In Malaysia, everyone called her “the tall one.”
“I was this strange, tall, blonde person,” she says, of her time working at a Chinese-owned semiconductor factory just outside of Kuala Lumpur. “But I think that got me hooked on the idea that anything is possible.”
Jill Earthy, entrepreneur, investor, advisor, and mother of two, moved there for a work co-op while pursuing her MBA at the University of Victoria.
She says that, endearing nickname aside, what stands out most to her about the time in Malaysia is how respectful and kind everyone was — and how willing they were to give her a shot.
“I was in the executive team, building our marketing and sales strategy, and I was the only woman. This was 25 years ago. They were so respectful and lovely, and I think that gave me confidence, too. I was thrust not only into a different country, but into this difficult role.”
What she learned was important: that a team’s success is more about communication and aligned vision than about everyone having the same background and experiences.
Kuala Lumpur is a large, cosmopolitan city, with a population of just under two million people. The primary cultures there are Indian, Malay and Chinese. The cuisine stood out strongly to Jill as she recalled her time there; the food was delicious, but more than that, she experienced, as a Westerner, the way the different food styles met each other and adapted around each other to create a converging whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Which was a decent microcosm for the culture in general, as it turned out:
“It was beautiful, the harmony and respect across those cultures, and even in their beliefs,” Jill says. “The way people all embraced and respected those differences. And how I was so welcomed too. So I learned that it doesn’t have to be that complicated. We can all embrace our differences as strengths.”
Jill and I lamented the way the world has lost the plot on that a little bit of late.
Still, she’s an optimist about the way everything is pointing:
“It’s an interesting shift that’s happening,” she says, musing about the future evolution of work. “People are leaving corporate roles or pivoting their businesses, and I don’t know if it’s because it’s the end of the decade, or just the phase of life I’m in, that I’m seeing this. It’s easier now to start your own thing, and to sink into your own passions and interests.”
Jill says that throughout her career, in all the jobs she’s had, her role at Futurpreneur is the only one that had a predecessor filling the role before her. For everything else, the hiring process included a conversation about what her title in the role would be, or she created the role as an entrepreneur.
Upon completion of her MBA, she was recruited heavily by the big banks, but did not relish the idea of becoming one of a nameless number in an organization of thousands of employees.
She knew she was interested in entrepreneurship — she describes herself as an initiator who likes to build things, start things..
Jill took a risk and volunteered for a small event-management company. The entrepreneurial owners offered her the challenge of managing a large group of volunteers for an event, and if successful, they would hire her.
She blew them away. In the small entrepreneurial environment, she had an opportunity to try her hand at a variety of things, and to pitch in with whatever needed doing: “So I’d be sitting with higher-ups at a big meeting, and then I’d be schlepping boxes the next day.” The owners became my true mentors.
That humility, and total willingness to do whatever needs doing without any hesitation, seems to be a very common thread for successful entrepreneurs.
“I always knew I liked to jump into things,” Jill says. “I’m not a risk-taker fully, but I like to take calculated risks.”
She then was presented with a new opportunity with her original mentors, and the three of them went in as equal partners in an event-staffing company, Frontline Staff.
“So some of my risk was mitigated with their support,” she says. “We grew that business and then I actually bought them out a year later.”
At its peak, the business had 800 temp staff across the country, and payroll to be met every two weeks. “The hustle for clients, hiring people, I had a small team of support and all this temp staff. We were handling big contracts, in the $150–200,000 range; it was a very successful, profitable business. And then 2001 happened. So a lot of things I’d hustled for during the past six months then fell apart.”
What happened next: a pivot, of course. The business migrated toward event marketing, and Jill, after having bought her partners out, eventually sold the business and moved back west to Vancouver.
As Jill looks back on the path her career has taken, she’s proud that of the ten or so businesses and organizations she’s had a hand in founding in her life so far, all of them are still moving and growing, and she’s maintained good relationships with colleagues and partners within each organization. As a leader, she’s strived to be the sort who works in service of others, supporting people and lifting them up.
“I think it’s about pausing,” she says, of the gratitude she feels about the strength of those relationships. “I think we get caught up in this constant momentum of moving forward. I’ve been so fortunate in my career that I’ve been able to choose what I’ve wanted to do, and also aligned my passions with the work I’m doing.”
Jill says that she’s not much of a planner, historically, and may have jumped into some things too quickly but feels that each opportunity has created a new step on her path. “When I reflect back, each step that I have taken makes sense and I recognize a pattern, but it was not intentional”. Meandering paths are becoming much more common.
For her, these days, it’s all about impact. She says she’s become very clear on what her values are in the last couple of years, which has made it easier and easier to act from a place of alignment.
She likes the idea of continuing to build her consulting practice, and maybe to build a small team working with businesses that are aligned.
“This does align with my values around true impact,” she says. “It might be a lot of little rocks, instead of a couple of bigger ones. But it’s about listening to that gut feeling, and creating filters. There are lots of bright, shiny objects out there, and it is important to follow the right ones.”
Jill Earthy is an entrepreneur, founder, and investment educator. She is Principal of Risery Consulting and an advisor to Kollectively, FrontFundr, Female Funders, and is co-founder of The Raise Collective. She formerly was the CEO of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, and was recognized as one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada.