Women in Innovation: Irene Lemon

"For a social entrepreneur, making a difference is at the heart of everything we do."

We interview women in our community about innovation and what drives them to make a difference in their industries. This week we spoke to Irene Lemon, Enterprise Development Manager at Mill House Ventures.

What are you working on?

Mill House Ventures is the Social Enterprise Intermediary for Canberra and the region.

Our Accelerator program, GRIST, is an accelerator for entrepreneurs who want to use social innovation and trade to create impact in social, cultural, economic and environmental areas.

My role at Mill House is the program manager for GRIST, and support our operations to build investible social ventures. In my spare time, I am a performing artist, and I produce Country Music Comedy (country songs that make you laugh till you cry). My goal is to win a Golden Guitar Award.

Why is innovation important to you?

I prefer to take innovation a step further and focus on social innovation. This area of innovation fascinates me. As an artist and an entrepreneur, I have come up against the tension of creating meaningful work AND profitable work.

There aren’t that many grants in the arts industry (especially for country music comediennes), and the music industry has one of the most disrupted markets because of digital transformation. Innovation, and social innovation, became very important when my revenue dropped by 90% due to streaming, drought and policy changes in how Australian content is supported. Between one quarter and the next, my royalties dropped by a huge amount.

My work connects communities and adds to the cultural vibrancy of place. I needed to find a way to talk about my impact AND make money at the same time, and so my journey of social entrepreneur began. Within 5 years of pivoting my business model, I was able to buy a house and raise my five children with my beautiful husband and our pack of doggos.

Now, 20 years later (I’m still only 25 if anyone asks – I know, it’s a miracle) I am responsible for helping other social entrepreneurs capture and describe their social innovations using trade. For me, this means we are future-proofing communities who are vulnerable to thrive through enterprise.

What drives you to make a difference?

For a social entrepreneur, making a difference is at the heart of everything we do. We are naturally anarchistic and fight against bureaucracy. We fight against the status quo.

It means we are misfits. I am also a bolshy rat-bag from the bush, so I come up against misogyny and stereotypes because I am an outspoken country girl. I think that it’s the creative comedienne side of my personality, and I occasionally get into trouble for it!

So, my drive comes from my passion for diversity, equality and creating impact so people from vulnerable or minority groups have the same access to entrepreneurship regardless of their colour, place of origin or socioeconomic status. That’s what makes Social Enterprise such an incredible force to be harnessed, and why I am so privileged to be able to network and support social innovation within the CBRIN extended team. Just being a part of such a great network and find a tribe adds to my drive for change.

Do you have any advice for getting more women into the innovation ecosystem?

My advice is for the men.

Please make space for us. We are here, we are 50% of the population, and we need blokes to actively make spaces safer for women and girls. Even something as simple as introducing yourself when you are behind us, to put us at ease about making sure a stranger isn’t threatening our personal space helps! It feels weird and awkward, sure, I get that; but not as weird and awkward as not knowing who is behind you and that proximity triggering your flight or fight response!

I’d also like to see men encourage the voice of women to come forward by speaking last. It takes a courageous man to hold his words until all the women have spoken.

As for getting more women into Entrepreneurship, at Mill House, more than 80% of our cohorts are women. We believe we have an incredibly inclusive community, and social innovation using trade is growing in Australia. If you want to take the leap, why not investigate Mill House for your entrepreneurial fix!

What are you proud of right now?

Mill House Ventures is re-launching our Mill House Accelerator and GRIST program for Virtual Delivery. COVID-19 has radically altered how programs and events are delivered, and our delivery model had to change.

I’m really pleased with the way our tiny team has pivoted and thought about all the social innovation opportunities available for social entrepreneurs and I can’t thank April, Lina and Cindy, plus our incredible board and amazing members enough for the support and creativity to re-design everything we do.

My ask is for entrepreneurs who want to investigate trading for social, environmental, economic or cultural impact to come visit Mill House online, and why not fill out a GRIST application?! It’s time to choose your own adventure!

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