Caitlin Fitzsimmons Online editor

Caitlin covers social media, marketing and technology and is BRW's social media editor. She has worked as a journalist in Sydney, London and San Francisco, writing for titles including The Guardian and The Australian Financial Review.

View more articles from Caitlin Fitzsimmons

Women to watch: What will it take to open the door for more young female entrepreneurs?

Published 19 September 2013 08:50, Updated 19 September 2013 13:34

+font -font print
Women to watch: What will it take to open the door for more young female entrepreneurs?

Nicole Kersh, co-founder of 4Cabling, taking all the right steps to grow her business. Michel O’Sullivan

If there is a lesson for aspiring women entrepreneurs in this year’s BRWYoung Rich, it is that more women should consider building businesses in the technology or mining sectors.

Of the 100 names on the list, there are only seven women who made the $18 million cut-off, one more than last year. They are Carolyn Creswell in food manufacturing, Lilly Haikin of chocolate chain Max Brenner, Tammy May in finance, technology entrepreneur Karen Cariss, model Miranda Kerr, golfer Karrie Webb and James Packer’s estranged wife Erica Baxter on the basis of her likely divorce settlement.

The co-founders of sass & bide are off the list. Heidi Middleton is now over 40 and Sarah-Jane Clarke does not make the threshold on her own. Kylie Radford of fashion chain Morrison just misses out while EA Equipment Hire co-founder Prue Eales is out due to age.

That leaves 93 male Young Rich members and there is a strong technology and mining flavour to their businesses. The founders of software company Atlassian, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar , again top the list and male technology entrepreneurs appear throughout.

With the notable exception of Nathan Tinkler who exits the list this year, the men in the mining and mining services sectors have survived the end of the boom with their fortunes largely intact.

Why technology?

Karen Cariss, who co-founded recruitment software company PageUp People with her husband, Simon, 16 years ago, says more women should consider building businesses in the technology sector.

“Although I run a technology business, I’m not a technologist,” Cariss says. “The way that I’ve done it is I’ve taken something I’m passionate about, in terms of helping design software that enables people to be in the right job . . . and [I] think about how we can apply technology to solve the problem. I don’t get passionate about the code it’s written in other than to say, ‘how is this going to help our customers and our business?’

“For a mum, a technology company gives great work-life balance and they’re tomorrow’s businesses so there’s huge potential in terms of what you can do with them,” she says.

San Francisco-based technology entrepreneur Adam Pisoni, who co-founded Yammer and sold it to Microsoft last year for $US1.2 billion ($1.3 billion) says it is a similar situation in the United States, where women do not found technology start-ups at the same rate as men.

“We’re seeing more women entrepreneurs and founders and there’s a push for it . . . but there’s a negative thing in Silicon Valley right now where engineers [usually men] are funded on their own without any business skills or people,” Pisoni says.

There has also been a push in Australia to support female entrepreneurs, with the launch of mentoring programs like Springboard Enterprises, new funds such as Scale Investors that only invest in start-ups with at least one female co-founder, and new networking groups like Startup with Style.

Venture technology firm BlueChilli partners with non-technical entrepreneurs in start-ups that have a technology edge and 42 per cent of them are women, which is unusually high.

The founder and managing director of Job Capital, Jo Burston, believes the lack of women entrepreneurs stems from lack of awareness.

She is writing a book and making a short film showcasing successful female entrepreneurs to inspire girls from the age of eight through to the university years, as well as retired women who could be potential investors.

“There’s no curriculum in school for being an entrepreneur – it’s the naughty kids who end up becoming entrepreneurs because they don’t fit the mould and there’s no awareness that it’s a career path,” Burston says.

The family factor

It is not just choice of industry and lack of knowledge that holds women back in business. Women in Australia are still the primary carers when they have children and many fear the lack of work-life balance that can come with being a successful entrepreneur.

Cariss, who relocated to Singapore with her young family earlier this year, says in Asia it is assumed that women will continue to work after having children and society is geared to support that.

In Australia, she found a much greater expectation that women would devote most of their time to family, coupled with a lack of affordable child care.

“In Singapore you can get accessible domestic support at home and child care is also affordable from a young age. You just don’t have access to that in Australia,” Cariss says.

“It was four years before we could even take a regular wage out of the business . . . but I was fortunate enough that by the time I was having children, the business could pay us a respectable salary so we could justify it.”

Cariss founded her business at age 24 and ran it for 10 years before she had children. But many women start businesses in their 30s at the same time as starting a family.

Youthful advantages

Many entrepreneurs say the best time to start a business is straight out of university when the risks are low. Nicole Kersh, who founded information technology cable business 4Cabling at age 21, agrees. “I came at this with a complete outsider’s perspective, I had no risk, just an idea and instinct,” Kersh says. “If I had the idea now, I don’t think I’d do it in the same way because your attitude to risk changes.”

