“You can’t be what you can’t see.” Jo Burston
Four leading female entrepreneurs show us all that entrepreneurship can be a rewarding career, especially for women.
At our Empowering Entrepreneurs Lunch—held at Macquarie Bank in Sydney this week—we were inspired by four of Australia’s most successful entrepreneurs, each of whom are women. Melissa Widner from NAB Ventures, Jo Burston from Rare Birds, Babyology Founder Mandi Gunsberger, and Sustainable Solutions Group’s Le Ho, joined our own Ian Gardiner to discuss the challenges and the triumphs of being an entrepreneur. They shared their personal journeys, a little of their scar tissue, and a lot of incredible insights.
For Jo Burston, overcoming the fear factor of being an entrepreneur comes down to having a backup plan: ‘I learnt the art of financial management early on, and I created a plan for wealth outside of my business, as well as in my business.’ She encouraged everyone to all learn financial literacy as a key skill. As someone who has built very successful businesses, she was quick to remind us that the highs are always accompanied by a number of lows: ‘I’ve become very comfortable with the uncertainty. I’ve broken a business and it’s physically broken me.’
Le Ho has built her businesses by keeping debt to a minimum, and planning her growth strategically. She likes to put the risks of failure into perspective: ‘You are your own worst critic. You need to remember that and trust your instinct. If you’re going to make a decision that has risk attached to it, you simply need to write a list of pros and a list of cons—then trust your instinct.’
Her choice to become an entrepreneur came out of a drive to live a successful life, having experienced the very ugly side of racism growing up in Adelaide in the 1980s. ‘It made me want to really be a success and to live an amazing life.’ She believes anyone can succeed as an entrepreneur, providing they are willing to keep trying. ‘You’ve got to persevere. If you really believe in what you’re doing you may fail, but then you’ve got to keep getting back up and keep going.’
In comparison, Jo Burston came to entrepreneurship a little later. Having fulfilled the script that her parents defined as the answer to a happy life—marriage, two kids, a good job and a nice house—she then realised that her happiness came from building businesses. At 32, she decided to make a career change, and has not looked back. ‘I wasn’t happy and I knew I could do more. I don’t believe anyone is born an entrepreneur, and it’s not something you can be taught. You have to learn it. You have to keep learning from experience, good and bad.’
Mandi Gunsberger fell into the entrepreneur field. She was simply applying her communication skills to her decision-making as a parent, when she realised that she was not alone in wanting information around parenting. Babyology grew organically, from her own research on the best pram choice, to now challenging the likes of Fairfax and News Limited for the prized market share of parents. Nine years into her journey, she is now looking to gain funding for the first time, which has come with its own challenges.
‘I always said we would never seek funding until we needed it, and funding now will allow us to grow quickly. I have been very lucky to be connected with some great people, and have noticed that in the past five years there have been many more support networks and opportunities to help women as entrepreneurs.’ Gunsberger has enjoyed the support she’s received more recently from Rare Birds, and also from Heads over Heels.
Behind Heads over Heels is Melissa Widner, an accomplished and respected venture capitalist and entrepreneur. Her marriage to an Australian saw her shift home countries then careers: ‘When I first arrived in Australia, you couldn’t help but notice the lack of women as entrepreneurs. I wanted to create more opportunities for women, so through Heads over Heels I selected men and women who would be willing to open up their networks.’
She believes this focus on female entrepreneurship is having an impact: ‘There are wonderful outcomes; you can see what can happen when you focus on it.’
Burston’s Rare Birds movement, which focusses on encouraging female participation in innovation and entrepreneurship through mentoring, agrees that this focus is instigating change: ‘I recently did a TedX talk on why there’s a lot of money to be made from investing in female entrepreneurs. People don’t realise it, but the return on investment speaks for itself. Studies show that if there is gender diversity on the management team, there is a higher probability of success.’
Burston believes education is the first place the next generation of talent can be developed. ‘I want to see entrepreneurship as a career choice, in high schools. I believe you cannot be what you cannot see, and if we want more women to be entrepreneurs, then they need to see it as a career choice for women, as well as men. They need to see more female entrepreneurs.’
While Gunsberger had transformed her transition into parenthood into an incredible business, oddly it was this very shift into parenthood that was causing challenges for many women seeking career opportunities. Burston explained: ‘75% of C-suite professionals who are female, are also not parents.’ And Widner agreed: ‘When you are looking to fill board positions or senior positions, it’s often harder for women to have the same career experience as men, simply because the time they take out of their careers for family.’
But these roadblocks needn’t be career ending. Businesses need to find ways to overcome these challenges. ‘We need to be more patient and give more time to finding women who are able to fill these roles. They are out there, but finding them sometimes takes a little longer. We also need to give men the freedom to take time out of their careers, for family and even generally—they need to feel like they can.’
Ho would like to see industries that are male dominated do more than just talk about gender diversity. Having built a successful business in waste disposal, she believes the real challenge is that the pathways are not always there for women: ‘In waste disposal you don’t see a lot of women, and the behaviour that’s accepted towards women makes it a tough environment for them. For me, the more they wanted me to fail, the more determined I was to succeed, but it shouldn’t be like that.’
Gunsberger, now pitching to investors, is also feeling the implicit pressure to masculinise her pitch: ‘I’ve had to take a lot of the colour out, a lot of the Babyology style, simply because it’s not what they are used to.’
This normalising of a male approach is something that Widner observed many years before: ‘We’d often judge start-ups by a pitching style that really came from men. Men and women often pitch very differently, but for a long time we’ve seen the male way as the better way, just because they are more confident. But, now we are beginning to realise that there are different ways to pitch, and one is not better than the other.’
Is it possible that an answer to improving the number of women participating in entrepreneurship is simply showing this generation that entrepreneurship is a viable career option for women—where they are not just welcome, but able to enjoy the same opportunities and success?
While all acknowledged there are still many roadblocks yet to overcome, there was an overwhelming sense that gender diversity is finally getting the airplay it deserves. ‘It’s great that we are talking about it,’ says Widner.
She believes that a lot has changed since she first came to Australia, a little over ten years ago. ‘At first I was against quotas, but since the reporting of boards has been required—not even an actual quota but just the reporting of it—more boards are changing their mix.’
The great news is, the shift is taking place—albeit slowly. Entrepreneurs like Gunsberger attribute much of their success to these networks and support systems, like Heads over Heels and Rare Birds. And, through the leadership of these inspiring business people, no doubt many positive shifts will continue.
There may still be a long way to go before true gender diversity is normalised, but the panel showed how together, we can make gender diversity a reality for the innovation sector. Whether it’s the greater chance of success, the opportunity to make more money by investing in women, or simply a desire for a future where gender equality is normal, there were many great ideas raised and celebrated at this Empowering Entrepreneurs lunch, and it gave us a lot of inspiration and food for thought.
Thanks again to our remarkable guests, and our sponsors who make hosting events like these—and engaging our community on important issues—possible.