Thirteen inspiring women in Australian startups and small business

Australian business women

Divtal co-founder Lorna Deng. Source: Supplied.

About this time of year, SmartCompany usually publishes our annual list of Top Female Entrepreneurs, which ranks Australia’s top women in business based on their revenues or personal wealth. It’s a list filled with big names and bigger success stories, often headed up by prominent Australian businesswomen such as Katie Page or Gina Rinehart.

While the women on that list are undoubtedly some of Australia’s best female business owners, we feel they may not best represent the goals and struggles of Australian women who run small businesses and startups. After all, the challenges you face when you have $1 million in turnover are vastly different to those you face at $1 billion.

This year, we’ve decided to showcase some women running businesses who we believe, at their core, represent the small-business and startup community. They’re advocates, ambassadors and all-around badasses, and we’re proud to have been able to share their stories in SmartCompany and StartupSmart.

Andrea Gardiner

Gardiner runs Jelix Ventures, forming a wholesome powerhouse investing duo with her husband Ian, who recently quit his job to work full time at the firm. But Gardiner had been running Jelix for two years prior, and is the second woman to be a founding chief executive of a venture-capital firm in Australia.

Despite being a relatively young firm, Gardiner and Jelix are already making their mark, with the VC leading 12 investments into nine different startups. One of those startups, StorReduce, has already exited, with investors in the firm making a rumoured 10-times return from the sale of the company.

“Ian often spots a good startup and sends it my way. But then I’m the one that’s pretty meticulous about rigorous due diligence, and structuring the terms so that you balance basic investor protections with making sure the founder is incentivised,” she told StartupSmart last year.

“It’s a new business model and it is exciting. I feel like I’ve hit my sweet spot in work — I’ve never loved doing what I do as much as I love doing what I’m doing now.”

Julie Mathers

For Mathers, its all about small changes.

The chief executive and business owner runs sustainably focused e-commerce store Flora and Fauna, which offers shoppers a range of cruelty-free, vegan, eco-friendly and all-around sustainable products to help them lead a better life.

Mathers has been in the industry for nearly three decades, and launched the store in 2014. Since then, it’s gone gangbusters, with revenue growing 400% year-on-year as more and more Australians get hungry for responsible purchasing.

“We’re helping people make a few changes in their lives to become more sustainable. The sort of people who take their own shopping bag, or refuse a plastic straw,” she told SmartCompany last year.

“Businesses have the responsibility to make a change, as businesses will get there before the government does.”

Julie Mathers, Flora and Fauna chief executive. Source: Supplied.

Clara Ong

Almost exactly one year ago, Ong was the proud recipient of a $128,000 cheque, knocking out other formidable competitors at a pitch competition with SocialSuite, a startup she co-founded in 2015 to help companies better track their social and environmental impact.

Since then, her startup has continued to thrive, recently locking in a $1.85 million Series A round from AddVentures and Salesforce Ventures and setting its sights internationally, where clients are waiting in the wings.

Last year was a big year for SocialSuite, with the company finally able to kick into gear after spending “a year and a half selling a product that didn’t exist”.

Rosie and Lucy Thomas

There are not many Australian companies who can say they’ve received an investment from social media giant Facebook itself, but Rosie and Lucy Thomas’ anti-bullying venture Project Rockit is part of that elite few.

The two sisters founded Project Rockit over 12 years ago, a social venture which empowers Australian youths to stand up for themselves and others in the face of bullying. The two are a force of positivity and fearless progression and have thrived through a “complementary” relationship, with their respective strengths making up for their respective weaknesses.

“There is no one in the world I believe in more than her. If I’m ever in panic, or feeling like we’ve gone backwards, I ask her: ‘Mate, do you think we can do it?’ If she says we can do it, then we can do it,” Thomas says of her sister.

“I’ve put a lot of faith in her.”

Sarah Moran

A regular force in the Australian startup ecosystem, Moran has spearheaded a number of movements for change over the past few years, the main one being a push for more young girls to take up coding through her business Girl Geek Academy.

However, recently Moran has been fighting against the government’s controversial and damaging AA Bill, which passed parliament late last year and has potentially devastating flow-on effects for Australia’s tech industry.

Girl Geek Academy

Sarah Moran and the Girl Geek Academy team. Source: Supplied

Along with urging companies to write submissions to the government’s Federal Parliamentary Joint Commission reviewing the Bill, she told StartupSmart earlier this year international companies were likely to start shedding Australian jobs over fears they may be compelled to reveal sensitive company data.

“It’s absolutely something a lot of companies have had to act on already. What chief executive in their right mind will see that not as a security risk?” she said.

Leah Callon-Butler

Callon-Butler is a pioneer in two of Australia’s more controversial and misunderstood industries: cryptocurrency and the sex industry. She’s the co-founder of, a startup which raised millions via an initial coin offering last year to help make payments in the adult industry easier, and also introduces a verifiable and immutable trust and reputation system.

Since then, Callon-Butler has been a voice for change in the industries, regularly writing for StartupSmart on issues such as discrimination, data validation, and the fanatical world of blockchain. On top of this, her company recently allowed customers to buy vibrators with cryptocurrency, which was followed by the company being cut off by payments provider Square.

