Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in this Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability Victoria) Pat Nourse (creative director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits) and Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoria) to help us identify the people changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In civics, one such person is Luz Restrepo, founder of SisterWorks and co-founder of Migrant Women in Business.
When Luz Restrepo arrived in Melbourne from Colombia in 2010 as a political asylum seeker, she felt isolated. She had no Australian connections, little money and little English. It’s a similar story we hear from a lot of people who seek refuge in Australia – how hard it is to find work, engage with the wider community or even make friends. For Restrepo, it was a turning point – and she didn't want others who came after her to feel as isolated.
“I’m an entrepreneurial woman who ten years ago didn't have resources, connection, money or confidence,” she says. “When I arrived in that position, I found that there were barriers beyond [just] the language.”
So, in 2013, Restrepo founded SisterWorks, a not-for-profit social enterprise based in Melbourne. The team works to support refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. SisterWorks has a ‘learning by doing’ ethos and trains women in design, cooking, sales and entrepreneurship, equipping them with practical skills they can use in their new life in Australia.
SisterWorks provides women with the initial tools to help them get on their feet – but it's a hand up, not a handout. According to Restrepo, “this is the narrative that we need to start to change in our society".
“We need to stop seeing migrants as vulnerable people who need our support. We need to start to see migrant women as potential entrepreneurs with lots to contribute in the social, cultural and economic development of this country. We need to start seeing migrant women as an investment," she says.
“SisterWorks is doing a great, great, great job working with migrant women, giving them the sense that they belong in the country, they can dream in this country, and they can push themselves to move forward.”
Restrepo has recently left her position as CEO of SisterWorks. “I understood it was the time to give the organisation to the next generation of migrant women. By May 2020, SisterWorks was in a good financial position, and I resigned feeling that it was a good time to take my ideas to the next level. I needed to find a place where I could highlight the role of migrant women as leaders. To find a space to grow women as leaders – not just as leaders within their communities.”
In June 2020, she launched Migrant Women in Business. This social enterprise sets out to create an ecosystem for migrant women business owners and leaders, offering support through consulting, advocacy and business development. Again, this is about investing, not handouts. As the website states: “An empowered migrant woman has an impressive impact in our economy. They don’t need help, just the opportunity to learn how to navigate the Australian system and culture.”
"There are a lot of community leaders, amazing emerging migrant women who are becoming community leaders, but they are struggling to pay their bills," says Restrepo. "Part of the idea of Migrant Women in Business is how to engage migrant women who are enterprising, who are entrepreneurs, who are emerging leaders, and helping them to empower themselves with their own businesses.”
One way Migrant Women in Business is assisting with that is through its online marketplace Made by Many Hands. In this e-commerce website, all product sales are managed by vendors, which means they have the independence to create their products, set their own prices and sell directly to the public. It’s an affordable, user-friendly option for many who might struggle with low literacy levels and digital skills.
As for the future of social enterprises and migrant women in Melbourne, she’s keen to see more leadership representation. “The majority of the organisations that support refugees and migrants are led by locals, and if there is a migrant in the area, [it’s] mainly men. This is what I want to see; I want to see organisations with migrant women in leadership positions. And we need to pioneer to let this happen.”