When Sheree Rubinstein embarked on a corporate law career at a top firm, she quickly saw the impact that a male dominated business environment can have on the opportunities and lives of women.
“I never knew about gender inequality in the workplace before that,” Sheree says. “I never called myself a feminist, it just wasn’t on my radar. Working in an environment that was very hierarchical, I realised that gender inequality is a big issue.”
Sheree began to investigate more about the problem, going to talks and reading books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. She says what she discovered “opened my eyes up”.
“Through that journey I found a very strong passion for supporting women.”
Sheree decided to leave her stable, well-paying role to do just that, however concerned friends and family asked, “Are you crazy?”
Sheree admits she didn’t know how she would do it, but believed in her goal. She worked for women’s charity Fitted for Work, and put her savings into testing business concepts designed to help entrepreneurial women. Along the way, she was awarded the 2016 Victorian Young Achievers Leadership Award, a testament to her courage in forging her own path.
In 2016 she took took another major leap and signed the lease on a large building in Melbourne’s Southbank to open One Roof – a coworking and events space for female entrepreneurs.
I talked to Sheree about the road to being a business owner, what she has learnt about women in business, and how she is helping other women achieve their goals.
When you were thinking about quitting corporate law to pursue your passion, what role models were you looking to?
I was trying to find female mentors, but I struggled. These days I have a lot of mentors both male and female – but at the time I wasn’t well networked. I contacted women who were in different professions to law, to see what was out there. One woman said yes and I am still good friends with her. I realised that you have to put yourself out there and create opportunities.
What happened next?
I quit law and ran a ‘passion project’ called Think Big, putting on networking events for women. I thought, if I can’t find great role models, I will bring them in!
I also had a part time job at Fitted for Work, a not for profit which supports women with disadvantage. I was meeting a lot of people. One of them was leading businesswoman and women’s advocate Carol Schwartz, a real champion for gender equality. I realised that ‘I can create something’. Before this moment, I never thought I would be an entrepreneur or run my own business.
Fair enough – it’s not the life you were training for!
You have to completely shift your mindset. I had great training in problem solving and had professional skills. But you literally have to flip it on its head as an entrepreneur – you don’t have the resources that you have in a corporate business, so you have to be savvy with what you have.
How did you get from that exploration stage to running One Roof in Melbourne?
Again, networking. I was going to YGAP volunteer nights, and someone said, ‘you need to meet Gianna Wurzl who is also running events for women’. We hit it off, and ran a focus group for women on what was holding them back and discovered that they were looking for community support, education and networks. That led us to trialling a concept for One Roof. The idea was to provide everything that a female entrepreneur needs under one roof.
Getting from an idea to a thriving business must have been tough.
We were not going to take a lease on a building until we knew that people liked the idea. So we found an Airbnb home in St Kilda and turned it into a co-working space for a week. We curated a full program with meditation, brainstorming, special talks with experts etc. We had 400 people come through. The hype was amazing. It was the validation that we needed.
Gianna went to the US and I ran another space in Melbourne, again in a home, for six months. We built a global community of around 10,000 women and were building up the brand. Thanks to the support of Central Equity I landed on a great space in Southbank.
How are you feeling about what you’ve created?
It’s hard! Every day there are multiple challenges. There is a quote I love, ‘An entrepreneur is someone who jumps off a cliff and builds a plane on the way down’. Sometimes you feel like you’re falling off a cliff and you are scrambling and putting out fires, and making things happen.
I am open to evolving One Roof based on what women need. Sometimes when I think that the direction of One Roof is ‘open’ to developing into any form in the future, it’s really scary. Other times I think, you need a business that is constantly changing, as what people want is constantly changing.
What are some common challenges that you see female entrepreneurs facing?
The conversation around supporting women in leadership, entrepreneurship and gender equality is topical, but it is still not enough. I see the unconscious biases, the barriers and hurdles that women have to overcome, the way we still get left out of conversations.
There are not enough women participating in accelerator programs, not enough working from coworking spaces, not enough getting funding. I see how the conversation changes if you are a male.
Many women feel that, ‘unless I am 100 percent confident and committed and I know what I am doing, I’m too scared, I can undervalue and under-play what I do’. I met a woman that was telling people she has a ‘little side business’. Meanwhile she is building an unbelievable empire. Women underplay what we’re doing, so we tend to come across as less impressive.
Do you think we’re making progress, or is the hurdle still big?
We are seeing progress and yes the hurdle is still big. Women are supporting women, and men are supporting women, and I am involved in a lot of conversations where I encourage authenticity and telling your story. But it’s not just stories from ‘great’ women, it is ordinary women doing extraordinary things. Showing others that it is OK, and even if you are scared you can do it.
How are you countering the stress of being an entrepreneur?
My partner and I go for a walk every morning. I have a meditation practice, I go to the coast, I love camping and spending time with friends. You have to surround yourself with good people. I travel a lot.
In your travels, what have you seen in terms of women and entrepreneurship?
I have been to Israel twice on a Schusterman Family Foundation program helping startups. They have an incredible startup culture. Most of them have gone to the army at a young age and have become leaders, and it builds up their confidence, skills and abilities.
With YGAP I went to South Africa where they run an accelerator program called YHER for women who run social enterprises that support females. They face a lot of similar challenges to Australian startups, and also differences in the nuances of the challenges.
If you could sum up your hope for women in entrepreneurship, what would you say?
I talk about ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. I do a lot of public speaking and I still get nervous, and I push myself through.
Your approach is much like Leading Ladies and how we encourage women to reveal their challenges and successes, to help other women on their journeys.
The more you can push yourself out there and give it a go, the more you find that great opportunities open up, and you encourage other women to do the same.
You’re helping so many women, but what’s your own next goal?
I would love to invest in women led-businesses, charities and social enterprises that are creating positive change. That’s a big scary audacious goal. We dream big, right?
Get in touch with Sheree on LinkedIn here.
For more #LeadingLadies interviews with other inspiring women who dare to dream big, head here.
Photography by House of Sage.