Edited transcript of Pauline Benson’s speech – Brisbane Dialogue on Pacific Women Entrepreneurs – Financial Education
My journey with ICDP has taken me from Fiji Finds to Pacific Finds. I built an e-commerce platform for Fiji to help SMEs get online and sell products and services online. I discovered this while I was working in tourism, journeying around the South Pacific training SMEs in how to market on the internet. I found that there was a great need for an e-commerce platform, but it was very challenging to actually set one up in the South Pacific. Setting up this sort of business is just one of the many challenges I’ve come across.
I was at a point in time where I felt a bit unmotivated and I was struggling when I attended the first dialogue, which was in Brisbane. This dialogue had the theme of ‘Pacific Women entrepreneurs – technology influencers’. I came to the dialogue unsure of what to expect, but I was excited for the journey and the experience.
Some of the key takeaways and most powerful messages I got were –
- If nothing else, network!
-Meet people and build connections. It may not happen at this dialogue or right away, but in the future, there could be ways you could find a way to work with other attendees, so build connections! Connections lead to more connections.
-Often an entrepreneur’s journey is isolated but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are a lot of other people who are doing similar work who can assist and support you in different ways. They can use their skills to support your skills and your business.
I felt really inspired and empowered coming out of the first dialogue. We heard from a few presentations that day and from other women in IT who had been setting up businesses in the South Pacific. It was powerful hearing about other’s journeys and struggles; I felt connected to their stories and as though I was going to make it through. It was amazing hearing about how they were empowering local communities through their success. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing, that you’re building something to help your local communities.
During the dialogue, it became apparent that there was a need for an e-commerce platform across the South Pacific. In light of this discovery, I put forward Fiji Finds because we needed an existing option. I think the lesson from this is to not be afraid to put forward ideas: any ideas you have, put them forward, you never know what could come out of it.
Through this experience, I learnt of an upcoming dialogue in Vanuatu, focusing on digital marketplaces and online services. That was good timing for me because I was about to expand from Fiji Finds and I thought the next step could be Vanuatu finds. This second dialogue was in Port Villa and it was here that I met some amazing Ni-Vanuatu entrepreneurs.
I found that a lot of these entrepreneurs were wanting to sell online or put their services online, but they didn’t have an e-commerce platform specifically for them in the South Pacific. At the dialogue, I met the leader of the House of Handicrafts, Sarah who has a network of women that make different products but have no way of selling them online. The women currently sell their goods (such as baskets and mats) in the House of Handicrafts but I am now working with Sarah to get these products online.
At the dialogue we also had a pitching session with the CEO for Digicell Vanuatu which was great; he was very supportive and has even offered his assistance in having a free download of any of the Pacific Finds apps in Vanuatu. This is just one example of the ways in which ICDP can connect you to different people.
During the pitching session, women from House of Handicraft explained that they needed free Wi-Fi for their place of business. The Digicell CEO listened to their pitch and agreed to help with this endeavour, subsequently meeting with Sarah and the other ladies to set up their free Wi-Fi. This was an amazing outcome from just one session and an example of the incredible support offered from bigger businesses. You never know until you pitch or talk to bigger businesses, they are quite open to helping when they can.
Through ICDP I have been able to connect with other Australian entrepreneurs as well, who have been very helpful in providing advice and assistance in connecting me to other entrepreneurs who are doing similar work in the Pacific. As part of the ICDP alumni, you have access to amazing entrepreneurs in the South Pacific and Australia. What I’ve found is that I can approach them for any advice and any assistance and they’re always willing to help, which has been useful especially being based in Fiji and sometimes needing help from Australia.
The last dialogue I attended was in Sydney and as part of it we had another pitching session. In this session we were taught exactly how to pitch which was helpful. It was in Sydney that I met my fellow Pacific Connect alumni who are now part of the core Pacific Finds team. We worked until about 2am after we had that pitching session, perfecting our dialogue for the next day. We pitched to a panel of different leaders and the wider audience and got a lot of really positive feedback. That was an invaluable experience, I never would have made those connections, nor been exposed to other entrepreneurs who are now part of my core Pacific Finds team. One of them is based in Fiji, one in Papua New Guinea and we’re still working with Sarah in Vanuatu as well.
