Vanessa Bell Mumbition the Podcast


The Podcast By Mums & Co

Episode 39: From Model to Merino Farmer, with Vanessa Bell of Vanessa Bell

Vanessa Bell

Of Vanessa Bell

August 23, 2022
Women in rural Australia make up 30% of the business owning women demographic. Vanessa Bell describes herself as a global innovator, voice for women and entrepreneur. She is also one of the only women in the world with a major landholding more than twice the size of Paris!Based on a cattle property in New South Wales, Vanessa Bell is on a mission to make forever fashion from a traceable, ethically processed yarn.

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Produced & Edited by - Morgan Brown
Interviewers - Carrie Kwan and Lucy Kippist
Guest - Sonia Bestulic

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Episode 39 Transcript

00:03:05:07 - 00:03:39:22

Carrie Kwan

Women in rural Australia make up 30% of the business owning women demographic and today's guest is a stellar example of their ambition in action. Vanessa Bell describes herself as a global innovator, voice for women and entrepreneur. She is also one of the only women in the world with a major landholding more than twice the size of Paris!

Based on a cattle property in New South Wales, Vanessa is on a mission to make forever fashion from a traceable, ethically processed yarn. We are really delighted to welcome her to Mumbition. Hey, Vanessa!

00:03:40:15 - 00:03:45:04


Oh, hello, Carrie! Thank you so much for having me, it's a pleasure to be here.

00:03:45:17 - 00:03:52:04

Carrie Kwan

Now, Vanessa, we're passionate about telling women's stories, and you have a fabulous one. We would love to invite you to share yours.

00:03:52:22 - 00:09:06:14


Oh, thank you so much, Carrie. Well, in a nutshell, I grew up in Sydney and had a really great childhood. Spent my time fishing and sailing, and then at the tender age of 15, I was approached to be a model; this was completely sort of foreign to my world. I had a Polaroid taken of me in the back street, crossed with a makeup artist and photographer.

I took that Polaroid into Harper's Bazaar, and I was booked immediately. So my first job was for Harper's Bazaar, and my second job was for Vogue. And then my career took off. So naturally, my parents and I were both quite keen for me to stay at school. So I finished my high school certificate and then my career really took off.

So I was incredibly fortunate. I worked for clients such as Armani, Valentino, Dior, Comme des Garcons and Anne Klein and did amazing shoots all over the world and runway collections. Then closer to home for the clients such as Carla Zampatti and Country Road. So yeah, it's been a journey!

I think really, I got back to being in Sydney. My father is a fellow chartered accountant and he said to me, you know, “When are you going to get a real job? You need to come home!” And I thought that I actually had a job. But anyway, I came back home, ended up in finance, ended up issuing performance-based bonds for the civil engineering market.

So that was kind of a diversion yet again from fashion and then worked in the wine business advertising and then did a major stint in media. So in amongst all of that, I met my now gorgeous husband and didn't see that one coming! Never thought for a second that I'd end up marrying an Australian farmer, but that's what happened.

Then we had a beautiful boy, and I remember thinking out of need that I was looking for something to keep him really warm at night because we were living south of Goulburn, which is a very cold climate. So my mother handed me this absolutely gorgeous merino baby blanket that was knitted by my great grandmother back in 1940 and I just couldn't believe how beautiful it was!

It was felted by wear, but I thought, “wow, this is amazing!” And at the same time, I remember looking out the kitchen window and seeing my husband driving quite a big mob of sheep up the driveway, thinking, “Good gracious, what am I going to do here?” And how am I going to combine all of my city skills with living here?

It just dawned on me that no one was actually making these blankets. So I decided to put a notice in the local Gunning newsletter and literally overnight had an instant knitting team and we started working on prototypes and basically the entire business was born. But the genesis of that was really inspired by my great grandmother's beautiful knitting.

I suppose as far as that to where we are now, I feel it's been very much a business built on love and longevity, a business that's encompassed nurturing talent for women that really do feel invisible. I think many women over the age of 50 feel like they're no longer valid and it's been wonderful to draw on the expertise and the knowledge of these women that are aged from 50 through to 90 to be able to create these outstanding, really bespoke family heirloom pieces.

So from there, the business has really evolved and I'm really excited! It's taken a moment. But actually, this week I've just launched our new website and we are now looking to sell our beautiful range of baby blankets into very high-end stores as luxury items in the USA, the UK and Japan. I have positioned the brand as a luxury product because I think it's really important. These blankets take between 3 to 4 months to make, and I'd also like to really be able to empower my knitting team and give them the value of what they're putting in their time and energy to create these amazing pieces.

So it's also like any great love affair. My love of merino stemmed from me being on the runway. So, you know, if you look back to designers such as Armani, for example, they've always used fine merino to be able to pull together incredible collections because of its versatility and its ability to drape and so on and so forth.

So as it stands now, that love affair has expanded for me because I'm looking to work with a very experienced knitwear designer out of Italy to bring together my first range of jumpers. So it's all about the business expanding.

