2017 Pearcey Oration
28 August 2017 Melbourne
Ms Jo Burston giving 2017 Pearcey Oration
The 2017 Pearcey Oration was delivered by Ms Jo Burston, founder and CEO of Job Capital, co-founder and director of Phronesis.Academy and founder of the entrepreneurial movement Inspiring Rare Birds. The Oration was given in the evening of Monday 28 August 2017, at The Hub in Bourke Street, Melbourne as part of Vic Government's Digital Innovation Festival.
Pearcey Chairman Wayne Fitzsimmons gave the following introductory remarks:
I am delighted to welcome our 2017 Pearcey Orator, Ms Jo Burston, Founder and CEO of Job capital, and co-founder of the entrepreneurial movement "Inspiring Rare Birds". Rare Birds works to promote opportunity for women in entrepreneurship and has a global vision to have one million women in its community by 2020 - wow, what a goal. The business is partnered with Phronesis.Academy (of which she is co-founder and director also, of course) to provide a blended learning environment to teach skills and mindset of entrepreneurship to children and adults. In addition, Jo has written three books and is recognised globally for her work as one of Australia's top entrepreneurs. She is a leading authority and promoter of global women's entrepreneurship and collaborated with Dr Richard Seymour from the University of Sydney Business School to develop its first program startup.business which is now being taught in primary and secondary schools. Jo works with many of the world's leading technology companies including Microsoft where she recently addressed some 45,000 delegates at their worldwide Partner conference in Toronto. She also delivered a summer course on entrepreneurship at Oxford University. In 2015 Jo was a regional Oceania ambassador for the United Nations recognised Women's Entrepreneurship Day. Jo has recently announced the Rare Birds Foundation, to provide entrepreneur scholarships to women, regional and rural youth including indigenous youth, and to those in low socio-economic environments.
Oh, and most importantly, Jo was the 2012 NSW Pearcey Entrepreneur of the year and has been moderating our NSW Pearcey Awards for the last few years. And that is but a fraction of the many initiatives and philanthropic interests this remarkable young woman has underway.
I would now like to invite Jo Burston to deliver the 2017 Pearcey Oration.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it's a huge honour for me to give the 2017 Pearcey Oration.
The first time I stood on this stage in 2012, I was super excited and incredibly nervous. My hands were sweating so much that I was sure my joint award for NSW "Entrepreneur of the Year" would slip right through them and I would be grappling on the floor to recover it, along with my dignity.
Fortunately for me that didn't happen. And when I look back on that night the thing I remember the most about standing up here, gazing around the room, was not immense pride that my contribution to technology was being acknowledged by my peers, but that I could count on one hand the number of women in the audience.
I'm not saying I wasn't incredibly appreciative of the award or that it wasn't a defining moment in my career because it was; I'm talking about the shocking moment I realised there definitely wasn't gender equality in technology - in fact, there was pretty much only one gender in technology.
Recently, I was looking at research into information technology patents from 1980 to 2010 and the size of the problem back then became crystal clear to me. Eighty eight percent of all IT patents had been invented by male-only invention teams, while only 2% were invented by female-only invention teams.
Thankfully, the issue of gender equality and fostering a pipeline to leadership positions and boardroom roles is on the agenda of most big businesses now. And as I look around the room tonight, it's incredibly reassuring to see so many women here.
While it's also fantastic to see that in eight of the world's largest tech companies, female technology positions are growing 238% faster than male ones, it probably won't come as any surprise to most of you that women aren't clambering over each other in numbers to get to jobs like these.
In fact, quite the opposite is true. The percentage of computing occupations held by women has been declining in the United States since 1991. And in Australia particularly, the conversation around women in tech has turned towards how to encourage more girls to take STEM subjects in school, so we can start reversing disturbing trends like these.
Interestingly, nearly half of women who leave science, engineering and technology private sector jobs continue to use their technical training. And of that 49%, 10% go on to start businesses. So are women in technology faring any better in the startup ecosystem?
When it comes accessing capital to scale their businesses, the answer would have to be no.
Recently, in the New York Times we learnt the disturbing facts behind what's been going on behind the scenes at 500 Startups and Binary Capital particularly, and the sexual harassment women entrepreneurs are speaking out against.
