Regions awash with entrepreneurial talent

Behind the doors of an unremarkable building in a Toowoomba industrial area, dozens of people move among whirring machines and towering piles of white linen.

Many of the workers inside Vanguard Laundry in regional Queensland are on a remarkable quest. They are refugees, domestic violence survivors, or recovering addicts forging a new path.

The laundry is a social enterprise that employs people with a history of disadvantage and actively helps them find other work once they’ve gained confidence.

General manager Harry Sillett said many Yazidi refugees begin their Australian working lives at the laundry.

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One employee, a mother with young children, said the work allayed her worries that Australians consider refugees a burden.

“That showed me that if you involve people in meaningful, productive work, it does a lot more than give people a pay cheque,” Mr Sillett told AAP.

“It can give people dignity, purpose and a sense of belonging.”

Mr Sillett is one of 10 regional and rural social entrepreneurs awarded a National Ag Day and Westpac Agribusiness grant to attend an the Social Enterprise World Rural Forum later this year.

Interest in social entrepreneurship is growing as people increasingly move from capital cities to the regions. It is seen as a potential solution to shortfalls in rural  healthcare and community services.

While geographical distance from capital cities can be considered a barrier to success, Mr Sillett believes it is an opportunity.

“There’s an entrepreneurial spirit in the regions because if you don’t create it, it doesn’t exist,” he said.

“Lots of young people are prepared to take a risk and branch out.” 

That’s proving to be the case in Northern Territory communities.

Enterprise Learning Projects, an Indigenous mentorship and incubator organisation, is backing businesses specialising in everything from native tea and beauty products to mining and construction.

Co-chief executive Alexie Seller, another grant recipient, said these businesses could change the shape of communities, where teachers, shopkeepers and police are often non-Indigenous.

“As a young Indigenous person, it can feel like any job is out of reach,” Ms Seller said.

“But entrepreneurship is showing an entire community another way. There’s a different path you can take and it’s creative and it’s your choice.”

A prosperous future for young people is at the heart of the Wilderness Collective in Mallacoota, on Victoria’s coast.

The collective, which is creating a co-working space, was inspired by the bushfires of December 2019.

Co-founder Mary O’Malley said young people wanted to live and work in their home town, having a deep connection to their surroundings.

“We want to care for this community and see the remote nature of the wilderness as a blessing, not not an impediment,” Ms O’Malley said.

“We’ve focused the last couple of years on rejuvenation, how we can be stronger and turn this around.” 

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