Oliver Milman and Michelle Hammond
10 female entrepreneurs breaking down the tech boy’s club
Our coverage last week of female representation – or lack of it – in Australia’s tech industry provoked a surge of comment within the sector.
While female entrepreneurs came forward with tales of sexism, blue jokes and chronic lack of representation in the tech space, others argued that Australia’s online innovators were a meritocratic bunch, with societal problems, rather than any inherent “boy’s club”, to blame for the male skew of the sector.
Whatever your viewpoint, it’s clear that our analysis of the seven major tech incubators in Australia reveals that the collective female representation in leadership roles equals zero, highlighting a significant gender imbalance.
However, while women may be massively outnumbered, that’s not to say that pioneering females aren’t making a splash in the tech industry.
Indeed, some of Australia’s leading tech start-ups are headed by women. We’ve picked out 10 of the best and asked them for their words of wisdom on how the industry treats women.
1. Rebekah Campbell, founder, Posse
Campbell has managed to create a cutting edge business that spans not one, but two, traditionally male dominated industries – music and technology.
Posse, which allows bands to provide rewards to fans who promote their shows, has attracted Google Maps founder Lars Rasmussen as an advisor and is tipped for great things both in Australia and overseas.
Campbell says that a key problem in the tech industry is the lack of female mentors.
“It's just a fact of life that men and women approach and respond to things differently,” she says.
“Sometimes advice purely from a male perspective doesn't quite fit with how I would approach a situation or problem.”
“I've been lucky to find a couple of awesome female mentors in Geraldine McBride (ex-president SAP Asia Pac) and Rebekah Horne (MySpace) but it took quite awhile to find these mentors and for the first couple of years I found my journey to be lonely, which is partly due to being a woman.”
Despite this, Campbell says there are some upsides to being a woman, such as regular opportunities to speak at events and get media attention. She urges women to be confident in their vision.
“Just because you haven't built a website before or don't have a degree in computer engineering or UX design doesn't mean that you don't know exactly how your site should work and look,” she advises.
“Getting the product right is the hardest and most crucial objective of a tech start-up and the person with the vision and who gets the customers’ needs must drive this process."
"This took me awhile to get because I was overwhelmed by the opinions of people who were more qualified than me and I wasn't confident enough to speak up and say that design isn't right or that user experience doesn't make sense to me.”
“At the end of the day the business will succeed or fail on the quality of the product and how well it resonates with the target market. As a founder you've got to be willing to drive this process and take ultimate responsibility for the product.”
2. Michelle Deaker, founder, OneVentures
Deaker has worked in the IT industry for more than 10 years as a business owner and entrepreneur.
Her company, E Com Industries, became the leader in prepaid and electronic voucher technologies in Australia before being acquired by a UK company for $30 million.
For three years prior to establishing E Com, Deaker was the managing director of Sydney-based computer and web design firm Networks Beyond 2000.
Deaker also has more than 10 years of experience in research and development with Australian universities and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
In 2006, following the successful exit of E Com Industries, Deaker established venture capital firm OneVentures. According to Deaker, many female entrepreneurs often undersell themselves.
“It’s about putting themselves forward saying, ‘Yes I can do this and I can do a really good job’,” Deaker says.
3. Rachel Slattery, founder, SlatteryIT
Not only has Slattery carved out a successful IT business, she spearheads Tech23, the annual Sydney event that showcases the best up-and-coming tech businesses in Australia.
She is sanguine about the role of women in the tech industry.
“The rules and hierarchies that dominate other industries don't necessarily apply in an industry as dynamic as the tech industry,” she says.
“(The) industry is the ‘new frontier’, so get ready to learn every day and be out of your comfort zone as things are constantly on the move.”
“It’s important to find people you can learn from and networks you can tap into when you need help and some fun!”
4. Dale McCarthy, founder, Foundry
While none of Australia’s leading tech incubators have a woman in a senior role, Dale McCarthy is looking to change that with Sydney-based Foundry.
Although her business is more an investor and co-founder of businesses, rather than an incubator as such, McCarthy is already on track to helping start-ups get ahead, unveiling her first investment earlier this week.
McCarthy is bullish about the prospects of women in tech, but admits that female leaders face certain challenges their male counterparts do not.
“I've never thought of my sex as a barrier or a challenge working in digital industries, frankly,” she says.
“Probably my biggest challenge was deciding to put my career on hold in order to have and raise two children. It was challenging watching others progress around me while I was a lowly ‘part-timer’.”
“But that was a life decision I gladly made and you have to accept the consequences of every decision you make, no matter what sex you are.”
Her advice for young female-led tech start-ups?
“Firstly, I'd say don't think of it as 'tech' and don't let what you don't know about technology intimidate you,” she says.
“If you are an entrepreneur in this sector you are a smart business person who has decided to work in the economy of the future – the digital economy.”
