Twenty years ago, back when few people had even heard of the term ‘social entrepreneur’, Virginia Bruce was embodying that very premise. Driven by an inner desire to help people through business, she got her start by giving international exposure to young fashion designers, and soon grew a client base that included several marquee brands across many industries. Now as the CEO of the r.e.a.l. group – a cooperative of businesses that focuses on using design and creativity to harness the full potential of social enterprise – as well, as the r.e.a.l. store, which is a retail manifestation of that philosophy, Virginia is proving that philanthropy and business are indeed a harmonious pairing.
I grew up … as the third in a family of four girls, and the thing I remember most about my childhood is really strong family relationships.
My childhood dream … was to grow up and help people. I think it was just in my nature, that feeling that we all need to be part of the whole.
I was very entrepreneurial … even from a young age. I really only had one job before I started going into business for myself. In reflection, I think sometimes it’s just who you are. I just saw the world as something really interesting and was always engaged in it and wanted to participate. And I loved the idea of creating international businesses and being part of the world.
The r.e.a.l. group began … when I started doing brand strategies for clients. I realised that, behind each brand, was an individual who wanted to do something with their life and offer something to the world. The common thread I saw with every brand I worked with all over the world was that human spirit and sense that we are kind of
a collective. It wasn’t really about any social injustice or anything like that that made me start it. For me, I think it comes down to seeing that the world is made up of what visionaries want to do and offer – and that forms the basis of all our brand strategies. It was always about finding the humanity in every brand that we looked at. The social responsibility aspect was more just the fact that everything linked back to people and what they choose to do with their life.
Through the r.e.a.l. store … we focus on social, ethical and sustainable design, and looking at how we use design to create beautiful products that are
a force for positive change, and how to create a demand for them in the market.
When you show people things … and they can actually see them, touch them and feel them, it hopefully makes it easier for them to understand the thinking behind something. The reason we opened the r.e.a.l. store was so that we could demonstrate our story, philosophy, and our manifesto of what we believe is possible. One of
the reasons we opened the store in Woolloomooloo was that it allowed us to sit in a socioeconomic area where, on one side of the store, you’ve got homeless people and housing commission buildings, and on the other side you’ve got the very wealthy extreme. I sort of see it as looking at the hybrid and how we can bring those two worlds together.
Philanthropy needs business … and business needs philanthropy. When we build a brand, we look at how we can build social and economic value –and I don’t believe that it has to be mutually exclusive. A lot of it is around the intention behind it. I think things have polarised a little a bit and what we need to see is an evolution of those two extremes of pure philanthropy and pure capitalism – starting to find a new ground where they coexist in a way that creates social value as well as economic value. And it’s that evolution that we’re looking to be very much a part of and to demonstrate in what we do – that you can do both.
Everybody has something to contribute to the world … in a positive way. It doesn’t matter who they are or where they are born – everyone has that opportunity to participate. And a lot of it is to do with getting people to recognise what that gift is and making them feel confident enough to present it without judgement and without fear, and to have the opportunity to excel with that particular gift. For me, it’s about helping people to find their authentic self and live their truth and live what they’re here for, whether that’s to be a business person, a painter, or a lawyer. It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as you do it with passion and a purpose to how you contribute to your own life. Once you do that, you get a kind of butterfly effect on how you contribute to others, society, humanity and beyond.
Philanthropy has often been about … what you do outside yourself and what you give, but, with the r.e.a.l. group , we really see that the true sense of philanthropy is that the best thing you can give to people is yourself. And if you can align yourself to your authentic truth and path of what you do in life and what you’re good at and how you want to contribute and make your life better, you automatically will make life better for others.
The r.e.a.l. group is in the process … of developing a social impact development fund for companies that need access to capital. There’s not a lot of that capital around, so we’ve decided to start building that as well.
I found my own authentic self … through my own journey of trials and tribulations. You find when circumstances don’t necessarily go your way, there’s a certain part of you that seems to be the authentic self that, no matter what happens, you can’t shake it or give up on it. So, for me, working on the social entrepreneurship side of things was always in me and, no matter how tough things got, I never gave up on the view that we could make things better.
Success is … that sense of peace and happiness within yourself, no matter what’s going on around you. It’s about not being defined by events outside yourself.
I’ve had a few challenges in my life … My family home burnt down, I went through a fairly traumatic break-up, and lost my business and everything financially. But I also think one of the biggest challenges has been sometimes feeling like I wasn’t in control of a situation and that it wasn’t something I believed in or it wasn’t how I dreamt it to be – times when reality didn’t match my vision. And that’s a challenge a lot of people face in their lives, but that’s the personal journey that you need to go through. In my case, I’ve never lost the dream, but I’ve had to learn to develop my own sense of being and authentic self and my own self-worth. I really do believe that when you’re standing in that situation, the only thing you’ve got is what’s within you. That’s where I see the authentic self come in, where you can create the intention to help others and create a business where you want to contribute or you want to do your part in what is the collective whole.
Live your truth … and honour the journey of your personal self. Don’t be fearful of it – just embrace it.