Driving change one project at a time

An exclusive interview with Jacinta McDonell – Co-Founder Anytime Fitness Australia, Founder Human Kind Project, Founder Urban Yoga.

Sometimes you get the opportunity to spend time with someone that challenges your norm, inspires you to do more and most of all lights a fire of belief in you that anything is possible.  For me this was a conversation I had recently with the incredible Jacinta McDonell in her stunning offices in Surry Hills.  Our paths have crossed many times over the last few years and finally we were able to connect in person and I feel incredibly grateful to now consider Jacinta part of my network of amazing women that truly understand the path I am on and what collectively is possible when we work together.

Surrounded by amazing office design, inspirational quotes adorning walls, a natural light and energy filled atmosphere and the buzz of a team all committed to driving change, Jacinta and I chatted all things business, family and life before she jetted off for a relaxing family weekend in Byron Bay.

Jacinta is an inspiration to many Australian business women. A mother of three, Jacinta McDonell was the co-founder behind the launch of  the highly successful US franchise Anytime Fitness into the Australian market in 2008. With over 430 clubs in Australia and over 3,000 clubs with three million members worldwide, Anytime Fitness has grown to be Australia’s number one health club chain.

Jacinta has now exited Anytime Fitness and has turned her entrepreneurial passion towards two new business ventures that aim to change the way businesses view ‘Giving’ and ‘Social Responsibility’.  She established The Human Kind Project in 2015, a not-for-profit foundation that funds life changing projects in Africa and India, connecting projects to businesses to build brand equity whilst creating lasting social change.  And December 2015, Jacinta opened a new style of yoga studio in Surry Hills, built around music and immersive design. Jacinta is now creating the companion online yoga and meditation platform due to go live in October with the view to redefine yoga, meditation and how we view wellness.

From spending time on Necker Island with Richard Branson and the Virgin Unite team to time in small rural villages in Malawi with The Hunger Project – Jacinta continues to inspire many who are lucky enough to cross her path.

Here’s what Jacinta had to say.

Janine:                  What drives you and keeps you going?

Jacinta:                 What drives me is making an impact and a contribution. Impact and business go hand and hand. If we’re creating a new brand or we’re launching something, I always think – does it have a social impact in the world? If it doesn’t, I won’t be engaged. We travel with Human Kind back to communities that we’re supporting and that’s a real totem for me to stay on purpose. As an entrepreneur, you can have tough days, and think – “Geez, why am I doing this? It’d be easier if I just didn’t.” Then, I remind myself of the opportunity that I have with my education and where I live. I remember I have a purpose, a driving force.

Janine:                  Can you share any specific moments when you’ve stopped and said to yourself “Wow. I am making a difference here?”

Jacinta:                 During my last trip to Malawi I was lucky enough to travel with a group of entrepreneurs that are really close to me and my network. As a group, we all agreed to fund a community to help them obtain self-reliance, which was actually a pretty big individual financial commitment – for all of us to commit for three years. A lot of the group were really stretching themselves personally and financially to do it. I think that was probably the moment where I realised it’s not just me, with one foundation, writing and donating my money.  I always felt I could write a cheque but I want this to be bigger than just me contributing. I want to create a community of people, a collective that are fostering change. It was a really big moment for me, when all of us said, “Let’s do this together.” It’s $700,000 over three years between us. My thoughts were, “Holy Shit.” Others said “I’ll do this.” Now, as a group, we catch up every two months and talk about how we’re going. We are supporting over 37,000 people. That’s a lot of people!  We’ll go back in three years and hopefully by then, the community will be self-reliant. I’m so excited. It was a really big thing for me to realise what, as a collective, can be achieved.

Janine:                  That reminds me of the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.  Does the concept of collaborating in this way apply in your work life, too?

Jacinta:                                 Yes it does. I’ve always enjoyed creating things with people that I enjoy spending time with. That’s a huge part of what we do here and why I love working closely with people that I’ve known for a long time. My team are passionate about Human Kind, which is pivotal. It’s embedded in everything that we’re doing now. We are launching a brand later in the year – collaborating with other brands with the same message. Everything that we’re doing within our new brand is one for one. Every product that is purchased from our brand impacts a human. Having collaboration is so important in everything we do.

Janine:                  How on earth do you keep yourself match fit with so many projects on the go?

