Interview: I-Manifest

We are smack bang in the middle of a very exciting entrepreneurial boom at the moment. There are new businesses popping up all the time, with people finding the confidence to take the plunge into the unknown and start a business they've long dreamed of. And the amazing part of this huge entrepreneur rush is that so many of these businesses are fuelled by passion and purpose. I doubt there's ever been such a massive influx of open-hearted, pure-intentioned business owners starting up – all of them wanting to make their own bright, unique and valuable imprint on the world.

In part, these businesses are satisfying what we are demanding as a society. It's not just business owners who need to live their purpose – it's all of us! Figuring out what makes your hair blow back, and what makes your insides glow like a stick of kryptonite is what this life is all about. But, as much as it's fair to say passion and purpose are having their day right now, it's not always as easy as having a quick think about what your purpose is and then just suddenly living it. It can take hard work, time and effort to figure out what is truly important to us, and how to make it part of your life.

Today's interview is with a lady who I admire as someone who has not only found her purpose, but is also making it her business to help others find theirs as well. Jo Pretyman is CEO and head of I-Manifest – a social enterprise that is making waves in the youth education sector.

The business has been running for almost four years, and in that time has helped hundreds of youths to navigate the journey from education to work. As an organisation, they embrace innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, and they run a number of programs, workshops and have skilled advisers on hand to equip youths with the mindset and the skills that are necessary to go out into the world and live their purpose.

In Jo's scenario - similar to so many others - it's a roundhouse journey that has brought her to where she is now. Passions and interests have taken her across the world and to so many different places – all of which have helped her to get the life experience she needed to create something so special.

Here's Jo's story...

I-Manifest owner Jo Pretyman. Photography by  Richard Whitbread .

I-Manifest owner Jo Pretyman. Photography by Richard Whitbread.

Can you describe the process that led you to start I-Manifest? Any defining or lightbulb moments to speak of?

It’s been a really organic process, actually. My background was PR and Communications – always working in beauty, music, fashion and a short stint in corporate in the early years. It was when I moved home after seven years in Europe that I decided I wanted a change, and the opportunity came up to join a small youth education charity that my father sat on the board of. They were going through a complex shift in strategic direction, including a complete rebrand right down to the name, so it was a great opportunity for me to take on a role that would allow me to have lasting impact. It was there that I fell in love with the charity sector, but, because of my background, I saw an opportunity for change. I really believe that the notion of having a ‘for profit’ sector and a ‘not-for-profit’ sector, and having different rules and expectations for each is fundamentally flawed. I don’t think we can ever solve the complex issues and growing disparity in the world until we radically shift this thinking. So, I guess for me, starting I-Manifest was a chance to bring everything I had experienced and everything I believed in and try doing charity a new way. I had no idea where it would end up when I began…

What would the world look like if I-Manifest had its way?

For me, it’s about building 'Schools of the Future' all around the world: a global network of I-Manifest Academies that promote life-long learning in the real world. Students, teachers and industry – working together – learning as one – learning by doing – using creativity to solve real world problems for businesses and governments. In the world we now live in, the notion of learning no longer begins or ends, it’s a life long continuum, so it only makes sense that we learn collaboratively, together, as one.

The barriers that hold us back – whether they are cultural, socio-economic, age, or gender-based barriers – are organically broken down through collaboration. Our perceptions of others, which are created through media, our families or through our peers, are all dissolved. It’s magical and transformational. I see it happen every time in our programs and that’s how I know it’s the key to a better world.

We are also working hard to see I-Manifest be the official youth partner at all the creative festivals around the globe – that begins this year.

You had lots of philanthropic experience before you started I-Manifest – has that been an essential part of your business’s success?

I think all things in life accumulate and lead you to who you are today. It’s hard to define one moment or another that contributes to one’s success in the now. For so many years of my life, I wasn’t sure why I was doing what I was doing or even think that it had much value for the long term, but I look back and realise that every single moment has contributed to who I am today and ultimately I-Manifest’s success.

