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The world champion turned social entrepreneur

Layne Beachley didn’t want other driven women to face the same financial hardship she did at the dawn of her surfing career, so the determined seven-time world champion has turned her attention to building her own social enterprise.

Beachley knew from an early age that she had what it takes to be a world champion surfer, but great skill and sheer determination proved they weren’t enough – a lack of financial support was almost her undoing. Close to quitting on a number of occasions, one particular employer’s act of kindness changed her fate forever. He recognised her abilities, giving her the $3000 she needed for the around the world ticket that would allow her to win her first world title. It’s this formative experience she draws on when explaining why she started Aim For The Stars, which offers grants of between $1,500 and $3,000 to women who need a little bit of extra help achieving their ambitions.

In the years since launching the foundation, Beachley has given away close to $500,000 worth of grants. And although the surfer turned social entrepreneur tells you starting a foundation is challenging, it’s clear she’s incredibly passionate about helping women across the country reach their personal bests.

What challenges have you faced in starting it up?

One major challenge is getting people to our events in the first place. Once they’re there they get it, but explaining the foundation to people is the hard part. People are so used to supporting foundations that help the sick, dying and those who can’t support themselves, whereas we’re a very niche charity that supports women with initiative and passion. One of the most insulting things I’ve heard is that we support girls with hobbies – so the challenge for us is awareness and understanding.

The sponsorship side of things is challenging too. Fortunately, we’re not a million-dollar charity so there’s a bit less pressure on us from that respect. We’ve lost Macquarie Bank as a sponsor, so now we need to find a sponsor to take their place.

How are you overcoming this?

We’re using PR to educate people about the foundation. We send out fact files to schools, unis and sporting organisations. It’s all about promoting the cause, telling people who we are, why we’re helping and how we’re helping. And then the recipients themselves become our brand evangelists – Jessica Watson’s our sole ambassador.

It’s a slow process, but we’re getting there.

What’s the steepest learning curve you’ve come up against in the running of a foundation?

Without being negative, I think I’ve placed my own set of expectations and limitations on the foundation, which I think comes from my experiences as a woman in sport. In surfing, I often based my objectives on what I thought other people expected of me. It took becoming a World Champion for me to realise that other people’s expectations don’t matter. It comes down to what you think and who you are – that’s what people buy into.

I also think the ambivalence people feel towards charities has a lot to do with the expectations I’ve placed on Aim For The Stars. There are so many charities out there, all vying for the same piece of the very small philanthropic pie. What I’ve learned is that it’s a matter of knowing the right people, at the right time – you need to sell a desirable product at the ideal time.

What does success mean to you?

I always look to the three P’s, which are relevant to success in any aspect of life. They are: patience, passion and perseverance. As long as you have the passion and patience to persevere through the roadblocks and ambivalence that pops up along the way, you will get there in the end. Especially when you’re working toward something that really resonates with you.

How have your experiences in the sporting arena helped you in the social entrepreneurship world? 

There are lots of parallels between sport and running a business. Whether it be your desire to get to the top, or the constant measurements you have to do, or the teamwork that’s required.

Having said that – I’ve learned that I don’t have a head for business, and I know this from running my own. It comes down to the fact that I don’t often know the right questions to ask and I put too much trust in people who I think have my best interests at heart. Whether you’re running a business or a foundation, it’s about surrounding yourself with the right people and trusting your instincts.

It’s taken me a while to learn this though. I had a clothing line for five years, and I eventually stepped back from it and dissolved it. One day, I took an honest stock take of the business and looked at it from an objective rather than a subjective view. I asked myself ‘Are the brand, product, distribution and the people I’m working with right? Do I have the skill set to do this? Am I passionate enough about it?’ All the answers were no. So once I got really honest with myself, I realised it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t easy because I was really invested in the business – it was like cutting an umbilical cord – but when I did it opened up a whole new world to me. The classic cliché ‘you’ve got to close one door to open another’ really rang true!

Whereas in surfing, I’d always known what my goal was. First you have to identify your goal, next you’ve got to identify your means for getting there and finally you need your call to action and strategy. I had this sorted in sport, but not in business. I had a grand plan, blue-sky outlook that you just can’t take into running a business.

So I’m taking this lesson into the running of the foundation and every year we’re getting a little clearer and more focused. 

Is there anything you’ve learned about running a social enterprise that’s surprised you?

I would have to say it’s the amount of money that’s wasted. There are some charities that raise enormous amounts of money and sometimes it doesn’t go where you think it’s going to. I think social entrepreneurship and business is all about honesty and transparency, so when you say you’re going to do something, you need to follow through with it.

This is why I love Aim For The Stars – we actually do more than we say we’re going to. We like to be fluid with our application process: we create new categories for girls who we think are deserving of grants but who don’t fit into our existing categories. So we’re flexible and we like to support as many girls as we can.

Who do you draw inspiration from? 

I don’t draw inspiration from any one individual – I draw it from everywhere. From articles I read, to people I meet, to song lyrics I hear, to sitting in nature and going surfing. I draw inspiration from things that make my heart sing, and they’re usually things I don’t have to go looking for – they just resonate with me.

Seeing people achieve inspires me a lot too. I was in London for the Olympic Games as a mentor to our entire team and seeing people achieve their personal bests and do better than they expected was amazing. Watching how some of the athletes bounced back from disappointments also inspired me!

What’s your proudest moment to date?

Winning my first world title – it really was the be all and end all of my life. To achieve that I had to achieve many things before it: I lost my adopted Mother at the age of 6, I had Chronic Fatigue twice which drove me to the depths of depression and toward suicide, and I had to overcome all the injuries and financial obstacles that almost caused me to quit before I’d reached my goal.

What advice would you offer to people interested in establishing a social cause, but who don’t have the same high-profile you do?

It’s just the same as setting up a business. You need a good team around you who can help you establish it and help you with all the paperwork. There’s a lot of paperwork that goes into starting a foundation! Be really clear on what is you’re offering, why you’re offering it and why it’s important.

Get an ambassador. Fortunately I’m able to be my own ambassador but you shouldn’t be scared to ask people to be yours. I am honoured every time someone considers me to be valuable enough to represent their cause.

What can people expect from Aim for the Stars in the future?

We want to raise more money to support more girls. To do that we need to raise our profile and reach, because I know there’s more money out there that will help us achieve our goals. It’s all well and good having a great product – but we need more people to know about it.

The annual Aim For the Stars Gala Night will be held in Sydney on September 14. If you would like to get involved with Beachley’s foundation, or buy tickets to attend the gala, just click here.

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Lorna Brett

Lorna Brett

Lorna was Dynamic Business’ Social Web Editor in 2011/12. She’s a social media obsessed journalist, who has a passion for small business. Outside the 9 to 5, you’re likely to find her trawling the web for online bargains, perfecting her amateur photography skills or enjoying one too many cappucinos. You can follow her on <a href="https://twitter.com/#!/dynamicbusiness">Twitter @DynamicBusiness</a>

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