Women and That Special Entrepreneurial Spirit

Tuesday, March 1, 2011 - 08:29

It may surprise that, since about 1995, one-third of all small businesses in Australia have been launched and operated by women. There are many more woman entrepreneurs out there than yesteryear, making their mark in the industries you'd expect, and many you may not.

Each year, MT focuses the March issue onto a select group of women in business. In 2011, we chose to talk to a group of female entrepreneurs for their thoughts on what it takes to be successful, where risk and opportunity meet, and the challenges in juggling work and life. Their short take-outs are inspirational, as their entrepreneurial spirit shines through.


Since the mid-1990s, women have launched and operated one-third of all small businesses in Australia, beginning many success stories. Sarah Marinos talks to female entrepreneurs about what it takes.

Natalie Bloom's business success began with drums of eucalyptus oil and beeswax and a family production line in her parents' Melbourne home. In 1993, the then-22-year-old decided to step away from her graphic design career to launch her own company, Bloom.

So she used $2000 in savings to produce a candle-making kit sample that she took to Myer's flagship department store. Bloom walked away with an order for 5000 kits. She and her family spent the next fortnight packing wax paper, wicks and eucalyptus oil to get the order delivered on time.

Fast forward to early 2011 and Bloom's entrepreneurial spirit and determination have paid dividends. Her company has expanded overseas and her product range numbers 300 items. "Yes, there has been a huge shift in attitudes to women in business," says Bloom. "When I started I always got asked what it's like being a 'woman in business'. I don't get asked that anymore because there are now plenty of women doing it on their own."

Unwavering commitment

As far as the keys to business success, some things haven't changed, says Bloom. "You still need to be passionate, have something unique to offer and have an unwavering commitment to what you are doing. You can't start a business for the sake of starting a business or you won't survive."

According to government figures, about one-third of all small businesses in Australia are started and operated by women entrepreneurs. As with Bloom, some of those businesses become national and international successes.

Jan Cameron is the founder of retail chain Kathmandu, the owner of a number of discount retail chains, and heads a company with a turnover of about $1 billion. Julia Ross recently resigned from the recruitment business she started in 1988 that had about $393 million a year in annual turnover. Therese Rein, wife of the former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, also created a successful recruitment services business that earns around $120 million a year.

Diana Williams is the founder of the Fernwood women's health club network, a business that enjoys annual revenue of just over $88 million. Janine Allis launched her Boost Juice business in 2000 and now has 1850 stores around Australia, the UK, South Africa, Indonesia and Mexico, and a turnover of $143 million a year.

Business education

Suzi Dafnis is Director of the Australian Businesswomen's Network (ABN), an organisation that helps teach women the skills they need to start and grow their own business. She currently has over 15,000 members: about 90 per cent of them are women who own a business in areas as diverse as law, graphic design, retail, accountancy and catering.

"I think it's always a good time for a woman to start a business, as long as you have a good solid idea, you've done your research and you are willing to commit to your business education," says Dafnis.

"Australia has done well despite a dismal global economy and there are great business opportunities. The number of women subscribing to the ABN's newsletter in the past year has doubled, which tells me more women are interested in information about starting and growing their own business."

Dafnis believes technology has made it easier for women with a good business idea and commitment to take the first step.

"You no longer need the traditional model of an office, a lot of infrastructure and a big budget. You can now start something on the side, while you are still employed, which is lower risk, and you can have national presence using online technology that is easily available and inexpensive," she says.

Kristi Seymour was 19 when she started to buy, renovate and sell houses. By the time she was 26, Seymour had bought and sold 18 houses and obtained her real estate sales licence. In 2006 she started her own real estate business, 41 Degrees, that targets professional women and 'generation Y' clients.

In 2010, Seymor won the Tasmanian Commonwealth Bank Business Owner Award at the Telstra Business Women's Awards. She's created her own business success while raising three children, now aged between 13 and seven.

"I set out on my own so I could combine my entrepreneurial spirit and independent drive with my passion for real estate. Real estate was a male-dominated field and I wished to do things the way I wanted," she says.

"The business started with me, my sister and Mum doing our admin and by the end of the first year we were 10 people. I put some of that down to the fact that women are perceptive, good listeners and follow through on what they are doing. That's all important in my industry."

Work/life issues

Seymour does raise one of the standout challenges that many women entrepreneurs face: nurturing a business while also nurturing children.

A Telstra Business Women's Awards survey in 2010 found 68 per cent of businesswomen said the difficulties of juggling work and life responsibilities were the biggest obstacle to women progressing to senior roles. A lack of affordable and reliable child care was nominated by 71 per cent of women as the biggest obstacle to returning to work after children.

"Balancing the progression of the business with family life has been a challenge because I'm a sole parent, but my children are also my motivation to succeed and I think that's the case for many women who start their own business," says Seymour.

"At the same time I think women are realistic and know that being self-employed is hard work. They know it's not an easy ride, that you have to constantly put in time and effort and that you can never rest on past successes.

"You've always got to seek new opportunities and build success upon success."

The Telstra survey also found that women business operators are optimistic about the year ahead. Around 62 per cent of women surveyed expected stronger sales, some 87 per cent had successfully applied for finance and more than half expected the Australian economy to continue to improve.

Suzi Dafnis shares this optimism. "I'm excited to be working with up-and-coming and inspiring women who are feeding their families, innovating, using creative tools, employing others, creating new opportunities and who will be the mentors of tomorrow," she says. "The future is very bright for women entrepreneurs."