In Conversation: Mikhara Ramsing
Tuesday, 24th April 2018 at 8:37 am
Within days of attending tech and innovation festival, Myriad, last year, Mikhara Ramsing quit her corporate job and went on to found two social ventures. Pro Bono News spoke to her about her moment of epiphany and what her last year has been like.
Today, Ramsing is a social entrepreneur from regional NSW with a passion for storytelling, youth empowerment and sustainable models for social impact.
But just one year ago, she had a secure job as an economist at Deloitte Access Economics.
Since leaving that role to commit to her vision of creating a more inclusive and safer Australia, Ramsing has travelled across the country with her partner in a self-made tiny home connecting with young people from the Northern Territory to Tasmania.
She has founded two social enterprises in the youth mental health space in 2017.
The first, Ground Chai, provides entrepreneurial skill workshops to rural and regional high schools, subsidised by chai sales, in a bid to equip youth with the tools to think about and share their stories.
The second, Ethnic LGBT+, is Australia’s only free national supportive online platform providing support, education and mentoring for culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) LGBT+ individuals.
Ramsing, who is of Indian heritage but grew up in South Africa before immigrating to Australia when she was 14, has also been recognised as a Young Social Pioneer 2017 by The Foundation of Young Australians, NSW Young Achiever 2017 and a Westpac Social Change Fellow 2018.
She is now preparing to return to Myriad – which sees hundreds of entrepreneurs, investors and changemakers from San Francisco board a special Qantas charter “Myriad Air” to attend the festival in Brisbane to focus on finding solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing the world today – as a speaker.
Here she talks to Pro Bono News about her journey, the importance of inclusivity and diversity and what comes next.
You basically quit your job within days of attending Myriad last year. What was your lightbulb moment and how did you come to that decision?
So I guess the seed was planted probably in grade 4 when I learned the word entrepreneur – and I still can’t spell it, but I’ve always had this dream of wanting to create something. I used to do a lot of volunteer work in school and I thought you either had to choose between working for a charity or choosing a career, in order to support yourself. And so when I learnt about social enterprise in university it really was a lightbulb moment for me, to see that I could connect the two and actually have a career, earn an income, but work towards a social purpose.
My background was in law and economics and I had the great privilege of working at Deloitte Access Economics in Sydney and I really enjoyed my time there but I just felt like I wasn’t making the impact I wanted to make. So Myriad – which is being held on the 16 to 18 of May this year and I’m going back to host one of the sessions – was really just the turning point, where suddenly I was in an ecosystem where there were all these people following their dreams. Previously I had been in these systems of school, university, institutions and surrounded by people but not necessarily people who felt like they were following their dreams. And the importance of being surrounded by the people, the ecosystem that you want to become, just was the real turning point.
It suddenly just felt real and I made the decision to quit my full-time job in Sydney.
What has the journey been like since making that decision?
As one does when they don’t have a full-time job in Sydney, I moved out of Sydney and my partner and I moved to Byron Bay. I wanted to be in a community that was really environmentally focused but also had a good perspective on pursuing one’s dream and career and in a socially conscious manner.
It was a huge transition period, going from these high achieving positions to just sitting. I saved up enough to live off my savings for 18 months, and wanted to give myself the time to really think about what my why was and what I wanted to start. And I read a lot of books and talked to a lot of people, and throughout this process I’d been going through my own journey of understanding my sexuality and bringing along my big loving Indian family into who I am, as a gay South African, Australian woman.
Moving out of home to Sydney was a big deal. Traditionally women in my family move when they get married, or you move for a job and Sydney was a great place to live because there was so much representation and Byron Bay as well was so supportive and it gave me the confidence to really bring my parents into who I am in an understanding and heartfelt way and not give them a choice to be anything but the loving, kind, supportive parents I’ve always known.
So that was a real driver for me then starting one of my social enterprises which is called Ethnic LGBT+. It literally was a safe place to document the stories of individuals at this intersection of being culturally and linguistically different and LGBT+ and the specific challenges they face. And in light of the plebiscite that was happening at the time and then the same-sex marriage equality debate, that played a really important role in helping to have those conversations with communities where conversations were not being had.
So my partner and I then decided to build a tiny home on the back of a trailer and we travelled around Australia for five months. Another passion of mine was working with youth. I just kept getting so boggled by the fact that the biggest killer of young people in Australia is suicide and I wanted to do something about it, and I knew a real solid way to do that was to help young people create jobs for themselves, find a source of financial income so they could make choices and the statistics were showing me that rural Australia was where suicide was the worst. And I knew they didn’t have the means to travel anywhere so I had to go to them.
