Nina Mills from What's For Eats?

Nina Mills is someone you want to have a conversation about food with. Quietly vibrant with a wicked, understated sense of humor, Nina Mills is an accredited dietician and nutritionist who heads up What's for Eats? With an ebullient tagline of 'Feel Good Eating', Nina's successful new business is powered by her considerable experience in the healthcare industry, in addition to her formal education. In today's Serious Women's Business blog, Iolanthe Gabrie of Ruby Slipper sat down with Nina to learn more about her totally unexpected path to business, how you can be fat and fit (yay!), and the challenges that face her as as an entrepreneur learning as she goes. Make sure to read this article to the very end to see the two precious items Nina brought along to share with you.

Iolanthe: Did you ever think you'd be in business?

Nina: No. Can it just be a one word answer?

I: Yes *laughs*, of course! What did you think you'd do when you were growing up?

N: It's taken me a long time to work out what I want to be when I grow up. I wasn't one who from a young age was destined to become married and have children and have a certain career. It was more like 'You go to school. You go to university. You find a job.' I was always interested in health, but didn't know where that would lead me. I always thought I'd be someone's employee.

I: You weren't rigid about your identity, then? You weren't 'I'm going to be a lawyer! I'm going to be a doctor!'?

N: I don't really feel like I was ever 'something' during my working life - I didn't have much deep attachment to my role. Now I do, however. I can say 'I am a dietician'. 

I: Is that a big part of your identity? Often in small business,  you are your brand. It's both a powerful and risky position at the same time. 

N: Yeah, my role has really become a bit part of my identity.

I: What did you do before you began your business?

N: I went to RMIT straight out of highschool to study applied biology and biochemistry.  I think I lasted maybe six weeks in there. It was very much about looking down microscopes - it didn't have the health focus I was imagining. I ended up dropping out and working for the rest of the year. I re-enrolled the year after into a health science course. I went into a stream which was like a therapist role, which is where I began working with people. I enjoyed that, but found that jobs were hard to get. Unlike nursing, there wasn't much support for a grad. So I started working. That's how I fell into the 'working within health within an office' role because I needed money. I needed to work. 

I: What kind of work was that exactly?

N: I was working at Diabetes Australia Victoria, and I have to say that was one of my most favorite jobs. It was customer facing.

I: So you were working with people, but not on their health directly.

Yes. However, I could see that there was a real need for support around diet. I was having people come to see me at customer service, and they'd just been diagnosed with diabetes. I then got a job at the Nurses' Board of Victoria. While I was there I was itching to be doing something else. That's when I started studying nutrition. 

I: Did you think that studying nutrition would lead you to where you are today? 

N: No. It was more of an interest. I thought that even if I didn't do something with it career-wise, I'd have that important knowledge for myself. We all eat food, after all.

I: Many people who who start their own businesses identify a 'turning point' - a time when they knew they had to go out on their own. What was your turning point?

N: I don't think I had a specific turning point. After studying nutrition online, I realised that nobody employs nutritionists - what they want are dieticians. I didn't really know what was going on in the industry. That's when I got into social media. I started connecting with dieticians online and learning about what they did for work - which was often a consulting role. I thought that seemed appealing, although I didn't think it was something I'd be able to do myself. It was only because people started offering me work when I finished my study that I realised I could do it! This work ultimately came from networking and my time in the health industry. 

I: Can you explain what you do and why you do it?

N: I'm a dietician - so I do anything related to nutrition. In my consultancy, I work on nutrition projects such as analysing recipes for cookbooks.I have a private practice, which offers one-on-one counselling. I also work in aged care a couple of days a week.

I: So there's really a mix of things you do in order to support yourself as your business grows.

N: Yeah. It's all contract-based too. I love doing a really diverse array of things - especially after nine years of sitting at a desk!

I: How long have you been self-employed? How do you feel in your first year of business?

N: I've been self-employed for nearly two years. I'm still in that excited stage - I finally got there and I can say I'm a dietician! And after being told it would be really hard to get work, I've managed to do it. I'm setting my own path.

I: I love the fact that you are able to recognise that it's all the experience you had and all those people you met in your roles prior to having a business that play a part in your success today. I find that the business skills I enjoy today also come from the brutal world of hard commerce I worked within. It seems that intuitively, entrepreneurs do jobs that - although not necessarily exciting in the moment - give them the skills to do well in their own businesses. So what's the biggest joy in your work these days?

N: The joy is that I'm finally feeling like I have purpose. I'm also able to focus on a side of dietetics I'm really interested in, which is the  'Health at Any Size' movement and the non-diet approach. Helping people to enjoy food is wonderful. 

I: Can you be fat and healthy?

N: Yes. Absolutely!