Jacinta:                 For me, there are a few non-negotiables. Yoga and meditation are part of my week – they keep me 80% on point. The other 20% is making sure that I’m prioritising really well what I need to get done, what is important and what’s not important. It’s easy to get caught up in something that seems so big and so important at work, but keeping that perspective – to know it actually doesn’t matter and it probably doesn’t even make a difference if I don’t do it – is really important. And having time being present with my kids is a huge priority. If ever I feel like I need to reset, I’ll leave work early and not get caught in the, ” I need to do this or I need to do that.”

Janine:                 When you look back, what set you on the course you are on?

Jacinta:                 I think business was something I never envisaged, but entrepreneurship – I grew up with. My family owned a business in fitness so being an entrepreneur was always what I was going to do. In the early stages of Anytime Fitness, about eight years ago, I heard Muhammad Yunus speak about social business and it really struck a chord for me.  I didn’t do anything about it until four years ago when I went to Malawi with Business Chicks and The Hunger Project and that was it. I had to do something.

Janine:                 Life isn’t all rainbows, unicorns and wonderful. What strategies do you have in place to hack yourself out of what could be a downward spiral on those not so good days?

Jacinta:                 Part of my mindfulness practise is giving myself the space and permission to figure out if I’m getting caught on something and what is actually concerning me or holding me back.  My aim is to ultimately take ownership of whatever is going on. I reset by asking:

What am I doing?

What haven’t I done that I need to do?

Why do I feel like this?

What do I need to do differently?

It’s easy to blame someone else and not easy to take ownership but you have to learn let go and move on.

Janine:                 Do you have a core group of people around you that are supporting all you do?

Jacinta:                 Yes. I have a really close core group that understand me and all of my strengths and weaknesses. We have a shared vision that changes over time. The core group that I had 10 years ago is not the core group that I have now. It’s definitely evolved in the last four years. As Human Kind has evolved and, I guess, I’ve evolved in the way that I am, the core group has changed. I think it’s absolutely critical that the people that surround you are a representation of where you want to be and who you are now, not who you were ten years ago! I was a very different person 10 years ago, so I think it’s critical.

I don’t want to lose energy on, or have meaningless conversations with people that don’t share the same values or  the same vision as me. I value my time and energy, so I want to share it with people that really nurture me, who I love and want to spend time with.

Janine:                  What’s been the toughest time in your business career so far?

Jacinta:                 I think Anytime (Fitness) was interesting in the journey that we’ve had. We had growth issues – we grew too quickly in the early days so we struggled with retaining staff and outgrowing staff. That was a tough few years.  The exit process has been interesting – coming out the other side. My brother and I had always been in business together and now, it’s just me. It’s been exciting and challenging.  I’ve had a number of businesses and they didn’t all do well.  People always ask, “Do you regret anything?”  My answer is always “No.” Some businesses just aren’t going to work. So, dust yourself off and try again.

Janine:                 What is the big dream for Human Kind?

Jacinta:                 Human Kind exists to connect businesses with causes, taking out the hard work involved. Dealing with non-profits is a different language.  There are so many entrepreneurs who want to do something, but they don’t know where to start. It takes a lot of time and entrepreneurs are already busy with their business. So as much as the desire is there, it’s not always that easy.   We go… “Okay, group of amazing entrepreneurs wanting to do something amazing. Here’s a project.”  Human Kind have looked into everything, we manage everything.  Essentially we help people and brands make a difference.

The big plan for Human Kind is to have a whole variety of projects over the next 10 to 20 years. We want to play a huge, active part in ending hunger and poverty by 2030. That’s our main goal.  We focus on any projects that are working towards that.  We want to connect entrepreneurs with projects that are completely sustainable and are not band-aids. Everything that we do in terms of our projects is generationally sustainable change.

Janine:                 So how do people get involved?

Jacinta:                 We run leadership trip  every 18 months which entrepreneurs and business leaders can come on. We do a full immersion – five days on the ground, in communities learning and seeing resilience in its absolute. You witness leadership from the lives that you’re changing. We also go on safari – so its 10 magical days together as a group. Sometimes, I’ll meet people who are interested in working with us and in this instance, we sit down, discuss what they want to do and if people want to do things where our projects aren’t aligned, we will help steer them in the right direction, providing suggestions and offering ideas. At Human Kind we stick to our core values supporting  charities that we’ve looked into heavily and understand what they’re working towards.

