Jo Burston is the Australia/New Zealand regional honoree for the 2021 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making an impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.
As one of Australia’s most successful serial entrepreneurs, Jo Burston has witnessed firsthand the power of entrepreneurship in driving economic growth. However, the Founder and CEO of Inspiring Rare Birds, Founder and Managing Director of Job Capital, and Co-founder of Startup Business, also recognized early in her career the missed opportunity and loss of not having more women participate in Australia’s male-dominated entrepreneurial culture. Since 2014, she has used Inspiring Rare Birds as a platform to challenge the view of what is possible for women — leading young girls and women executives into new terrain and changing the way they see themselves as entrepreneurs.
The lightbulb moment
During an acceptance speech for a business award in 2011, Burston recognized the need to increase women’s participation in entrepreneurship. “As I stood on stage at Parliament House in New South Wales, I looked at the sea of faces and realized that there were hardly any women in the room,” says Burston. “I got curious and took a film crew, with the permission of the Department of Education, back to my school in Southwest Sydney to interview 30 young women between the ages of eight and 17. I asked them who they wanted to become?”
Her findings showed that most girls still did not know what they wanted to do after high school. When Burston asked what an entrepreneur was, the majority said it was a man in business or a man who has a company. She says, “I found that they had no idea — no concept at all — that entrepreneurship was open to them as a pathway to a successful and fulfilling life. I realized that girls cannot become what they cannot see. I thought ‘here is our social environment reflected in the thoughts of these young women.’ My mission there and then was to give every woman the opportunity to become an entrepreneur.”
As she started building Inspiring Rare Birds, Burston gathered insights from leading entrepreneurs to publish her first book, Australia’s 50 Influential Women Entrepreneurs, a first-of-its-kind in Australia, generating the interest of academia, government and industry leaders like EY. Based on the book’s success, Burston invested in what she believed to be an essential tool to help women launch their careers and grow their businesses: a world-class mentoring program. “From my personal journey, I recognized the importance of having a mentor,” she explains. “One of the reasons I was successful in my career was because I had a mentor of 16 years who was also a serial entrepreneur and who became my first investor.”
Multiple platforms, consistent messaging
Since then, the mentoring program has become a key pillar of Inspiring Rare Birds. The addition of a digital platform to the program enabled rapid scaling and broad access.
A key milestone was reached in 2019 when Inspiring Rare Birds extended its mandate to large companies, offering structured mentoring programs to advance their diversity and inclusion objectives. “Simply put, we create, support and promote diverse and inclusive workplaces where opportunities in entrepreneurship and leadership exist for everyone,” says Burston.
By 2020, the organization had expanded across 17 locations and built a community of 60,000 members able to network on an online collaborative hub, with full access to an expert resource library. “This is an enormous country with a very dispersed organization. It was essential for us to reach everyone so that Rare Birds wasn’t isolated to big cities. We rolled out the business across regions in Australia and Papua New Guinea, engaging local Rare Birds Ambassadors who would then be the voice of our movement on the ground.”
While citing the long flights as a personal challenge during these initial years, Burston adds, “People were ready for this. They wanted this message and they were ready to embrace it. The timing was right.”
People who are involved with Inspiring Rare Birds do it because they want to give back. Forty percent of our mentors are men. They enjoy being a part of it because they want a different pathway for their daughters and their granddaughters in the future. ”
— Jo Burston, Founder and CEO of Inspiring Rare Birds share
The consistency of the messaging and the storytelling contributed to the successful expansion. In Burston’s second book, #IFSHECANICAN, she recounts 29 young Australian women entrepreneurs’ business journeys, looking at their stories from an academic perspective.
“That not only helped spread the message but also changed my view of what entrepreneurs think and how they work,” Burston says. “And it’s not all luck and hard work. There’s a lot of thinking that goes on that could be mapped.” A third book, Brilliant Business Kids, followed, using a cartoon-style format to target a younger audience. “I wanted to demonstrate that young people have and can develop an entrepreneurial mindset.”
Building an entrepreneurial ecosystem
In 2018, Australia’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Office for Women approached Burston to provide a mentoring program to 100 women entrepreneurs from marginalized communities, including indigenous, migrant, refugee, low socio-economic, and disabled groups. The aim of the 12-month program, spanning 95 different towns throughout metropolitan, regional and remote Australia, was to grow the businesses and develop the entrepreneurial skills of the members.
The program proved successful on various metrics. It boasts a 100% satisfaction rating; 81% of participants reported business growth; 98% felt more confident about business capability; and 96% said the program helped them and their business succeed.
In 2020, the Cabinet Office for Women approached Inspiring Rare Birds to support another 90 marginal demographic women whose businesses have been affected by COVID-19. Now in its fourth month, the program includes mentoring two hours a month, providing different education modules, and continued access to the digital resources following completion.
Since 2018, education in schools has become another cornerstone of the work of Inspiring Rare Birds. With the government’s support, the organization has been able to roll out a national program across 49 Australian schools preparing students to approach the world with an entrepreneurial mindset based on innovation and problem-solving.
“It is like coming full circle from the beginning of my story, where I went to my school talking to these young girls,” says Burston, adding that the program includes educating teachers so that they feel confident delivering the content. “So, there’s a double impact. We are not only affecting the future of these young people but also affecting the current state of the teachers who are starting to think more entrepreneurially, which also benefits the education system.”
Leading with “a smart heart”
From the start, Burston structured the organization as a business capable of producing a return from a viable financial model without charging a membership fee. “I wanted it to be a legitimate business, a purpose-built organization that is profitable, even though all the money gets reinvested into the business,” she says. “I have always built scalable companies. I have the formula to do that, so I played to my strengths. Interestingly, organizations invest in us knowing that we are a for-profit company.”
After two years, the organization has become self-sustaining, funded by government and corporations, with ambassadors volunteering their time. Burston adds, “People who are involved with Inspiring Rare Birds do it because they want to give back. Forty percent of our mentors are men. They enjoy being a part of it because they want a different pathway for their daughters and their granddaughters in the future. Rare Birds is not a women’s organization. It’s an organization to support women. And that support comes from all.”
An essential part of leading a for-profit, for-purpose business is having a “smart heart,” says Burston. “Having an empathetic heart in this business is essential. We have to listen to people’s stories. We have to hear what they are saying; we have to walk in their shoes. Only then will we be able to provide the support system to help them thrive and flourish. I have become a far more empathetic leader in that process.”
She adds that whereas her first business — Job Capital — is very transactional, Inspiring Rare Birds is all about people. “Not everyone can run this kind of business, and not everyone wants to either. You can’t make someone do something they don’t want to do. But I think there is a responsibility for those successful in their careers or business to find something that they are passionate about and be active in that space — giving back some of the fruits of their labor.”
A bright future for Rare Birds
As for the future, Burston has ambitious plans to take Rare Birds global. “Five years is still a very young business,” she explains. “We are still in our infancy, so I don’t want to do things too quickly. But I would like to move into Asia at some point in the next couple of years. We still have a lot of work that we can do in Australia, including supporting more marginal demographic women, particularly indigenous, and helping women in the corporate world accelerate their careers. Same message, but on scale.”
On a personal level, Burston is keen to continue to lead this expansion. “I love this business. I love the opportunities that it brings, the people that I meet, and the stories that I get to hear,” says Burston. “I am especially proud of impacting the lives of so many women that I might never meet.”
Meanwhile, as she continues to innovate and expand Rare Birds in Australia and beyond, Burston still finds time for her other entrepreneurship ventures. “I remember hearing people say that, ‘If you can’t distinguish the difference between work and fun, you probably are in the right place.’ That’s the place I’m at now.”