While there may be many reasons behind the increase of women launching out on their own in business, all start with a brilliant idea and buckets of gumption. Here, 20 female entrepreneurs talk about what it takes and why it’s not for everyone. By Cameron Cooper.
Managing director, SimSkill
Beginning at age 15 by stuffing envelopes, Kristi Abbott is now the boss of her family’s e-learning company.
“I’m my parents’ boss and that is certainly interesting,” she says. On the plus-side, their entrepreneurial spirit has rubbed off on her.
“It’s always been about thinking of new initiatives that are not out there at the moment and continuing to innovate.”
While a relatively new brand, SimSkill draws on decades of experience in simulation development, corporate training and, more recently, online learning.
Abbott advises corporate women to be proud of their femininity, but to use it wisely.
“It’s finding that balance between walking the walk and gaining respect without losing that great stuff that makes us women.”
Abbott on collaboration: “You don’t want to go out and make friends with all your competitors and work together, but I think to compete on a global scale you can’t do everything on your own. You really need to work smarter, not harder.”
CEO, Morris Corp
Australia’s business opportunities are more exciting than ever before, says Fiona Berkin.
“The general multiculturalism which leads to open-mindedness, and the strong economy [contribute] to a welcoming environment if you have a great product or service and customer focus,” she says.
Head of the largest Australian-owned industrial catering, accommodation and facilities management company, Berkin offers a word of caution.
“To achieve growth you need to have an entrepreneurial spirit, however managing that growth requires a detailed approach.”
Berkin admits she focuses on whatever it takes to achieve growth. “I have the drive to follow through and the flexibility to change direction, if circumstances necessitate.”
Berkin on starting a business or career: “Focus, focus, focus on what is best for the business. Always ask yourself that. It is not about politics, ego or even you. Ignore the glass ceiling (perceived or real). Be prepared to sacrifice personally if it is for the good of the business. And be patient!”
CEO, Green Cross Australia
While at Morgan Stanley’s San Francisco technology group in the 1980s, Mara Bun became friends with future global champions such as Netscape’s Jim Clark. “Getting to know the founders behind those enterprises gave me a taste for risk-taking,” she says.
Now head of Green Cross Australia, an organisation that empowers people to respond to environmental change, Bun thinks of herself as an entrepreneurial person – “I always had a start-up in me” – and says the trait requires visualising an end goal and then digging deep to make it happen.
“The vision needs to be shared at scale, the right people need to sign up, and you have to be prepared to take full responsibility for the good, bad and ugly outcomes.”
Bun on leadership: “Leadership is critical if we aim to grow multiple bottom lines. Customers, suppliers, investors and regulators all want to feel compelled to engage, as opposed to being forced. What’s not compelling about cutting-edge social policies that deliver environmental and financial gains?”
Drive presenter, 774 ABC Radio in Melbourne
Driving home about two decades ago, the former university administrator spotted an ad for Burns & Burns mortuary. The name caught her eye, as did the business’s slogan: “Everybody has a dream, but only a few have the guts and determination to achieve it.”
It prompted Burns to start thinking about her career. A cricket fanatic, she set herself the goal of becoming the first female cricket commentator on ABC Radio.
“And five days later I was on air.”
Now a senior drive-time radio host, Burns advises getting great support and loving what you do at work has helped her through challenges. “The thing that kept me going was that I loved my job.”
Burns on work/life balance: “I run and do yoga… You have to have something else away from work and you have to have fun.”
Artistic director of Short Black Productions
Creating your own opportunities is the essence of being an entrepreneur, says Deborah Cheetham. The classically trained soprano has done just that, working as a teacher while setting up Short Black Productions in the early 1990s. “It all started with the desire to perform,” she recalls.
Cheetham built the company from scratch, writing and producing shows for local audiences before eventually gaining international recognition.
“I never once thought that I would face any disadvantage as a woman. I know that it exists and as an Aboriginal woman I’m aware of it, but when I was starting out I just thought, no, my talent had to get me there, and my perseverance and drive.”
Cheetham on advice for other women: “I think it’s important to engage with your passion… It can’t just be about money if you’re going to have enough drive to see it through.”
CEO, Melbourne Community Foundation
Sarah Davies describes herself as “a social entrepreneur”. Her inspiration comes from other people who commit to making communities more just and equitable.
“In particular my father, who showed me that we all have the ability and responsibility to create the kind of world we want to live in.”
Davies encourages women to set clear priorities so they can consciously and deliberately manage the mix of professional, family and community life they seek.
“Have the confidence to question and challenge; ask for help, advice, support; value and use your networks; be prepared to learn from your experiences and mistakes and from others; be generous with your support for others; and do something you really enjoy.”
Davies on collaboration: “There’s very little that can be delivered meaningfully, sustainably and profitably – where profit is both financial and social – that we can still do in isolation or on our own.”
Barb de Corti
Founder and managing director, ENJO australia
With a young son who suffered from asthma, Barb de Corti discovered the ENJO cleaning products while on holiday in Europe.
