Uncovering unconscious bias

Female founders tell their stories ahead of Women's Entrepreneurship Day

In the lead-up to Women's Entrepreneurship Day, UQ Ventures spoke with four female founders to discuss the barriers and challenges they've overcome while working in a male-dominated sector.

Sonja Bernhardt OAM

Sonja is the Founder and CEO of ThoughtWare and Founder and inaugural President of Women in Technology. In 2011, she received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) to formally recognise her service to the Information Technology (IT) sector. Sonja is a champion for women in technology, encouraging and mentoring women studying technology or starting their careers in the sector. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from UQ. 

What led you to create ThoughtWare?

In 1999, my role was made redundant and me along with it. At the time I was a single mother and experienced a lot of guilt, stress, and pressures that were distinct from my male peers. I promised myself I would never be in that position again. When I developed ThoughtWare it gave me the freedom to choose my own hours and to work from anywhere, anytime. I have always been passionate about helping more women enter the IT sector and as a result, 85 per cent of my staff are women.

I want to give people a work environment that compliments their whole self (life and work) and not one that punishes them.

How did it feel to become the first Queensland woman in IT to receive an OAM?

First of all, I was surprised I was the first Queensland woman – and the fourth woman in Australia – to receive an OAM for IT. I can’t wait until the first woman in ‘insert activity’ is a thing of the past; a time where women achieving, creating, and succeeding without needing to overcome barriers is the norm. However, I also was completely thrilled and honoured. It's now my responsibility to spread the word about these initiatives and encourage more incredibly worthy women to be nominated for these honours.

What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?

My usual advice to young women is to know yourself. You are solely responsible for you, so make sure you’re motivated by what you want, not what others want from you. However, if I was speaking to my 20-year-old self I would tell her, "learn to say NO". It’s ok to not take on everything you are asked to do and it’s ok to take breaks. Give yourself permission to chill out!

Cissy Ma

Cissy built her corporate career at Queensland Treasury Corporation, and is now running her own consulting business Grow and Sell Your Biz alongside being a founding activator of SheEO Australia and Co-Founder of the APAC Women's Mentoring Circle. Cissy is passionate about supporting women from the Asia-Pacific region (APAC) to break the 'glass' and 'bamboo ceilings'. She holds a Master of Financial Management and Bachelor of Commerce (Honours) from UQ.

What are the unique challenges facing Asian women leaders?

Asian voices are often drowned out in conversations around success and leadership due to outdated stereotypes on leadership. Generally, Asian cultures value hard work and modesty over loud voices. This clashes with the self-promotion culture and 'strong leader' archetype pushed in Western societies. These conflicting views on leadership created the ‘bamboo ceiling’.

The bamboo ceiling is a barrier for all Asian leaders, but is much worse for Asian women who suffer the double whammy of both glass and bamboo ceilings. That's why I started the APAC Women’s Mentoring Circle with my co-founders. We are a community of more than 1000 women from 18 countries speaking up to make the world listen.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to an entrepreneur starting out?

The best assets any entrepreneur can have is a strong network of supporters, role models and mentors. I see so many young entrepreneurs, particularly women, afraid to ask for help out of fear of rejection and failure. Mentoring groups, like APAC, SheEO and Inspiring Rare Birds, are extremely valuable for women entrepreneurs to grow their “asking” muscle.

There are so many incredibly successful and generous women around the world willing to share their advice, networks and friendship with you — tap into that resource!

Carol Vale

Carol is a proud Dunghutti/Gumbaynggirr woman from Armidale, New South Wales. She founded Murawin, an Indigenous-led consultancy focused on inspiring organisations to improve outcomes for First Nations people. Carol has more than three decades of experience working in Aboriginal Affairs in government roles. Carol is a passionate advocate for women in leadership and is a mentor for UQ Ventures' LeadHers program.

What motivated you to create Murawin?

For more than 35 years, I worked at both News South Wales and Queensland state governments in Aboriginal Affairs. My background working in the space – as well as my personal history of being raised on an Aboriginal Mission – motivated me to launch an inter-cultural consultation and facilitation business. In 2014, I left my government role and created Murawin. Every day since I’ve worked hard with clients to strategically and purposefully integrate Indigenous perspectives into our projects. My mission has always been to improve economic and social outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

What challenges have you had to overcome on your career journey?

When discussing the challenges that face a small business owner, particularly working within the Indigenous Business Sector, I can honestly say there are many. They come in all shapes and sizes – financial, structural, product refinement, personal wellbeing, managing the need to have a work-life balance. The list is extensive, but it helped give me a thick skin.

I have always chosen to view my career challenges as opportunities for learning and growth. I am far more resilient now than I was before establishing Murawin.

What are the main barriers facing Indigenous female entrepreneurs?

In my personal experience, there were two primary challenges. The first is access to resources. Starting as a sole trader, it was just me in the business and I had to quickly figure out the resources I needed and what resources were available. I think this is much harder for people, especially from minority backgrounds, who may not have the networks to help them navigate these processes. The second challenge is gaining confidence from clients. Quite often, I've had to convince people an Indigenous, female-led business has the business acumen, experience, and skills necessary for the project.

Pauline Fetaui

Pauline is the General Manager at River City Labs, a not-for-profit incubator for Queensland's tech startup ecosystem. River City Labs helps match students, interns and professionals with startups through their Talent Landing Pad program. Pauline is also the Founder of CheeHoo, a personal assistant app for busy people juggling it all to create more space for life. Pauline is an enthusiastic advocate for women in entrepreneurship and is a mentor for UQ Ventures' LeadHers program.

Why is our entrepreneurship ecosystem so male-dominated?

Like most things, it originated from a stereotype. Before entrepreneurship, it was 'the businessman'. Today’s entrepreneurial stereotype is an iteration of that, stemming from modern tech giants like Facebook, PayPal, Google and Amazon. All these companies were founded by men who created an environment they enjoyed; therefore, attracting men. Think Silicon Valley, beer, pizza and bean bags. This has compounded in the tech startup space with an already challenging shortage of Women in STEM for Australia and most definitely Brisbane. Luckily, things are changing, albeit slowly.

The ecosystem is starting to embrace gender equality initiatives that are becoming more common across all sectors. This is shifting the stereotype. But like anything, it will take time and focused action to fully overcome.

If you had the power to remove one barrier female entrepreneurs face, what would it be?

Early-stage investment. This is measured by the traditional metrics of old. Investors need to meet women where they are. Women pitch differently, they analyse and assess deeply and they communicate with greater transparency. Sometimes, to their detriment, women downplay their own concepts and abilities. As women work on that, investors need to work with them. Understand women work differently and once they're backed, their ventures are often more profitable. To help this journey, women also have to be aware of this and work to meet men where they are.

Celebrate Women's Entrepreneurship Day
Friday, 19 November 2021

You can hear more from our incredible female founders at our UQ Women's Entrepreneurship Day event 'LeadHers Rise'.

Date: 19 November | Time: 8.30am – 12pm AEST |
Location: Lightspace, Fortitude Valley