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'Like my sisters': The group providing Centrelink alternative

Lina Qasem has launched a successful robotics school. Image: Supplied
Lina Qasem has launched a successful robotics school. Image: Supplied

When Lina Qasem arrived in Australia in 2014, she was met with a disheartening but familiar experience.

Despite enjoying a successful robotics career in Jordan, she was rejected for job after job in Australia with most not even replying to her applications.

Frustrated, but determined not to let her skills rust, she began entering robotics and coding competitions and winning. Then, she began judging them. Before long, she noticed something: there was a real lack of female competitors.

“I decided to take action and be proactive towards [fixing] that,” she told Yahoo Finance.

“I thought, ‘I should be a role model to other girls and I should start training other girls and start exposing them to robotics from an early age’.

“I have daughters, so I thought, ‘I really care about my daughters' futures and I know science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is the future, so I would like to see more girls in these fields.’”

Today, Qasem is the founder of successful national robotics school RoboFun, a children’s coding academy teaching them about STEAM - that is, STEM with art. The lessons are built on combining coding with play and creativity.

Qasem is also an AMP Tomorrow Maker Fund recipient and was a 2019 Australian Women’s Weekly ‘Women of the Future’ finalist.

This is how she did it.

‘They’re like my sisters’

Children now studying online through RoboFun. Image: Supplied
Children now studying online through RoboFun. Image: Supplied

Qasem credits the strength of her business to her partnership with Global Sisters.

Global Sisters is a community of women who support each other to achieve their business goals. It targets migrant women, women in regional Australia, older women, women leaving violent relationships, women with disabilities and carers and other financially vulnerable women. Qasem joined them through the My Big Idea workshop program.

“After winning all the robotics competitions I had ideas but they weren’t clear enough,” Qasem said.

“[Global Sisters] ask you questions to clarify the idea and make it more interesting. I remember the questions and after answering the questions I was really confident to go ahead with my idea.

“The first question was, ‘Do you love it?’ Sure, I love it! It’s my passion. The second question was, ‘Are you good at this?’ I said, ‘For sure, I'm a software engineer and I love this and I have an interest in this.’

“The third question was, ‘Will people pay you for this idea?’ And I said, ‘Yes, for sure because it's a need. Now, all the schools are focusing on STEM in the curriculum and especially on getting girls engaged with STEM. It's a global need.’”

From there, Qasem joined the Global Sisters’ Sisters Club, a group designed to help women launch their business. Qasem said this was critical in helping her understand cashflow, marketing and business management.

And because all of the women in the club have different businesses and backgrounds, the knowledge sharing is incredibly valuable.

“I feel like they are my sisters in Australia ... They've got my back. They offer ongoing support, it’s a very, very strong relationship,” Qasem said.

The viable third alternative: Business

Mandy Richards (centre) with two sisters. Image: Supplied
Mandy Richards (centre) with two sisters. Image: Supplied

Qasem’s story is one of thousands, Global Sisters CEO Mandy Richards told Yahoo Finance.

Since launching in 2016, the organisation has supported 2,644 women to achieve their business goals, delivering a “genuine third option” to low-income, insecure work and social security payments for vulnerable women.

Richards said she grew up watching women make amazing things, with her mind later turning to connecting those products with interested buyers. Growing up with a single mother raising three children in regional Australia with outdated university qualifications also had a major impact on the way she saw the world.

“I could just really see that Australian women needed a third alternative to generate an income stream. It’s either you get a job or you go on welfare, and there are so many women in Australia for whom ‘getting a normal job’ just isn’t possible because they need something flexible,” Richards said.

“No one wants to be on welfare but running a business can be really difficult if you don’t have access to all the resources that you need.”

Richards said Global Sisters works to tackle the most common barriers including confidence, knowledge, networking and resources, but also works with the individual sisters to identify and break through their own particular barriers.

She gave the example of Glennis Wilkinson, a Brisbane woman who was facing homelessness after a marriage breakup and insecure employment.

Richards described Wilkinson’s story as the “spiralling effect” that occurs for many women as soon as one financial support is removed.

This is borne out in the statistics: women 55 and older are the fastest growing group of homeless people in Australia.

However, Wilkinson now runs a successful yoga and meditation business focusing on older Australians and in particular men. When Covid-19 hit, Global Sisters worked with her to transform her business to operate online.

Now, after tackling the initial business building and following digital transformation, it’s going from “strength to strength”, Richards said.

The Covid-19 effect

Mandy Richards (left) says Global Sisters is designed to provide a genuine third option. Image: Supplied
Mandy Richards (left) says Global Sisters is designed to provide a genuine third option. Image: Supplied

Wilkinson’s story is far from the only one: most of Global Sister’s attention in recent months has been focused on helping women like her pivot their businesses to online.

Global Sisters in 2019 was working to support businesses looking to expand into other areas, or establish an online presence which meant that when Covid-19 struck, many programs were ready to go.

“Literally as Covid was hitting we were launching all of our programs online and that coincided with this sudden need. [There was] an escalating unemployment rate, and so many women are already quite stuck at home because of their responsibilities... and Covid-19 has of course completely sent that responsibility through the roof. So the number of women out there are needing to earn money has blown through the roof,” she said.

“There was a dramatic escalation in women interested in starting a small business, so we had in a few months over 3,000 women apply for our programs which is a clear indicator of the need and the interest in what we do.”

Richards explained any Australian woman who is struggling financially and who needs to make additional money falls into the category of women they will support.

“Getting everything online at that time was perfect because now any woman in Australia can access everything that we have to offer, which is brilliant.”

All women have the skills to establish a business, Richards said, they often just need support.

“Every woman has something she loves that can be converted into money and our aim is to open it up and have women have the confidence to explore that and hopefully create some financial freedom and economic empowerment."

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