Sam White founded five global businesses, the first at the age of just 24.
But it’s a career that didn’t start with the so often celebrated entrepreneurial trajectory – that is, achieving a profile university degree and landing a graduate role in a well-known consulting firm.
Rather, for the CEO of Stella Insurance (among other titles she holds), White’s career stemmed from an overarching ambition to have independence.
Having an unstable childhood and a mother who was a dysfunctional alcoholic, White says the “normal things” we expect children to have – like safety and security – just weren’t there.
She realised she had to take care of herself and developed a strong desire for having complete independence. She never wanted to be working for somebody else, nor lose control of her day to day.
Starting that first business in insurance at age 24, White says the prime motivation was her financial independence – but she found the idea of the insurance industry and what she could achieve there, particularly appealing.
Five businesses later, Stella Insurance is now specifically for women. They’ve pushed to move insurance to being a product people can get excited about and away from the stereotype of middle aged why guys being in control. White believes the industry needs to talk much more less about insurance products, and more about people.
And White has achieved the financial independence she craved. Open to discussing money, she’s made millions of dollars during her career, and employed more than 200 people. Just as importantly, she also talks about the fails she’s had along the way – including the losses she and her businesses have had.
“I have had years where I have also lost a lot of money and I’m quite happy to talk about that as well. Because I think money is one of those things that people have shame around on both sides for both success and for failure. And shame is a very destructive emotion and it’s something that can massively hold you back.”
But as White shares with Shivani Gopal, in the latest episode of The Moments That Make Us podcast series, supported by Stella Insurance, people – including banks – continue to have preconceptions over what women have achieved, especially financially. She also makes no apologies for wanting more success, sharing how strongly she supports the idea of women making large amounts of money so they can invest in other women.
“[As well as talking success], I think it’s important also to be quite happy to say, ‘you know what, last year I lost $5 million’. Because that is the nature of entrepreneurship that you can shoot for the stars and do really well, but you will take the hits as well,” White says.
“Of course, you can’t dictate what the press will write because they tend to listen to the whole story and pick out the bits they want. And unfortunately, we seem to be much more comfortable talking about success than failure, which I also don’t necessarily agree with.”
White has brought Stella Insurance to Australia from the UK. She describes how a few years back, she actually left a business she’d set up to go travelling around the world. She recalls loving Australia instantly, and noting that she “will take opportunities as they come up”,
Later in 2016, after going through a difficult divorce, she recalls having a chance conversation with someone who told her about the opportunities in the Australian market and over the years took up various opportunities to eventually launch the business here. She needed to learn everything about the Australian market and determined a number of key things she decided to have nailed down in order to develop the business. She arrived in Australia for a few weeks to try and make it happen.
“On my trip, it was I have got to get these things nail down. If I nail those down, then we’ll go to the next stage. I always find it, you get your first big thing, and then the detail cascades off that and I will always bring in a team of people around me to support me with that stuff. Because I know that’s where I will fall down. That’s where I definitely have weaknesses, but that’s okay because you can always get the right people in the room to support you is my experience.”
White noted many of the catalysing moments that have shaped the person she has become today, and the success she has achieved along the way. She particularly talks about the moments that occurred in her twenties, when she was coming to terms with the childhood she had had and working towards taking control of her life. She notes where she started to see herself spiralling – and how she got out. “At some points, if you don’t take a step back and say this is now a time to do something differently, then you will end up in a worse and worse situation,” she said.
“I think that’s what happens with people sometimes. They just don’t know how to get off the hamster wheel… Sometimes, I have found in life when things are really really difficult, that is the time to go: ‘I want to shift gears, do something different, make a big change.”
Asked how she gets so much done, White shares that exercise and spending time with her family, including two kids and partner, are non negotiable.
“I run my life through my calendar, but I make sure that I always have time to exercise. I like to do it first think in the morning, it makes me feel great.”
She adds that she relies on three or four really big things every month that she knows are going to shift the dial from a business point of view, and also organises her calendar accordingly.
“So if there’s a meeting that will help support one of those big things, it takes priority. And I do have that mentally positioned in my mind. And what you find is that the little things that don’t really matter will often fall off the radar. I don’t try and do everything. People say to me, “Oh, you must be so busy with all these businesses, and you must have no time to yourself.” And that’s not true at all, and I would not let it be like that because that would make me really miserable, and it would be no way to live,” she says.
The key to all of this comes back to the ambitions White had when she was starting her career: independence and control.
“I find that having a really clear idea as to what’s important to you both on a personal level and a business level, and then organizing your calendar accordingly is absolutely critical. And I think that probably a lot of women do suffer with being people pleasers and wanting to not say no and to do the things that other people are asking of them. And they probably find that the week is taken up with activities that are not necessarily serving them. And their agendas are being directed by other people.
“I don’t consider myself to be a selfish person. As I said before, if somebody needs help or contacts or advice or whatever, I will also try and find time for that in the week as well and put that in. But what I won’t do is take on a load of tasks that are not my tasks and that are not necessarily serving me or them to be fair. I don’t go in meetings I don’t need to be in for sure.”
Meanwhile, White says she knows exactly what she is NOT good at.
“Making sure that’s the thing that you focus on and the stuff that having other people to support really helps. But I think the other thing for me is I don’t pass something over to somebody and then micromanage them and trying to get them to do it exactly the way that I would wish it to be done. That’s not how I roll. You have to trust people, but you also have to accept that there are a thousand different ways that something can come into life and form that will all work and that your way doesn’t have to be the only way.
“And in doing so, in letting go, then the magic happens.”
Listen to all of this and more from Sam on this week’s episode of Moments That Make Us, a new podcast from Women’s Agenda, made possible thanks to the support of Stella Insurance. Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
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