Gaining strength from failure during COVID-19

- June 10, 2020 4 MIN READ

When Alex Badenoch, Group Executive of Transformation, Communications & People at Telstra, called me to say I had won Telstra’s Victorian Business Women’s Emerging Leader Award, and had also been named the Victorian state winner, I was speechless. I thanked her in mostly unformed throaty sounds, hung up and turned around to my dog, who – sensing my excitement – was joyously peeing on the rug, writes Julie Hirsch, Co-Founder and COO of Eloments Natural Vitamin Teas.

‘Success’ is never as glamorous as Instagram makes it look.

In the midst of a global pandemic, I had reached a life goal. I was named on the Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 list, and was chosen as Telstra’s Victorian Business Woman of the Year.

But it may not be surprising that I have failure on my mind as I reconcile the bitter-sweetness of acknowledging these milestones while grieving an infected world.

Covid-19 has brought failure to the forefront of many of our thoughts. This quarantine is our worst New Years Resolution nightmare. Who else committed to learning a language, exercising daily, meditating and excelling at Work from Home on Day 1, only to find yourself on Day 40 having not worn a bra in 4 weeks?

Covid-19 has also brought the possibility of life-altering failures for many Australian businesses, shutting doors that may never open again, and amassing uncertainty in already tough industries. My own business lost one of our largest export markets overnight, and our disrupted supply chain would have meant we’d run out of stock by August if we hadn’t done some quick problem-solving.

But in my experience, it’s these moments when the magic happens.

Let me explain. I’m 3 months into my 30’s, so “looking back on my life” is a bit rich. But in my journey so far, I strongly believe my failures led to my successes. And I am so grateful for those failures.

“There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” Brené Brown

When I was 22 I wanted nothing more than to be a literature professor. I ticked all the boxes for a good PhD program – I’d gotten my degree in Shakespeare with distinction and tested in the 96th percentile on my entrance exams. But I didn’t get into a single program. Not one.

This was the best failure that happened in my life. It hurt like hell.

After that I took a job in sales, lasting 3 days before quitting when my boss took me to a strip club while telling me I wasn’t impressing him yet.

That one hurt. But up we get again.

I scrambled to find a job quickly and took a role for a 40% salary reduction. It was with a brilliant NGO called the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, and I worked my way over the years to Deputy Director. I had learned by then that failing at something doesn’t mean you are a failure, just as succeeding at something does not make you a success. This left me free to trial new and different things, to fail and to learn and to try again.

When my now-business partner and entrepreneur icon, Nicole Lamond, asked me to join her on what became our wild ride creating the world’s first natural vitamin tea, I knew we could fail (although I will say, a global pandemic was fully outside my consciousness).

We set out to make a vitamin tea that was fair trade, organic certified, and delicious. We tried process after process, hitting brick walls and bouncing off them to try again. Any one of those obstacles could have been when we called it impossible and moved on, but we were both well acquainted with failure and somehow we were stubborn enough to keep going.

After two years of research and development, we created a patent-pending method that allowed us to blend 9 organic nutrients with fair trade teas in what became Eloments Natural Vitamin Teas. Woolworths truly backed us as a Melbourne-based, female-founded and fair trade innovation. They put Eloments Vitamin Teas on shelf in 75% of their stores within 6 months of our launch.

After just over a year, we’ve now launched in Holland & Barrett supermarkets and Ocado in the UK, had a deal to launch in the USA pre-Covid, and alongside our other brand that we manage, Qi Teas, have fair trade teas in almost 4000 stores worldwide.

Now, the risks of a startup just got riskier as international ports close.

When companies talk about “supply chain disruption,” it doesn’t bring to mind the hundreds or thousands of farmers and workers who make the product you love. As a fair-trade company, we are not only responsible for our jobs and our employees’ jobs, we have a responsibility to the farmers whom we partner with for Eloments’ gorgeous teas and spices.

So faced with this, we’re doing what we do best. Getting socked in the face by the scale of our dreams, and getting right back up again. We’ve found more fair trade partners and are turning to our tea lovers to invite them into our new product brainstorms. We’re calling our mentors, our friends and our families for their ideas, their love and their support because we know that getting up from the floor can sometimes take a helping hand.

The heartbreak is here for many, but I have immense faith in the community of Australian entrepreneurs, businesses, social enterprises and non-profits that the innovations to come out of this crisis will be astounding.

I am so grateful for all of the past failures that taught me how to sit with uncertainty and fear, and just keep going. I am wholeheartedly grateful to Telstra for the honour of being this year’s Victorian Business Woman of the Year, and I am humbled by the reminder that the challenges we face – and the many mistakes we make along the way – don’t diminish how far we’ve come.

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