News like this paints a disturbing picture of how female tech entrepreneurs especially, are viewed and treated by some venture capitalists.
Here in Australia, the startup community responded by calling for founders and CEOs to sign the 'decency pledge' and commit to reviewing and changing their HR policies to ensure they aren't enabling behaviour like this through a lack of processes and awareness.
I'm a huge supporter of this initiative, but I also have to say that venture capitalism is a very necessary part of the funding world for startups and it would be a gross generalisation to assume all VCs have bad intentions. The behaviour of a few should not deter women entrepreneurs in the tech community and elsewhere from applying for funds, even if the chances of getting funded in this way are extremely slim. Less than 5% of women entrepreneurs are backed by VCs and the numbers are similar in the US.
Why is this though? I would like to suggest that maybe there's another way of looking at these statistics and that possibly, gender bias doesn't just negatively affect the way male VCs view women entrepreneurs, but also abjectly affects how women founders view male venture capitalists.
I want to tell you a very personal story about how I dealt with VCs as a woman running a highly investable startup. I have to make a confession here, I'm not particularly proud of how I handled this situation but, in all honesty, I just panicked.
In 2011, I was projecting growth of 220% in my first business Job Capital. I was winning awards and had listed in the BRW Fast100 companies that year and the previous year. I felt like I was hitting my stride and believed there wasn't much I couldn't achieve if I set my heart and mind to it.
My phone started ringing non-stop with opportunities and my inbox looked more like my Twitter feed: constantly updating with new information. A lot of the emails were coming from VCs in the UK and US who wanted to invest. I should have been over the moon - here was my big opportunity to scale my business on a global level - but to be honest, I was having a hard time getting excited about any of it.
All of the VCs just assumed I was a man. They had heard or read about "Jo Burston" and, in my mind, hadn't stopped for a second to think someone who had launched and grown a tech business could be a woman. All of their emails started, "Dear Mr Burston" or "Dear Sir".
I had started Job Capital in my bedroom with a mobile phone I couldn't afford to pay for and had attracted my first backer using every ounce of grit and confidence I had to pitch to him directly. What I could never have predicted was that one day there would be an about-face and the investors would start coming to me.
When they did, I was terrified and, when I received emails and phone calls like those, more than a little bit pissed off. I imagined these men were sitting behind huge oak desks in traditional offices, rubbing their hands with glee and getting fat off the carcasses of what were once thriving businesses just like mine.
It felt like the sharks were circling and they'd take away from me everything I had worked hard to build. They just didn't seem to want to create value outside of their own returns. I didn't take any of their calls. In fact, I deleted every one of their messages and didn't respond to a single email. They didn't want to take the time to know me, so I didn't want to take the time to get to know them.
For the first time in my life that I could remember, I made judgement calls based on gender and without any real understanding and respect for who these people really were. I'll admit, it wasn't one of my finest moments.
In that manner, I'm as guilty of gender bias as venture capitalists are of choosing not to invest in companies - especially tech businesses - run by women. I'll never know what the outcome of those conversations could have been and where I would be today if I had taken even one of those calls.
A NAB survey of 1000 Australians, reveals that almost half of entrepreneurs launched their businesses with less than $5000, so funds can be incredibly tight from the get-go.
As someone who has now been pitched to by hundreds of entrepreneurs I can say that out of every 200 there could be one highly investable business. If you're an entrepreneur sitting here right now that could be you and those investor funds could be life-changing for your enterprise.
What my unconscious bias has taught me is that prejudice doesn't only rest with those who appear to be most guilty of it. You can see it, for example, in highly offensive rhetoric from some women that labels men as "pale stale males" or worse.
We can't let our own bias stop us from hearing and understanding the full story, because those men could share similar values as you and could well be the individuals who unlock opportunities, make investments or give sage advice.
I've chosen to bootstrap my latest venture Inspiring Rare Birds, because this time around I want to create a company that's primarily focused on the public good and not only solely concerned with profit margins and market share.
