Giovanna Lever is the Founder and Chief Sparrow of Sparrowly Group, which offers integrated business solutions, marketing strategy, small business mentoring and bespoke leadership development programs. She has held corporate executive roles in commercial, marketing and general management with iconic Australian organisations including Australian Rugby Union, Tourism Australia, Intercontinental Hotel Group, and Vanity Group. Giovanna is also a serial entrepreneur, having previously founded a successful small business, GivandTake Catering. She understands from personal experience the ingredients required for businesses to flourish.
Her ethos of inclusiveness, humility and respect, is drawn from the business’s namesake, the humble and resourceful sparrow. In 2014, she started a network called Sparrows United, to draw together people who wanted to authentically connect with others. Giovanna is naturally charismatic, which stems from her intense curiosity to learn about and from other people. One of the most active listeners I have met, she is driven to put people first in all situations. Adept at skilfully drawing out similarities, Giovanna holds an unshakeable belief that all people have smarts and value to offer. Her talent is in the way she rapidly divines this to extract mutual benefit and genuine connection.
Business is clearly in your blood. You grew up helping your parents in their small business from age 13, moved into corporate and then started a number of your own businesses. What drove you to start your own business?
I love corporate life but I also love being in the driver’s seat of my own destiny. This was difficult at times when there have been conflicting priorities especially since I had my family.
Before I had kids, I ran a hobby business (referred to these days as side hustle or micro business) called givandtake – a baking business that I ran whilst working at Tourism Australia. I would moonlight baking in the evenings after work and deliver on my way into the office.
After having my first child and whilst on maternity leave, I kept baking (and doing my own PR, business development, built my own CRM, operations and distribution processes) and the business just kind of took off. I knew though that whilst this was fun and profitable, it was not the cakes and biscuits that I was crazy about (even though I still love to bake), it was running a business and that I loved.
My second child was born two years after my first and when she was six months we discovered there were some medical complications, which has meant she has endured over 20 surgeries in her short eight years. After her first surgery (I had to stop baking as it was difficult to manage it, two children and one being a very sick baby needing high attention as we figured out how we needed to help her), I needed an outlet. I needed to use my brain and also knew I needed to be around people – like a distraction. I was lucky enough to return to Tourism Australia, which is very family friendly and managed some incredible global programs during the next four years whilst balancing family needs.
But something was still missing. I am a businesswoman at heart, commerciality is in my blood and building brands and businesses to thrive is what I am great at. And with all this, one thing remains constant. That is, people must be at the centre of the success of business and a brand – from employees through to customers.
After a couple more commercial roles, the growing needs of my family in particular my daughter made it difficult to be all things to everyone. After a bit of subtle nudging by friends and family, it was time to take destiny in my own hands and start my own company to help others succeed in life and business with one clear vision – “A better workforce for the future” – thus was the formation of Sparrowly Group (business and marketing consultancy | leadership and development | mentoring | global network group, Sparrows United).
You’ve worked with some amazing brands through your career including Tourism Australia, Australian Rugby Union and Intercontinental Hotels Group. What advice do you have to businesses that are struggling with marketing?
You must start with the most important element first – people and work out from there. Building advocacy starts with ensuring the people who are closest to the brand are nurtured because they become your biggest advocates.
Don’t chase the bright shiny thing thinking it’s what is going to get you sales. Influencer marketing is big business now but the authenticity around this style of marketing has become extremely diluted and questionable. Focus on creating a service that is what your customer’s need and stay focused on delivering on that service 100% of the time, as they will become your biggest influences. That is what true advocacy really is. Good old fashion, word of mouth by people who are truly invested and interested in what you have to offer.
Tell us about why you founded Sparrows United, and how it helps you and its members.
I started Sparrows United in 2014 out of frustration after returning from a networking event. There, I had 10 business cards shoved at me all the while most of the people were busy looking over my shoulder and air kissed more times than I care to remember.
I came home that night and thought hard about what connection meant to me. I thought about how much importance I put on my people and my connections and how I nurture them. And I thought about what wonderful advocacy that has meant for me in my personal and professional career, as well as how I have shared my smarts freely with my people as do they with me and together we have thrived.
I wanted to teach people globally how to do this. Without being pushy or salesy. Without being #authentic but actually being authentic (you get my gist). The result has been amazing and now we are nearly 1,600 strong globally from all walks of life sharing smarts and connecting.
Many sparrows (the members) have benefited greatly from this group – from everyday learning and motivation through to new jobs, new clients, and great friendships made. A little romance twinkle was even created at one of our events earlier this year!
Sparrows United was formed to bring together all cultures, all genders and is truly and sincerely a diverse group of smart individuals from all walks of life: from teenagers, stay at home mums and dads, business owner, teachers, doctors, marketers, engineers and much more. We learn when we open our eyes and look around us; observe and learn from other cultures and industries and take that back to our home and work life. We thrive when we continue to share our smarts freely and with that life opens a much wider door for you.
You’re a passionate advocate of women in business. Share with us what you think is required to achieve gender equality in Australia sooner?
Women have come a long way in our plight to gender equality. Whilst we have a long way to go, I think it is important that we, all genders, take a moment to acknowledge how far we have come, but to take it a step further and acknowledge the men who have supported us and helped on our path so far.
Taking it a step further, I think about my life so far, I think about my parents (born in the 1940’s), Italians who immigrated in the 1960’s to Australia. Culturally, the male and female roles are seen quite traditionally, and still is the case in Italy more than what you would expect. My parents were traditional. But they were so encouraging. My father, whilst strict, put us kids on a pedestal and empowered us to make sure we had every opportunity to be the best that we could be. And that didn’t necessarily mean going to university, but knowing we had options and that we were supported.
Dad would often say, “Fear not the godfather (we are Sicilian, hence the mafia joke), but Giovanna, she is the godmother, and no one will stand in her way.”
Jokes aside, I have worked in many roles that have been male dominated and whilst I salute my sisters, I want to also applaud my brothers who have helped lift me and many other women to where we are now and will continue to hand in hand as we move towards a more gender diverse community and workforce.
What has been your greatest challenge?
My biggest challenge has been in going out on my own, putting my ego the side (we all have one whether we want to acknowledge it or not), and be ok, to not be the top dog after years of working so hard in climbing the ladder. Being ok not earning the same as my husband (that’s my issue not his) and remembering that business takes time to grow which now, almost two years in, I am starting the reap the rewards of my hard work and years of building and nurturing my network.
Above all, I need to remind myself why I do what I do. And that is to be a better mum, daughter, sister, friend and wife. Being able to pick my kids up most days, make them something yummy for afternoon tea all the while enjoy it with them and above all take the time to talk to them. Like human beings. Sounds crazy right, but we are all rushing around that we forget to stop, talk and connect. These kids are the future and we, whether you are a parent, an aunt/uncle or friend, are responsible for laying the right foundations for the leaders of tomorrow.
What are you most proud of?
Seeing people I work with in the mentoring and leadership and development space, or clients in business and marketing advisory thrive. I have seen so many businesses and brands transform, people change for the better and go on to achieve amazing things.
Oh and on a personal note, because I love to cook, I am pretty proud that after years of wanting to, I am finally the mother of my very own sourdough starter (and I often cook for the Sparrowly team so it’s sourdough bread for all)!
What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?
It’s not a race against men. It’s a partnership. Working together to build a better future for ourselves and the leaders of tomorrow.