Colin Lee was made redundant in November two years ago. His wife was seven months pregnant.
“I was incredibly devastated,” Lee tells Eternity, “so I really wasn’t in the right mindset to be job hunting.”
This task was made more difficult with Christmas just around the corner, and organisations choosing to not hire over the holiday season. It was also complicated by Lee’s high-level qualifications. He had been in the property industry for 12 years, with the past two-and-a-half years spent as a manager at one of Australia’s largest property investment services.
“I found myself trying to keep up a sense of positivity because I didn’t want to discourage my wife, but I felt lost,” Lee admits. “I was going in circles. Should I get back into a job? Should I start a business? What should I really do? To be honest, I wanted to get into a full-time job because that would be a lot easier, but it was tough because there were not many positions that matched my skill set – certainly at that time. So I thought, well, let’s consider starting my own business.”
In January 2020, just after his daughter was born, Lee “finally plucked up the courage” to create his own start-up, Inspire Realty.
“I thought, I’m going to go all out with this. So I told my family. I told all my mentors, and I asked all my mentors and Christian friends to really pray for me … I registered for my license. I got insurances. I wrote down a bit of a business plan.”
But then, just two months later, COVID-19 hit.
“I had trusted to God all my finances, all my dreams, all my plans,” says Lee. “But then, two months into it, we had lockdowns [in Sydney]. My business model is such that I would be consulting with my clients, looking at their current property portfolio and how I can maximise it or [help them] continue purchasing more properties. But the confidence in the property market was pretty low. No one wanted to invest in properties back then.”
Lee sought the advice of one of his mentors, Peter Irvine, co-founder of Gloria Jean’s Coffees in Australia and one of the team members who helped launch McDonald’s in Australia. Irvine is CEO of Kingdom Momentum Limited.
“Peter said, ‘Colin, you have to pivot your business. You have to adapt. You have to remain agile. Where can you match your skill set with where the market needs you right now?’
“So I thought about it and prayed about it.
Lee continues about he started to reflect on how he had seen God working in his life almost one decade earlier.
“God has been looking after me because many years ago, back in 2013, I had done a diploma in mortgage broking and financial planning. But I just never got myself accredited with the banks to be a finance broker … It took me two weeks to get accredited with about ten lenders, and then I started refinancing a loan for one of my clients.”
The outcome of this “pivot” was Lee’s business taking on a whole new dimension, which has greatly boosted its success.
“Invariably, when you talk about property, you’ve got to talk about finance,” Lee explains. “So in the past I used to refer my clients on to mortgage brokers. Now I’m doing it in-house – not all the time because I still think it’s important to have some level of objectivity, but just being able to have a finance conversation with my clients has been incredibly helpful for them.
“So that’s been a big win … ”
Grateful his new business was able to adapt to and survive the perilous terrain of COVID-19 ramifications, Lee is not interested in lining his own pockets with his “big win”. As a Christian, Lee is most keen to steward his income – which he describes as “God’s money” – in a way that supports Christian organisations.
“I do allocate quite a lot of money to charities that I feel very passionate about,” he says, noting that he and his wife pray about these decisions.
“In this first year in business, we’ve already pledged quite a lot of money to our local church too. We’ve identified two or three different organisations that, at the end of this financial year, we’re going to be writing a cheque for.”
One of the Christian organisations close to Lee’s heart is Gathering – an annual event for young, emerging Christian leaders across Australia, which came out of the work of the William Wilberforce Foundation and its vision for social transformation. In fact, Gathering is the event Lee credits for “planting the seed” that led him to start his own business.
Lee attended the inaugural two-day Gathering event on the Gold Coast in 2017, after being nominated as a delegate by Peter Irvine. Since then, 360 Christian leaders aged 25-40 have been sponsored to attend the event (around 150 delegates each year), where they connect with a group of mentors and each other.
“It’s a platform to inspire young Christian leaders to express their faith in the workplace, whether that be in the political sphere, as business professionals, in not-for-profit organisations or churches,” Lee explains.
“Meeting so many Christians who were on a similar journey so inspired me,” he says. “It helped me to understand that I’m not alone.
“It takes courage to talk about your faith within your workplace. So just to know the struggles that some of these participants were going through, helped me know it’s a common thing.”
Striking a strong chord with Lee at the 2017 Gathering was the message delivered by one mentor, Ken Costa – former Vice Chairman of UBS Investment Bank and chairman of Alpha International.
“He’s written a book called Know Your Why, which is about fulfilling your calling in life. One thing I took out of [Gathering] was this one particular message that he shared with everybody. And that is, whether you’re in business, a charity or in your workplace, it’s important to ‘make your work station your worship station’. That phrase stuck in my mind. I found it incredibly challenging because, at that time, I wasn’t courageous enough to speak about my faith within my workplace.”
“Although, [I realised] that doesn’t mean ‘Bible bashing’. It just means living out your values as a Christian – doing what’s right, doing what’s fair. And then people come to know that you’re a Christian because of the way you treat them, because of your compassion, because of your love. It’s about living Christ-like values within your workplace.”
Lee continues: “Not that that is a huge revelation, but hearing examples of how other young people, executives and some Christian founders are expressing their faith values within their organisation was incredibly inspiring. [After Gathering,] I read through Ken Costa’s book a couple of times. It was a real turning point in my life.”
Lee was so impacted by his experience at Gathering that he “took it upon myself to continue its mission”. He organised follow-up events with the 2017 cohort, and arranged sponsorship for the 2018 event, allowing him to nominate his wife, sister-in-law and a friend as delegates that year. In 2019, Lee volunteered to help organise part of the event and facilitated several sessions. While there was no Gathering in 2020 due to the pandemic, Lee is taking his final chance to participate in this year’s event, to be held November 4-6, 2021.
“I’m turning 40 this year, so I’m going back as a participant. Obviously next year, I’d consider coming on board as a sponsor and coming back as a partner,” Lee explains.
“… But in this season of my life, I want to be inspired by fellow Christian entrepreneurs, to hear how they run a faith-filled business and truly make their work station their worship station.”
Meanwhile, Lee is already weaving this “faith-filled” ethos into his business at Inspire Realty.
“I have a really strong passion to help Christians steward their wealth, to manage their property portfolio and understand finances,” says Lee.
“I believe in the Bible passage [Matthew 25:14-30] where if God gives you ten talents, you multiply it. If you’ve got five talents, you multiply it and don’t keep it ‘under a bushel’.
“I think Christians often don’t have the courage to talk about wealth or money – it’s a bit of a taboo subject. But I do want to talk about wealth. I think it is important to talk about it. The question is what you do with the money, obviously.”
Spurred on by the lessons he learned at Gathering and from other Christian mentors, Lee is no longer “afraid to bring faith into the conversation” in his day-to-day communications at work.
“Every opportunity I get, particularly if I know my clients are Christians, I’ll pray for them before the consultation and after the consultation,” he says.
Reflecting on the “series of life-changing events” which led him to start his business – including an unexpected redundancy and a pandemic – Lee adds: “I am truly blessed.”