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The Female Fantastic: challenges and opportunities for companies led by women

At the recent Advance Queensland Innovation and Investment Summit there was a session exploring the challenges and opportunities for female-led companies. Leigh Angus, Head Innovator at Domino’s Pizza Australia, hosted the Female Fantastic session and facilitated an engaging, lively discussion with four inspiring female entrepreneurs.

Panellists included (from left in the above photo) Dr Catherine Ball, Director of Applied Innovation at Elemental Strategy; Jane Lu, founder and CEO of Showpo; Marita Cheng, founder of Robogals Global and 2Mar Robotics; and Tania Walter, founder and CEO of Obzervr.

This impressive group of women from across a range of industries made for an interesting discussion and a different take from each woman around the challenges and opportunities of having a company led by women.

Throughout the talks from each speaker and the sometimes intense panel discussion, the main challenges raised were: contending with your own unconscious bias and the unconscious bias of men and women around you, having the ability to back yourself, and the need to support each other as professional women.

Jane Lu recounted the challenges she faced in the early days of building Showpo.

“When I first started I had no money at all, in fact I was over $60k in debt,” Ms Lu said.

“I managed to build the business regardless by buying stock on consignment, building the website by myself and using social media to market the brand. The hardest part about starting a business isn’t taking that plunge to do it, it’s being able to back yourself day after day, knock-back after knock-back, a year into the business.”

Beyond the challenges the women have faced while building their businesses, they said real change and an increase in female founders will come from ensuring young women are immersed in the skills they need from a young age.

Noticing the small number of female students in her university classes, Marita Cheng started Robogals to increase female participation in Engineering, Science and Technology through engaging with school students.

Cheng’s work with Robogals and the real world problems she has solved through her company, 2Mar Robotics, demonstrate where the future working world is heading with robotics. But becoming an industry leader in her field hasn’t come without its hurdles.

Impostor syndrome is a real thing,” says Cheng, referring to the nagging feeling that she did not deserve her success.

Knowing your value and backing yourself is something the panel identified women can improve on. Using the example of a woman returning to work part-time after maternity leave, Tania Walter was met with resounding support explaining that women need to understand their value.

Recounting the common issue that many women returning to work on a part-time basis end up with a full time workload, Ms Walter said women need to understand and articulate their value.

She also noted that a paradigm shift to outcome-focused work instead of hours spent sitting at a desk will help in solving the issue, however, with this notion not widely adopted in many larger corporate structures, it is becoming increasingly attractive for women to start their own companies.

While the feelings of imposter syndrome and not recognising or articulating your value can be present in men and women, the panel also focused on solutions for women facing similar challenges.

“At a collective level, we can offer support to other women in business. And at an individual level, we can push our hardest to succeed to prove what we’re capable of,” says Ms Lu.

“I’ve never had to deal with much gender bias, given the industry that I’m in, and the fact that I’ve never had to seek funding. I can imagine how hard it would have been 6 years ago to try and explain to a VC how I’m going to build a multi-million dollar brand because I get Facebook.”

Ms Lu said she has also found inspiration and support in the women’s business meetup she started in August 2015.

We started [the meetup] last August by organising a small group of friends, who all had their own businesses, to have dinner together and talk shop,” says Ms Lu.

“We had a hunch then that there were more women like us out there, so we put it to the public.

“That hunch was soon validated by the rapid growth of the group. Eight months later and we have 6,000+ members in the group and monthly events running in most capital cities in Australia as well as in London, LA and San Fran.”

The meetup group’s name, LMBDW (Like Minded Bitches Drinking Wine), came under some criticism from other members of the panel. The critics explained they didn’t like the ‘B word’ being deliberately used as a shorthand for women, while others supported Lu’s aim to communicate the empowering and approachable nature of the monthly events they host. This was a discussion which certainly had people divided.

Speaking after the panel, Ms Lu told me the group was created to disrupt the typical networking events so many of us regularly attend. She further explained she wouldn’t formally address the start of a LMBDW event last month until everyone had spoken to three new people. While it may not work in every situation, this approach certainly would help to break the ice and ensure the women in attendance built their confidence to approach new people – something we all need to work on at times.

With the palpable energy and inspiration flowing through the room, the panel also had valuable advice for aspiring entrepreneurs eager to take the plunge.

“If you have an idea, then just do it,” said Ms Lu.

“Don’t wait until things are perfect, because it never will be! You’ll learn more from the first week of launch than from months of planning. And if you don’t have an idea yet, don’t start a business for the sake of it. Get a job with a startup.”

“You’ll learn so much more, you’ll get inspired and working in the field will help you find potential market gaps for you to create a business in.”

“I think you’re better off working at a startup, even if it means taking a pay cut, than working corporate and using your salary to pay to learn about entrepreneurship.”

Finally, Dr Catherine Ball summarised the session perfectly by highlighting the importance of keeping the discussion and spotlight on female-driven startups alive.

“The culture of innovation is the culture of conversation,” said Dr Ball.

Image credit: Nicola Hazell/Twitter

About Nicola Smith

Nicola Smith is a research and policy analyst with experience in the property and technology industries. She also founded NSConsulting to ensure her clients' professional branding is effectively articulated through cover letter and resume writing services. With a strong corporate grounding, Nicola’s interest in Brisbane start-ups was sparked through her work in the technology industry and creative arts background. In her spare time, Nicola attends ballet class and dreams of her next travel destinations.