Meet Carla Harris: PhD, very small kids, studying an MBA, building a game-changing business | Women's Agenda

Meet Carla Harris: PhD, very small kids, studying an MBA, building a game-changing business

When Carla Harris was eight months pregnant with her second child, she started thinking about how she’d plan for her retirement.

Also studying an MBA at the time, she and some of her fellow students saw a great opportunity to change how all of us plan and save for our futures.

They set up Longevity App as a company, and started searching for ways to grow the business.

Carla stepped into the CEO role when her baby was four months old, and then became one of 800 women to apply for one of just 10 spots in BlueChilli’s SheStarts accelerator program

Carla successfully made the cut — and has since been building the business with SheStarts, while managing the ultimate juggle at home.

Below she shares how she makes it all work, and how she’s changing the game when it comes to how we retire — particularly for women, who continue to retire with significantly less in savings than men.

She’s the latest of our ‘Game-Changing Women’ to answer our game-changing Q&A.

Who or what do you lead?

As CEO and co-founder of Longevity App, I lead a startup whose vision is to change the way we save for retirement and make sure that we all have enough to retire on.  Longevity App is a micro-savings app that allows you to add a little extra to your Superannuation through your everyday purchases, every time you spend. So imagine going to the shops, spending $100 at the supermarket and then having 1%, or $1 going into your super account. This happens every time you make a purchase so that over the course of your working life, coupled with the wonders of compounding, you can boost your super without it making a notable difference to your lifestyle or bank balance as the amounts you contribute to Super at a time are so small.  

What ‘game’ are you changing?

The majority of Australians, in fact people around the world, are facing their twilight years without enough money to live off comfortably when they retire. To make matters worse, it’s really hard to prioritise the need for saving for retirement when we’re so busy living in the now, paying off mortgages, school fees and what not that we can’t justify putting much extra into Super. So we continue to do nothing and hope like hell that we’ll somehow have enough – which we won’t.

Women in particular really cop it, retiring with half of that of men. While this is due to a range of cultural and organisational factors, which are outside of the control of Longevity App we are nonetheless providing an opportunity to change this outcome – for women and men – by providing a really easy way to save a little bit extra without changing behaviour or lifestyle.

Who or what inspired you to do this?

I realised when I was about to go on maternity leave with my second child that this meant yet another year out of the workforce and also another year without any Super contributions. Also working part time in between kids, a quick back of the envelope calculation showed my personal predicament in terms of not having enough to retire on. This, coupled with the knowledge that women retire with half the Super as men and are twice as likely to live in poverty in old age, made me realise that that I didn’t want to be another case study for this situation. I saw a critical need to address it the Super gap.

What skills do you have that are helping?

I’m a pretty good hustler and have learnt to build rapport quickly. Some of that I picked up as a kid where I moved around a fair bit. If you don’t make friends quickly at school you eat lunch by yourself. So I found ways to make friends quickly, which I think has helped me in the business world too.

I also have a PhD in environmental science, so this background in academia and research has helped me across a range of skills including learning how to obtain and decipher good information from bad, customer research, as well as data analysis and insights. It’s also taught me how to stretch a dollar when you have to run large research projects off a shoe-string budget. This is coming in really handy now that I am building a startup and developing a product that has a lot of overheads involved!

My MBA has also afforded me an incredible wealth of business skills and experience across areas including marketing, finance and leadership.

What does an average day look like for you?

Well that depends if one (or both) of the boys (13 months and nearly 4 years old) gets up at night, but let’s assume it’s a sleep through and we’re up at 6am (which let’s face it, it rarely is). We always have breakfast together which is pretty cool, I help feed the baby & feed myself  & do my makeup at the table at the same time. Multitasking is king.

Once I’ve managed to wrestle the kids into some clothes (and wipe breakfast remnants off mine) I do the day care drop off  – no mean feat – and then go to work. Some days I’ll spend in at the BlueChilli office, other days I can work from home and just go into the city to get my hustle on.