00:09:06:22 - 00:09:38:04

Carrie Kwan

Wow, what an amazing journey so far. I'm reminded that someone once told me that you can almost have seven careers in your lifetime and you can definitely see how each of those careers from a runway modelling to, the farm, all these whilst dad has, finance background questions, at times I think all those experiences have brought you to where you are now and it's just this huge entrepreneurial spirit that I see. You've recognized this gap; you recognize this problem and something that you're passionate about and there's so much purpose. What an amazing story! Thanks for sharing.

00:09:51:13 - 00:09:53:01


Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

00:09:54:07 - 00:10:12:05

Lucy Kippist

So, Vanessa, as Carrie said, the whole story that you just said there, it is phenomenal. You've certainly enjoyed, for want of a better word, a varied working life. But so what is it that you most love about the moment in this stage, being a business owning woman, running the business from the farm, as you are?

00:10:13:05 - 00:11:09:06


Sure Lucy. See, I think for me, it's really about the opportunity of bringing an idea to life from inception right through to really beautiful, tangible products and I really thrive around things from a sensory perspective and there's something incredibly satisfying about being in my shearing shed, penning up with my sheep, that incredible smell of the lanolin, the wonderful personalities and seeing how you can value add that fleece to be able to go right through to seeing what it looks like in a really high end luxury product.

So the journey of design, the connection to community, I think all of these things I really enjoy, it's a privilege to create these family heirloom pieces.

00:11:09:20 - 00:11:18:16

Carrie Kwan

So let's turn our attention a little bit to another part of the business. How are you actually factoring risk into your journey?

00:11:19:14 - 00:14:48:06


I started the business in 2017, so we really enjoyed a tremendous run. I suppose with every business there's always risks. I definitely erred on the side of big. So really thinking big, really having a strategy map. In fact, I actually draw trees so I will draw a tree trunk and branches and so because I'm quite visual, so I'd like to be able to see what that tree will look like, understanding that that tree needs a solid base and foundations and good soil.

I really think it's important to have a great legal team, have a really good accountancy team behind you, and have a business plan. But that to me, I know that I need that, but it's to be able to mitigate risk. Obviously, you need all of those things. But as it stands now, my small business is expanding into an entire design team.

With that comes project timelines and financial controlling and the need for a consistent cash flow so that you're able to have a very smooth path to market. In terms of my cattle business, that's seen me really leverage my existing assets to buy a huge slice of Australian dirt, which I feel really proud of and not from an ego perspective because I think it's really important that particularly Philip and I have a very unusual entrepreneur approach.

I can never say the word entrepreneurial approach to farming. I think risk is really necessary to achieve success, so sometimes it can be really stressful managing every element. But I'm really grateful that Phillip and I are 100% a team. We’re a really solid team. We run all the aspects of our business past each other.

In fact, I'm in the process of heading up the new carbon part of the business. So Phillip is all about his cattle, that's what he wants to do. So when you think about the average farm and what we are able to produce, I think it's quite a good skill set that we've; got my business skills from the city and his skills from the bush.

Together we kind of come together and work through things. So, I'm not sure if I'm answering that in an articulate way. But I think you have to factor in risk, but you're not able to achieve that by buying a 60,000-acre cattle station plus our other outback properties, plus my business, unless you're prepared to put yourself out there.

I've had meetings and I think it's also interesting when you talk about being a woman in business at that level. I had lots of discussions where the finance people would ring up and say, “Oh, is your husband there? He needs to sign this.” And then I'd have to point out to them, well, in actuality, these are my properties that we're looking at leveraging as well.

I think there's a change in perspective about what it means to be a woman in business. Again, that's why I think it's important to change the narrative about what it means to be a woman in Ag and also around taking on risk. I think there's a mindset that having risk is a negative. I disagree. I think you've got to have an element of risk and really action that in a calculated way.

00:14:49:02 - 00:15:32:23

Lucy Kippist

Is a real balance there, isn't there? I mean, that answer is phenomenal, by the way, but there's a real balance there between what you were describing before is having that entrepreneurial mindset where I think you have sort of more of an innate okayness, for want of a better word, with the idea of risk. Then there's that conventional way of running a business, as you've described, and those two things sort of merging together.

On another element of business life and growing a business. You are obviously running this business from your farm, which is fairly remote. How much importance do you put on digital networking then to connect all the dots and to find your fellow businesswomen? What would you say is your favourite way of doing that?

00:15:32:23 - 00:17:22:08


Look, Lucy, it's hugely important. I think, as you said, because I live remotely, I think for me, the way I've gone about it is to have virtual coffee dates. So I will have three coffee dates a week and it might be just 15 minutes. It might be half an hour; it might be an hour. But I think it brings so much joy to me to be able to connect with people and to learn about their stories and I try to do that with someone in my tribe, someone that I can collaborate with and someone that's seriously out of my comfort zone.

It's an audacious sort of thing. I’ll go and choose someone on LinkedIn that I think, “my goodness, there's way they’ll ever reply to me!” But inevitably they do. I think the important part of that is about energy exchange. It's about building our communities as we have very much with Mums & Co.

