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#LeadingLadiesSeries Best of 2019: On Setbacks and Resilience

We often ask ourselves the question ‘what makes a Leading Lady?’. It’s something that is constantly evolving but one constant is the way all the women we speak to approach and grow through the challenges they encounter. Read on to learn about how some of our 2019 cohort turned adversity into opportunity.

Koskela Co-Founder Sasha Titchkosky on ignoring trends and staying true to your values:  

In 2000 there wasn’t a large local furniture manufacturing industry and it was all going offshore to China. We were repeatedly told to go there but we refused. Now we’ve come full circle as over the last five years or so there’s been a shift back to supporting local manufacturing our corporate clients like to say that a percentage of their workplace furniture or a fit out is locally manufactured by companies. We are unique in the market as our origins are as a design based business. Because we manufacture locally there’s a level of customisation and we’re able to offer bespoke products which fit a particular project. If we were selling someone else’s products made somewhere else we wouldn’t be able to do that. Getting our B Corp Certification was another point of differentiation that makes Koskela unique in the market. The certification process wasn’t that hard for us because we’d already had it embedded in what we were doing. I think if we were able to manufacture more inexpensively we could be much bigger than we are now in terms of revenue but we’ve created a culture (celebrating local manufacturing) and used it to our advantage. 

I have a philosophy of running our own race. I don’t care what everyone else does. I just want to know that what we’re doing is right and focus on that. I think you tie yourself in knots and don’t run a great business when you spend all your time looking at what everyone else is doing. We’re a small, privately owned business operating in workplace interiors which is one of the most competitive spaces. Every global workplace furniture player has some sort of presence in the market. We focus on excelling in service and creating really great products that we’re proud of.

STYMIE Co-Founder Rachel Downie on the importance of thinking big: 

I was Head of Faculty when we decided to start developing the STYMIE concept. Building a web app is expensive, so to make the money I took a second job waitressing at a Chinese restaurant whilst Amanda was working in mental health. It was tough. We went without a lot of things so we could develop a useful tool. We decided we wanted to support a local website design company. We were so excited. They told us they could build the web app, no problems and we gave them almost all of the money we’d saved. When the proposed launch date came around, I was so excited I was pacing. I hadn’t heard from them, so I called but they wouldn’t take my calls and the site wasn’t coming up on Google. I got a call from one of the schools I had signed up to STYMIE saying that the site was producing nothing but garbled code. We were devastated.

We ended up having to sue the web company for what they had built for us. They didn’t want to give me what they had created because it was so bad. We had to start again. All of those months of all of that hard work and all of that money. I went back and questioned them on the promises they hadn’t delivered on. I met with three men and it was very intimidating. They had the audacity to tell me that the promises they had made were all ‘part of the sell’. It was one of those moments when you’re shocked into silence. This project was about protecting children and they were still happy to rip me off. So we went to another company and they were able to plug the holes in the site so we had a baseline. But STYMIE deals with sensitive information and child protection, so we needed the platform to be infallible. An acquaintance of mine who had worked for some big dev companies had stepped away from that industry and was contracting. He offered to make STYMIE for us and then he let us take two years to pay it off. Essentially he did the work for free because he believed in STYMIE’s purpose. He’s still with us today (and he gets paid!). 

If I learnt a lesson from that experience, it was that I wasn’t thinking big enough. I needed to think of myself as a bigger player. I needed to go and seek out people who really knew what they were doing. I went for a local company that really only did work for other local companies. That was about my own level of confidence.

Consequence of Change Founder Beverley Johnson on picking yourself up and doing what makes you happy: 

After 2.5 years overseas I returned to Australia and got a job at Jeanswest as Head of Marketing. I had the most amazing seven years there. We really did change that brand from bottom of the range jeans and tees to a desirable brand with attitude.

Then an opportunity came up to work at a big name Australian consumer products company. Whilst I loved being at Jeanswest I felt that I had achieved a lot and it was time for a change.  I had been headhunted by this company for many years. I met the Boss who said we love you, we want you, just come over. I told them they had to offer me a job first. For a while they would ring me with jobs that just weren’t right.

Eventually they came through with what I thought was going to be a dream role in Group Marketing working with huge brands. That was appealing. That was what brought me in.

With hindsight, I realise it was not a great career move. I didn’t do my due diligence. There was no job description for my role because it was so new, and there was no support either. There was no clear mandate. Every single day in that job was a battle.

After I left that role, it took me some time to get my confidence back. I did learn some invaluable lessons specifically about how to deal with difficult personalities and change difficult relationships  into productive ones. I learnt a lot about resilience, not taking things too personally, and managing up.

Managing Director and Kimberlin Education, Kylie Green on the possibilities that come with starting from scratch: 

I joined the industry body and after being on the committee for two years I decided I was going to go for the presidency. That threw a huge spanner in the works. The chairperson just assumed he was going to roll over as head of the committee for another year. The secretary contacted me and asked me why I was running, I said I want to put myself forward as a candidate because I think I can introduce a lot of change and take this industry body into the future where it needs to go. He said good on you but you’re going to have a tough time with this. Then came the vote and the secretary called me up again and said OK do you want the good news or the bad news? The good news is you’re the new chairperson. The bad news is that the entire board is resigning. I said fine, can I get a handover? I contacted the old chairperson and put it all in very positive terms and asked for a P&L. I got a response back saying no you’re not getting anything and is this payback for what happened to you when you were made redundant my agency? 

I felt a little hurt and rejected when I was elected chairperson and the entire board of men resigned. But the overwhelming feeling was excitement about starting with a clean slate because it meant I could make it my own and get some fresh blood. What had come before was all old school culture. We needed new thinking.

I basically had to start from scratch. I started contacting a few people that I wanted to work for the board and they all happened to be competitors of mine, fierce competitors. It was really nice to call them and say hey, I really respect your work and what you do. I know we pitch a lot against each other  but I’d really love for you to come sit with me on the board. I created a committee board which included both women and men, as well as a lot of young blood. We would have really constructive conversations. We talked about issues going on in our agencies. We were competitors in one space and collaborators in another. We did all sorts of things to really try and say to the young people you’re the generation of the future. We started a rewards program and that really put us on the map. There were all these young people saying ‘this is fantastic, this is great! There was a real buzz and energy around it. 

CAPI CEO Emma Evans on combating ageism:  

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. 

McCann Worldgroup Australia CEO Nicole Taylor on finding inspiration in negativity:

I recall one major moment where I was openly ridiculed by some senior leaders about my sexuality. It was confronting because it explained a lot about how I was being treated at the time. I used their negativity to propel me forward and now I feel more relevant than ever. The world has moved on and is less tolerant of this bias.

Joining McCann was a decision to continue my growth journey and step out of my comfort zone. I believe my best years are still ahead of me, and that my story can help young women and men who don’t fit the cliché of ‘ad wanker’ types to have a long and successful career in a business that is truly wonderful.

Auburn Giants Football Club Founder Amna Karra-Hassan on fighting stereotypes: 

Having multiple identities meant I had different expectations from varying segments of the community. Engaging with media or in the public space, people asked questions that were stereotyped or had racist elements. I didn’t get to engage as Amna on her terms, but Amna living in shadow of terrorism.

If not that deep, it was more superficial, like ‘how does your father feel about you playing football’? I hated the idea that the patriarchy only permeates through Arab or Muslim communities. We still have issues with the gender pay gap, bullying and sexual harassment.

I’ve had to fight discrimination across communities with the intelligence to have the conversation on all sides. It was the most difficult, complex thing to navigate as young woman.

Want more? Check out our Best of #LL 2019: Inspiration and Drive