Leave the ladder down: My takeaways from mingling with woman entrepreneurs at Bumble’s Australasia Bizz Summit
You may have noticed an uprising happening around you recently – or maybe you haven’t been paying attention. Most are in agreement that women are becoming entrepreneurs in greater numbers than ever before.
Research by Aston University in the UK has found in the last decade, the number of women entrepreneurs around the world shot up by 45 percent.
What’s more, New Zealand comes in fourth highest in the number of women business owners by country, at 33 percent. Australia is fifth at 32 percent.
More anecdotally, this is evidenced by woman business owners being out in full force, online and in real life. They’re exchanging tips on social media, banding together in community groups, and attending events and workshops in droves, hungry for advice on how to find their purpose, get a business off the ground, build their profile and balance motherhood, a social life and a career, among other topics.
So, what’s behind the jump in women starting businesses? According to Forbes, this rise is because women want to achieve financial independence and more flexibility without relying on the status quo.
By starting their own ventures, they are able to have control and influence over what happens in their work life and empower themselves to be independent as their own boss, as well as free of issues to do with gender inequality – like ensuring they get equal pay.
This was one of the themes touched on at Bumble’s Bumble Bizz Summit held in Sydney last week. Since its inception, the social networking and dating app has built its brand on a catchy tagline: women making the first move.
Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe Herd famously broke away from Tinder after co-founding it alongside current CEO Sean Rad and four other men to found the networking and dating app in 2014, and recently told Fast Company, that she wants to build a “female internet,” a direct counterpoint to the Brotopia that built much of the internet.
At its Bumble Bizz event in Sydney, we saw a glimpse of that envisioned utopia. A blooming cherry blossom tree was the centrepiece decoration at the event space, while fishbowl glasses filled with cocktails made with Veuve Cliquot were handed out to guests. When it comes to satisfying the needs of a certain demographic, I think we can safely say – box tick.
For the mostly Millennial crowd in attendance, there was also a very ‘grammable set where people could take photos posing in front of an elaborate and beautifully decorated executive office that had ‘Be the CEO’ emblazoned across the desk and bookshelf. And, there was at least one woman in a hot pink power suit, a lá Elle in Legally Blonde, in attendance.
But the event wasn’t all glam décor and no substance, either. A gaggle of inspiring women entrepreneurs were shipped in from all around the world to Sydney to speak candidly about how they’ve built their careers and the challenges they’ve faced along the way.
The biggest headline speaker of the night was US-based celebrity hairstylist and Ouai founder Jen Atkin. Atkin is a Los Angeles-based hairstylist to uber-celebrities such as the Kardashians, models Bella and Gigi Hadid and TV personality Chrissy Teigen, and didn’t hold back when talking about inequality.
Pretty sure I’m the 1st @bumblebizz keynote to quote a lot of Brad Pitt’s GQ article ? thank you @bumble_australia for having me! I love that there is a place for women to network. My advice is 1?? Don’t be afraid to ask for what you deserve 2?? Start your day off with a grateful spirit 3?? It’s ok to be rejected or fail at something cause that’s how you learn and grow stronger?? Oh and happy #worldmentalhealthday!
“Women are not equals. Period,” she said. “We’re not equals in so many ways and it’s a global problem. It’s going to take a lot of men and women coming together to change that. It’s so important for us to recognise that is an issue. We need to help lift women up and give them an opportunity. I don’t want it to be a fad or a trend, [seeing as] we’re talking a lot about female founded brands.
“When you get to the top level of people you’re going to need money from – venture capitalists or private equity groups – the amount of women is like, two percent and the amount of women of colour is like, 0.2 percent. That is the reality and we have to change that and it’s going to take us continuing to talk about it and celebrate women who are doing all kinds of things.”
With 3.1 million followers on Instagram, it’s clear that what Atkin says and does has a lot of clout. But she told Idealog she tries not to pay too much attention to measuring likes and engagement, as authenticity is important.
“I want to post and dance like nobody’s watching and never lose my actual voice. Sometimes it’s a little dangerous to pay too much attention to that stuff.”
She also advocated for the power of social media, particularly in building an online community where women can empower one another from afar.
“It’s incredible, we live in a time where social media is helping so many women connect, where you’re a working woman or a stay-at-home Mum. Everyone has an amazing power to share information with one another and cheerlead for one another and encourage one another. I think it’s a really amazing tool, but it can be really damaging as well. You have to know how to hone in on the good stuff, try to ignore the bad and not compare yourself to others or have FOMO.”
Other speakers at the event included one of Australia’s first Instagram influencers and founder of tanning product, the Elle Effect, Elle Ferguson. Ferguson shared with the crowd how with her first batch of tanning products, she printed the label with the wrong cruelty-free emblem on the bottle. The mistake meant she had to take the shrink wrap off each bottle and put a sticker on each of the 20,000 bottles by hand herself to cover up the error.