After I jointly won the NSW "Entrepreneur of the Year" in 2012, I saw the lack of women in the room that night and decided that if I really wanted things to change, I needed to do more than just talk about it. This time I wasn't going to hide from reality, I was going to go out and tackle gender-equality myself and see if I could change the landscape for the better.
I knew, as we all do in this room tonight, that if we want more girls to start technology businesses and have careers in this field - and if we want more women to become venture capitalists and invest in more women-led businesses - we need to foster a pipeline from schools.
With this in mind, I went back to my own school, Picnic Point High School in Revesby Heights, south Sydney, with a film crew and asked young women what and who they thought an entrepreneur was. I was shocked by the response. Most of them said an entrepreneur was a man who ran a business.
They didn't know that a woman could be an entrepreneur because they didn't see women starting and growing businesses - they didn't have inspiring role models they could look up to and believe #IFSHECANICAN.
This inspired me to start our global movement to help women to grow and scale their businesses. Inspiring Rare Birds is a for-profit business with what I like to call a 'smart heart'. We're creating profit so we can be more successful at helping other women, their families, their communities and our economy.
I didn't want it to be a not-for-profit that relied on the generosity of others. There is a valuable place for charities in our society, but the only way Rare Birds could scale fast enough to reach our mission of one million women entrepreneurs in our community by 2020 - and to help women in Australia access the tools and resources they need to start and grow their enterprises - was by being a for-profit business.
By making a profit we have been able to grow our community to 12 cities across the country - and a total of 23 cities globally - but more importantly we've been able to reach regional and rural locations where connectedness and accessing business support is a major challenge for entrepreneurs.
In rural locations many women rely on the secondary income from their businesses to help sustain their families. To some degree, it's a similar picture in emerging markets where women reinvest a staggering 90 cents of every additional dollar they earn into nutrition, education, health and welfare of their families.
I'm a firm believer that you can't be what you can't see. Nowadays, young girls growing up in Australia have incredible young role models in the field of technology - women such as Mel Perkins of Canva and Cyan Ta'eed of Envato. At Rare Birds we've created three books highlighting the stories of almost 100 entrepreneurs like them, to provide young women - like those I met at my old high school - with inspiring role models to help guide them.
Nevertheless, gender equality is a slow burn and not the ride on a rocket ship many of us would like it to be. We've still got a long way to go. In a national study of 1000 Americans, one in four believed that it's more likely humans will colonise Mars within their lifetime than half of Fortune 500 CEOs will be women.
The real challenge now lies in our ability to speed up the process - not least because gender-diverse companies perform better financially, particularly when women occupy a significant proportion of top management positions - but also because the decisions being made by people in boardroom positions impact communities and the country as a whole.
The answer might just lie in the power of women's discretionary spending. By 2028, women will control close to 75% of all discretionary spending globally and own a third of all businesses will be founded by women. A billion women from emerging economies will start working over the next decade, making us the largest emerging market in the world.
What if we chose to only buy from women-led businesses, businesses with all-women supply chains or from businesses that publicly support gender equality? Wouldn't women everywhere would be stronger for that?
Inspiring Rare Birds is a business that has products and services for women but it's supported by men and women equally. Our advisory board is an even split of men and women, and more than 30% of our community are men. We support gender equality inside and outside the business.
But if gender equality is going to crawl along at a snail's pace, perhaps what women also need are initiatives based on thoroughly researched, data-driven conscious gender bias that works in their favour. Gender bias that's not based on misinformation or assumptions, but is the result of a thorough understanding of all the issues that are enabling gender inequality for women everywhere.
As women, we need to understand on a global level, what our resources and capabilities are. We need to collaborate together, back ourselves and each other, and realise our value as a worldwide collective. These are all traits that entrepreneurs use every day to build successful businesses - only this time the impact for women wouldn't just be on the bottom line of their enterprises, but on gender equality worldwide.
When brands and the advertising industry fully wakes up to the power women have as discretionary spenders, we just might start seeing a very different world - one where half of boardroom positions in ASX listed companies are held by women; where half of venture capitalists are women; where half of tech startups are founded by women; where women don't feel compelled to leave their tech jobs in droves - and where half the attendees at technology awards nights like these are women.