So I started selling chai in Byron Bay and using the funds to provide these skill workshops for schools in rural and regional Australia and we travelled from Brisbane where our parents are, and made our way west all the way to Uluru, Alice Springs, and then all the way down to Adelaide and then went across the Great Ocean Road, caught the ferry to Tasmania, went to the bottom of Tasmania and then went all the way back up to Brisbane. So we travelled 40,000 kilometres in five months, which is actually the circumference of the earth and we still didn’t make it to WA.
Myriad really sparked this journey I’ve been on and coming back now I’m working specifically with young women from refugee and migrant backgrounds along the east coast of Australia and running these two day workshops for them, to give them enterprising skills. So collaborating on the work done by the Foundation for Young Australians, exposing them to creative design thinking principles, financial literacy, digital literacy so they can access employment or create their own employment.
Later this year I get the opportunity to start my Westpac Social Change Fellowship and I’m using that to create an Indo-Pacific network of LGBT+ leaders. So I’m part of a team organising a festival in Hong Kong this year called The Human Dignity Festival and we’re looking at intersectionality within human rights. And what are the lived experiences of human rights and those voices that aren’t being heard, so those from LGBT+ communities in countries where it’s criminalised and persecuted, those from the refugee and the migrant communities, those from the disabled community, the mental health community. A lot of my fellowship will be centred on forming a really strong network and then producing their stories to disseminate throughout the world.
Does your focus on inclusivity and diversity stem just from your lived experience or because you have identified it as a particular problem for society?
I think the personal why is very strong for me in those areas. And it’s helped me unpack a lot of my own understanding. Something I found in working with communities that are disempowered or marginalised – and even the language around that needs to change, it’s so negative – is what a lot of these members do, myself included, is we internalise a lot of the “isms” that we face. So in my journey of my sexuality I was quite homophobic at times. And in my experience as a woman of colour I was quite racist at times. And until you are aware of the factors around you and your own isms and are able to process that, then you tend to project.
So I’m really passionate about these areas because sometimes the most damage that happens in these communities comes from each other, comes from lateral violence. And so wanting to educate and empower these spaces so we can see support and inclusivity within these communities because you turn to your communities when in strife and if you’re facing judgment and fear from these communities then that’s really devastating.
So it’s twofold, definitely that personal drive and also it is one of the most important issues as a society we need to talk about because with that comes connection and with connection comes reduced youth suicide in my eyes.
You’ve talked a couple of times about your parents and the journey you’ve been on with them. What has the last 12 months meant for them?
I couldn’t imagine we would be where we are. It’s been beyond my wildest dreams of a home of acceptance and love. It’s amazing when you give yourself – and I’m paraphrasing Nelson Mandela here, a role model of mine – but when you allow your light to shine it really does give others permission to do the same.
We had Diwali, the Indian Christmas equivalent, altogether with my partner for the first time after leaving my job and I think they can just see how happy I am in pursuing my dreams. I think they’ve always known, they would always ask “What’s next? You’re always such a go-getter, we can’t see you being here either”. And I’m really proud of them for the journey and the path they’ve walked because I can definitely empathise and understand the context they’ve grown up in, in apartheid South Africa and how scary all of this would seem, but to be able to bring them along in the journey has been the most rewarding thing for me.
If you had a crystal ball and were able to look ahead to the next 12 months, what’s next?
I’m learning to trust the process. Leaving Deloitte was really scary. I had studied at university for seven years. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents who moved countries to give us kids a better life, who were invested so heavily in our education. There was a lot of pressures I put on myself but trusting the unknown and also acknowledging that I was so privileged that if I failed, I always failed safe, at the end of the day I had a home I could go to, and I know that’s not the reality for a lot of people, but it’s amazing what can be achieved when you do take the time to step back and give yourself the space to focus on what you want to achieve and and throw your energy towards it and how quickly it comes together.
For next year, in light of the incredible year I’ve had, I’ve purposely not booked anything in for the first six months. I want to sit and really reflect on the incredible opportunities that I’ve been given and then how I can translate that into impact for the communities and my vision of creating a more inclusive Australia. Like how do I actually work that out.
I think next year I’m really going to grow my chai component of the business because that’s my funding model and then that allows me to reach more people.
What advice would you give to other young people who are on the cusp of that career decision of whether to go for purpose?
So definitely make an educated decision in the sense of one, realise how skilled you are. A lot of young people, so much of it is not a skills thing, it’s a confidence thing. Especially young women, it’s really hard to be what you can’t see, and the more intersectionality you place, the harder it is to see yourself in certain roles. But really turn inward first, realise how skilled and talented you are, truly weigh up your opportunities, and just step out and give yourself a go. Give yourself a chance to pursue that. How long can you do that? And then commit to it.
It takes courage. It is scary. But back yourself, because you are far more talented than you realise, that would probably be my advice.