Janine:                 If you think of somebody who, by definition, is living a successful life, who would that be? Does it even exist?

Jacinta:                 I think it does. To me, success isn’t, “I’ve got an amazing, multi-million dollar business.” I’ve seen a lot of people that have that and they’re unhappy and very stressed. For me, it’s just about freedom. Are you doing what you love? Can you do what you love to do each day and are you enjoying it? That to me is success. I’ve got friends that definitely don’t have multi-million dollar businesses but are hugely successful in terms of how they live their life.

I try and keep pretty free and flexible. Do I want to go away next month? Where am I going? I always want my business to allow me that freedom. Success is not having to be somewhere because something would fall over if you’re not there. Travelling at least once a year to see what’s going on and what needs to happen in terms of social impact is key. On my last two trips, my teenager came with me. I want my children to see, sit in the dirt and understand what is happening in a country. I am creating generational change with my kids.

Janine:                 If there was one piece of advice you keep hearing that you wish people didn’t have to hear what would it be?

Jacinta:                 I think it’s the belief that you have to work really really hard and push really really hard and then you’ll make it. It’s not actually true. You could push really hard and not make it. Or you could do things really well and (for you) it’s not that hard and you do really well. There’s a real misconception about, being an entrepreneur and starting a business. It is not easy, it’s not for everybody, but – it’s not about working harder either. It’s about being smart about it. Work out why you’re different. Don’t just try something because you feel like it’s a good idea.  Work out what your purpose is. The underlying purpose for us is to create change in the world and yes, we have a business as a platform to do that. I know for me, if I didn’t have that underlying value, I would not have the energy to keep picking myself up every time business smacks you in the face. That’s what gets me through the tough times. Without it, people would just give up. Resilience is key. The ability to bounce back. You have to enjoy what you’re doing. There is no point working countless hours if you don’t care!

There is no overnight success. People say Anytime Fitness came from nowhere. It didn’t. It was 10 years of hard work. Ten years is a long time in business. I think there is a lot of hype and excitement, but it’s like anything. You have to be really good at something for it to be successful. Nobody can just do it. You have to work out why you are truly different. Why does anyone care about your product. I think entrepreneurship is seen to be more glamorous than what it actually is.

Janine:                                 What’s your personal mantra?

Jacinta:                                 To truly be who I am all the time. No matter whether it’s business or personal relationships, the conversations I have with people are completely honest and transparent. Sometimes my staff are like, “Geez, that was tough.” But it’s true! Always being me. I want to be who I am, express myself the way I want to express myself. I can be seen as a little blunt – but I don’t care. I think my mantra would be “be who I am, do what I want to do and wherever that lands, that lands.” I don’t care what people think, which is nice. There is freedom in saying “I actually don’t give a shit if you like it or not, but I want to do it so I’m going to do it.”

Janine:                                 Who inspires you?

Jacinta:                                 The Country Director of One of the leaders of The Hunger Project in Malawi, we see each time we go over. He’s the most amazing human. The resilience to do what he does, day in day out, and his leadership skills. He could be the CEO of any corporation. I know he gets job offers all the time. He once told me “this is what I do and this is why I’m doing it.” People like him inspire me most. Their purpose is bigger than themselves.

Janine:                 What can you learn from people like that?

Jacinta:                 I think too many of us lack perspective. We get caught up in the way things are done – so that’s the way we have to do it, versus actually thinking, how do I want to approach this differently? How are we going to achieve the result not doing the same thing we’ve always done? We get so micro in our businesses that we don’t allow ourselves to get macro and look at it with fresh eyes. A lot of people say, “you can’t do that because nobody’s done it.” What if it works? Maybe it’s fun doing something differently.

Janine:                                 Do you think intuition has a part to play in successful leadership?

Jacinta:                                 Yes it plays a huge part.  I didn’t always listen to my intuition – when I couldn’t logically explain something people wouldn’t entertain the idea. Now I know to trust my gut. I trust it more than I trust my logical brain. Sometimes it’s wrong but sometimes it’s right. I naturally make decisions trusting my instincts.

Jacinta McDonnell

Jacinta is an inspiration to many Australian business women. A mother of three, Jacinta McDonell was the co-founder behind the launch of the highly successful US franchise Anytime Fitness into the Australian market in 2008.

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