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Image Credit: Harjono Djoyobisono

Equiano: The journey from corporate life to passionate business owners

Dynamic Business sat down with co-founders of small business Equiano, Marylou Verberne and Clare Harding to talk about their move from the corporate world into an innovative small business. 

Equiano delivers a horse-based experiential learning experience. Their half-day and full-day programs are designed to help workplace teams develop leadership, teamwork and EQ skills to take back into the workplace.  

There is no riding involved, and all activities are on the ground. Rather, teams work together with specially trained horses to build the “soft skills essential for successful leadership and high-performance teams”.  

Marylou and Clare launched Equiano in 2020. However, the inspiration for Equiano came about long before. 

What were you doing prior to starting Equiano? 

Marylou: “Clare and I come from similar but quite different backgrounds. We both come out of the corporate sector. Initially, my working life was as a lawyer.  I did law for about 12 years, all up mostly overseas, in banking and finance roles in Asia, sometimes in London. Clare started her work life as an academic. She was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.” 

Did you have any small business experience prior to starting Equiano?

Clare: “We have both owned and grown small to medium-sized businesses in the past, in sectors as varied as transport, education, and consulting. When we met we were both consulting freelance, then we set up a social impact consultancy together with someone else.”

Marylou: “We were both doing consulting work. So that’s probably the smallest small business you can have.”

“I think that the gift of COVID was that it really allowed us time. Consultancy falls off in any sort of economic downturn.

“We left, and Clare and I worked on the idea of what we might do. What our dream business would be. And we’ve spent since the lockdown for COVID working on that.

“We both knew we didn’t want to be in corporate structures. In our consulting work, we continued to work at the board level and senior executive level. So we are very familiar with that culture, but we didn’t want to be in that culture.”

Equiano: The journey from corporate life to passionate business owners
Image Credit: Harjono Djoyobisono

Clare: “We were both working on the Japanese principle of IKIGAI where your passion, your skills, the need in the world and what is profitable come together. There you find what you’re really meant to do. 

“We never found that spot. We thought, well, we’re gonna have to build it. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

“For us, ​​that is our umbrella company, called Rainbird. Our umbrella company Rainbird, we envision as a home, or a hub for immersive experiential learning, that targets the skills of future workforce needs.”

What is Equiano?

Clare: “Equiano is designed to allow people new insights into themselves and into how they show up to others.” 

Marylou: “Horses don’t care about your title. They don’t care about your CV; they don’t care where you went to school; they don’t care what qualifications you have. What they do care about, though, is what sort of leader you are and where you are in the pecking order. 

“There’s a sense of in the moment of feedback from them, and the advice is constant. It’s not a survey you filled out or 360s that corporates will do. It’s looking for creating opportunities to have those lightbulb moments. For the participant to learn something about themselves.”

Clare: “It’s designed very specifically for people who are not horse people. It’s about self-discovery and how that relates to your effectiveness at work later and as a team member.”

Equiano: The journey from corporate life to passionate business owners
Image Credit: Harjono Djoyobisono

Was Equiano based on a need you saw in your previous working lives? 

Clare: “Mary Lou and I have both worked in extraordinary environments, where the whole was truly greater than the sum of the parts. But we’ve also experienced some toxic environments. 

“The language around good leadership and teamwork is often sophisticated in organizations. But the toolset to actually ensure that that happens is often kind of mired in compliance-based training, box-ticking and the occasional workshop.

“One of our clients who is a leadership coach and an expert says that she finds that the power of Equiano is in the awareness-building stage and a learning journey.” 

What is Equiano’s Market?

Clare:“The product in the marketplace is designed to be a complement and a counterpoint to what’s already out there in traditional learning.

“We are aiming to bring into the world of corporate education new participants, new providers, not on the demand side, but the supply side.

“Our vision is to have our own products and then, in time, to be able to host other great providers and a curated set, or community, of offerings.

“We envisage that we will continue to serve individual businesses. But really, we’re setting up to serve providers of corporate education and leadership, and to provide them with an additional set of high-quality immersive learning options to help bring their work to life.

“We’ve had these winding journeys and very varied careers. What we’ve found now is that all the expertise, all the different worlds we’ve been in and all the ups and downs we’ve both experienced, none of that has gone to waste.

“I think there’s a lesson in there for or a message of reassurance for people who are feeling uncertain about career paths.  And beating themselves up as I know I have done for not finding the one thing and sticking with it.  Which is increasingly anachronistic, but there’s still a lot of pressure to, collectively, follow that linear path.”

Read more: How can your small business go green?

Read more: Breaking gender stereotypes: 4 key strategies women need to negotiate a higher salary

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Heidi Heck

Heidi Heck

Heidi Heck is a Journalist at Dynamic Business. She is a student at the University of Queensland where she studies Journalism and Economics. Heidi has a passion for the stories of small business, as well as the bigger picture of economics.

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