I think the biggest thing for success is courage and tenacity. Finding the will to keep going through the hard moments – and there are lots of those, especially in the beginning. But as you gain momentum, things definitely get easier. Things begin to flow, though I think you also build resilience so maybe it’s not necessarily easier, but you just let things bounce off you and don’t take it all so personally. You realise that everything always takes care of itself and works out for the best if you just keep going. That’s the most important bit… just keep going!

How important is community to your business? What have been some major factors when building and strengthening it?

Community is everything and giving it more attention is definitely something high on the priority list for 2016. I-Manifest would not exist without the community around it, the schools, the industry, the board and advisors and my team. Everyone's dedication is something that blows me away every single day.

Building a community is really about sharing your passion with the world around you, celebrating in the joy of meeting new people and connecting with them, growing with them. It’s been hard being so under-resourced for so long. I always feel guilty that I’m not keeping in contact or sharing the love with our incredible community as much as I would like to, but you do what you can do and keep looking forward, and, as the momentum grows so does the community around you. They are everything.

How has social media and other forms of digital marketing affected your brand?

To be honest we are terrible at social media!!! It’s always a bit of an after-thought for us – taking a quick pic on the fly at our workshops and programs and posting them when we can. We are always so in the moment with the whirlwind of everything we do, the kids, producing the programs, board and advisory board meetings, attending industry events, securing funding. But then we come back to building our community and a movement, and that’s got to be through social media. This year, we’re launching an online TV platform: I-Manifest TV. It’s content with meaning, for the youth, by the youth. So I guess we will be seeing the rise and rise of social media for I-Manifest soon!

I-Manifest owner Jo Pretyman. Photography by  Richard Whitbread .

I-Manifest owner Jo Pretyman. Photography by Richard Whitbread.

How have you worked to bring your visual brand together?

We truly landed on our feet in that department. Early in 2014, I was approached by Ellie Nuss, who is one of the most talented brand designers I have met. She’s worked on phenomenal global rebrands at some of the best agencies, and, the moment we met, we knew we would work together. Ellie worked tirelessly with members of the Advisory Board at the time to create a full brand identity for I-Manifest. Following in her footsteps to continue rolling out our assets have been some of her incredibly talented students from UTS Design Faculty, Neha in particular who carried through her work. Also Liam Cameron is our resident photographer and the divine pics of the kids he has captured have formed a large part of all our branding. That’s the true power in our identity – the kids. So, again, it has been an organic process with the right people appearing at the right time! Like magic!

What people or other businesses have influenced your brand?

That’s been an interesting one. From the outset we knew we wanted to create an aspirational brand that needed to be able to talk to everyone from corporates to creatives to parents and teachers, and of course the youth. 'From corporate to punk' was the analogy we came up with, and I look forward to exploring that to its full capacity as the organisation grows. For me, the brand who epitomises this is Chanel. The brand is so multi-faceted, so steeped in heritage – everything they do is with such integrity and that allows them to take it wherever they need to go – from the most iconic traditional products like the tweed suit or Chanel No 5 to Karl Lagerfeld’s out of this world installations in the Grand Palais or the ridiculousness of a merchandise range for Karl’s cat, Choupette. No matter how crazy the concepts and executions, they never compromise the brand’s integrity or credibility.

Where do you seek inspiration from?

Interiors and architecture are a constant source of inspiration for me. I am always dreaming with my partners about the design of the Schools of the Future (I-Manifest Academies) we want to build around the world. I am particularly obsessed with the work of Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid at the moment. I receive a McKinsey e-news every morning and Deloitte reports that inspire my thinking in the economic space. I dream a lot – about parts of the world I would like to expand to and how we could service different communities, and then I research organisations working in those spaces. I’m always reading about the myriad of United Nations initiatives. I love talking to people from all walks of life, listening to vast genres of music, and leaving Sydney for other parts of the world to keep me inspired, energised and feeling ferocious to drive change.

