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Women of (disruptive) influence: Greer O’Donnell, Kerry Jackson and Kristen Lunman on diversity as a driver of disruption

It comes without saying it takes a lot to be a Women of Influence (WoI) Awards finalist. Yet the women across the 10 different categories this year (also the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, of course) have a number of things in common: determination. A commitment to making the world a better – and more equal – place. But they also all share a commitment to a certain “I” word: innovation. And that “D” word: disruption.

Oh, and another “D” word: diversity.

Take, for example, Kristen Lunman, innovation director at Kiwi Wealth and a finalist in the Innovation & Science category. “Banks as we know them should be disrupted, period. If anyone has been following the Royal Commission in Australia, the level of bank and financial services malpractice is astounding. To date, we haven’t seen any evidence of the same abuses here in New Zealand, but no one can deny that changes are (and should be) coming,” she explains about the changes in her industry.

She doesn’t mince words about how Aotearoa as a whole needs to step up its innovation game, either. “New Zealand innovation is trailing in comparable economies such as Israel, Singapore, Switzerland, and even Ireland in many sectors. Thanks to the digital economy, businesses can no longer rely on their existing offers and business models. These days, businesses have to continually invest in innovation. Why? If they don’t, they simply stand to lose. If you’re not looking to develop new ideas, products, and approaches to what you’re currently doing in better and cheaper ways, you’ll be in the firing line in the next decade.”

Greer O’Donnell, director of The Urban Advisory and a Business Enterprise finalist, says something similar. “We’re in the age of change and it’s exponential,” she explains. “All sectors are changing, and fast. The more important question to explore, in my opinion, is what the impact of that change is.

“Fundamentally disruptions requires two basic things, no matter what the industry; prepare our people to retrain, pivot and be adaptable, and priortising people’s well-being as the robots move in; human capital, is after all our most precious resource. It’s now commonly understood that the most valuable skills to have are those that are difficult for machines to replicate, for example empathy, creativity, spontaneity, adoptability and high emotional or social IQ.”

MM Linen – whose home textiles are distributed to retailers across New Zealand and Australia and were recently launched into the US and UK markets – founder and creative director Kerry Jackson is also a WoI Business Enterprise finalist. Her advice is simple: businesses need to increase the pace of innovation if they want to survive. “My focus is retail and manufacturing,” she says.

“Over the past ten years we have seen a remarkable change in the way we shop, even in textiles, where one would assume a sensory experience is part of the purchasing decision. Clear images on every phone and computer are easily accessible and it is efficient warehousing and distribution technology that allows for that want to be satisfied with quick delivery.

“The ripples of this are felt in every factory, wherever they are in the world, where technology can allow them to open a ‘factory outlet’ direct to a global market. A factory in China can list product on Amazon and deliver within a week at prices which include no local retail cost.”

One way all three women say entrepreneurs can keep up: not just innovate faster, but come up with innovations that are actually disruptive. In other words: create something everyone else is adapting to.

And to be more innovative, they say, New Zealand businesses also need to be more equal. “Innovation is not limited to technology. Technology is an enabler of innovation,” says Says O’Donnell.

“As we broaden our thinking about how technology can be applied to different industries, we need to understand that technology does not exist in isolation of people. Women are often the ‘people’ persons; if we can shift the perception about what the ‘technology’ industry requires, in terms of skill sets, I think we can attract more women to the sector. For example to understand how technology can assist any industry, we need to know how the people behave now, how it will be replaced and then what to do with the people that have been displaced.”

Says Lunman: “I’m in the midst of raising a strong-willed daughter and I’ve banned the word ‘bossy’ and its outdated connotations. To this day, there are these societal expectations on young women to be ‘good girls.’ I can’t imagine Therese Tucker, Sallie Krawcheck, or Ellen Pao as compliant girls! As a female leader, I hope to foster and create an environment here in New Zealand where I encourage women to think creatively and to be bold when solving problems. I want women questioning and challenge the status quo. I want them to speak up. And I want them to back each other and subscribe to a shine theory where we’re all pushing each other to grow, be our best, and celebrate in our individual success.”

Adds Jackson: “Whether or not more women will get involved in leading innovation and technology will require them to have passion for the subject. I love interiors, design and retail and following my passion has led to my success. Developing a stronger culture of support and mentorship for women to take the plunge and explore opportunities would be great.  I think we need to continually tell women ‘you can do it’ and we need to continually tell the business community ‘women can do it.’”

Of course, it’s a well-established fact that, on average, the more diverse a company is, the more money it makes. And that, Lunman says, is something businesses and entrepreneurs shouldn’t forget. “Entrepreneurship, leadership, and mentoring programmes are all important tools as women tend to look to a community for support and inspiration and support,” she explains. “We need to support women in areas of leadership, capital raising, and pitching. We urgently need talented women role models in tech to challenge the perception (and sadly, the reality) of a ‘male dominated’ sector. Gender diversity leads to better companies. It’s the truth. Google it.”

Not to mention it can help lead to some pretty important innovations. Cases in point: computer software, modern refrigerators, fire escapes, windscreen wipers, car heaters, life rafts, residential solar heating, medical syringes, CCTV, paper bags, wireless transmission technology, and even the board game Monopoly were all invented by women.

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