“Once I came across the product and thought ‘it helps others; I can add value to other people’s lives’, that is basically when I became an entrepreneur,” she says.
De Corti’s backyard business is now a national company. Better still, she has seen the health of her son and others improve.
She advises women getting into business to ensure their products add value. “What value does it add now to the customer, to the consultants, to the people around you? Once you have found that, your business will thrive because you have something honest.”
De Corti on organisational culture: “It’s mega-important to me because I have to come to work every day myself and I want to come to work to a place where everybody feels good. It’s our responsibility as employers to make sure that staff are well looked-after.”
Managing director and founder, Carman’s Fine Foods
Carolyn Creswell succinctly describes her business approach. “I think outside the square, I don’t take no for an answer and I am a risk-taker,” she says.
That blueprint has seen Carman’s Fine Foods transform from a modest supplier of muesli to a few cafes into a multinational operation that serves supermarket chains.
“I can often work out a pathway to bring opportunities from ideas to reality.”
The Victorian mother-of-three believes balancing a career with parenting remains a challenge for women. For business owners, the key is appreciating that a company may not make money from day one.
“It is important that you don’t need to rely financially on it immediately.”
Creswell on work/life balance: “It’s crucial. For me it is about being in the moment both at work and at home.”
Dr Caroline Gargett
Deputy Director, Women’s Health Theme, The Ritchie Centre, Monash Institute of Medical Research, Monash University
After raising a family full-time, Caroline Gargett began a PhD in her 40s. Since then, her career in scientific research has taught Gargett skills including securing funding, mentorship and decision-making.
“That freedom is the entrepreneurial side of it. Conducting research on your own ideas for the betterment of society is one of the precious things researchers hang on to.”
A pioneer of endometrial stem cell research, Gargett admits science can be demanding, especially for women with families. “I do a lot with cells, and when your cells need you they’re worse than babies.”
Gargett on innovation: “Research is a lot about innovation and new ideas. When you design experiments or if you find something completely unexpected it can be very significant and that’s what hooks you in. The thrill of discovery gives you a very strong sense of satisfaction.”
Industry leader, Google Australia and New Zealand
A love of horses inspired Claire Hatton’s early entrepreneurial streak. At just 14, she began making and selling horse accessories so she could buy a steed of her own.
“I sold the business at 16 and used the profits to buy my horse,” Hatton explains. “It gave me a great taste for what’s possible.”
While working for British Airways, Hatton was named the United Kingdom Person of the Year in 1998 for her help in rescuing about 2500 people from riots in Jakarta.
Hatton advocates self-confidence for women who are carving out careers.
“There is a tendency for women to doubt, to over-analyse, think too much and question themselves,” she says. “We all need to give ourselves a break!”
Hatton on collaboration: “It couldn’t be more important – the best idea can always be improved, and what better way to improve an idea than to throw it open to more people.”
Principal, Marketing Talk
When the financial crisis hit, Sherryn McBride noticed that many small business owners suddenly had to embrace marketing strategies to strengthen their operations in tough times. So she set about helping them.
Rather than an entrepreneur, McBride sees herself as someone who helps innovative business owners maximise their potential.
“I use the term entrepreneurial when I speak about my clients, not myself.”
Set up in 2001, Marketing Talk emphasises connectivity – between brand, image, website, referrals and customer care. All of those factors are marginal, however, unless business owners or career women have a passion for what they do.
“If you don’t love it you’ll find it very hard to make it work.”
McBride on entrepreneurship: “[It’s] a word with a lot of Es in it when it should be full of Is. Like initiative, imagination, inspiration, innovation, ideas and ideals – interpreting and integrating them all.”
Chloe Munro depicts her career as “a portfolio life”. Her considered choices presently include roles at AquaSure, on the board of Hydro Tasmania and acting chair of the National Water Commission.
“I have had a few changes in my career which might look like a leap in the dark, but in fact it’s built up this very rich mix of experiences.”
A self-described magpie – “I’ve picked up things from all sorts of different leaders” – Munro also draws inspiration and skills from working in complex industries such as energy, water and communications. In encouraging other women to take a chance in pursuing a new career or business, she adds: “Very few of the choices that you make are irreversible.”
Munro on organisational culture: “Some organisations have a very compelling culture which can get out of step with their environment, and that’s terminal. Having the right culture is as important as having a strong culture.”
Owner and managing director, pink zebra
Sarah Paykel is not afraid of mixing creativity with the business side of her company. “I do think of myself as a ‘fashion entrepreneur’.”
With five pink zebra stores, Paykel’s decision-making focus revolves around “constantly looking for new ways to delight customers”. That means always thinking about the business, adapting to change, looking for openings and never switching off.
A former head at eyewear giant OPSM, Paykel highlights globalisation as the game-changing force in the business world.
“The world is becoming smaller and more global by the day. Your competition is not just next door, but also businesses based in New York or Singapore or anywhere in the world.”
Paykel on collaboration: “It is the most important issue for the smooth running of a business. By utilising everyone’s skills and input, the outcome is far greater and so much more fun and interesting!”
