Raising a happy family and creating a successful business, all while living your best life and inspiring others – it sounds like the dream life. And for Lisa Mills, that dream is a reality.

The Maroochydore entrepreneur and mum of three has turned her passion for sign language and raising deaf awareness into a thriving business teaching sign language to an online community of students around the world. But it didn’t happen overnight and the road to get here was a long one – leading her from the Sunshine Coast to the other side of the world and back again.

As a deaf woman, Lisa says life is full of challenges – particularly when running a business. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Challenges help us grow and to discover new opportunities,” she says. “All my challenges led me to my current amazing path of being a deaf entrepreneur, wife and mother to my three beautiful kids.”

Lisa attributes her ability to handle these challenges in large part to her family – she was born in the Mary Valley to parents with a strong work ethic who were involved in small business. “I loved the idea of being my own boss and adding my own creative flair to what I do. My parents also take great pride in their family, have strong values and have sought to instil them in me. One in particular was if starting a project, you must always finish it!”

As a young woman Lisa left the region to pursue a career in professional theatre. “After working for the Australian Theatre of the Deaf in Sydney and abroad, I went on to work in London for many years in theatre as a youth theatre director specialising in deaf theatre. While working in the UK, I was fortunate to travel to Africa and India to deliver my own deaf arts projects for children in developing countries. I was also a deaf arts consultant with Arts Council England.”

It was in London that Lisa met her future husband Steven, who is also deaf. “We dated and travelled the world for many years before we got married here on the Sunshine Coast eight years ago.” The couple now has three children – seven-year-old Romeo, five-year-old Lotus and baby girl Coco, who was just five months old at the time of writing. Lisa says their names are unusual and “easy to lipread and pronounce for a deaf person”.

In 2007 Lisa completed a postgraduate degree in education, with the support of sign language interpreters. “This intrigued fellow students, who asked me to teach them sign language,” she says. “And so I did, and it was so much fun!”

In the years that followed Lisa worked as a teacher in a range of schools. She also taught one student online. “Looking back, I believe this was a pivotal moment in my life where a seed was planted in my mind about the benefits of online learning.”

She then started teaching sign language in Maroochydore “as a side gig at the beginning of my teaching career. It was so fun and a great relief for me to not have to rely on my hearing after spending my day in hearing classrooms or staff environments.”

In 2015 she launched her online business when she was pregnant with her second child. “My students wanted me to continue teaching and I wanted to too. But face-to-face classes were going to be difficult with a baby on board and a husband who works long hours. So I made the big decision to launch an online sign language school. And I haven’t looked back. I quickly had to defer school teaching because my online school became a full-time gig!”

Lisa offers a variety of courses for people keen to learn either Auslan (Australian Sign Language) or BSL (British Sign Language). A common misconception is that sign language is universal – and this is a myth Lisa would like to dispel.

“Sign language is a rich, sophisticated language like spoken languages… The assumption that sign language is universal can be problematic. There are many instances where Australian childcare settings are teaching ASL (American Sign Language), which is vastly different to Auslan. They even did it at one of my children’s day-care centres!

“There are even ASL starter signs poster boards in children’s playgrounds! This token inclusive practice can be offensive to deaf signers in the Australian Deaf Community. There needs to be greater awareness and education about Auslan in Australia. It would be great to see it taught in schools more! Not ASL.”

Lisa says her students come from around the world and from a variety of backgrounds, with various reasons why they want to learn. “[I teach] mums and bubs; retirees who are losing their hearing learn together with their children and grandchildren. And many of my students are career women and men. Some of my students choose to learn to sign to tick off their bucket list. I also have many students learning so they can communicate with a deaf person in their family or at work.” She adds that some just want to learn so that if they ever meet a deaf person, they can communicate. “They want to put a smile on a deaf person’s face or just aim to make a day in their life a bit easier.”

Lisa says student feedback certainly motivates her to keep teaching. “Many of these stories are what inspires my growing team to stay with my company – they can see how my school positively impacts their lives in many different ways.”

Like many online business owners, Lisa has survived and even thrived throughout the pandemic, as she has been able to provide an opportunity for people to learn a rewarding new skill in a positive, supportive and safe space without leaving the house. She now wants to take the business further – one of her plans is to launch deaf awareness videos alongside her signing courses and other short signing videos.

“I’m also soon launching my ‘Auslan Online made EASY: For Kids’ course. It’s another significant project I’ve been working on for a while and I’m so glad it’s going to be in the hands of my students and hopefully many others soon. It’s a much-needed resource for schools. Kids love to learn to sign and it would be so beneficial to the community around them so I’m hoping my course helps to make this possible. Then hopefully our next generation of kids will be able to make greater connections with deaf people in the community and empower deaf people to have equal opportunities in life.”

It’s all part of Lisa’s mission to make learning sign language easy, fun and accessible. “When I began this journey my goal was to bring deaf awareness to as many people as possible. What has amazed and inspired me is how different my students are. They really come from all walks of life. To be able to provide one thing that unites them all – a love of learning sign – is a really humbling experience. And it’s what gets me out of bed every day – to see the joy my students share when they engage the deaf community. I pinch myself every day that I get to do this for a living.”