I: I'm so happy to hear that from someone who is qualified to say it! That's awesome. Can you explain to me how you help your clients as a dietician?  

N: I try to approach everyone by with a gentle curiosity about their thoughts, feelings and behaviours around food. I help people to question their ideas and ask 'Why do I think that food x is bad? Why do I feel bad after I eat it? Is it because I feel physically unwell, or are there external connotations associated with the food?' I assist people to stop looking at external cues which guide us to food, and start looking at what their body is saying. When are you hungry? When are you full? It's about collecting eating experiences along the way to inform your next ones. There is certainly a counselling aspect to my work. 

I: Do clients come to you because they know they have disordered eating?

N: Yes, for the most part. They sense there is some element of eating that they've had enough with. Often the underlying desire for weightloss remains constant - however, I don't really like to focus on that. I try to make the end goal more about enjoying food and being healthy. 

I: It's such a complex category. Food is such a big thing for women. So many people suffer from eating disorders and really complex relationships with food. I've found it a revelation to observe the often punitive way women talk about food and their bodies. How does social media affect the way that people feel about food and their bodies? Does the hashtag culture of #cleaneating and #fitspo impact upon the way we experience food?

N: They are highly influential. Part of what I do when working with clients is a social media detox, as opposed to a food detox. You have a look at the people you're following - and if they make you feel shit, just unfollow them. Surround yourself with the stuff that makes you feel good, that lifts you up rather than makes you down. I try to meet clients where they're at. Our time together could be brief if they're already on a healthy path, or the process of building a new relationship with food could take much longer. My work as a dietician is not about having someone come in, asking them what they eat and giving them a mealplan. 

I: What is the scariest thing that has happened to you as a business owner so far?

N: I think it's probably not knowing where to start when it comes to having a business. And not having the startup money to invest in the help I need to set things up. I've done things and gone 'Gee, I hope that's right'. I know I have to do things with the tax department and other bodies - I guess I'll find out if I haven't done it correctly. 

I: How are you educating yourself to do the best you can with business compliance, given budgetary restrictions?

N: Partly with help from the Dieticians Association of Australia. They put support in place to help with small business regulation and compliance. But they're just the first steps. I have looked to Google, and I've got recommendations for accountants, too. For me, the scary thing is going to be the first tax return.

I: I think tax is the scariest thing for most small business owners. Certainly it was for me. It's only in the past few years I've been able to afford proper accounting, and the difference it has made to my business and sense of general control is huge. Most small businesses will end up with a small tax debt - it's normal - but it doesn't make it any less terrifying or any easier to pay. 

N: You know the tax bill is coming, but you don't know exactly what is going to happen when you get it. I know I'm not going to earn enough to register for GST for example, so I know I'm going to have a tax bill - but what's that going to look like? It's all the unknowns.

I: I think those unknowns do continue in different ways throughout your time as a business owner. Just when I'm feeing super proficient, something scary will happen! I'll be like 'Shit!' But maybe that's just life. Maybe the learning never ends, and you just keep getting better and better. What's one piece of advice you'd offer someone about to start her own business?

N: I think it's important to have undertaken enough research about your category to know that you can actually make a go of your business. Online, you always read about people who up and quit their jobs and start a business which does well immediately.  I think to myself, 'It can't be that easy!'. We (Nina and her partner) had a mortgage, we were both working in order to pay it. I couldn't just say 'I'm going back to Uni and you will support me and it will all just happen and it's going to work.' I had to wait it out in a job I really hated to get to a point where it was safe enough to leave and begin my business with confidence.

I: That's an amazing insight. With Serious Women's Business I want to get away from all that 'you do can it' inspiring bullshit of heart-centred woo-woo business groups. Full of platitudes, but lacking a spine. I want women to have robust businesses that will pay for their healthcare, their mortgage and their grocery bills. You need to make sure your business premise is strong, because you are totally responsible for taking care of yourself. No-one else will do it. Which is scary. One of the joys of being self-employed is the fact that you're 100% responsible for your own happiness. 

I: Tell me about the two items you've brought today, and the significance they play in your life.

N: One is a clock: my youngest sister gave it to me after I had finished my study and while I was trying to set my business up. She gave it to me to go in my private practice as my timekeeper. That's my business object, a beautiful gift from my sister for which is practical and lovely. Being a clock, it refers to the passing of time - my journey from the start to where I am now. It's really symbolic. My personal objects are my earrings. These were the first birthday present my partner gave me after we'd been going out for a few months. I think they must be 12 years old - I wear them all the time. They are the only thing I'd be upset over if I misplaced them. They've been with me through a huge amount of time and change. 

Learn more about Nina and her business What's for Eats? here