At the age of 22 and straight out of university, Emma Evans decided to follow her gut away from a conventional career path as a corporate accountant into the world of small business. By the tender age of 25, she was CFO of three companies: CAPI, Lucy Folk Jewellery and Map Coffee. Now the CEO of CAPI, Emma took time to tell us about her journey to date and what it’s like to be a young leader.
I thought being an accountant and climbing the corporate ladder was what I wanted. But when I graduated university and I knew what my future would look like for the next six months, I was unsure if it was for me anymore. At the end of high school I was lucky enough to do a four year traineeship at Price Waterhouse Coopers where you study at university and get real work experience at the same time. By the time I’d been there for four and a half years I had seen people going up the ladder and it just didn’t get any different. Then I received a LinkedIn email from a former colleague out of nowhere, asking me to come and have a coffee. He was the CFO at Map (coffee) and CAPI was launching later that year. I was offered a role in the finance team. I was a bit shocked but I felt straight away in my gut ‘I think I should do this’.
Traditionally, an accountant will do their CA or CPA and then you make a career move or change. I was 22 and I’d only just started mine, so to leave meant I was walking away from a very big support network. I called on people I knew I could lean on and they told me what questions I should ask and to make sure I had career progression in the role. I did that and then decided I was going to quit. I was thinking what’s the worst that could happen? I’ll have another thing on my resume and I could go back if I wanted to.
Within two days of having the role I was standing in the bathroom wondering what have I done? I was doing accounts payable, so I was paying bills, talking to stakeholders about when we would pay their bills and doing the paper filing. In my head I was thinking I’m experienced and I’m working for a qualification, what am I doing? I knew that the quicker I did administrative tasks, the more interesting projects I would be given. So I became super efficient at doing those tasks so it wasn’t such a big part of my job and I had the capacity to do all these other things.
It feels like I accelerated a lot quicker than many of my colleagues did at that (early 20ies) age bracket. There were a few people who were intimidated. There were friends and other colleagues who didn’t want to have a bar of it. Everyone else was staying in a grad accounting role at the time and trying to get their CA. There was a lot of complaining or gossiping about clients whereas I was in the Map warehouse sometimes packing boxes and knowing that when people go to Target on the weekend they’re going to find the coffee and that I was a part of it getting there which was super cool. I just felt so much more invested.
I think I am an example of a new generation of young leaders who have no problem rolling up their sleeves and owning their mistakes as well as willing to be more vulnerable. I think I see that much more in myself compared to the other leaders who I get to meet and learn from. Young leaders have a very different outlook on hierarchy. I know there is a time and a place to be ‘Boss Emma’ but I still want to uphold my personal values and remember what I want to give back to the people I manage which is a bit of a different approach.
I think people do question my capabilities based on my age. Taking the business to Asia was the hardest, I would walk into a room and see them connecting the title on my email to me for the first time and being like what the…? You look 15! I kind of know it’s going to happen. You can see the look on people’s faces sometimes when you’re introduced to them. Sometimes it’s like they are looking at me and wondering how could you be the CEO? You just look incapable of doing it. I know people will always have their own opinions. I know how strong I am and how strong my follow up is. I know I’m going to prove them wrong and know I’m going to deliver. I try to play to it now, I expect it to happen.
I like to listen. So I learn a lot from older people. If you have more life experience, of course you have more to contribute and share. So I see it more like I have a different perspective to bring to the table. I often receive feedback from peers that I am reserved and quiet and then when I say something it’s with meaning and purpose. That’s how I want to be perceived.
Now this business is growing so quickly and I have more staff and I’m being faced with issues that I’ve never faced before, so I’m trying to up-skill at the moment on specific topics like marketing and staffing. I feel like I’ve had to learn the language of managing people or at least improve my vocabulary. I’m somebody who wants everyone to like them so I had to break through that when giving feedback. I need to remind myself that staff are not going to hate me or even if they hate me for 24 hours, that’s OK! Our relationship is fundamentally employee/employer and the feedback I provide is for their growth and for the benefit of the company. Lately I’m working on putting it back on them and trying to drive the conversation. Even just a few key words where I can say something and there can be space and a pause and a talk and we grow.
I’m an obsessive self learner. From time to time I play around with the idea of doing short courses or doing some form of executive education but then I just look at my experience in Asia where I learnt on the ground. I went into it with no idea and it’s a whole other universe. I learnt so much. I had to learn the supply chain, I had to build the marketing plan, I had to be the sales girl, I had to make sure the numbers stacked up. I knew no one and now I have this little black book of contacts. I think that we have a really amazing network here. If I feel like I’m getting lazy I will avidly seek out people. Pitzy (Founder of CAPI) and I have a really open and honest relationship. He is wise and really present and a realist. You can come to him with a problem and solve it together. I also read a lot of books. I have a few authors that I really like. Brene Brown gave me really good vocabulary. My favourite quote of hers is “I hear you. Can you walk me through your assumptions because I’m not on the same page and I want to know where you are coming from.” At the end of the day I feel responsible for the performance of the business, I feel responsible for the growth and wellbeing of the staff. That’s at times a big responsibility and a big burden especially questions like do I set them up for success and how do I set myself up to have the space or have the support I need?
I think that I’ve become very good at self care. I’m very organised. My life from now until September has been planned in terms of acupuncture, massages, facials and physio. I just know how I operate. I start the day with yoga and meditation and walking my dog. If I don’t do that, I’m crazy. Nowadays I have the willpower to say ‘I’m working from home because I have to get this done and it’s important and I need space’. I have an office but it’s just different. I’ve learnt the hard way from crashing and burning. When I was in my early twenties I don’t think I knew how to handle stress at all and I just took the weight of the world on my shoulders. I was 24/7 – either working too much or thinking too much. Not being able to switch off. Now I’ve learnt how to say no and to take care of myself in order to take care of the business and everybody else.
Young leaders have a very different outlook on hierarchy. I know there is a time and a place to be ‘Boss Emma’ but I still want to uphold my personal values and remember what I want to give back to the people I manage which is a bit of a different approach.
I go through waves of impostor syndrome where I feel like I can’t do it, I’m not good enough and someone with more experience could do this. I have learnt to pick myself up on it, to see the warning signs and identify the trigger behind it. Imposter syndrome eats you alive and stunts your creativity but it’s an inevitable part of working life so I’ve just learnt to shorten the span of downward spiralling. I also know that at the end of the day I’m doing the best I can and If there was an answer to the challenges I face in my role, someone else would have already figured it out. Pitzy’s put his trust in me and I’m always asking for feedback. Maybe someone could be better but the reality is I’m in the role and I’m here for a reason.
I’m really lucky that it’s a family run business so family vibes and values are instilled here. Recently I had a one on one catch up with each staff member because I wanted to know what drives every employee and how I can motivate them and make sure they succeed both at CAPI and in their future careers. I want to set them up for a better future. I try really hard to be relatable and get to know them as human beings first and respect that side of their life. From there I try to integrate that into their work. I always say to my team if you have an interest in coming to a meeting or are interested in a topic outside of your core role, come and tell me and I’ll bring you along to shadow or I’ll explain it to you. The team are all getting a lot more confident at doing that which is really nice to see. I just truly want people to be inspired and to know that they truly can do whatever they want. It is a journey though, you don’t wake up one day and it happens, you have to put in a lot of hard work as well as take the time to self reflect and ask for help. There’s always opportunity, there’s always something to learn, and if you truly want it you can definitely do it. You’re going to be the only thing that’s going to hold yourself back.