Manuri Gunawardena is no stranger to raising start-up capital and wants other women entrepreneurs to know they can do the same.
The chief executive of clinical trials start-up HealthMatch has helped show Australia and the world the value of online health tools and has received the backing of high-profile investors like Square Peg Capital and Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull.
Reflecting on this year’s International Women’s Day theme of “Break the Bias”, Gunawardena says sharing stories of success is important to empower other women founders.
“The louder we are, the more comfort there is for up and coming women to go, ‘hey, this is the norm, I can do this,’” she says.
“The louder we can be, the better it is.”
Gunawardena is one of the nation’s most influential women entrepreneurs, as nominated by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age‘s business team with input from small business ombudsman Bruce Billson, Council of Small Organizations Australia (COSBOA) chief Alexi Boyd, and head of digital health accelerator ANDHealth, Bronwyn Le Grice.
The nine women recognized this year also include: Mr Yum co-founder Kim Teo; BTC Markets chief Caroline Bowler; Seer Medical chief operating officer Georgina (George) Kenley; The Iconic chief operating officer Anna Lee; VacayIt founder Hailey Brown; Jumbled founder Pip Brett; Lisa Teh, co-founder of Mooning, CODI Agency and Lisnic; and founder of Aboriginal owned fitness brand Jarin Street, Jarin Baigent.
These women have reflected on what this year’s International Women’s Day theme of “Break the Bias” means to their work, highlighting that Australia still needs to broaden its idea of a typical entrepreneur.
Manuri Gunawardena, chief executive of HealthMatch
Break the bias: “It’s viewing and treating everyone equally. For female entrepreneurs, there is a lot [of concern] around funding and where venture capital funding goes. So it’s important to be able to be loud and vocal about female founders out there who have raised capital to show it is possible.”
Kim Teo, co-founder and CEO of Mr Yum
Kim Teo is one of four co-founders of Mr Yum, a Melbourne-based mobile payments platform that allows diners to scan a QR code, view the menu, order and pay from their smartphone.
Break the bias: “Act how you want to be treated … You shouldn’t get any brownie points for being a woman, but you shouldn’t get any bias either. A lot of it starts with not walking into conversations thinking there’s going to be levels of discrimination.
“I think to break the bias, it’s two things: going harder on the things women are good at, while also advocating for the commercial things, taking the time to work on the things that don’t come as naturally in the early days. ”
Caroline Bowler, CEO of BTC Markets
Bowler leads BTC Markets, Australia’s largest cryptocurrency exchange.
Break the bias: “This is a tough one. In my world of blockchain and crypto, 70 per cent of crypto traders are men, 30 per cent are women. When I talk to people, there’s a perception in our industry that it’s extremely blocked and you have to be a software developer or engineer to get in. That’s simply not the case.
“It is absolutely crucial we get as much variety in the voices and people working [in blockchain]and that goes beyond just the male and female binary into non-binary, religion, culture, skin color.”
Georgina (George) Kenley, Chief Operating Officer, Seer Medical
George (Georgina) Kenley is the co-founder and chief operating officer of Seer, a medical technology startup making at-home medical monitoring tools, which is currently focused on epilepsy patients.
Break the bias: ”You can’t just leave it up to women to fix it. I think men need to hear these messages too. One female leader inserted into a team with systemic issues isn’t the way to go. If you have a diverse team, a well managed, diverse group will outperform a single sex or homogeneous group – it’s a better community.”
Anna Lee, The Iconic chief operating officer, incoming Flybuys CEO
Anna Lee is currently chief operating officer at online fashion retailer The Iconic. She starts her new role as Flybuys CEO in mid-June.
Break the bias: “I think we should just be mindful that [biases] can influence our actions, which may then have unintentional consequences. So my philosophy is: leadership starts with self-awareness.
“Career progression starts with really great people having opportunities to shine. And those opportunities often favor those that come across more confident; they’re able to build relationships across the business. But those skills might not be so natural or easy for women. They might not be so easy for those cultural groups that are less represented. And hence, therein lies a natural bias.
“It’s about what we can do at the grassroots to break those biases. I do think that a lot of people [like middle managers and leaders] don’t realize that power is in their hands … I think it’s about distributing opportunities to people and giving everyone a really good, equitable foot in the door in terms of being able to shine.”
Hailey Brown, founder of VacayIt
Twenty-three-year-old Hailey Brown founded VacayIt, a soon to-be-launched travel platform specifically for low vision or blind tourists that uses audio storytelling to capture stories from around the world. She is also the winner of COSBOA’s Accelerator for Enterprising Women and Young Talent Innovation Winner at the World Tourism Forum Lucerne.
Break the bias: “I guess that’s basically the whole thing I’m doing: trying to find a way so that we don’t need to be considering how to cater for people who need accessibility options because it should just be the norm.
“If we break the bias on ‘disabled people don’t have the capacity or the skills to be able to work as efficiently as somebody who isn’t disabled’ … hopefully that’ll create a more equitable world. It just should be something where equal opportunities are provided to people where people feel inspired to do whatever they wish without any barriers.”
Pip Brett, founder of Jumbled
Pip Brett runs Jumbled, a homewares store based in Orange which pivoted to online during COVID. She has become a regional business leader who regularly shares insights about business storytelling online.
Break the bias: “I see a lot of girl power every single day in that community that I move within and am inspired by. My husband is all for equality too. But I have two young boys, and even though we’re their parents and they see what we do and how they act, I feel like the bias is already there somehow about men and women. It’s amazing how it’s already there, whether from the school system or the media. I would love to bring up boys that are good men, who see women as equal to them. Breaking the bias is just a constant conversation, really.”
Jarin Baigent, founder of Jarin Street
Jarin is the founder of Aboriginal-owned fitness wear brand Jarin Street and a founding member of First Nations business collective, Trading Blak.
Break the bias: “We need to dismantle the stranglehold paternalism has across all spaces, including business. The amount of times I’ve been referred to as ‘a young woman starting out’. I’m almost 40 with three children, my career has spanned over 20 years. Yet I hear early-20-something-year-old men referred to as ‘businessmen’ or ‘experts in their field’. The disparity for me has been glaring.”
Lisa Teh, co-founder of Mooning, CODI Agency, Lisnic
Lisa Teh has co-founded marketing agencies CODI Agency and more recently Mooning, which focuses on Web3. She also co-founded business listings platform Lisnic with entrepreneur Nick Bell.
Break the bias: “The funny thing is, comments attacking my appearance generally come from women, which I find disappointing. It’s about making sure we recognize that maybe we have some sort of bias because of our own personal experiences.
“It’s also about educating men on how they can support women in the workplace and educating women to be more confident in the workplace and ask for what they want. I look at women, and they’re so much more reserved in asking for what they want, whereas men just go out and they’ve got that Kanye-level confidence and ask for what they want. Why can’t women have the same confidence as Kanye? Even half the confidence?”
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