'A long way to go': Fresh drive to boost women heading startups


Encouraging more women into their own business is a priority for the new boss at Australia’s largest startup community, Fishburners.

Nicole O’Brien is a respected social enterprise leader who on Monday steps into the top job at coworking community Fishburners, overseeing 337 member companies across its offices in Sydney, Brisbane and Shanghai.

Ms O’Brien admits access to finance remains a major barrier to women starting their own businesses. All-women led enterprises face a gender-investment gap, receiving about 2 per cent of global venture-capital funding.  

Yet research by financial-services group BCG shows that female-led startups are more likely to succeed and provide a better return on dollars invested than startups founded by men.  

“There’s a long way to go and many barriers preventing women from pursuing scalable startup opportunities,” Ms O’Brien told SBS Small Business Secrets.

Nicole O’Brien formerly worked for ACON Health in strategic and business planning roles. ACON works to end HIV transmission and promote health in the LGBTI community and for people living with HIV.

Prior to joining ACON, she spent a decade leading the YWCA in NSW, working to improve gender equality and eliminate violence against women.

Development opportunities

Ms O’Brien's immediate goal at Fishburners is to increase diversity and attract more female founders.

“The participation of women at Fishburners was just 5 per cent initially, and over the past eight years that’s increased to 30 per cent, which is a massive achievement but there’s so much more we need to do, given women are half the population,” Ms O’Brien said.

Stay-at-home mothers and women in remote areas are now offered online access to entrepreneurship initiatives.

“The online programs provide development opportunities, to help women take the crucial steps when they have a great idea and need to know how to bring that to life,” Ms O’Brien said.

“Having a mentor is vital, someone to problem-solve with and exchange information and knowledge. It’s the best way to build confidence.”

ConX CEO Annie Slattery says finding investors who buy into your vision is key.
ConX CEO Annie Slattery says finding investors who buy into your vision is key.

Annie Slattery is one of the women chief executives working with Fishburners. She is the co-founder of the ConX construction employment platform, which has gained traction in a male-dominated sector and recently expanded offshore.

However, Ms Slattery initially struggled to raise venture capital.

“I have pitched countless times to countless investors who have closed the door in our face,” Ms Slattery said.

“It took many years. And then finally we just found the right investors and they bought into our vision.”

'Industry disruptors'

The University of Technology Sydney actively targets young women for its start-up programs, yet fewer than 30 per cent of course applicants are female.

“When we encourage women to become founders, to take on entrepreneurship, it’s not just so that they all start their own company,” the executive director of innovation and entrepreneurship at UTS, Margaret Petty, said.

“It’s so they can go out and be disruptors in industry, they can be CEOs, they can be leaders.”

Margaret Petty is the Executive Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UTS.
Margaret Petty is the Executive Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UTS.

“We want to see generational change. And that means much more than startups. It means addressing the pay gap and addressing what happens to women when they have children and they drop out of the workforce.”

New arrivals

An initiative started by not-for-profit Settlement Services International is trying to address the gender imbalance.

Its Ignite Small Business Start-ups scheme targets new arrivals in Australia, many with limited English skills.

“This is the first program of its kind that works with migrants and refugees in this way,” said project officer Tatjana Lukic-Co.

“It’s really intimidating to negotiate loans and to approach organisations for financial support, when you’re female and trying to found a business.”

Many migrant women are advised to start small, perhaps working from home, until they establish a client base and earn enough to pay commercial rent.    

Sophie Bejek is a qualified dance instructor and among 125 businesses mentored by the Ignite Small Business Start-ups program.  Although qualified in science, Ms Bejek is starting a small weekly dance class in Sydney’s west for refugee and migrant women.

Sophie Bejek fled Syria's Aleppo during the recent conflict and is starting her own business here.
Sophie Bejek fled Syria's Aleppo during the recent conflict and is starting her own business here.

Ms Bejek migrated to Australia after fleeing her home in Syria’s Aleppo.

“The war in my city it was very dangerous, we had to flee. My family, all of us we were in danger. A bomb has entered my home so yeah we decided that we have to move,” the 27-year-old explained.

“As a newcomer, I am not in a position where I can get to go to a bank and ask for a big loan,” Ms Bejek said.

“So without Ignite, I cannot start my business. They have helped with a business plan, marketing and ways to attract newcomers,” she said.

Ignite Small Business Start-ups has worked with more than 600 clients so far and is now rolling out in Canada.

“This program has widely appealed to countries that welcome refugees in large numbers,” Ms Lukic-Co said.

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