Sara Haley had been running her catering business Made by Misty for six-and-a-half years when COVID-19 ground everything to a screeching halt. With upcoming events and orders cancelled “just like that”, 2020 was a very bumpy ride.
“On the one hand, you think maybe it’s a good opportunity to get all the other stuff ticking over for your business, but when you think it’s all over – which I definitely did at times – there doesn’t seem any point in doing a lot of that stuff,” Sara says.
Staying motivated wasn’t the only issue. Suddenly, there was a big black hole where work used to be.
“I was going stir-crazy, because I’m used to running my own business and having a lot to think about, and to being very busy and mentally stimulated,” she says. “And suddenly, I had no focus anymore.”
“2020 was definitely challenging in that way. It was very hard and emotionally taxing, and like a yo-yo with all the ups and downs.”
Small business ambassador: yes, yes, yes!
Eventually, a friend put Sara onto the Jobs Victoria online hub, where she saw the small business ambassador position posted by the Yarra City Council.
In this role, Sara works as a liaison between small business owners and the Council, inquiring about pain points and trying to effect positive change for local traders.
“Straight away, I was like: yes, yes, yes!” she says. “It was a part-time role, which gives me the flexibility to try and get my business up and running again, but also it sounded like a position where I could actually help other people who’ve been through similar and worse.
“Because I understand what it’s like to run your own business and then see it crash through no fault of your own. It’s quite devastating, so it’s really, really nice to have the opportunity to actually make a difference and support other people in that situation.”
Someone who really understands
Since starting with the Yarra City Council in early January, Sara has already been able to help people in various ways, including pointing business owners to grant applications that might suit their situation.
After speaking to a trader who said they’d like to see more foot traffic in their strip, she also helped an events company engaged in getting more people to the street.
But mostly the job is to check in on local business owners, be a friendly face, and to find out how they’re doing.
“It sounds simple, but really it’s just listening to people and giving them a chance to tell their stories, so they feel like someone cares,” Sara says. “I think that’s something really big that came out of everything last year and again this year.
“For my catering business it was literally over just like that, and there was nothing. I definitely went through some very hard times coming to terms with that, and although my friends and family were supportive, they couldn’t really understand the heartache.”
That experience means she really understands what other business owners are going through – and it allows her to connect with people differently.
“It’s been really amazing to play that role of someone who really gets it, who is supportive, and who wants to try and make a difference,” she says.
Working together for a greater good
Sara says she’s seen people in all sorts of situations since starting with the Yarra City Council in early January.
There are those who are at the end of their tether, and struggling to keep things together after a tough year. And then there are those who, through chance or effort, “are going absolutely gangbusters and busier than ever”.
Either way, their stories leave a lasting impression on the small business ambassador.
“I come back feeling really inspired some days,” Sara says. “The people I speak to are amazing – their resilience and strength, and the way they are constantly reinventing themselves, it’s just incredible.”
In fact, the role has turned out to be even better that she imagined – both in terms of the support she’s been able to provide to others, and in the culture of the team she’s part of.
“It’s the best job,” Sara says. “The team I work for is amazing, and my bosses are really supportive of my business and really lovely people, who allow me extra flexibility when I need it.
“It’s also an environment where ideas actually get traction – so if there are ways to help, to genuinely make a difference for someone, my team really gets on board and pulls together to try to make that happen.”