Batting eyelashes for poverty

 A photograph of seven young adolescent girls, and two adolescent boys in their Bikema Academy Centre school uniform.

Bikema Academy Centre students in Malawi

Bikema Academy Centre students in Malawi

The horror of witnessing a child begging for food in Laos turned Nina Sackprasith into a social entrepreneur. Now, The University of Queensland (UQ) graduate supports girls in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, to get an education.

Nina has used her parents’ experience as refugees, and a Graduate Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, to take action against poverty.  

Her mother, Phouvone Sackprasith, was 17 years old when she escaped Laos in the 1980s to live in a detention camp in Thailand for a year with her younger sister, before getting sponsored to move to Australia. To reach this camp, they escaped in a small boat at night to avoid being shot by soldiers who would have killed them for fleeing because they didn’t want “people against communism” getting out.

Nina’s father, Luck Choummanivong, came to Australia for a better life when he was 21 and completed year 10 the following year, attending classes with adolescents. The son of a mayor in a town in Laos, his aunt raised him and his eight siblings while their father was away fighting the communist regime. They regularly had to share an egg among the whole family, mixing it with milk to make a meal out of it. Luck now runs a community centre in Ipswich and helps immigrants and refugees.

Nina, at seven years of age, is standing next to another girl from her home town of Ipswich. Nina is wearing a bright orange crepe dress.

Nina (on the left) with childhood friend, in Ipswich.

Nina (on the left) with childhood friend, in Ipswich.

Caring for people has always been a part of Nina’s upbringing. She’s advocated for multicultural youth and refugees, and was selected as a youth representative for Queensland in 2015.

“My first experience of witnessing poverty was as a child returning with my parents to Laos and seeing a six-year old boy begging in the street for food,” Nina said.

“My father gave this boy a meal, and then the boy followed us for the rest of the night."

“I remember thinking no child as young as him, or like me, should have to do this.”

Two Laotian boys looking directly into the camera. One has the rope handle of a Gerry can in his teeth.

Nina knew she wanted to do something significant to help others.

She completed her graduate certificate in 2018, choosing to study part-time so that she could work full-time in marketing and administration. The Entrepreneurship and Innovation course challenged her in different ways to her undergraduate degree in public relations and business, which she completed at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

“At UQ, while studying Graduate Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, I was able to delve into what social enterprise is. How to fight causes. How to measure impact. I made good friends there too, like Jamil Ahomed, who is heavily involved in the space. We founded our own social enterprises in 2018.”

Nina at her UQ graduation, standing next to Dr Russell Manfield, Jamil Ahomed.

(from left to right) Nina, UQ mentor Dr Russell Manfield, Jamil Ahomed.

(from left to right) Nina, UQ mentor Dr Russell Manfield, Jamil Ahomed.

Nina has put her studies in both public relations and entrepreneurship and innovation into practice. For two years, she worked in marketing for the youth leadership movement at AIESEC as a volunteer. At the same time, Nina took part in AIESEC’s Global Entrepreneur program. She facilitated classes in a Chinese village and visited other communities as a ‘human library’, speaking with people to teach them about another culture.

Nina took the initiative to find her purpose, and realised it was in social entrepreneurship.

Nina is between her parents. Father is kissing her cheek and mother is looking proudly at the camera.

(from left to right) Father, Luck Choummanivong, Nina, and Mother, Phouvone Sackprasith at her UQ graduation.

(from left to right) Father, Luck Choummanivong, Nina, and Mother, Phouvone Sackprasith at her UQ graduation.

While at UQ, I started my own project in Cambodia, called 'The Promise Project' to help young orphans with disabilities.

“I grabbed six motivated people from Australia, raised some money, and we all volunteered in the orphanage.

Children and carers at a Cambodian orphanage.

Cambodian orphanage 'The Promise Project' contributed to.

Cambodian orphanage 'The Promise Project' contributed to.

“I also visited Laos, and Singapore. I spoke with non-government organisations, like Japan Hearts, to understand how they operated. When I returned from this trip I decided I had to do something. It took me a few years to get a business up and running.”

