Australia currently, with our Prime Minister under some pressure. He recently reshuffled his cabinet to create a Ministerial Cabinet far more equally representative of women and men. Some find it a knee-jerk reaction however I believe it is a major step in the right direction to show young women more political female role models.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, leadership is an act of serving. About learning the best way to get the very best from your people and to influence internal and external stakeholders to produce positive results for all.

Leadership requires vulnerability, empathy, intelligence and an entrepreneurial mindset. I believe my team 100% trusts me. I am very quick to say when I am wrong, apologise for something or be open to a better way.

My brand leads from the front, but personally I lead by example and from behind with the pursuit of finding the strengths of each individual and making that their foundation of success. Leadership requires strong values and a clear vision, both of which I have and this enables the team to follow someone and something they truly believe in.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. That everything takes twice as long, twice as much money and requires five times as much energy! The business is now six years old and we are still in the growth stage. It took a few years to really get the business model, products, foundations right enough that it could scale.
  2. People will volunteer time, energy and resources if they feel deeply about the movement and are acknowledged openly. With hundreds of people in the community giving time, it meant we were able to expand faster and reach more people. This meant I had to learn to keep our messaging, vision and purpose extremely clear.
  3. Don’t believe the hype, believe the data. Many years ago when starting in business I got really excited about how things felt — landing a big meeting, a verbal confirmation of a deal, but really what I should have been excited about was the data. What was really happening from a numbers perspective. Today, it is all about the numbers for me. I can read the business story simply by looking at the data, be that financial performance or impact.
  4. Don’t feel guilty when you take a day off to rest. In the early days I worked so hard that in 16 years I had two burnouts. That is something that I will never allow again and particularly as I am nearing 50, I am more than ever aware and conscious about my well-being. To me it is the most valuable currency of all!
  5. Know your why and trust your gut. Every entrepreneur has a million ideas. When I found my purpose in 2014 at that school talking to the schoolgirls about their future as possible entrepreneurs, I knew this is what “I was meant to do”. It hasn’t changed since but took a long time for it to find me. My business instinct is strong, and it has developed over time, but my gut feeling is always right. When I haven’t listened to it, things have really gone wrong.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Exactly what I am doing now! There is no way that equality can’t serve every person on this planet fairly.

Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My life mantra is “Give without remembering and receive without forgetting”. Generosity of spirit is essential for purpose-led leaders to thrive. Our community of practice is fuelled by the generous giving of time, resources, energy and experience. I aim to thank as many of them daily, with enormous gratitude. When I make the life of someone better, I do not expect them to be indebted to me. I am simply fulfilled because their life is better, their business is better and their family and friends see it. Our whole community is celebrating this.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Without doubt it would be Nicole Kidman, a fellow Australian. I have admired and followed her work for women fighting against violence and girls becoming great women with her Ambassadorship with the UN. I would love to have a conversation with her about becoming an Ambassador for Rare Birds globally and help us bring awareness outside of Australia. I love that she says: “Did you know that there are 1.1 billion girls in the world today? And those girls have an enormous amount of potential — as long as they aren’t held back by discrimination, violence and lack of equal opportunities. That’s why we work to end child marriage, ensure educational opportunities and let girls be girls.” I’d like to add that if these girls are taught an entrepreneurial mindset early on and have mentors allocated to them when starting a business or in their first working experience, they can have the opportunity to thrive economically and break cycles of violence, poverty and discrimination.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Jo Burston:

Facebook

Instagram

Twitter

LinkedIn

Rare Birds:

Facebook

Instagram

Twitter

LinkedIn

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