MYOB Women in Tech, part five: Sharesies co-founders Brooke Roberts and Sonya Williams on smashing ceilings

Sonya Williams (left) and Brooke Roberts.

Forget the ingredients touted as necessary to make a little girl in the age-old nursery rhyme, What Are Little Boys Made Of? To be a woman business leader, you need to have more than a pinch of resilience and a dash of tenacity. This is because although the country has made big strides when it comes to inclusivity, there’s still work to do before true equality is reached. Take the recent 2019 MYOB Women In Tech Report, which found nearly half of the industry’s women leaders have personally experienced gender bias during their career, just a quarter of local technology businesses have equal representation in their leadership teams and only one in ten tech businesses work to actively address discrimination. Sharesies co-founders Brooke Roberts and Sonya Williams talk carving their career paths, overcoming personal challenges and finding grit.

  • Read part one in this series with Metia Interactive founder Maru Nihoniho here, part two with Banqer co-founder Kendall Flutey here, part three with Trade Me's Diana Minnee here and part four with Beyond's Jessica Manins here.

Investing. It can conjure up images of men in suits, skyscrapers and New York, so let's consider the opposite of that: a woman with a baby on her hip, co-working spaces and, let's say, Wellington.

Great, we've described start-up hero, Sharesies. The investment app founded by a group of friends has smashed ceilings, walls, barriers and expectations after bursting forth from the Kiwibank Fintech Accelerator in 2017.

Co-founders Brooke Anderson and Sonya Williams talk enthusiastically about making investing easy, and it's easy to see how these two have changed the fintech game. By avoiding jargon-laden industry phrases and using inclusive, playful communication to tell their story and educate Kiwis about their finances, it is safe to say they have created a movement.

The duo, alongside four other founders, have amplified their beliefs and values in such a way that it has translated into a company that balances purpose with profit. As of April, Sharesies investment platform was the first financial company nationally to qualify for the B Corp certification, joining just 22 other New Zealand B Corp certified businesses. These companies meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability.

As two former Kiwibank employees, Anderson and Williams worked with each other and flirted with the idea of something bigger.  

"I felt like my whole career was aimed towards owning my own business, and I honestly can't say what planted to seed. It was like making little choices and decisions to get me closer to that," Williams says.

 Anderson, however, had already experimented with ideas and starting businesses while still at school.

"I knew from school that owning my own business was what I wanted to do, and I needed a super fascinating job to help me learn – you don't know what you don't know.  At the time, for various reasons, I was hustling for money, but I never compromised on opportunities or where I wanted to go. I met Paul Brock (former Kiwibank CEO) and discovered he had a marketing background but worked in finance, I knew then that this is what I wanted to do."

When the Kiwibank FinTech Accelerator provided the opportunity to satisfy their curiosity and learn and build together, as a team, the prospect of such a significant change didn't even cross their mind.  Williams had moved from Xero to Kiwibank, where she learned about money and the customer, and said she had to follow her gut instinct. 

"I knew I couldn't let other people's version of what's possible guide mine. I knew I had to be myself, do the work and see what happens. If you've got an inkling, see it through."

Life is short, time is the only thing you can't buy. Try to use that perspective and think, ‘Why wouldn't I want to use my time the best way I can?’ I wish we'd started this earlier, but where there's a will, there's a way.

As a mentor to young social entrepreneurs for the Live the Dream programme, Anderson was learning and supporting social enterprises, but was itching for more, so started taking design-thinking courses.

"I loved working with purpose-driven people and learned so much at Kiwibank, you're working with people who want to make a difference,” Anderson says. “That's what made it easy to start Sharesies – there was a commonality. We wanted to have an impact on lives and align the business with our values. It would be hard to be this passionate if we left gaps."

As Sharesies' growth accelerated, Anderson was balancing a house renovation, getting married and having a baby, alongside her role as CEO of an organisation that was smashing targets.

"After I had my first baby, Elle, I experienced some complex emotions I wasn't prepared for. I wasn't sure where I should be spending my time. It impacted me, and I thought, ‘Is my brain working?’

"I had an awesome support in [husband] Leighton and the Sharesies whānau, and I realised, okay, it's cool, it's just hormones and sleep deprivation – it's not your time anymore, it is shared with someone else."

A couple of years on, Williams said the experience and leap of faith had changed her life, and she finally feels herself.

"You just have to get over yourself and ask questions and tear things down, seeing things differently or from your context lead to great things and innovation, and that is a special skill — value what you bring to the table. Listen to yourself and when that one voice telling you to do something is the loudest, do it.  I was shit scared of public speaking; now it doesn't even bother me,” Williams says.

"Life is short, time is the only thing you can't buy. Try to use that perspective and think, ‘Why wouldn't I want to use my time the best way I can?’ I wish we'd started this earlier, but where there's a will, there's a way."

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