I think it's important to be able to nurture each other. Obviously, I'd love to get dressed up in a frock and get out of my boots, get out of the virtual headspace and go out and have lunch with people and actually see each other. Face to face is always really joyful! But yeah, I think getting to Sydney doesn't happen very often these days.

it's hugely important and I would encourage people, particularly if you're very shy, to understand that you might feel awkward in reaching out to someone digitally, but it’s no different to having a normal relationship and saying, “hello, how are you?” And what can you offer that person unconditionally? I think you'll find that it comes back to you two fold.

00:17:22:08 - 00:17:34:13

Lucy Kippist

Absolutely love it! And I've taken notes there, I think that's a phenomenal approach. The three people, the three different types of people a week to approach. Thank you so much for sharing that.

00:17:34:13 - 00:18:15:19

Carrie Kwan

I fondly support that too, because not only are you doing it for yourself, but I bet that you do it for all the other women as well. Vanessa, you're this kind of consummate connector, we've had that passed to us. So once you've got that ethos, you know what richness that brings to your business, your life, or your own personal journey, so amazing, love it! Now, on the rule of threes, can you share three things that you do each week that inspire your ambition, nurtures your livelihood and protects your wellbeing?

00:18:16:15 - 00:21:51:18


Sure, Carrie. Well, I think given that I do some serious kilometres driving, I'm very much a fan of podcasts, so I do listen to an array of podcasts to encourage me to level up, look at different ways people are conducting their business or there are a bunch of different podcasts that I really that sort of drive my ambition.

In terms of nurturing my livelihood, I think this is a really big one for me and I think it's important to really prioritise important relationships in my life. I'm doing that consistently every single day. I think that's really, really integral to how I work, attacking the problem and not the person, staying open minded and non-judgmental, because you never know what the other person on the other side of the fence is seeing, doing or experiencing, I think really imperative to follow through on commitments and to deliver value.

I'm always trying to surprise and delight, really be on the journey with people, but try and overdeliver where I can. I think communicating candidly and honestly and being really grateful every day. I think in terms of protecting my wellbeing, something that I hold really dear to me is meditation and being really connected to the earth.

I'm very fortunate to live on one of the most pristine rivers anywhere in the world. I find it really therapeutic just to go and stand. One thing that you'll find when you live in nature and you live remotely, in the city, you go out to nature, but when you live in the bush, nature comes to you. If you stand still and you absorb that energy and you understand how connected, we are and intuitively how important that is to connect with nature. It might be that I might see the platypus, coming in and out of their house and they burrow in the water or, you might see this huge, big bull that's giving himself a big rub on one of our big old trees, or you might see a wedge tail eagle just soaring or the white owls coming in to pick up their dinner.

It's just about understanding that working with nature and having a ritual every single day. For me, that's gratification of the people that are helping me and serving me and my life and that I can then give back to having really clear intention of what it is that I do every day. I think also part of what I do is mustering with my husband on horseback. I think that brings me a huge sense of joy of just being on a horse. We might be mustering our weaners across the river and just seeing my eight-year-old son on horseback as if you were back in the 1800s, it's quite remarkable. We're very fortunate and privileged.

I feel that as a custodian on such land, we’re on Birapai country, I firmly believe that I might have my name on the signature of owning that property. But I feel very strongly as a white woman that I'm aware that I am purely there as a custodian and on their behalf to try and protect that diversity and biodiversity, and to do that with honour and spirit.

00:21:51:18 - 00:22:30:03

Lucy Kippist

I really heard the clear intent and a strong reminder that you've got such clear boundaries and parameters that you work with within. Even though I know that you have that sort of emotional connection as well. What a brilliant workplace! I'm a corporate girl just today, but I want that workplace! In the spirit of women supporting women who are the Mumbitious, those that are unapologetically blending motherhood and ambition, that you would like to say hello to.

00:22:30:12 - 00:23:01:08


Oh, absolutely! Look, I admire so many amazing women in the Mums & Co community. A special shout out to Neva Read from Artful Brand and Joyce Watts from MEL: Hot or Not. Both of these women inspire me for different reasons. Both understand the importance of being visionaries and aligning with the right people to slingshot themselves forward. There's so many people that I could mention, but I just really wanted to mention Neva and Joyce.

00:23:02:12 - 00:23:33:18

Lucy Kippist

Vanessa, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. If you'd like to find out more about Vanessa and the incredible work she's doing, you can head to her new website, which is vanessabell.com, where you can follow her on Instagram @fashiontofarmer. If you haven't already, please come and join the thousands of business owning women just like you at mumsandco.com.au

Do you have a favourite animal on your farm?

00:23:33:18 - 00:24:29:14


Yes, at the moment we do! We have a baby dingo pup, and she is beautiful. She has been a little bit sick. So we've had her at the vet all week, but I am picking her up this afternoon and it's like having a baby lion. I think dingoes get a very bad, bad rap, but she's just beautiful.

It's hard to choose. We've got lots and lots of different animals that we spend a lot of time with. We love all our horses as well. We've got, my old horse, Chad, is a beautiful, very sensible stock horse. But yeah, we’ve called her Bear, she wins hand hands down at the moment.

She's just so cute and beautiful. So thank you so much! I'm so grateful for this opportunity. Thank you very much for including me today.