Leanne Butterworth

Leanne Butterworth, Empathy Educator, TEDx Speaker and Social Entrepreneur, is dedicated to creating happier, healthier communities through memorable, accessible Empathy Training. As the founder of Empathy First and a lecturer at QUT, Leanne actively contributes to the startup, mental health, and social enterprise communities. She is a Social Impact Fellow and won the 2023 Women Changing the World Social Enterprise People’s Choice Award. 

Leanne believes that empathetic leadership is not a luxury but a business imperative. Her unwavering dynamism and dedication fuels her mission to foster compassionate environments where empathy thrives.

What were your initial years of growing up like? Tell us about your life before starting your corporate journey/venture/initiative. 

As a Virgo, I internalised the ideals of perfectionism, achievement, and intellect growing up. I embraced being the “smart girl” and excelled in school and university during the 90s. Although I studied exercise physiology, I was unsure of my career path and unaware of the possibilities of entrepreneurship and courage. My relentless pursuit of academic success was fuelled by insecurities, causing me to overlook the importance of emotional connections in relationships. It wasn’t until I turned 38 that I released those beliefs and recognised the profound impact of emotional well-being in my own life.

Was there any turning point in your life that changed your journey? If so, what was it? Please tell us the backstory behind it.

The turning point came when I received a diagnosis of late-diagnosed postnatal depression. Despite working on a project in mental health, I had never realised that my own experience was the driving force behind my passion. Being diagnosed by a compassionate physician not only allowed me to prioritise my own mental health but also ignited a sense of purpose to advocate for a world where everyone feels heard, valued, visible, and safe. Unfortunately, my postnatal depression went undetected until my second child turned three, largely due to the internalised stigma I carried coupled with the dismissive attitudes of those around me. I was often told, “this too shall pass,” but those words offered me little solace. What I truly needed was to be seen, heard, and embraced.

Every industry that is now a large-scale, top-notch business once started as a small idea in the minds of entrepreneurs. What was that idea or motivation that made you start your business /initiative? What motivated you within to say “YES, go for it!”

Originally, the Lose Your Mind Virtual Reality project aimed to teach advanced mental health literacy. However, during the workshops, I noticed a recurring theme: people lacked a fundamental understanding of healthy empathy, its significance, and how to practice it sustainably. When COVID hit and VR became impractical, I reimagined the project as Empathy First. What keeps me motivated and propels me forward is witnessing those “aha” moments in people’s lives. I have the opportunity to plant seeds of curiosity about healthy empathy and equip individuals with practical skills, allowing them to embrace empathy with less fear. They begin asking insightful questions and engaging in self-reflection. It would be a disservice to others if I were to abandon this meaningful work.

Everyone has their own set of challenges when starting an entrepreneurial journey. Still, the most essential part for others to learn is how you deal with those. Would you like to share with us your challenges and your coping mechanisms?

I face several challenges in my journey, including imposter syndrome, difficulty in finding a niche due to my desire to help everyone, and a strong aversion to cold calling. To overcome these hurdles, I have found strength in living into my core values: Courage, Learning, Impact, and Empathy. By aligning my decisions with these values, I gain reassurance and motivation. I constantly ask myself: Am I making a brave choice? Is there something I need to learn? Am I making a positive impact, even if it’s on just one person? Am I demonstrating empathy towards myself, my family, and my audience? These guiding questions empower me to make difficult decisions and continue progressing bit by bit.

While the global pandemic of COVID-19 is associated primarily with adversities, it has also brought about a true boom in startups, with successful entrepreneurship in many countries. The pandemic has impacted all of us in one way or another. Would you like to share your experience on a personal and professional level?

When COVID hit, it forced me to reevaluate the trajectory of my work. The pandemic brought a sudden halt to the viability of using virtual reality (VR) as a means to deliver my message. It was a challenging and uncertain time, but it also presented an opportunity for me to be brave and dig deeper into the underlying issue. I realised that the essence of my work was not solely dependent on the technology itself but rather on the transformative power of empathy and connection. In response, I made the bold decision to rebrand and expand my offerings. I created online courses, launched a podcast, and developed various resources. I recognised that I needed to become the voice and the embodiment of my story, rather than relying solely on the VR technology. Through this process, I learned a valuable lesson: VR was merely the catalyst for discussion and self-reflection, but it was not the entirety of the lesson. I discovered that the message of healthy empathy could still be experiential, memorable, and impactful even without the technological medium. It was about creating accessible experiences that resonated deeply with individuals. By leveraging different mediums and channels, I found new ways to engage and connect with my audience, allowing the message to reach a wider range of people. This realisation sparked a renewed sense of purpose and determination within me. I understood that the power to inspire empathy and foster meaningful connections lies in the message itself, not solely in the technology used to deliver it. This shift opened up a world of possibilities and reaffirmed my commitment to making a lasting impact on individuals’ lives, empowering them to embrace empathy and create positive change.

