How to inspire a million new female entrepreneurs

Jo Burston is on a mission: to see one million new female entrepreneurs by 2020. To get there, the founder of multiple start-ups is drawing on her experience, network and tremendous drive to launch a global community of women entrepreneurs. Here she chats with Marketing ahead of her keynote at the 2015 National Achievers Congress in Sydney next week.

“It’s strange that women are opening businesses in droves. It’s driving the entire economy. They employ more people than any major business in Australia…” says Jo Burston. “Why aren’t the companies growing?”

Burston, a serial entrepreneur with companies under her belt such as Job Capital, big-data.net.au and cleaningmaideasy.com.au, recently launched a business that aims to answer that question and provide a solution.

The vision

The goal is one million new female entrepreneurs by 2020, globally, in any field.

“The world becomes a better place with entrepreneurial coaching and it becomes a better place with entrepreneurs because they are the problem solvers of the world. Through great adversity or through resource, entrepreneurs are people that make change.

“I love the fact that there’s this great influence of entrepreneurs around the world. Yes, some of them are good and some of them are not so good, but, in general, they’re the change makers.

“They’re the ones that innovate and they’re the ones that actually do solve the biggest problems. From that perspective, I love the concept of that we are going to be a global organisation.

I also love the concept that the women globally around the world to be able to connect with each other, to collaborate, to have the connectedness, is also really powerful. Women do actually help other women tremendously.

The catalyst

In 2012, Burston found herself receiving an award from the Pearcey Foundation, recognising her mid-career achievements in information and communications technology innovation. “I was on the stage and I think, ‘Oh my God, where are the women?”

A conference not long after involved a similar experience. “Why aren’t women getting involved with technology? Why aren’t they looking at things, even with no skills like I had, and working out how to ask the right questions?”

The experience gave her some uncomfortable doubts. “Am I really here because I’m good at what I do? Or am I really here because they need a woman representing, as a token?

“I grappled with that for a couple days.”

Eventually, Burston arrived at the conclusion that she was good at what she did. “That was when I put it to bed and thought, you’re not going to change them. Talking about all this doesn’t feel right.”

In research mode, Burston took a film crew up to her old public school, in which she asked some young women the question: ‘What is an entrepreneur?’

“Most of them either didn’t know or they told me it was a man,” Burston says. That led to an important realisation.

“A few pennies dropped for me and I thought, well, then there’s an unconscious bias in the front of the minds of men and women and young kids, as well.

“That was the birth of Rare Birds and that was the thought process around creating a tribe of young, inspiring, current entrepreneurs where there are luminaries and role models and women that have actually done some really incredible stuff and done some really hard yards.”

Out of interest, we asked Burston what her definition of an entrepreneur is.

“For me there are so many levels of it. I think an entrepreneur, by definition, is someone who creates something of value and can sell it for a price and create it from labor and time and skill. When you look at the real definition of the French word, which is where it was derived, that’s really what it’s about. You look through all the ages, you look through all the years, there’s entrepreneurial ventures all around the place.

“It’s only recently that the word has been really significantly attached to technology companies. You can be a very, very successful entrepreneur creating widgets or creating a product or creating or manufacturing.”

The who

Burston says her strategy covers three distinct segments of Australian women, from those that have done the hard yards and have stories to tell, to those who will be the foundation of the economy in 2050.

The first group is the (relatively) older group of people that have become role models, which includes Burston herself. “I truly believe you can’t see what you can’t see – you’ve got to see what you want to become, so I like the fact that they’re luminaries and they’re pioneers. They’ve done some amazing stuff.”

“Gen Y is a really interesting generation – they’ve been born into a fast world. Technology is accelerating everything they’re doing. It’s instantaneous. It’s social validation required by personality type. They’re looking for people to be role models, to aspire to.

“That’s a really important hot generation for us to work on because they are the new job-makers in Australia.”

That group of women is the topic of a new book Burston’s working on for later this year. “They’re all women under 30. They’re thinking globally. They’re scaling their businesses. They’re just doing business very differently to that generation of pioneers and luminaries.”

“Then the third demographic is under-17s, the Millennials. I see them as so critically important to the future of Australia because we’re going to have an ageing population. Unless we have small-to-medium enterprises operating, I don’t know how [the population] is going to be supported.”

The challenges

To succeed in her mission, Burston needs a deep understanding of the factors that influence why women don’t become entrepreneurs. It’s a question she gets asked often, understandably.

Is it a confidence thing? “I don’t think that men or women have more of a lack of self-belief. I think that’s human beings and I think it’s incredibly environmental.

“One of the things that I look at when it comes to women starting or growing businesses is how they talk about money and their financial literacy. I think there’s a big gap there for knowing their true value as an entrepreneur in their business.

“I’ve seen, and this is a generalisation because I’ve seen lots of both ways, but I always see women ask for less than what they really want and I see guys go straight for the big dollars.”

Burston is careful to note that Rare Birds is not about comparing people’s success, at least not from a sense of the fastest, smartest or biggest revenue. She’s more interested in the impact and the influence they have around them.

“That’s why I don’t say ‘most’ or ‘best’ or ‘bigger’. It’s just about influence. I did a lot of background on these women and we had maybe 500 that I had conversations with and whittled it down to 50 [for the first book]. What I realised was there is this massive community of women, and men, who want to get involved with encouraging people to have their own businesses and encourage people to become entrepreneurs.

“Yet when you talk about it most people don’t know where to start. They have the ‘why’, but they don’t know what the ‘how’ is.”

Rare Birds has now launched its mentoring program, as well as a book: ‘Australia’s 50 Influential Women Entrepreneurs’.

Peter Roper
BY Peter Roper ON 10 April 2015
Editor of Marketing Magazine and Marketingmag.com.au