Aside from Nina’s charity project in Cambodia, she’s worked on projects that were part of the UQ course; like organising a team to pitch a startup idea, attending events together as a class, and conducting surveys at community festivals on refugee integration into Australian society and effects on wellbeing.

“The UQ course itself was great at showing us the steps of what we could achieve, and how to use the models we learnt in class to effectively put an idea together – to organise it well enough to coherently present it at a pitch event.”

After graduating from UQ, Nina had enough knowledge to start her own social enterprise – Vivre Co. Australia.

Vivre Co. Australia logo: blue lotus flower, with dabs of pink colour behind it. The letters VV sit inside  a circle that overlays the image.

Nina's business Vivre Co. Australia

Nina's business Vivre Co. Australia

Vivre Co. Australia is an eyelash beauty business that empowers and educates young girls from impoverished communities, and every service provided helps fund Nina’s campaign.

Nina currently sponsors 40 Malawian girls and has provided an equivalent of more than 3036 days’ worth of education. She has also partnered with Malawi's Bikema Academic Centre to resolve systematic issues around education, poverty and gender inequality.

They are placed into our Girls Scholarship Program, where they also receive lessons in Leadership and are provided mentorship.

A group shot of Bikema Academy School girls - they're dressed in orange tops and grey skirts.

The Malawian Academy Nina supports.

The Malawian Academy Nina supports.

“I believe it’s important to instil strong values in them while they are learning so they can become ethical leaders. The mentorship helps them combat social pressures they face, veering them away from damaging social norms, such as child marriage.”

Nina said the most important thing she learnt from the UQ course was how to make sure everything in a social enterprise was feasible.

“That it’s not just helping me and my enterprise, but knowing that I am actually helping the people I’m targeting,” Nina said.

“And, looking to the core reasons for the issues. Not just, “oh children are in poverty and have no money”, but why don’t they have money? What factors are causing the poverty cycle? And looking deeper into that to resolve the underlying systemic issues.

“It was an excellent experience, and opened my eyes.”

Nina said that one of her mentors was former Entrepreneur in Residence, Dr Russell Manfield, of the UQ Business School.

“He was very supportive and gave constructive feedback. He always came from a learning mentality,” she said.

“He would listen to my intentions and ideas, then reflect them back to me without denying my ideas or correcting me. This helped develop my thinking process as well."

While studying towards her graduate certificate, Nina also attended founder talks at one of UQ’s entrepreneurship programs, Idea Hub. In 2017, Idea Hub Director, Nimrod Klayman, presented Nina with her UQ Create Change Award and the Seven News Queensland Young Achiever Awards finalist prize for her work with Vivre Co. Australia and previous volunteering initiatives.

(front row, third from left) Nina with other social enterprise founders at Impact Boom.

(front row, third from left) Nina with other social enterprise founders at Impact Boom.

(front row, third from left) Nina with other social enterprise founders at Impact Boom.

Nina’s determination to turn her social enterprise into a success continues to gain traction. Earlier this year, she was accepted into the three-month long Elevate+ Social Enterprise Accelerator Program, delivered by Impact Boom – a social enterprise that helps early-stage founders develop and scale their projects. The Brisbane City Council and strategic design consultancy, Seven Positive, sponsored the program.

“Most people don’t think of the beauty industry, when they think of social enterprises,” Nina said.

Nina practising putting false eyelashes on a dummy.

Nina practising her trade.

Nina practising her trade.

“At events I sometimes feel misplaced but, having made it through into Impact Boom as a young woman, I now feel relevant and appreciated. It’s great to see more female founders in this space."

“I’m passionate about seeing more empowered women. Through beauty, I help develop their self-confidence and provide a safe space to come to express themselves, and these sales help young girls in Malawi receive an education.

Nina wants to fully establish her social enterprise so that the school in Malawi continues to receive funding, and so that women are inspired to do something themselves to improve other women’s lives.

Nina Sackprasith smiling. She’s standing in a park.

See what goes on behind the scenes at UQ on Small Change.