She said someone she’d previously worked with her contacted her got a hold of a bottle and said, ‘I peeled the sticker off, did you put a sticker over every single one of the bottles?’ Ferguson said yes, and the woman said, ‘You’re going to make it’.
Ferguson also said sometimes it pays to sit back and work hard at your goals before going public with them.
“There’s so much newness happening at the moment, sometimes it’s amazing to sit back and achieve your goals silently. I didn’t go full guns blazing on Instagram, I learnt along the way.”
From left: Lana Wilkinson, Roxy Jacenko, Elle Ferguson and host Shelly Horton.
Another memorable speaker alongside her was Roxy Jacenko, the refreshingly candid and f-bomb dropping founder of Sweaty Betty PR.
“For me, I fucking hate doing this,” she told the crowd, to much laughter. “It is my worst thing to do. I do not find it easy to sit here and talk to all of you and try engage and make you laugh. But when I walk onto the stage, you get into that character. I have learnt over the course of 15 years that you fake it until you make it and even when you hate networking, you fucking do it because it’s the only way of growing your own business, and your own career personally.”
The final panel of the day featured women hailing from all corners of Australasia: Lindsay Jang, the Hong Kong-based founder of Missbish and Yardbird, Martine Ho, the Philippines-based founder of Sunnies, Singapore-based Fitsphere founder Liv Lo Golding, India-based Malini Agarwal, founder of The Girl Tribe, alongside New Zealand’s own fashion designer, Maggie Hewitt of Maggie Marilyn.
From left: Maggie Hewitt, Liv Lo Golding, Lindsay Jang, Malini Agarwal, Martine Ho and Shelly Horton.
One of the key points of discussion of the panel was finding a gap in the market, which is what Hewitt referenced when talking about founding her sustainable clothing label.
“I was lucky enough to go to a university in New Zealand where sustainability was such a huge part of the course curriculum and really was ahead of its time,” Hewitt said. “When I graduated, I didn’t even really know if I wanted to be in the industry – I thought maybe I should go work for the UN, fashion can seem pretty frivolous at times and I’ve always been a bit of an activist in my nature. Talking to the trend of the gap in the market, at the time there wasn’t many brands in the market at an accessible price point that offered something I wanted to buy into that aligned with my own values, so Maggie Marilyn was born.”
Jang, who is based in Hong Kong, was self-deprecating about the success of her restaurant business Yardbird and how it found its gap in the market.
“I sell chicken on a stick. There’s nothing innovative about the product,” she said.
“It’s chicken, it’s a good time, it’s great service. The difference we’ve brought to the hospitality industry is it’s beyond the bricks-and-mortar aspect. Digital has been prominent: how do you expand your community beyond the four walls of your business? There’s boredom in the day-to-day of running a restaurant because I’ve grown up doing that, I can do it in my sleep.
The fun in building these brands is it’s a brand now, it’s not just a restaurant. It’s become merchandise, events, you make a book, you do this, you do that. There’s a million ideas and how do you challenge yourself every day to push the boundaries, where most people in this world would say ‘it’s just a restaurant’.”
Agarwal, who is based in India and founded The Girl Tribe, a safe space for women to connect online with tens of millions of followers that has turned into a web series and book, also emphasised the importance of using social media correctly to make members of your community feel valued.
“A lot of people ask why I’m on my phone all the time and I tell them, it’s because I’ve committed to having a life online as much I do in the real world. What happens right now is you’re hoping to connect with people – the seven billion people on this planet – and then you go online and no one really responds, so it’s even lonelier to experience,” Agarwal says.
“What is a double tap, a share, a like or a comment? It’s someone witnessing your existence and today that’s what everyone wants.
Start looking at social media not as a version of reality – it’s a virtual reality. Imagine in a real life situation, would you go to someone’s house, put up pictures of yourself everywhere and then leave? Who does that, right? A lot of the time on social media we do that rather than having a conversation.”
So, what was the overall verdict of the event? Yes, there was a lot of pink décor. Yes, there was a lot of excitement. But coming away from it, I’ve been left thinking about the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie quote which says, “We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men.
“We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.”
Though the speakers came from diverse backgrounds, many of their learnings were universal and they developed a rapport with one another, despite their differences. One of them referred to it as ‘the sisterhood’. It was a great, non-competitive example to set for the younger members of the audience. This mood continued into the breaks, too. While I was in the foyer, various women attending the event came up and introduced themselves.
Someone even complimented my pantsuit, which is the quickest way to my professional, working woman heart.
With the camaraderie I’ve been seeing on display at events like Bumble Bizz and both online and offline and the record numbers of women entrepreneurship, I can’t help but hopefully think we’re heralding in a new era. Women aren’t competing for the affection of men (who’s got time for that while building a business?) or even the affections of the marketplace they’re operating in.
Instead, they’re championing values like empathy, community and empowering each other. They’d rather impart knowledge and share resources to help each other out than stay silent and watch others falter. Forget pulling the ladder up – this generation seems to hollering instructions and passing some snacks down for the journey. This women’s business utopia is looking better by the minute.