One Roof recently held a panel discussion of women in entrepreneurship to mark International Women’s Day. Below Frances Goh, One Roof’s community manager and moderator of the discussion, outlines some of the key points shared.
We know there are systemic issues when it comes to the structure of the workplace that ultimately holds women back. It’s a good reason why so many women pursue entrepreneurship — to not only create their own structure of work but also to try and fix some of the broken elements of business, health and tech as we know it.
But entrepreneurship also requires considerable sacrifices from women.
“Unfortunately, so many workplaces and so many of the structures we need to manage work — including childcare, fair complaint processes and structures for dealing with things like sexual harassment, including careers that don’t penalise women for taking time out of working flexibly or part time — are fundamentally flawed,” says Women’s Agenda’s Founding Editor Angela Priestley.
“Women are also working to address these flaws, through the businesses they’re creating and through speaking out and advocacy. But it’s not always easy.”
Angela shared the virtual stage with Verve Super CEO Christina Hobbs, Broad Radio founder and host Jo Stanley, mtime founder Sarah Agboola and One Roof founder Sheree Rubinstein, who likewise spoke about the personal and professional sacrifices they had made in establishing their businesses.
Entrepreneurship for the fix
Sarah Agboola is one such founder seeking to fix an integral part of society’s broken system within the caring economy. mtime gives busy families their time back by matching them with family assistants (moncierges) who train to provide a mix of at home support and babysitting.
mtime then gives back to the community not only by supporting busy families but by actively recruiting women who are returning to the workforce to join their team of assistants.
Since launching the business in 2017, Sarah has grown mtime to care for hundreds of Australian families, giving back more than 30,000 hours to mums across Melbourne and Sydney and paying out over $1million in wages to their moncierges.
Like Angela, Sarah has also been challenged by the extra load women have to carry. Questions of fertility before the age of 35 are often raised by family, peers and society at large. She disclosed that she was made acutely aware of her impending sacrifices she would need to make, as a young business owner, when a doctor pointed to her work ethic as the inhibitor to starting a family. “I was told that you’re an entrepreneur, you’re working really hard hours, you need to reevaluate your life,” Sarah said.
This is not a diagnosis that many men are likely to receive.
Unfortunately, Sarahs experiences are not unique as most young female startup founders who are routinely interrogated about their plans to have children as an indicator of future success. When she was contemplating seeking investment, Sarah was told directly by peers not to get pregnant and a fellow female founder had employees quit when they discovered she was pregnant before a capital raising.
Introduce me as a founder before introducing me as a woman or person of colour
Sarah also commented that she was pleased to be introduced as a business founder first, before being a woman and person of colour. She said she looked forward to a day when these perceived barriers were viewed as strengths and reasons for her success.
Toning down our true selves to fit in
Well known radio host, TV presenter and founder of Broad Radio, Jo Stanley also shared details about the sacrifices she has made on the road to success. In particular, she regretted sacrificing parts of herself in her attempt to “tone down” and fit into her job.
“I sacrificed parts of myself so that I fit into their notion of what I should be,” she said.
“At times I sacrificed my values, I shaved off the harsher parts of me or pulled in comments that I wanted to say. I found that I was a duller version of myself because I wanted to be more amenable to the workplace,” she explained. “I would look at the men and they never cared what people thought about them, but if I was like that, I would have been considered a difficult woman.” Stanley encouraged women to step into their courage and speak up for their values, even when it was uncomfortable.”
Showcasing the richness, experience & knowledge of mature-aged women
Jo’s live streamed show via Facebook and YouTube leverages media as a channel to change the narrative of ageing women’s irrelevance. “I can’t stand the fact that women become invisible as they get older” she protested. “It’s women over 40 who are juggling parenting, caring for their own parents, their careers, a huge amount of domestic work.” Stanley is using her recently founded program to showcase the richness, quality of life experience and knowledge that mature-aged women bring to the table.
Reframing our sacrifices as strengths
Christina Hobbs, Cofounder and CEO of Verve Super, Australia’s first ethical super fund designed for women by women also reframed her personal sacrifices and challenges as strengths that later contributed towards her success.
At all stages of her founder journey with Verve, she has been plagued with the doubts voiced by her male peers and male journalists who wrote misleadingly about Verve Super and never bothered to contact her for comment or clarification.
“If you look at our treatment in the financial press which is still dominated by male journalists, we got hammered for reasons that our male peers weren’t,” Christina explained.
Recounting occasions where journalists had disparaged the fund’s performance in major publications without seeking her comment and despite being a high-performing superannuation fund since inception, Christina has still manage to lead the business to raise capital, shift $100 million into ethical investments, win multiple prestigious super awards and support thousands of women to better manage their superannuation.
Not one to let the lessons of sacrifice escape her, Christina also reflected that her career experience with the UN of “10 to 15 years of being sexually harassed, bullied, and burnt out” taught her the power of and importance of women only spaces.
Referencing One Roof as a space and community that supported her and propelled her business, she said that if she hadn’t gone through those experiences of being on the outer and not feeling safe in spaces, Verve wouldn’t be the business it is today. “There are things that we see as women that are often not seen. That can be a huge advantage.”
Harnessing losses due to Covid-19 to pivot and build a successful online business
Like Christina, Sheree Rubinstein, founder of One Roof, understands deeply the value of creating space for women to flourish. One Roof was well known as the leading co-working operator for women in Australia and since Covid, now runs as a fully online membership and community with hundreds of members across the country and having great success.
No stranger to the collateral damage of an archaic system combined with entrenched social expectations, Sheree found herself sacrificing her original vision of a female-focused co-working empire when the global pandemic arrived.
Making the courageous decision to return all capital to her investors, Sheree also regretted not raising more capital in her first round particularly as commercial property prices just kept going up. “I probably didn’t raise enough money because I felt lucky as a woman to have met great investors and even raise money at all,” she explained.
Rubinstein lamented the loss of One Roof as a physical space but has embraced the pivot towards an entirely digital membership that is now growing exponentially, with members across Australia and the world, saying “I continue to find opportunity in the many roadblocks that have come my way and the sacrifices I feel I’ve made.”
True gender equality in our lifetime
While women are 51% of the population, they remain grossly under-represented at every decision-making table. The gap might be closing but only at a dawdling pace. Rubinstein rallied the audience to action and called for leaders to take a stronger stance.
“The gap is nuanced and it’s hard to close,” she said.
“We desperately need people in decision making positions to take bold and courageous action if we are ever going to close the gender gap in our lifetime or even our childrens’ lifetime ”