“This is exactly the reason why exists — to challenge this mode of financial discrimination against perfectly legitimate, tax-paying entities within the legal adult industry,” she said.

“Our merchants have been battling against this economic exclusion for too long, and it’s time to put an end to the moral arbitration.”

Shahirah Gardner

Gardner believes her financial management startup Finch has what it takes to be globally competitive, and right now, all signs point to her being bang on the money.

Finch was founded by Gardner and her partner Toby in 2017 after spending time in one of the world’s most competitive fintech accelerators, and locked in a whopping “Silicon Valley-sized” $2.25 million seed round just three months after launch. Since then, the company has continued to grow, landing customers as it expands throughout Australia.


Finch founders Shahirah and Toby Gardner. Source: Supplied.

However, speaking on a panel late last year, Gardner shared that she’d been, at times, a victim of burnout, and shared how she’d overcome the feeling.

“Every Sunday I jump in the car and just drive for an hour in any direction,” she said at the time.

“I love hiking, and for me that’s the automatic reset button that reminds me that there is a world outside of my Finch bubble.”

Kate Morris

SmartCompany readers are likely familiar with Morris and her powerhouse beauty business Adore Beauty, which has recently forecast tipping over $100 million in revenue during this financial year. While this solidly puts Adore Beauty in the ‘M’ part of SME, her journey to get there has been long and storied, with the founder first launching the business back in 2000.

Since then, Morris has been a vocal advocate for diverstity and equality in Australian business, calling for more reporting on gender equity in small business, and doubling domestic violence leave for her staff.

For Morris, she’s not shy about her success in business but says it goes beyond just having money.

“Success is about having choices about how I want to live my life, and having opportunities to make a difference to the world. I get to work flexibly to spend time with my kids; and I also get to do great things with my business now, like paid parental leave and our Women in Tech scholarship,” she said.

Katherine Roberts

Roberts first popped up on SmartCompany in our 2017 Smart 30 Under 30 as the founder of Perth-based food delivery service This Little Pig Went to Market. A perennially positive business owner, Roberts has shared frank insights into how her venture is run, including that founders should look to change “tiny things” to benefit customers above broad, sweeping changes.

Roberts also revealed how much she and her co-founder paid themselves in the early days of their business, saying it can be “depressing” for business owners when they end up being paid a pittance for pouring their heart and soul into their business.

Katherine Roberts

Co-founder of This Little Pig Went To Market Katherine Roberts. Source: Supplied.

“In a lot of cases, you just end up being the burnt chop, because you have to pay everyone else before yourself,” she says.

“From my perspective, while the business is making money it should go back into the growth of the business because extra cashflow should go into an extra cool room or an extra delivery van rather than into my wage.”

Lorna Deng

While there is a lot of work going into tackling unconscious bias, “we’re not seeing the results yet,” Deng told StartupSmart.

That’s where her startup Divtal comes in, an online platform which connects organisations with culturally diverse talent, born out of Deng’s own frustrations of struggling to find employment as a migrant born in Kenya.

It took the entrepreneur 18 months to finally land a paid internship with a bank, and she decided it was time to make a change.

“A lot of migrants are experiencing challenges getting jobs in Australia, there’s a much much higher unemployment and underemployment rate,” Deng said.

“On the flip side, a lot of organisations have diversity and inclusion strategies. They really want diverse talent, but there are challenges in getting that,” she added.

Jen Geale

A Smart50 winner and part of a four-person founding team, Geale is the founder of $7.8 million e-commerce business Mountain Bikes Direct. Her business is thriving, growing 236% over the past three years, despite her and her team almost never seeing each other.

The company has no central offices and the team all work from home, communicating through platforms such as Slack and Asana.

“One team member is a recreational pilot and takes his plane out in the morning and works for us in the afternoon,” she told SmartCompany.

Mikaela Jade

Running a startup from the middle of Kakadu National Park in Australia’s far north is a tough ask, but Indigital founder Mikaela Jade has seen her augmented reality startup thrive, telling Indigenous stories on country through the creative tech.


Indigital founder Mikaela Jade. Source: Supplied.

The entrepreneur was picked as one to watch in 2017, and was also named as the winner of the Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award, which recognises the success of up-and-coming female entrepreneurs under the age of 40.

The founder told SmartCompany her experience working in the Northern Territory had been fantastic but noted she’d struggled without the same entrepreneurial networks found in places like Sydney and Melbourne.

“I’m not only trying to develop tech that didn’t exist a few years ago in an industry that’s absolutely ripe for disruption, but we had challenges we had to overcome that other startups didn’t have to deal with,” she says.

“We didn’t have the innovation community, we didn’t have other startups to provide that support. I was in the Sydney startup hub [recently] where there’s such camaraderie, and we didn’t have that; I had to invent it by stalking people on LinkedIn and building those networks online.”

“We’re still focused on how to push tech for the betterment of the Indigenous community across Australia, and I feel so lucky to be part of this community.”

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