As a former Defence Force warship driver, Dianna Somerville thought her prospects of getting a relatively decent job in her home town of in Wagga Wagga New South Wales Australia would be comparatively straightforward in contrast to driving warships – with a chance of dodging bullets – but it seems she was in for a new battle.
It was 2005 and Dianna was 26 years-old – after spending six years in the Defense Force it was time to settle down and develop her career back on home turf.
“I came back to Wagga for a weekend and ran into my now husband, who I actually went to preschool with. I had planned not to live back in the region, but I fell in love and thought life was going to be like McLeod’s Daughters, I would move back to the farm and everything was going to be so romantic and lovely,” Dianna admits.
Sadly, her fantasies were promptly squashed when the former warship driver surprisingly couldn’t get a job.
“Because I’d been out of area and mainstream, and I’d done something a little bit different it was really tough when I came back into the region. It was hard to find a support network and tribe.
And I couldn’t articulate the skills that I had that would translate into civilian life and explain to people that I used to drive a warship for a living, and them understand the skill-set needed to do that. It’s a big barrier for a lot of Defense Force people when they get out,” Dianna explains.
Dianna thought she’d be able to go back and work for the Department of Defense as a public servant, only to find there was no jobs going.
“I think I went for something ridiculous, like 35 job interviews. I put my name in for everything, from retail to administration, anything I could get my hands on just to get a job and help support the farm. I was either overqualified or too young to have the experience that I had and people couldn’t quite understand that. And I just couldn’t get a job and that’s when I lost it.
I talk about this transition as a real loss of professional identity and I didn’t go well. I really struggled, and I had a breakdown during this period.”
In the end, Dianna ended up selling Tupperware. She went from driving warships to selling Tupperware and says it felt demoralizing to think she had thrown it (her career) away and had a very hard couple of years.
“I got married and fell pregnant with my first child. At the same time I was really wrangling with, who am I and where do I fit professionally? I did the hard yards and I kept fighting and I didn’t give up and eventually I landed a job back in defense as a public servant at Blamey Barracks. It was at a really low level, I was ready to come back in at the bottom and work my way up again,” she says.
From there she did exactly that, and worked her way up again to the top public service job in Wagga for Defense, Base Manager at Kapooka. For a second time she’d forged a, from the grass roots up career, and then worked in a national contract transition team out of Canberra.
Breaking the geographical ceiling
“People talk about the glass ceiling, I talk about the geographical ceiling. In Canberra they said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we want you to grow, but you’ve got to move to Canberra.’ That frustrated the hell out of me,” she says.
So in 2014 Dianna knew it was time to take matters into her own hands, with good experience working with contracts she founded her first business, Regional Grants, Tenders and Corporate Services (RGTC) which provides grant, tender and award writing services to local businesses, schools, and not-for-profits.
“I just got out there and tried and failed and tried again, and found my way and found my tribe. I just did it,” she says simply.
One of those tribe members included her now business partner Simone Eyles. Simone co-founded 365 Cups, which is a global coffee order app, which all happened from Wagga.
(excluded) “Our paths collided and she really took me on this entrepreneurship journey and opened my eyes to what was out there. That was a really pivotal point to where I am now. But I was so open to that opportunity, and able to look down that rabbit hole and go, Okay, well what is down there? I might want to find out a bit more.”
Dianna then went and observed the entrepreneurship startup ecosystems in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. She saw Fishburners co-working spaces and hubs of startup events.
“I kept coming back to Wagga and kept getting really frustrated and thinking, where’s the regional play here? Where are our regions represented? I saw the disconnect between the community understanding what start-up business and driving economic growth was all about,” she continues.
Growing strong regional economies
Dianna saw the gap, the gap that no-one else could see. The missing bridge between bringing together local councils, business chambers, universities, startups and small businesses to build sustainable opportunities outside metropolitan areas, the way forward towards building sustainable opportunities in regional areas.
“It takes 20 years to build an ecosystem, it doesn’t happen over night, and you’ve got to take people on that journey with you. I’d really observed that,” she says.
So Dianna came back to Simone, telling her she was going to hold a pitch event in Wagga to try and close this gap. The aim was to help start-up business from regional communities secure support from relevant stakeholders, for example local council, business chambers, university and industry leaders, to kick-start their enterprise and have an opportunity to win a share of $100,000 in prizes.
She was going out to get support from the local community. (Shortened).
With no event experience to her name or resume, Dianna booked the Civic Theatre in Wagga, secured five judges – who were innovation leaders – and prepared for an audience of 150.
“I held this Shark Tank-like event, a live on stage pitch competition, highlighting five amazing regional businesses in Wagga that were doing startups, tech focused or innovative things.
I hustled to get sponsorship and it was a great night. It helped close that gap between the formal and funded community stakeholders and the startups and innovators in our region,” she enthuses.
Little did Dianna know that this was just the beginning of something that would become much much bigger.
“Unbeknown to me Australia Post were actually sitting in the audience. They were scoping out this event as something to align with, and two weeks later I got a call from Australia Post’s Chief Innovation Officer, Greg Sutherland. He rang me and said, ‘Come down, let’s have a chat about Pitchfest, because we love it,’” Dianna explains.
From that meeting, Australia Post partnered with Dianna’s business to scale the program into the Australia Post Regional Pitchfest and last year they did 57 events across regional Australia.
The initiative which has now been running since 2016 has seen over $500M invested into finalists and two finalists going on to appear on Shark Tank.
Dianna also now created ‘8point8,’ an annual regional innovation small business conference to support regional business owners even further.
“8point8 brings councils, business chambers, universities, and some of the start-ups and activators in our regional areas all together and showcases their amazing programs and people. This is about having that national-regional conversation, and tabling the best examples of a regional council, or a regional business chamber, or regional university or whatever body is doing something really unique within their community so others can learn from it and how that can be leveraged to drive economic growth. We’ve got to get better at telling that story.”
Having now worked with, and seen hundreds of new regional businesses come to life and grow over the last few years Dianna says it’s important to not let ourselves fall victim to the perceived limitations we place on ourselves, especially when it comes to our geography.
“We should encourage people to put themselves in a position where they will be challenged, and grow from that, because with that comes great resilience and that’s what really helped me.”
Dianna believes resilience, discipline and having the confidence to back herself is all part of her success to date.
But ultimately for the creative CEO, it’s about not settling for second best. The country powerhouse could still very well be moving up the ranks in Canberra, but instead she forged a path of her own – and that’s what true entrepreneurship is all about.
“I’ve always been able to put myself into a situation and go, ‘Okay here I am. I’ve put my hand up and now I’m going to do what I said I was going to do.’”
Sage advice for anyone wanting to follow in Dianna’s inspirational footsteps.