She created Australia's Uber for dinner parties' then on the verge of going global' COVID-19 meant dinner parties were banned indefinitely.
But CQUniversity graduate Jodie Mlikota's determination to keep loved ones connecting' even at a distance' has meant her digital hospitality platform Gathar is more popular than ever.
Now CQUniversity has recognised the young entrepreneur's commitment to innovation and community' naming her the 2021 Alumnus of the Year for Early Career Achievement.
The Cairns-based CEO and founder is one of four inspiring CQUniversity 2021 Alumni Award recipients announced on Monday 1 March 2021.
Ms Mlikota's idea for Gathar began with her passion for creative solutions' and found form in a CQUniversity assignment.
"The first version of Gathar actually came from one of my entrepreneurship assignments in my Graduate Certificate of Social Innovation'" Ms Mlikota said.
"The project was to think of a problem and design a new business to solve it' and I wanted to create something that let you host dinner parties' without missing out of the fun of a dinner party!"
The online platform matches chefs' cooks and grazing table stylists with people who love to entertain' but don't love the hard work that comes with it. Customers choose a menu and a Gathar team member comes to them to cook' serve and wash up after.
"As part of the project I had give it a name' so my husband and I sat around with a whiteboard' and when we came up with Gathar' we registered the business that day!"
That was in May 2017' and the passionate student went on pitch her idea at the Global Startup Weekend Women in Brisbane' winning her way through to an international pitch opportunity in France in March 2018.
She also received a scholarship to attend the annual Ashoka U Exchange social impact conference in the United States. The opportunity was part of CQUniversity's role as Australia's only Changemaker University' recognised by global network Ashoka U.
Completing her Graduate Certificate of Social Innovation later that year' Ms Mlikota and her co-founders then launched in Cairns and Port Douglas in September 2018' and expanded to Brisbane in 2019.
In early 2020' Gathar has just received $600'000 in seed funding from Queensland Government and private backers' when COVID-19 put a near-instant halt on the startup's operations.
"It was really tough for us' money stopped coming in and in fact we going backwards because we were making refunds as people had to cancel events'" she said.
Ms Mlikota responded quickly' leading the team to pivot and offer national at-home dinner parties. Across two big events' more than 800 participants had food delivered to their homes by local chefs' and all connected to enjoy live music over dinner via Zoom.
"Right through that time' we were trying to do the best thing by our clients' and by our chefs – and everyone was taking care of each other which was really special to see'" Ms Mlikota said.
Now Ms Mlikota says the startup is "busier than ever"' as Australians put new value on the opportunity to get together and celebrate.
"We're in 16 markets nationally' including Sydney' Melbourne' Byron Bay and the Sunshine Coast' and New Zealand is the next logical step'" Ms Mlikota said.
Ms Mlikota' who also worked at CQUniversity before leaving to found Gathar' said support from her lecturers and colleagues was vital to the success of Gathar.
"In that first assignment' I remember my lecturer writing in the comments' 'this could really have legs in the real world''" she said.
"I'll keep my connection to CQUni always."
CQUniversity has shared the Alumni Award recipients' stories in its new podcast series' How to Change a Life' which launched on Monday 8 March 2021.