That said, there were disadvantages too. A 21-year-old woman in IT infrastructure is enough of a rarity that Kersh often met with older men in decision-making roles who demanded to see her boss instead.

(Cariss had a similar experience with people assuming that her husband was the one who really ran the business, although her customers were mostly human resources directors with a higher proportion of women.)

Kersh is not yet on the Young Rich list, but at age 30 she is still has plenty of time to get there. She owns 51 per cent of 4Cabling and her mother owns the other 49 per cent. The business turns over about $8 million a year and is growing at about 25 per cent annually; it was ranked 64th on the BRW Fast 100 last year.

Yet Kersh is also at the age where she would love to start a family in the next few years and she is not sure how that would affect the growth of her business. “I’d love to be able to carry on at the rate I’m going. I love my job and I’m passionate about being an entrepreneur, but when I’m 80 am I going to look back and be thankful for my family or the accumulation of personal wealth? I’d have to say my family,” Kersh says.

Life begins at 40

The director of women’s markets at Westpac, Larke Riemer, says that while women certainly start successful businesses, they often have a different measure of success and it is not always about competing to be the biggest.

In her work, Riemer sees a lot of women entrepreneurs who manage the growth of their business to maintain work-life balance while they are bringing up children.

She cites Carman’s owner Carolyn Creswell as a good example. Although Creswell has been a fixture on the Young Rich list, the fact that she has four children is one reason why the growth of her business has been fairly measured to date.

However, Creswell has previously told BRW she has a goal to double turnover of her business in the next few years and has just taken on a television role in a new Ten Network series, Recipe to Riches.

“You need to look at the stage of life they’re in,” Riemer says.

“As their families grow up and start to be more independent, they can spend more time on the business. That’s why you start to see their businesses growing really strongly when they’re in their 40s and 50s. It’s a different head space.”

This rings true for Prue Eales, who founded EA Equipment Hire with her husband Laurence 13 years ago. She dropped down to three days a week six months ago, and plans to branch out into her own business, without her husband, next year.

“I agree with that,” Eales says. “The first 10 years of my life I dedicated to bringing up children and working.

“Now that my kids are older, I’m having a bit of a gap year and next year I’ll throw myself back into it. I think a lot of women, once their kids are older, will throw themselves into it in a big way.”

Young women to watch

Four innovative young women are making waves on the world stage. Cathy Edwards, Leila Kotlar-Bouget, Nicole Kersh and Tan Le have already made remarkable contributions in the worlds of technology and finance.

Cathy Edwards

Cathy Edwards graduated from the University of Western Australia with degrees in pure mathematics and linguistics in 2003. She co-founded app search engine Chomp in 2009 with fellow Australian tech entrepreneur Ben Keighran. Edwards served as chief technology officer, while Keighran was CEO. Chomp raised more than $US2.5 million ($2.7 million) in venture capital and had high-profile Silicon Valley advisers, including Kevin Rose (formerly of Digg and now Google) and actor and tech investor Ashton Kutcher. Apple bought Chomp for $US50 million in 2012. Edwards is head of search at Apple.

Nicole Kersh

Aged just 30, Nicole Kersh owns a business with turnover of about $8 million a year. Kersh founded 4Cabling when she was 21 and owns 51 per cent of the business; her mother is the other major shareholder. 4Cabling is branching out by adding micro-sites as subsidiary businesses to target niche customer groups, such as parents who want to baby-proof their homes. Other expansion plans include a retail outlet in Melbourne, a stronger presence in Western Australia to tap into the mining sector, and distribution to Hong Kong and Singapore. Kersh is targeting 25 per cent ­year-on-year growth for the business, which was on the BRW Fast 100 in 2012.

Tan Le

Tan Le, 36, came to Australia at the age of four as a refugee from Vietnam. She is a former Young Australian of the Year for her services to the Vietnamese community in Footscray, Melbourne. She went to university aged 16 and completed a law degree but then became an entrepreneur. Le co-founded Emotiv Systems in 2003 and is still there, as CEO. The Silicon Valley-based company makes headsets to read and interpret brain signals and recently completed a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $US1.3 million. Le has spoken at TEDx conferences.

Leila Kotlar-Bouget

In her early 30s, Leila Kotlar-Bouget is a rising star in finance and hedge fund circles. She is global head of client services at CQS, the London-based hedge fund founded by BRW Rich 200 member Michael Hintze, where she runs a small team and focuses on using technology to improve client communication. She previously spent six years running client services at BlueCrest Capital Management. Kotlar-Bouget is the daughter of Croatian refugees.

Comments