Your journey and your vision are very inspiring, but are there any achievements or accomplishments you would like to mention?

I’m proud to have achieved some remarkable milestones in my journey, including being accepted as a Social Impact Fellow, winning the Women Making a Difference Social Enterprise People’s Choice Award in 2023, and delivering an impactful TEDx talk on the life-saving power of Healthy Empathy. Additionally, I received the prestigious George Alexander Foundation Scholarship and earned eight academic awards for my postgraduate work at QUT. I was honoured with the opportunity to showcase my work to His Royal Highness, the Duke of York, and was inducted into the Nu Lambda Mu International Honour Roll. Later this year I have been invited to contribute to a new book called ‘Women Making a Difference

Would you like to share with our young budding women entrepreneurs the change you would like to see in the world if given an opportunity?

The change I want to see in the world is a society where everyone feels heard, valued, visible, and safe. I strive for a world where empathy is embraced and practiced, leading to stronger connections, and understanding among individuals. I envision a shift towards a culture that prioritises mental and emotional literacy and well-being, fostering a sense of connection and support for one another. Ultimately, my goal is to create an inclusive and empathetic world where individuals and organisations can thrive and make a positive impact on their communities.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your personal life and professional journey? What is your personal motto in life?

In my personal life and professional journey, the most important thing I have learned is the power of perseverance. Challenges and setbacks are inevitable, but it is through perseverance that we can overcome them and continue making an impact. Whether facing obstacles in personal growth or professional endeavours, maintaining resilience and a determined mindset has been crucial in achieving my goals and surpassing my own expectations. As for my personal motto in life, it is “Embrace the Journey.” Life is a constant process of growth, learning, and discovery. By embracing each step of the journey, both the highs and the lows, I am able to fully immerse myself in the present moment and appreciate the valuable lessons and experiences it offers. This motto reminds me to find joy in the process, stay open to new possibilities, and continually seek personal and professional development.

Women are a growing force in the workplaces worldwide, standing shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts. There are cracks in glass ceilings everywhere, with many women breaking through to carve out a space right at the top of the pyramid. What are your thoughts about women’s leadership today?

I believe that women in leadership play a crucial and transformative role. From my perspective, it is essential to empower and uplift women in positions of leadership, recognizing the immense value they bring to the table. I strongly advocate for equal opportunities for women to lead and make decisions across all sectors and industries. Diversity and inclusivity in leadership are paramount to me. I understand that women’s unique perspectives, experiences, and skills contribute to a more innovative and collaborative environment. By promoting gender equality and providing women with the platform to lead, we can create a more balanced and successful society. I actively support initiatives that aim to advance women in leadership roles. Whether it’s by speaking with future leaders at university, through mentorship programs or having real conversations with women about healthy empathy, I am dedicated to fostering a more equitable and inclusive world. I firmly believe that when women thrive in leadership positions, we can drive positive change and create a better future for all.

With your grit and determination, you are making a considerable impact, breaking through, and serving as role models for many budding entrepreneurs. What would you want to say to our young women leaders/audience reading this?

My advice for young women is to embrace your uniqueness and believe in your abilities. Recognize that you have strengths and perspectives that can make a significant impact in whichever field or endeavour you choose. Be confident in expressing your voice and opinions, knowing that they are valuable and deserve to be heard. Seek out mentors and role models who inspire you and can provide guidance along your journey. Surround yourself with a supportive network of like-minded individuals who believe in your potential and can uplift you during both triumphs and challenges. Never be afraid to take risks and step outside of your comfort zone. Embrace new opportunities, even if they seem daunting at first. Remember that growth and personal development often occur when we push ourselves beyond what is familiar. Strive for excellence in everything you do, but also remember to prioritize self-care and well-being. Take time to nurture your physical, mental, and emotional health. Find a healthy work-life balance that allows you to pursue your passions while also maintaining a fulfilling personal life. Lastly, never underestimate the power of resilience and perseverance. You will undoubtedly encounter obstacles along the way, but let them serve as opportunities for growth and learning. Trust in your abilities, stay determined, and never give up on your dreams. You have the potential to make a remarkable impact in the world.