I have been really blessed to have been connected to these other entrepreneurs who share the same vision as I do through ICDP; it’s good to have other people in your team who are working with you to build something that they also believe in because it really helps to build that foundational support system that is essential to build a successful business.
Don’t be afraid to approach, not just people here amongst us, but people part of the ICDP alumni as well. You can always reach out to them and they are always so supportive. Even I am offering my services! If I can offer any support or advice, I’m more than happy to help. Likewise, if there is anyone who would like to collaborate with Pacific Finds I would very much welcome that.
In terms of what Pacific Finds does, it is an e-commerce platform for the South Pacific, that is currently being piloted in Fiji, Vanuatu, PNG and Samoa. It promotes locally made products from across the South Pacific with the vision of empowering small businesses in rural communities who don’t have access to, nor the skills required to make this type of platform. Pacific Finds enables them to get themselves and their products online. When you purchase a product, you also have a QR code which has the website or webpage that will describe the artisan or merchant who made your product, so you can see who made your basket or your mat.
One of our team members, Fenella, went to meet some of these rural women, and she learnt that they travel every morning from about 4am. They leave their villages and hike to the nearest market to sell their produce. The women told Fenella to not worry – the walk was easy with just a few small hills. Although she had hiking boots, she struggled to get to the destination! Eventually she had to catch a bus for the final leg because it was too hard for her. These rural women, they do this every morning, five days a week, carrying their children, carrying their produce and they were there at about 6am, smiling and laughing at Fenella when she arrived. These are the type of women that we at Pacific Finds are trying to assist, so they don’t necessarily have to do this type of travel every day.
I’m currently building a website, with hopes to launch by the end of this month (November 2019). We’re working with small community groups which we’ve already connected with quite a few women’s groups. Agricultural groups have even come on board and asked to be listed on the website. It’s not just small groups, we’ve got event organisers as well who need a platform to sell tickets online. I’ve got different artisans involved and I am meeting with some Pacific Island women entrepreneurs based out in the Islands to get their amazing products online because they’re so beautiful, but market access is very challenging. As I mentioned, we’re not just working with artisans, but also with the Council of Fiji and agricultural organisations because they also need a way to get their products online.
We are also trying to connect to local delivery companies – this is one of the biggest challenges I have faced. It’s not just the challenge of creating an e-commerce platform, there’s also a huge cost to deliver overseas, so I am trying to set up collaborations with retail outlets in Australia and New Zealand.
At the end of the day, what we’re trying to build is a trusted brand, so that you have small businesses who aren’t afraid to come and sell their products online and buyers all over the world who aren’t afraid to come and spend their money and know that what they’re going to get is what’s online. It’s about building trust and knowing that when they get something it’s going to be delivered and it’s the same quality as what they have seen.
As I have mentioned, throughout my journey with ICDP I’ve been empowered and inspired. Prior to my engagement with ICDP I was at a difficult point with my business, it was such a huge struggle just to set up the e-commerce platform and then navigate how to work with SMEs. So, the assistance and learnings from ICDP have been empowering.
I have also seen a few other sites come up that are similar, it’s good to know that there is a need for this type of platform. I have also connected with so many amazing entrepreneurs across Australia and the South Pacific, that’s not something I would have done without this platform provided by ICDP, I’ve been very fortunate to have made these connections through support system.
I can now reach out at any time to the huge network we have and to the ICDP alumni, as well as their own connections. Collaborating with the amazing team that I have now, who are so excited to be part of Pacific Finds and working with different small communities has been a positive outcome.
Finally, the ICDP journey has led me here, to co-facilitating this workshop with the Catherine, who is also a Director for ICDP. Catherine spoke at the first Brisbane Dialogue and I was already inspired by her and the work she does. It’s amazing to reflect on where I have come from and all the growth that has taken place.
My journey started here as most of yours does today, where will your journey take you? That’s up to you today.