“I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs,” says 26-year-old Yarrie Bangura. “Business was how my aunties and my mum made a living. Then, after we fled the war in Sierra Leone, I watched my mum hustle to survive, selling bags of rice at the market to make a profit.”
Yet when Yarrie shared her own plans to start her business, Aunty’s Ginger Tonic, her mum did everything she could to discourage her.
“She pointed out that there was no one in my life with my skin colour that I could look to as a role model,” says Yarrie, who now lives in Sydney. “Knowing that I wanted to contribute to Australia, which had given me a second chance at life, Mum said I should complete my degree, get a job and give back that way. She was trying to be kind - I think she was afraid I’d be heartbroken by people not accepting my business.”
As Yarrie told this story to Janine Allis last week, the Boost Juice founder and Leading Women Fund ambassador experienced a jolt of recognition. When Janine started Boost Juice 20 years ago, her grandmother commented that no one would ever listen to her in business because she was a woman.
Although Janine and Yarrie are connected through Australia for UNHCR (Yarrie is a Special Youth Representative), the women hadn’t met until their Zoom call last week, which had been facilitated by national director Naomi Steer (“I knew they’d get on,” she says). Sure enough, they hit it off - finding common ground in their approach to business, and life.
“What I like about her is that she was willing to have a crack - to have a go,” says Janine. “She has a great product that taps into a number of trends - she’s onto something.” And for Yarrie, the opportunity to talk business with Janine was a dream come true.
“When I started my business, I needed to build my confidence, so I did a lot of research to find entrepreneurs who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths and had to work hard, like me,” she says, with excitement in her voice. “That’s how I came across Janine. I watched her all the time on the screen. So felt too good to be true to actually talk to her.”
Women have always known the power of connection, which is one of the most exciting aspects of the Leading Women Fund. Donors to the fund will join a community of engaged, dynamic changemakers like Yarrie and Janine, who are committed to supporting women, both here and overseas.
“One of the reasons we need networks is that no one has all the answers,” says Janine. “So the best groups of people are those that have a range of skills and are prepared to share. I find there’s always someone in a group who forces you to think differently about a problem, or has a contact that can help you.”
In the three years it took to research her business prior to launch last year, Yarrie reached out to anyone she thought might help. “I wrote to companies to see if they’d take me on as a trainee, and refugee organisations to see if they’d help me, too, which they did,” she says.
After perfecting her ginger tonic - based on a much-loved family recipe - Yarrie sold it at markets, which is where she met a customer who helped her find a manufacturer. “I could never make enough in my kitchen - we always sold out,” she says. “And this customer said, ‘Yarrie, there is another way.’”
Now, Aunty’s Ginger Tonic is sold in retailers such as Harris Farm, and Yarrie’s new focus is scaling the business. Janine has agreed to mentor her, and Yarrie in turn mentors other people from refugee backgrounds like her own.
“For me, I believe that a life lived just for myself is a life wasted, but a life that empowers other people is fulfilled,” she says. “I run workshops with disadvantaged young people and I go to schools, and I talk to young people about business, because it seems scary, right? But I don’t talk to them about the business, I talk to them about creativity. Because if they fall in love with an idea, they’ll give it 100 per cent.
“When I arrived in Australia I was so grateful for what felt like a second opportunity at life. I made a promise to myself that I would do everything I could to contribute.”
The majority of funds raised by Australia for UNHCR are directed to UNHCR’s emergency operations, providing the ready funds and resources to respond quickly and effectively in situations of crisis and disaster.