Inner East Review
Tuesday, 5 December 2023

How SisterWorks CEO Ifrin Fittock helped hundreds of women into jobs

Updated May 4 2022 - 1:07pm, first published May 3 2022 - 5:00am
Ifrin Fittock ... 'once you know you can make a living, it is life changing'. Picture: Morgan Hancock
Ifrin Fittock ... 'once you know you can make a living, it is life changing'. Picture: Morgan Hancock

SisterWorks chief executive Ifrin Fittock used to buy a lot of shoes but not any more.

"Now I have two pairs of comfortable shoes - one white, one black.

"That's it!" the former corporate consultant says.

It is not that moving into the not-for-profit sector has left her unable to afford fashion or that she has come to disapprove of spending money on it.

It's just that since joining social enterprise SisterWorks she got hooked on a different sort of satisfaction.

It was almost by accident that Ifrin got drawn in, when, taking a career break to see her daughters settle into school, she started volunteering and could not stop herself suggesting improvements at the organisation.

Five years later and wholeheartedly committed to its mission, she looks back with pride at SisterWorks' evolution from grassroots organisation with four employees into respected social enterprise with a staff of 33 and revenue last financial year of close to $3 million.

The migrant women's initiative, which is celebrating its ninth birthday next Sunday, has new headquarters in Abbotsford, "empowerment hubs" in Bendigo and Dandenong, a shop in Bridge Rd and 200 to 300 "sisters" engaging with its programs at any given time.

In its relatively short history, SisterWorks has embraced 1200 migrant, refugee and asylum seeker women from more than 94 countries in their quest for economic independence and social inclusion in Australia.

It has also formed partnerships with philanthropists, community groups and companies big and small and attracted funding from all levels of government.

The organisation is a training provider with twin post-training strands. After taking a course in areas like food handling, sewing or responsible service of alcohol, the women are channeled into working either as contractors to produce SisterWorks' own label products in its social enterprise side, or following employment pathways in its "empowerment" arm.

This involves getting them into jobs via "employment pathway partners" - these currently include Accor Hotels and L'Oréal cosmetics - with support from SisterWorks in skills like CV writing and interview techniques.

The social enterprise side also mentors women in developing and selling their own brands through its shops and accepts manufacturing contracts for jobs like making Bois The Label dog jumpers.

"There are so many stories being shared at SisterWorks, and all of them really motivate and inspire me," the Indonesian-Australian CEO says.

For her, the most powerful are the ones the women report back after finding a job.

"Once you know you can make a living, it's life changing. I think I really live for these stories."

Having grown up in a working class family in Jakarta, Ifrin knows firsthand how life-changing employment can be.

As a member of Indonesia's Chinese community, she also knows the feeling of being part of a minority, and as a woman, facing barriers based on cultural tradition.

Through hard work, talent and drive Ifrin paid her way through university and was able to establish a career as a business systems consultant.

After meeting an Australian from Bendigo in the same line of work, she married him, and the couple began consulting as a team.

Living and working between Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney and the Philippines, they moved between contracts, assessing and rolling out systems for companies like Chevron and BHP.

When they had their first baby in the Phillippines, there was a paid nanny to look after her.

Their second daughter was born in Glen Waverley during a break between projects.

When their third daughter arrived her husband convinced Ifrin to move to Australia.

After a difficult three-year stint in Bendigo, during which her husband travelled to and from Asia or commuted to Melbourne, the family moved to Melbourne, where through her church, Ifrin was introduced to SisterWorks.

Started in 2013 by Colombian asylum seeker Luz Restrepo, SisterWorks aimed to empower migrant, refugee and asylum seeker women by building their confidence, language and wellbeing and offer training to get them into work.

Restrepo, a qualified doctor and former university lecturer, had arrived in Australia in 2010 with no English and her life "in tatters", feeling isolated and frightened.

Finding strength and support in women experiencing similar challenges, she gathered a small group to make and sell crafts around Melbourne.

Two years later, with the appointment of a committee, SisterWorks was formed.

Born out of a belief in the strength of togetherness, from the start the organisation fostered extraordinary solidarity and goodwill in its participants and supporters.

When Ifrin started volunteering there in 2016, from a business management point of view Restrepo's organisation was "still in its infancy".

The high-flying consultant, seeing hand-written prices on products and data stored in spreadsheets, couldn't stop herself giving advice.

"I said to Luz, 'You cannot grow SisterWorks like this. You've got to put systems and processes in place'," Ifrin says.

"So Luz asked me, 'Can you help?'"

After researching and introducing suitable inventory, point of sale and barcoding systems, Ifrin was needed by the organisation to keep running them, and Restrepo offered her a job overseeing operations.

Feeling privileged and in a position to give back, she accepted, believing her involvement would only be short-term.

"I said to myself, 'This is not about money anymore,' and I told my husband, 'You can be the breadwinner of the family, I'm going to do this for a little bit," she says.

But despite her intention to stay just a few months, the longer she spent with the sisters, the deeper her interest and attachment to the cause became.

From operations manager, she moved to finance manager, then chief operating officer, followed by head of social enterprise.

When the chief executive left in 2020, she was appointed acting deputy CEO.

With experience in almost every aspect of SisterWorks' operations, not to mention her corporate background, Ifrin could hardly have been better qualified for the CEO's job, to which she was formally appointed in October last year.

But still, she had doubts.

"I think being women we always wonder can we do the job, but I always knew that I'm not here alone, I'm part of a passionate team that's willing to give their 190 percent to the cause they believe in," she says.

"That's why I thought, 'Well, let's do this!'".

Next month SisterWorks will launch its new home in Johnston St, Abbotsford - a two-storied premises big enough to accommodate a commercial kitchen and become "a fully fledged training hub" for its range of programs, which include crafts, sewing, food handling, barista and responsible service of alcohol courses.

The move has been made possible by funding from the Victorian government's Office of Women, and SisterWorks has also struck a partnership deal with the federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

While the organisation has always enjoyed support from the City of Yarra, and local entities like the Richmond Library and Belgium Avenue Neighbourhood House, attracting state and federal funding is something new.

"It's great to have the government backing us, knowing that what we do is being appreciated," Ifrin says.

"Maybe because they have seen that we have grown and proven ourselves."

With an ever-expanding range of offerings - from screen printed tea towels and tote bags to bath salts, pickles and jams - SisterWorks' social enterprise side, which employs women as contractors to produce its own branded products, is now self-sustaining, if not profitable, the CEO says.

Last financial year 141 women earned an income by working for the social enterprise or selling their own products to it, while 32 sisters went through its entrepreneurship mentoring program and five launched their own business.

"We just know how to help these women," says Ifrin. who also has been helped greatly by the sisterhood.

"I put all my efforts into this empowerment business, but I also learn from the sisters, who have definitely changed the way I see life," she says.

"I want to teach my children that it's not all about material things, it's not all about buying the biggest house or driving the fanciest car.

"There's other purposes in life, alternatives where you go home every day feeling you have done something to make a difference in someone's life.

"And I learned all of that from the sisters, from being here."

Sisters are doing it for themselves
Sisters are doing it for themselves
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