Beautiful Minds: An Interview with a South African Expat

At 23 years of age, Marina Passalaris left the sunsets of Zululand, South Africa with her family for Australia’s Sunshine Coast. Marina talks to us about the difficulties she had in moving abroad, and about the business she’s now set up, Beautiful Minds.

International Man: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Marina Passalaris: I was born and raised in Empangeni, Zululand which is a small sugar cane farming area. I attended St Mary’s D.S.G (a private girls school) about half an hour out of Durban. I was always incredibly arty at school. My passion was singing and performing on stage and I came third in the South African DALRO performance and drama championships. After school, I was fortunate to attend the exclusive Waterfront Theatre School in Cape Town for 12 months where I completed a Trinity of London diploma in dance, theatre, singing and stage make-up. Whilst studying in Cape Town I worked part time in a talent and modeling agency to gain industry experience; then I went on to complete a 12 months styling and fashion design course. The design side linked in with my passion for theatre and drama — I was making creative pieces and being a part of fashion shows. Whilst working initially in Durban, then in London with one of the top cosmetic houses, my passion for make-up emerged and I completed a series of make-up courses.

When my family moved to Australia I was involved in the modeling and talent industry on the Sunshine Coast. I worked as a make-up artist and stylist for local shoots, and taught grooming and deportment courses at two of the top model agencies on the coast. After young girls had completed the grooming and deportment course, they were signed up as models or talent on the agency books. Often after the courses, work never eventuated as expected, which caused disappointment and confusion.

I wanted to utilize my experience and teach grooming and deportment in conjunction with vital life skills. I wanted to achieve this by doing the courses in an environment that was conducive to all girls — regardless of their size, shape and looks, and for girls from all different backgrounds.

After months of soul searching, I wrote a program that I wish I had done as a young girl — it covers important life skills that are so often ignored in society today, but are so vital for our young girls to assist them to grow up with good values, confidence and self-esteem.

IM: What made you decide to expatriate and how did you decide on setting up your primary home base in Australia? Did you look at other countries before making the decision to move to Australia?

MP: South Africa is an incredibly beautiful country and I am blessed to have had a wonderful 23 years there, but, as the political situation worsened, my family made a decision for our safety to move to another country.

My father George is Greek and so we did look at Greece as an option. My mother’s brother John is based in America so that was also on the table. Between the three countries, Australia seemed to be the most similar in culture to South Africa, there would be no language barrier (Greece) and we would be driving on the same side of the road as opposed to America. The South Africa rand was very weak against the Euro and US dollar so Australia, although it was 8 to 1, was still a better financial option.

IM: Was it difficult to set yourself up in Australia?

MP: It is incredibly challenging to move to a foreign country where you have no contacts, no history and no one to give you a reference. Basic things like going to a supermarket with a recipe and not knowing what to purchase, as none of the brands were familiar to me. The first couple of months after we arrived, I landed up in hospital and was very ill. That was frightening as I was in a strange place with a doctor that had no medical past on me. I have worked tirelessly at making contacts, joining as many networking groups as I possibly can and just slowly built up a name for myself. South Africans have an incredible work ethic and I think that has stood me in good stead. I own property here and that took a few years to be able to purchase. The first two and a half years, our family was not Australian citizens. When I was legally named an Australian citizen, it was a very emotional day as I finally belonged somewhere.

IM: Tell us more about your company… and… was it difficult to set one up in Australia?

MP: Beautiful Minds Australia is a unique program for girls aged 11 to 17. It covers vital life skills, grooming, self-esteem, confidence and etiquette. When the family moved to Australia in 2000, I was involved in the modeling and talent industry: I worked as a make-up artist and stylist for all the shoots and taught all the grooming and deportment courses.

I started Beautiful Minds seven years ago and I funded the business, I did not take out any loans. I have continued to self-fund this program and work tirelessly to grow this incredible business. Many teenagers come from a broken home, parents are working hard and the life skills we expect children to learn from home are falling by the way side. Many schools do not teach these skills and so Beautiful Minds is there to educate and assist girls with, not only life skills, but with employability skills too so that they can make good choices for their lives. This is no ordinary grooming course, as I have a team of expert educators that teach young girls on a number of subjects like: public speaking, confidence, first impressions, remembering names, make up artistry, hair styling, body issues, drug and alcohol abuse, bullying, friendships and relationships, setting up boundaries, music therapy, social etiquette, resume writing, money skills, wardrobe styling, photo shoot, airbrushing and more….

Also, Beautiful Minds was invited to Hamburg, Germany and London last year to run courses in Europe. It was a 5-month trip that was an incredible experience.

I have a book that has taken me five years to complete. It is a guide for teen girls and covers all the Beautiful Minds lessons, but in a fun, educational way. The book has been beautifully illustrated by Jai Vasicek and comes with a DVD. I am looking for an international publisher so that girls all over the world can have the Beautiful Minds experience.

IM: Is it difficult to stay in touch with your family and friends in South Africa?

MP: I am lucky to have friends and family dotted all over the world. With Skype, Facebook and many other social media forms, keeping in touch with loved ones is easy. The world becomes a small place and doing business all over the world becomes accessible. We are living in exciting times!

IM: Is there anything you miss about living in South Africa? Have you ever seriously considered returning to your country of origin?

MP: I get teary every time I hear South African music... I still purchase a lot of South African food that is imported over here... I ring my dearest friends from school when I just need to chat to an old familiar person that knows where I came from... and the sunsets... nothing beats the African sunsets. I would love to see my program Beautiful Minds taught in schools in Africa. I do not see myself living there again as Australia is home but never say never...

IM: If you could go back and do it all again, is there anything you would do differently (or wish you had known) when it comes to expatriating and starting a business overseas?

MP: It takes a couple of years to settle when you move to a foreign country. My advice is to not buy property until you are really familiar with the areas. In terms of setting up a business, I wish I had researched more about how tax, business and other Australian laws work before we had moved here. I would also have attended a South African networking group to learn tips and hear stories from other expats.

IM: Thank you Marina for your time and for sharing your experiences.

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