Managing director, Esplanade Hotel Group
What does Marylyn New regard as the biggest barrier to women forging careers?
“Men! Just joking,” she quips. She thinks, however, that females do have an edge.
“Most men have been using their left brain. Women use their left brain, their right brain, their emotions and their intuition.”
That intuition paid off when she sold all her shares the day before the stock market crash of October 1987. And when she bought the historic Esplanade Hotel in Fremantle without an inspection and in just one day.
New advises women to “do it uniquely your way”, and has no doubt opportunities arise with hard work and keeping egos in check. “Most disasters come from delusion.”
New on leadership: “It is everything. Your business will reflect all the ethics or not of your leadership. I take nothing out of my business without signing for it – even a cup of coffee.”
Founder and chief executive officer, Wild Child
Before home-based businesses became a fad, Leanne Preston started Wild Child in her Margaret River kitchen, and today exports to diverse markets around the world.
When her daughter came home from school with head lice, Preston found the only treatments contained toxic pesticides. So she developed a natural remedy. Wild Child’s Quit Nits products have since revolutionised treatment of head lice.
She says while the idea of a home-based business sounds idyllic, it requires discipline and careful planning. “Most clients don’t think about the difference between a home-based business and a small- to medium-sized company, and their expectation of service will be the same,” she says.
Preston on leadership: “It’s very important – now more than ever. With people’s confidence at an all-time low we must connect to the greater need of our society. We must instil confidence and trust and lead by example.”
Talent segment leader, Mercer Australia
For Marianne Roux, entrepreneurship is about passion and making a real difference.
“To do this it is about thinking critically and independently, stretching oneself continuously and following your heart, values and intuition,” she says.
Now working for consulting firm Mercer, Roux has adhered to this approach throughout her own diverse career working for various consulting firms as a human resources executive and also running her own consultancy.
Her other tip? With any job, treat it as though it is your own business.
“When you approach work like that you try harder to understand your clients’ needs and you keep your knowledge and skills relevant.”
Roux on organisational culture: “Culture is the most important factor in employee engagement. Leadership directly affects culture. Without good leadership the organisation will struggle to attract, engage and retain great employees and great clients.”
Radio personality, food expert
Being impulsive and taking risks is the heart of entrepreneurship for Rilka Warbanoff.
“I just bite off more than I can chew and then I chew really quickly,” says the food guru, who is a regular on ABC Radio.
However, risk-taking is not something that can be learned, she says. “To be entrepreneurial is a characteristic in you. You are either born that way or you are not.”
After her husband died, Warbanoff sold her successful executive search company to pursue her food interests through radio, books and television. Despite a penchant for daring business moves, she is not foolhardy.
“The difference between a stupid risk-taker and a smart risk-taker is that a smart risk-taker has done the homework.”
Warbanoff on innovation: “Innovation is incredibly important, but the word can be over-used because some things done the old-fashioned way can still be very effective.”
Co-founder and creative director, Morrison
“You can’t try to be an entrepreneur,” says Kylie Radford, who with her husband is the brains behind fashion label Morrison. “You are one or you’re not one.”
More important than such tags, she says, is pursuing dreams, working tirelessly, taking risks and following passions.
“It’s not about money. It’s about achieving your goals and reaching greater heights.”
For others considering starting a business, Radford promotes the importance of a great business plan, robust market research and access to frank mentors.
“Don’t underestimate the importance of the finance side because you can be creative and have a great idea but at the end of the day a business is a business.”
Radford on innovation: “It’s almost everything to us. We’re innovative in terms of our fabrics, our designs, our finishes. It’s what drives the business and we do focus a lot of our attention on innovation and pushing boundaries.”
Set up in 2005, Youngcare is a national charity that seeks to provide dignified care options for younger people with serious disabilities or illnesses. Leading the business is an “aspirational” choice for Marina Vit, a former corporate manager.
She believes the challenges of running a corporate or not-for-profit business are similar: financial, human resources and strategic issues are top of mind.
“There’s an interesting layer of complexity in the not-for-profit world in that you’re not necessarily selling people a product in the traditional sense,” Vit explains. “Keeping them interested in what you do and appealing to them in an emotional sense to support your organisation is a very interesting challenge.”
Vit on collaboration: “It’s paramount in the not-for-profit sector. There’s no use all of us knocking on the same doors independently when there’s so much strength behind all of us working together.”
CEO, Shine Lawyers
It is fair to say that 30-something female CEOs with one-year-olds are rare in the legal world. Jodie Willey has not only achieved this but has done so with work/life balance, “thanks to a very placid and flexible baby and being surrounded by the right support”.
While conceding she isn’t an entrepreneur in the traditional sense, she highlights the importance of an entrepreneurial sensibility in any business. “An entrepreneur is a person with the necessary skills to lead an organisation so that it can continue to grow.”
Willey favours people who remain “natural and authentic”, and encourages women to be more assertive. “We need to be a little bolder and stretch ourselves when the right opportunity presents itself.”
Willey on advice for other female businesswomen: “Align yourself with a business or opportunity that matches your values and passion and you’re half way there.”