Starting her career in education, the former high school PE teacher is now one of New Zealand’s top emerging entrepreneurs.
In her first year of teaching, Lillian was offered a job at Academy Award-winning software company Massive, where she began as the CEO’s executive assistant. “When I was at Massive I learnt how to move and think fast, how to hone and listen to my instincts and how to make things happen and just DO stuff.” After six years at the company, Lillian took a job with think tank The New Zealand Institute and then went on to start Figure.NZ.
She says one of the biggest challenges she has faced in her career was “accepting that if I wanted to change careers, I needed to take a junior role each time as I was starting fresh. I experienced this going from a school teacher to working at a software company, and then again going from the software company to a think tank.
“It’s a powerful change in mind-set. Instead of feeling like you have to know everything, you accept you are going to need to ask questions, and end up learning so much more.”
When Lillian talks about her career and her life path she refers to it as being curvy, unlike what she expected it to be.
“I did not expect my life path to be curvy. I grew up truly believing my path would be straight and really really normal. So it was initially quite surprising and challenging for me when it started to curve, and when it seemingly went backward and upside down I had to learn to deal with the motion sickness that comes from that.”
Instead she’s set to do extraordinary things with Figure.NZ, by democratising data. Her vision is for data to become a language in which everyone is fluent. Having the right data allows people to make better, more informed decisions.
The biggest lesson she’s learnt since starting Figure.NZ is how valuable it is to have a clear purpose, whilst being open to change in terms of how you get there. She says you need to really understand what you’re trying to achieve and be proactive with sharing this with those around you, but also be open to hearing their feedback. “As you learn more, your journey will change so you need to be agile and able to adapt.”
A critical component in Figure.NZ creating a data democracy was making the website accessible to everyone by it being free to use. Lillian had to turn to different revenue streams, like working with corporate partners and offering a publishing service to those with the data. The New Zealand Treasury has used this service to publish data about the New Zealand Budget.
“Running a social enterprise rather than a for-profit commercial entity was initially confronting for me, and it was hard not being able to use investment as a mechanism for getting off the ground. But what I have now learned is that combining private sector thinking with a purpose-driven structure can lead to a very special environment that delivers very real results. It’s meant our approach to collaboration and partnership has been different from the beginning, and that we’ve really thought about how to embed ourselves in the existing world rather than build something in isolation and expect others to come to us.”
As well as being the CEO of Figure.NZ, Lillian lends her skills to a number of other organisations. She’s in the recently established Data Futures Partnership Working Group, and she’s on the boards of both the NZ Innovation Partnership and Te Pūnaha Matatini.
On a personal level Lillian credits “unashamedly putting myself first” as the key to being happy with what she’s done and is doing – she makes time for seeing friends, being active, getting enough sleep – and says compromising those isn’t worth it. “Making time for what’s important to you allows you to serve in a sustainable way.”
She also really values her alone time and the power of perspective and focus that it gives her. “The shiny sparkly times don’t define me any more than the bad times do.”
Lillian’s advice for new entrepreneurs is in line with the way she lives her life and conducts her business. When asked what advice she’d give to female entrepreneurs starting out, she responds “Two words: be you.” She urges people to be proud of their uniqueness, especially when starting a business as the world doesn’t need new leaders who are exactly the same as the ones we’ve already got. She goes on to explain that in order to embrace who you are, you need to start by getting to know yourself and really listening to what you want and what you believe.
Here at ASB we’re excited about working with Lillian and Figure.NZ, and about what they can do for New Zealanders.