Friday, March 8 is International Women’s Day, dedicated to celebrating women’s achievements and improved gender balance. New Zealand is full of amazing female entrepreneurs from all walks of life, leading the way and inspiring others. We spoke to four of them about their successes, challenges and ways we can better support one another.
1. Dreams and ambitions
2. Challenges and growth
3. Balance and advantages
1. DREAMS & AMBITIONS
Maggie Hewitt was less than a year out of university when her first fashion collection was picked up by Net-A-Porter. It was the first New Zealand label to be featured by the luxury fashion retailer, and the first worldwide to be selected straight out of fashion school. That label, Maggie Marilyn, is now stocked in over 75 stores around the world.
“When I was studying I started to uncover the horrific truths of this industry. I was confronted with two choices: either leave an industry that does significant harm to the environment and takes advantage of people involved in the supply chain, or start my own brand and try to right those wrongs. I felt if I was working for someone else I wouldn’t have the degree of control to be able to make the impact I wanted to make to continue being a part of the industry.”
Chelsea Millar was working for FMG, having amassed an impressive career in agribusiness, social media and digital marketing, when she hit a ceiling. She had never considered self-employment an option, but the more she thought about it the more it made sense. Rural was what she knew, social media was what she did, and she saw a gap in the market where the two intersected. Grass Roots Media was born.
“Rural businesses can be slack at taking advantage of social media as part of their marketing strategies, which was why I decided to start a rural social media consultancy. We’re not an agency. We tailor make our strategy to the customer, whether they’re a one man band or a massive operation. People come to us because we become one of their team, a cog in their business if you will, which is the flexibility being a consultancy business offers.”
Jane Sweeney had already run three PR agencies when she decided to strike off and develop her own integrated communications and marketing agency. Together with her business partner Carolyn Kerr, she started Anthem.
“I had wanted to start my own agency for the last ten years, but hadn’t for a variety of reasons. The timing had never been right. But the agency landscape was really changing very rapidly, and what we found was that clients preferred to deal with one point of contact for a range of services. We felt it was an idea whose time had come.”
Deanna Yang knew from the start she wanted to have her own cookie shop. It took working three jobs during full time university to save enough for the opportunity, but at only 21 years old she opened the doors of Moustache Milk & Cookie Bar.
“Growing up in a solo-mother family with very little, I remember how happy a simple cookie dunked in cold milk made me. Inspired by my childhood, Moustache was born for the child in all of us who takes joy in the simple things. “
2. CHALLENGES & GROWTH
Of course, starting your own business doesn’t come without its own unique set of challenges, even if they result from early unexpected successes.
“It was pretty full on,” says Hewitt. “I think anyone who’s been through any extreme growth can attest to how exciting it is, but it definitely takes its toll when you’re only 21 and trying to figure it all out as you go.”
“There are dark days amongst the bright where you question what it is that you’re doing. I’m really lucky that I had such a supportive family who always did believe in all of my crazy dreams. Having that support keeps you going during those tough times.”
Initially, success for Millar was simply being able to pay the mortgage the following month. “When you’re first starting out you operate a very lean business model.” say Millar
“Last year was meant to be a year for growth. We didn’t quite get there and the only reason is because we had a change of staff. I needed to re-educate and bring in a new team member, so we started working on processes to make things more efficient.”
“It was frustrating, but I look at the positives of that. My focus has switched. We may not have achieved growth, but we’ve got a really awesome team, and that will allow us to grow.”
For Yang, Moustache’s early success eventually led to a 40% rent hike to the original Wellesley Street location, forcing her to close the store and adapt.
“We were at rock bottom and had nothing. I was determined to pick myself up again and went into rebuild phase. We managed to crowdfund over $90,000 in 4 weeks to build Moustache Milk & Cookie bus which travels all around New Zealand selling milk & cookies.
“We felt so humbled that so many people believed in the business and wanted it to keep going. A lot of this drives our community focus. We will always look to support others too.”
3. BALANCE & ADVANTAGES
“When I first tried to get a lease for Moustache, real estate agents wouldn't take me seriously. It was only when I got a male to enquire with the exact same idea that I managed to secure the lease.”
A recent study by Aston University in the UK placed New Zealand in the top five countries with the most female business owners, with roughly a third of all businesses owned by women. Despite that, Deanna says that there’s still work to be done to ensure equal opportunities for all.
“To create balance we need to just treat each other like humans - all with their own dreams and insecurities. Start celebrating each other instead of tearing people down for trying something new. I think if I want to see change in the world, then I need to be that change in myself first as that's all that is within my control. To support others as others have supported me.”
Hewitt believes that some sexism women may encounter is less a conscious act than simply a lack of education and thought.
"Subconscious biases between women and men are so ingrained in our culture. It’s about being more aware of situations, being conscientious of others and aware of the position of power that you may have, and in that a responsibility you have to lift up whomever is around you"
“There’s movement in the right direction,” Millar says, “but we need to be careful that we don’t isolate men. We need their diverse thoughts and ideas around the table as much as we need a woman’s. We just need to be open to a little more risk and to give people a chance. A little more open minded to what we all have to offer.”
It is not all doom and gloom however. Sweeney suggests there are plenty of advantages to being a female entrepreneur heading out on their own.
“Many female entrepreneurs have grown up, in a business sense, in male dominated environments. Some have been reduced to stereotypes that are too narrow for their skillsets. If you believe what you’ve been told about your own capabilities, it’s very limiting. What you have is a beautiful bird with clipped wings, a woman with ba-jillions of ideas just waiting to get out and express herself in a business environment.”
“So when we started, we felt a real sense of liberty. The sky was the limit in terms of what we could offer. In that way, coming from a male dominated business environment was an advantage. We knew we had more to offer than we had in our careers to date. We were excited for the opportunity to spread our wings.”
So, what advice do these women have for others wanting to start their own businesses?
Deanna Yang: “Just try. When I first decided to do Moustache, I had no money in my bank account, no business experience and I didn't even know how to bake! We as young women need to normalise failure and not compare ourselves to the perfect lives on social media. Before I started, I fully had to accept that there was a very high chance I would fail but I knew that even if I did, the world would keep moving and I would be okay.”
Chelsea Millar: “When you start your journey as an entrepreneur, you’re going to experience the biggest ups and downs you’ve had in your life to date, so you need to listen. Listen to every single piece of advice you are given because tucked away inside all of it will be one little nugget of gold that sets you in the right direction and you’ll never look back.”
Jane Sweeney: “There is a lot of goodwill out there if you put yourself out there. The market will try to box you in, but don’t listen to those voices. Back yourself and find others who believe in you and will help you reach your potential.”
Maggie Hewitt: “There’s so much noise in social media, opposing and outspoken opinions, but when you trust in your gut the universe takes you in the right direction. It very rarely gives you the wrong answer. You can be afraid, but do it anyway.”