As featured on the Xero Blog written by Lucy Godwin
From left: Sarah, Simone, Sheryl, Jacqui and Josh
Earlier this week, Square and Startup Week 2016 presented Ladies Who Launch: a panel featuring some of Australia’s inspiring business owners – who just happen to be women. Around 200 of us gathered at 524 Flinders Street to hear from four successful founders: Sarah Hamilton of Bellabox, Simone Clark of Butterbing Cookie Sandwiches, Sheryl Thai of Cupcake Central + the League of Extraordinary Women, and Jacqui Bull of Sidekicker. The panel was hosted Josh McNicol, Head of Marketing and Communications for Square Australia.
As Josh and the four panelists discussed careers, challenges and lessons they’ve had along the way, several interesting themes emerged.
I didn’t see myself as a “female” entrepreneur
What is a “female” entrepreneur, exactly? Is she any different than a male entrepreneur?
None of the panelists had ever thought of themselves as “female entrepreneurs” – until they encountered somebody who treated them differently to their male counterparts.
“Often I’m not taken seriously,” Simone said. “When looking for a new lease or sourcing new suppliers – anything that involves money – people would grossly over-quote me or simply never reply to my emails.”
She decided to change the way she branded herself in attempt to combat any would-be sexists she might encounter. “I went from referring to my business as a ‘cookie bakery’ to a ‘wholesale cookie manufacturer’,” she explained with a smile.
Sheryl lamented the curious fact that many men are intimidated by her success. “When I go on dates I generally tell people I’m unemployed, at first. All too often, when I eventually tell them what I really do, they actually tell me that they’re really intimidated – and I never hear from them again.”
So are there any differences between male and female entrepreneurs?
Is the term “female entrepreneur” useful? When you think about it, it can seem redundant. Should we have different prefixes for all entrepreneurs that don’t fit the “straight, white male” profile?
Sarah was quick to point out the ridiculousness of the term “mumpreneur”. “I never realised I was being discriminated against until I became a mum,” she said.
“One time was at an event with my boyfriend, and everyone assumed that – because I had a business and kids – I worked from home with the kids under my feet. They’d make complete assumptions and say things like ‘Oh, that’s nice that you get to work from home’, and I’d think – ‘but I have an office!’
“I’m just someone who runs a business. I happen to be a woman. I happen to have kids.
“We shouldn’t mess around with the term entrepreneur,” she emphasised.
Jacqui has had a different experience – she’s noticed she stands out against countless male fish in the tech sea, which can work in her favour.
“People are interested in a female doing a tech startup because it’s rare,” she mused. “I’ve been lucky that this has worked to my advantage – for me it’s been a positive thing.”
Of course, it would be wonderful to see a world where it’s unsurprising to meet a tech entrepreneur who is also a woman. “If we can inspire both men and women to get involved in business, that’s great,” she says.
Gender aside – as a business owner, how do you grow? How do you choose what to prioritise?
For Sheryl, sound processes were essential to business growth.
“Because we had consistent systems in place, we could seamlessly hand over our roles to staff once we started to hire people. It also means you can completely trust your staff to do their job properly – leaving you to focus on the business,” she explains.
Sarah explains that product was always their number one focus. “Secondly, we looked at how to acquire people. Social media was one of this biggest channels for us, and we were lucky to hire a guy who was fantastic with Facebook advertising.
“I’d say it’s vital that you’re honest about the people you need. When their work is good and you pay them well, it’s a worthwhile investment – because it’s the only way you’ll get the results you need.”
What about your experience would you like to share with aspiring entrepreneurs?
Jacqui is determined to clear up the misconception that, in the business world, startups need to raise money from the beginning.
“It’s more important to get your customers – then retain them; make sure you can service a high volume; figure out if your processes will support that; and will your product support that,” she advises.
“You know it’s going to be hard – but you don’t know how hard,” warns Simone. “The best word to describe it is ‘grit’. There are hard times and a lack of sleep on this lonely journey. There’s no money for a while. You have to sacrifice your social life.
“If there’s one thing I could change, it would be to go back and look after my health better during that time,” she says.
So how can we encourage more women to become entrepreneurs?
Even if gender shouldn’t make a difference in the business world; the fact remains that it’s still an arena dominated by men. What, then, is the best way to promote entrepreneurialism to girls and women?
It was clear that each of the panelists agreed quotas are the wrong approach to encouraging diversity. As a small business owner, Simone pointed out that some roles are quite niche and don’t necessarily receive a lot of applicants.
“People need to be passionate and inspiring,” she argues “So adjusting your hiring to meet a quota when the selection pool is already small can be detrimental to success.”
Sarah believes we need to send the equality message from an early age. “My kids will go to a coed school – how can we eradicate gender issues if we separate kids and don’t understand one another? Of course, it’s not just schools but communities that need to work towards fixing the issue.
“In the workforce, we need internal programmes that facilitate female leaders, and we need to speak to women – ask them what they need and how they can be equipped with confidence. I respect female and male business leaders equally, but there are a lot more barriers standing in the way of female entrepreneurs.”
Sheryl referenced Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg. “We need to raise girls to become women who view the world as an equal playing field. We need to encourage women to step up and lean in,” she explained.
“We need to inspire people, make them realise ‘hey, I could be that person too – if she can make it happen, then I can.’”