Setting up as an entrepreneur takes guts, brains and bucket-loads of determination. Lucy Clark meets some of Australia’s highest-flying media and marketing female entrepreneurs to hear their success stories
Making it as a successful female entrepreneur isn't easy.
First there’s the matter of juggling children and family life as the traditional homemaker of the family. Then there’s the question of being brave enough to do it. Not to mention ancient gender stereotypes of women lacking self-confidence and power in the corporate world.
Australia’s marketing and media landscape is not short of inspirational entrepreneurial tales, many of which are female success stories.
All of their stories are different, but they also all have two things in common: a rare – but enormous – ambition, and the willingness to take a risk.
Some entrepreneurs, such as Mamamia’s Mia Freedman, never intended on going it alone and stumbled into entrepreneurial success. Others, more commonly, had always harboured a desire to be their own boss.
“My husband always worked for himself and, while I always saw the freedom in that, I also saw the pressure that comes with the bottom line always belonging to you,” says Freedman, creator of Mamamia.com.au and former Cosmopolitan editor. “I was really happy. It just got to the point where it seemed like going out on my own was the right thing to do. But it does take balls – or maybe I should say ‘boobs’ – to go out on your own.”
Lisa Messenger, owner of The Messenger Group and editor of Messenger Collective magazine, had a different outlook from the start: “I always wanted to have my own business. I had that inherent drive and wanted to do my own thing and change the world.”
And those who have done both and are now out on their own say they never look back.
Bahar Etminan, former brand manager for Estee Lauder’s Bobbi Brown and Origins, and now founder and editor of Rescu.com.au, says: “I would never want to work for someone else now.
“One of the things I really love is the opportunity to be contrary and do things that your gut tells you are right but all the stats tell you are wrong. Your appetite for risk and your ability to wear stress has to be incredible. Comfortable, for me, is uncomfortable.”
Does gender matter?
Of course, of all the successful female entrepreneurs out there, none of them believe their gender is an issue – least of all Messenger.
She says: “I don’t think it’s more challenging being a woman. As a business owner, I have never found that to be the case. A lot of people use that as an excuse.
“There are opportunities for men and women equally – just get out there and have self-belief. For me, it’s about having an unwavering self-belief, having a go and not listening to the nay-sayers.”
But, Messenger adds: “I don’t have children, and I have a huge amount of admiration for friends who have their own businesses and have children. That can be more difficult. But these days, a lot of husbands stay at home.”
Balancing children with work is made easier by today’s digital world, as Etminan outlines: “Digital is an amazingly equal playing field. I had a baby two-and-a-half years ago. Working in digital meant I could work from home, which I did for two years. I was able to work full time in the way that suited me.”
Another frequently touted issue is that of self-confidence amongst women at work.
Lorraine Murphy, former PR manager at Naked Communications and founder of blogger agency The Remarkables Group, says: “I would like to think there is no difference whether you are a man or a woman, but I think women are less good at putting themselves forward for things.
“Women would rather know, if they are going for a position, that they could 100% do the job, whereas a guy would go for it if they were 70 or 80% sure. Men are naturally better at telling their own stories, women are more reticent.”
Freedman agrees, citing Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: “The book talks about how success and likeability are negatively correlated for women and positively correlated for men. All the positive attributes you give to men who are successful are seen as negatives for women.
“We still call little girls ‘bossy’, for example, whereas we’d say little boys have got great leadership potential. That’s a real hurdle to overcome. Sandberg says that, until men start leaning in at home, it’s hard for women to lean in at work. If you want to have kids, you really need that support at home. That’s one of the biggest challenges that women face.”
And Meredith Cranmer, who set up the Australian arm of brand experience agency Because after working for the agency in London, adds: “Women often lack confidence and are not very good at self-PR. Men are much more confident, whereas women hide their lights under a bushel sometimes.”
Another challenge for women is accepting that it’s ok to not be a master of everything.
Cranmer says: “Women tend to naturally multi-task. When you set up a business you think you need to be an expert at everything. But you need to understand what you are really good at and focus on that, and build a team to support you – and know that it’s ok to not be good at everything.”
Having role models and mentors to turn to when you’re out on your own is vital. But how important is it for women to look to other women for this?
Samantha Dybac, founder of brand strategy agency Sammway, is NSW leader for the League of Extraordinary Women, a place for women to network and meet like-minded women.
“Men do that at the pub or at a sports event, that’s where they get together,” says Dybac. “The League of Extraordinary Women is a place for women who are in the same boat to get together.”
Cranmer adds: “There are lots of women’s networking groups out there and that’s no bad thing – they all have different niches. Female role models are very important. I am lucky that I have Sharon Ritchie, the founder of Because in the UK.”
When she set out to launch The Remarkables, Murphy hunted out women she looked up to so she could pick their brains. “I wrote to women who I really admired and asked to have lunch with them,” she recalls. “I also tried to build a network of women, and men, around me.’
Striking a balance of both male and female mentors is important.
Freedman says: “My mentors were mostly women, but I mentor people now and one of them is a guy. It’s good to have a balance. If you are looking for a mentor who can help you model your work and family life, look for a woman.
“But that’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of lessons to be learnt from men as well.”