“These days the technology required to build the platform of your businesses isn't anywhere near as difficult or important as the smarts, determination and tenacity you will require to build your business smarter and more effectively than your competitors. “
5. Sonja Bernhardt, CEO, ThoughWare
Bernhardt is the founder and chief executive of software company ThoughWare. She also founded Women in Technology and co-founded the Australian Women in IT and Science Entity.
Last year, Bernhardt became the first Australian inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in Silicon Valley.
She has also been awarded an Order of Australia, and oversees a number of initiatives designed to raise the profile of women in technology and break perceptions of technology careers.
One of her key tips for female-led tech start-ups is “resilience, resilience, resilience”.
“What will occur more frequently than success is failure and being hit by curve balls. Retain your internal strength, believe in what you are doing and be resilient,” she says.
“Get up that one more time from being knocked down. Remember why you are doing this and retain your passion and pride. Get up and keep going.”
6. Nikki Durkin, founder, 99dresses
Durkin started her first business at the tender age of 15. She designed T-shirts and had them printed and drop-shipped from China, and sold them through eBay.
After finishing high school, Durkin started working on 99dresses.com, which aims to create an “infinite closet” of free fashion for women.
Last year, Durkin won an iAward for Best Australian Startup, and soon after was accepted into Y Combinator in the United States. She graduated from Y Combinator in March this year.
“Personally I think it’s fantastic to be a woman in tech because there are so few of us, and the great thing about that is that no one is solving problems that exclusively affect women,” she says.
“There’s less competition, and more room to stand out and create something awesome.”
“So my tips for any budding female tech entrepreneur would be to find a tech co-founder – if you don’t code yourself – solve a problem you are passionate about and just do it.”
7. Jocelyn Hunter, founder, BENCH PR
Hunter has been working in the IT industry for nearly 15 years. She has worked for a wide range of companies including Palm, 3Com, Samsung, Cisco Systems, Xero and Zendesk.
In 2006, Hunter moved from the United Kingdom to Australia. Then in 2008, she set up BENCH PR, which specialises in the business-to-business and technology markets.
“At industry events, you get used to being in a small minority – I’ve been mistaken for the waitress many times,” Hunter says.
Hunter’s advice to other female tech entrepreneurs is to do your homework, practice what you preach and outsource to the professionals.
“If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ll get found out pretty soon. Be clear about your offer and how you add value to your customers,” she says.
“You need to be using technology in your business, trying new tech products and understand how they work, first-hand… Focus on what you do best and outsource the rest.”
8. Kate Kendall, founder, The Fetch
Kendall is currently in the process of moving to San Francisco to join the co-founders of YouTube on a new magazine publishing website called Zeen.com.
She will be heading up marketing, communications and external community for the website and its parent company AVOS.
Kendall has been working in the magazine and publishing industry for five years, and was previously the digital director of Niche Media.
She’s worked across titles including Dumbo Feather, The Conversation, Marketing, Desktop and Macworld, and originally started out as an editor and journalist.
Kendall is founder of The Fetch and is particularly active in the start-up and social media space, with more than 37,000 followers on Twitter.
“What women need to do is just push forward… The more we can show the journey of local entrepreneurs being successful, this will be when a lot of these things get evened out,” she says.
9. Nicola Gracie, founder, FitIntegrate
After a stint at the York Butter Factory, the location of the infamous tweet that ignited the debate over the status of women in tech, Gracie moved onto AngelCube, where she is building her new business.
The venture, Fitintegrate, is an automated service that provides temps for the fitness industry. It is currently being trialled by Fernwood and has lofty ambitions of changing the sector.
Gracie says that she never had an issue in relation to her gender while at the York Butter Factory.
“I never felt uncomfortable at the York Butter Factory – they made me feel very welcome and I think there was a bit of an unjust reaction to the tweet,” she says.
“I felt an enormous amount of support at York Butter Factory. There are certainly more guys than girls, but it’s certainly not a boy’s club.”
“I haven’t had a problem in being taken seriously. I don’t know if any particular program will help the number of women in tech."
"I think the numbers will grow in the future. The only way to increase numbers is to get involved – apply to incubators and go to industry events.”
10. Marianne Sea, co-founder, Young Republic
Sea is one of the three founders of Young Republic, a business that calls itself “Australia’s first interactive marketplace for fashion, jewellery, homewares, art and lifestyle products from home-grown upcoming and independent designers”.
Young Republic is one of the select cadre of tech start-ups to be accepted in this year’s Startmate incubation program.
But Sea is exceptional in her own, perhaps less welcome, right – she is one of just three females in the 23 different founders taken on by Startmate in its class of 2012.
Despite this, she is upbeat about the status of women in the tech sector.
“I’ve found the industry to be very supportive and encouraging of female founders,” she says.
“I’d say the biggest challenge has been finding other young female entrepreneurs to relate to.”
“Don’t let being in a male-dominated industry deter you – enable it to motivate you.”
“There are a lot of great organisations and groups focused on providing women equal and in some cases, additional opportunities over male-founded companies, so this is the perfect time to go for it and give it everything you’ve got.”