La Trobe student Leah Rinaldi steps up for fire-affected businesses

Forget relaxing in the uni holidays – the last time Bendigo student Leah Rinaldi put her feet up was two weeks ago. “I can tell you exactly where I was,” she says. “I had my feet up, sitting in the armchair at home.” And then she hit ‘create’ on her Facebook page Shop 2 Support Bushfire Communities.

“My life is now 100 per cent consumed by this,” she says. “There’s a lot of communicating with different organisations, government departments, community leaders, businesses, customers; everyone wants to talk to us.”

Including the Bendigo Campus blog. We caught up with Leah in the business building, where she’ll soon continue her Bachelor of Business (Event Management/Marketing). She laughs she has no idea when classes start again, or how she’ll manage when they do.

“We’ve just brought on a local, very experienced business consultant who is going to help consolidate everything and make it more manageable, because I can’t return to study with the workload the way it is,” she says.

Within days of launching, Shop 2 Support had amassed a following of thousands. A fortnight in, it’s just ticked over 32k. And it’s provided a lifeline for hundreds of small business owners suffering in the wake of the fires.

The Facebook, and now Instagram account, is for businesses in fire-affected areas to share who they are, what they do, how the fires have impacted them and how people can buy their products and services.

“I tend to come up with crazy ideas like this and have a go,” Leah laughs.

“We’re small business owners in Bendigo as well, so I thought, all the money that is being raised will help people who’ve lost their homes, or lost physical things, but what about the businesses that have been cut off because roads have closed or tourists and locals have been evacuated so there’s just no one there to support them?

“I thought, if that was me, how would I feel? Everyone wants to help but not everyone can or wants to donate money, but what if they need to buy something anyway and they can just get it posted from those areas?”

That’s just what’s happening.

“One customer, within four hours of posting their story, made more sales than they’d made in the leadup to Christmas,” Leah says.

“We’ve had one lady say she was able to pay her mortgage thanks to the support she’s had from our group. Another told us they’d sold out of their summer stock, so they can buy winter stock, which they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do. People can pay their bills. People who hadn’t had bookings since New Years are getting phone calls and towns are telling us the streets are coming to life again. One post last night had over 1600 shares, then sales on top of that. It’s huge.”

As such, Leah has garnered volunteer support from others around Australia, and NZ. Someone else is managing Instagram, there are marketing experts behind the scenes, IT support for the group and a business support person – “If it’s too raw, too emotional, too hard, if they’re not good with words or don’t know what to say, they can contact that person and they’ll help them,” Leah says.

“I’m really excited about what I’ve created, but I want to make sure the others are recognised as well, because there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes.”

Leah is used to being busy. She is mum of two, manages her own self defence training company and studies part-time.

Despite a rich working life in event management, marketing, media and sales, three years ago she chose to strengthen her skills with a degree. “I love it,” she says. “It’s my escape from being mum, from being a business person, and I can just focus on something for me that I love.

“I want the piece of paper to back up the experience that I’ve got, and I want to learn about all the new things that are out there,” she says, adding starting this campaign has fast-tracked many lessons, especially in social media. 

She says the past two weeks haven’t been easy. “I think now, did I do the right thing,” she asks, adding her children have barely seen her since it started. Plus, she’s struggling to retain some privacy in a very public realm.

And then she receives another message from a stranger, like this one…

“Sorry Leah, this is another private message for you to read. But this is just to say thank you for all your hard work. You are truly amazing and our real life Wonder Woman! I love the Facebook page you have set up. I absolutely adore you and I don’t even know you. (heart, heart, heart emoji.)

Which answers Leah’s previous question.

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