Where do you go to recharge?

Anywhere near water! And Europe ... There is something about the simplicity of life there that is so refreshing. And, now I can add Bali to the list. I went for the first time over the new year and fell in love. It’s such a spiritual place, and you can find spirituality in simple things: the aliveness and energy of the chaos, the kindness and gratitude of the people, the cow on the beach at sunset. It’s such an important reminder that the way we live and who we are in Sydney is only a part of us.

Career highlight so far?

Working for Mark and Sarah Broadbent at We Love… Space in Ibiza was like a dream – it was definitely my rockstar era! But beyond the fun, the sense of family and community they built, their incredible work ethic and ability to always spot exactly what was on trend at exactly the right time – it was one of the most definitive movements in dance music in our time and I was so lucky to be taken under Sarah’s wing from the first day I arrived on the island. She taught me how to be the best kind of human I could be.

Teaching myself to sew and launching a kaftan label in Ibiza was pretty cool too!

In the I-Manifest years, it would be hard to pick one moment, but, if I did, it would be launching our I Want In project at the MCA with the Deputy Premier at the time, Andrew Stoner, Dan Rosen, CEO of ARIA and the best of the best of Australia’s creative youth icons (What So Not, Pip Edwards, Kate Peck, Jess Scully, Maz Compton and Chris Wirasinha from Pedestrian TV). The project was a monumental effort between the incredible team at Heckler, Feeling and Marina Kapetas at the Dept of Trade & Investment. It was a very special chapter of my life that I will never forget.

What’s the hardest part of owning your own business?

I think in the beginning it was the feeling of being on my own. Even though you are surrounded by so many incredible people every single day, who cheer you on, support you, work for you, help you – at the end of the day, it’s you that’s got to get up and keep on going, keep the passion and the vision alive. But I’m lucky I now have a few epic partners who have joined me for this crazy ride, so now I really can’t think of any bad bits – it’s kind of like a dream! I mean of course there are hard bits, but, there a million solutions to any one problem so once you have the support by your side to find the solution and execute it, that’s everything – the rest is just ‘to do’ lists.

The biggest lesson you’ve learned along the way?

Trust yourself. Trust your intuition. The time I have wasted because I believed someone else knew better, even though I had all the answers intuitively already… At the end of the day, it’s you that’s got to live with the decisions, so they’ve got to come from you. You can send yourself crazy going around in circles, asking opinions and getting advice, but other people's opinions are based on their own story and experience of life. The amount of people you ask is the number of answers you’ll receive. I’ve learned the long way that the only person you really need to ask is yourself. If you look deep enough, you’ll always have the answer and it will always be right.

What advice would you give to yourself if you were starting out again?

You know it’s funny, I wouldn’t actually change a thing. I believe with all sincerity that we are all exactly where we are meant to be ­– in every moment, even if you can’t see it at the time. I don’t believe in regrets and I believe everyone has to let their journey play out the way it does. I never could have imagined I would be here now: not in my wildest dreams. I had a very different picture for my life, but I wouldn’t change a single thing because I now know this is what I was put on this planet to do. Even the bits that suck, I know they’re happening so I can grow and guide me to better things. So my advice – just live through it and enjoy it. Find the beauty in each moment, especially in the toughest ones. And don’t take it all so seriously (easier said than done I know!).

One piece of advice for other business owners?

Do it your way and stay true to that, fiercely.

Name 3 businesses that inspire you?

  • IKEA for the way they have created out of this world economies of scale, flat pack literally everything yet maintain a sense of design integrity and an iconic consumer experience
  • Body Mind Life for their ability to fuse leading edge yoga with style and therefore have created a movement of holistic health and accessible spirituality
  • I think Merivale is very cool too. I’m not normally a fan of market domination by any one force, but everything they touch turns to magic, they do it with style and individuality, really going beyond to tap into the essence of the community they are servicing and design accordingly and I respect that a lot.