A day at work is incredibly varied, I’m still finishing up BlueChilli’s accelerator program and work from their offices so there’s a lot of activities, workshops and events associated with that. If I’m in there for the day I also might have a meeting with my business advisor, and then I fit in looking after all other aspects of the business around that. This involves anything from business development, customer research, social media, writing our blog, marketing, finances, admin, applying for grants and funding, reporting to investors, project management and of course working on our first version of the app with my co-founder Martin who is the tech-wizard amongst us.

Then it’s time to catch the train home and I always try walk home from the station, it’s my ‘me time’, tragic but true.

Back at home, we have dinner about 5:30pm or the baby starts to implode, luckily my husband looks after dinner. After dinner the kids hop in the bath together, as invariably do I as I couldn’t be bothered showering later. Put the kids to bed by 7:30 and if I’m lucky I get to talk to my husband for about an hour before getting the computer out and punching out a few more hours work before we hit the hay. Generally with a wine in hand.

What key thing (or things) would you say have helped drive your career to date?

I’m really self-competitive and hate to fail so I do push myself pretty hard to achieve my goals.

I also love learning new things and find I get bored so need to keep myself challenged. I think the combination of those two things have helped me make seismic shifts in my career without being to daunted by it.

What are some of the best things you’ve learnt about innovation?

Innovation – the latest fad. Everyone want to do it, few really are doing it. It takes risk and courage to a) put yourself in a mindset to have a crack and b) be accepting of yourself and the situation when it might not work out, and c) be game enough to actually go for it it if it’s something that has potential to solve the problem you’re looking to fix. I think that because of the above factors, many large companies struggle so much to innovate. They all want to, but when rubber hits the road aren’t set up to actually execute.And how do you look after your wellbeing and health outside of work?

How do you take care of yourself outside of work?

I actually don’t do as much as I should in terms of taking care of myself

And I’m going to be honest about that because I think it’s important to not pretend that I’m out doing yoga and daily meditation. Let’s be real about what’s on ones plate, I’ve a toddler, a baby and I’m co-founder and CEO of a tech company. I also have the same 24 hours a day as everybody else…

Fortunately, running around after little kids gives me a lot of incidental exercise and keeps my soul full of joy.

I do some bits and bobs of exercise throughout the week but nothing spectacular.

I take great delight in the small things too – so if my walk home from the station is my only me time, I’ll relish it completely. Likewise on the rare occasion that I have a shower by myself, in my mind it’s like I’ve gone to the friggin’ day spa.

What are you juggling, and when has it fallen apart for you?

The ‘usual’ work and family is my biggest juggle. Mostly I’ve had a pretty good run but it’s fallen apart a few times with my husband away regularly for work. I remember a few months ago my eldest boy getting sick and needing to go to hospital with asthma for a few days.  I had to juggle looking after him in hospital and managing the baby who was 6 months old and still breastfeeding – all with my husband was out of town. Not fun.

What are you doing to inspire more women and girls into leadership?

Not sure if this counts, but being the mother of two boys I’m ensuring that I raise them in a way so that they don’t see women in leadership as being unusual in any way. I’m also ensuring that I role model to them what this looks like so that hopefully by the time they are older it is a much more normalised aspect of the workplace.

What makes you angry?

Women who pull the ladder up behind them. Fortunately I haven’t seen it much and typically women are so supportive of each other and build strong networks to help each other up.

First thing you do in the morning?

Cuddle with my kids

How do you stay on top of business news and trends, and other things affecting your industry?

I read or follow a combination of industry relevant publications and websites (so boring superannuation or fintech websites and groups, or startup related ones) as well as following things that are completely unrelated (even such as lifestyle blogs, or what’s happening in industries such as retail) as you never know when something happening in one industry can be applied to another. Very little of what I read isn’t online these days so if it isn’t optimised for my iphone it probably doesn’t get read!

I don’t have a lot of time to trawl through the papers but it’s important to not just read the AFR, but also to pick up the Daily Tele occasionally to see what is in the full spectrum of ‘news’. Lastly, don’t forget to read the comments section of online articles – it’s horrifying what people say most of the time but equally as important to understand what is going on in the minds of many.

What advice would you like to tell your 18-year-old self?

Don’t be so hard on yourself.



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