What does ‘success’ mean for women in business, and who gets to decide?

jeanette-cheah-women-in-tech success

Jeanette Cheah, CEO and founder of HEX. Source: supplied.

As a business owner, what do you consider success to be?

Is it a profitable and sustainable model? A secure role for your staff? Truly living your values and making a difference in your community?

Or is it survival during a global pandemic, and some of the toughest economic conditions imaginable?

Does success mean dollars in the bank and big-name investors on your cap table? The founders I interview almost universally say no.

Yet in the ecosystem and the media alike, it’s these latter announcements that get all the attention.

For women-led business in particular, which in 2021 attracted just 26% of all the funding invested in Australia, that means less of the limelight, even when they’re breaking down barriers and hitting big milestones.

Pre-pandemic, Jeanette Cheah, our guest editor for International Women’s Day 2022, headed up Hacker Exchange, a business that generated its revenue by offering educational overseas trips for students and entrepreneurs.

Throughout the pandemic, Hacker Exchange pivoted and pivoted again, to become HEX, an edtech focused on training future tech leaders.

In fact, HEX was a runner up in SmartCompany’s Resilience Awards in 2020, and in the ‘resilience’ category of our Smart50 Awards in 2021.

“Our revenue went to zero overnight, and I still managed to keep my team employed and paid; we supported our customers, and we managed to grow in that time,” Cheah tells SmartCompany.

To her, that is a success story.

Just last month, HEX secured a partnership with Atlassian to build out its ‘innovation gap year’ program. Weeks later, the startup announced a $1.25 million seed round.

It was then that “the congratulations came pouring in”, Cheah says.

Reporting on success

At SmartCompany, we journalists acknowledge that we have a role to play here.

We’re aware that our own startup and tech coverage, at least, focuses on fund raising more than anything else.

The truth is that we need to attract as many eyeballs to each story as possible. That’s what attracts advertisers, and it’s advertisers (partly, at least) that keep the lights on.

With more activity in the business landscape, there are more potential stories out there, and sadly we can’t cover them all.

Yet we have a platform, and that comes with responsibility and a certain amount of power. We do get to choose which stories and which founders we shine a light on each day.

Do we choose the stories we know will generate traffic, or those we know are important?

In an ideal world, they’re one and the same. But often there’s a balance to be struck — these are decisions we make every morning at every editorial meeting.

Beyond big headlines

Lija Wilson, founder of flexible employment platform Puffling, started working on a capital raise for her startup, but found it took her away from her business at a critical stage and became impossible to juggle with her young family.

Instead, she took a step back and constructed a growth plan that didn’t rely on external capital.

“VC journeys for founders can be exciting and amazing,” she tells SmartCompany.

“But it’s not a path or environment that will suit every founder or startup lifestage.”

Sexism in startups

Puffling founder Lija Wilson. Source: supplied.

The cliched ‘startup success journey’ simply didn’t work for Puffling or for Wilson. There was no garage, no 19-hour days or instant noodles, and she didn’t hire hundreds of people in her first couple of years.

Her goal was revenue growth, customer acquisition and profitability — and to balance her business with her family life, while making a real difference in the world of women’s work.

“I do want growth and I want success for the business — conceptually and financially,” she says.

“But having validation or recognition by VC investment was not critical for my path as a founder.”

At the same time, not every business is the right fit for VC funding at all. Startups and tech companies are especially buzzy right now, but that takes some of the focus off of other small businesses.

Karen Ai Lynn Tan, founder of natural toothpowder brand Gigi Life, has noticed a skewing of interest towards businesses with a tech edge.

While she views her product as innovative, she’s not sure others always do, she explains. It certainly doesn’t fit into the ‘fashionable’ categories such as crypto, fintech or even ecommerce.

Very technical crypto and NFT products, in particular, tend to be put on a pedestal, Tan adds, even if they don’t even have an MVP yet.

“It makes you feel as if it’s bigger and fancier,” she says.

“But I’ve really been selling for over a year … I think there could be a good way of balancing both.”

Karen Ai Lynn Tan

Gigi Life founder Karen Ai Lynn Tan. Source: supplied.

Who decides?

So who decides what constitutes success, and what is deserving of celebration — both among your peers and in the tech pages?

Kate Dillon, founder of luxury handbag brand She Lion, suggests that while women undoubtedly face more barriers in accessing capital, entrepreneurial success in itself is no different for men and women.

It comes down to individual goals and purpose, she notes.

For her, that has meant showing it’s possible to have “a portfolio of executive careers”, and being able to advocate for other SMEs through She Lion’s ‘Actually I can’ project.

As business owners, you’re the only ones who can decide what success means for you — it could be business growth, providing for employees, community building, genuine flexibility, or a combination of all of those things.

Whatever your metric, as Dillon says, it shouldn’t be dictated by gender.

“It is the individual, the business owner, who decides this.”

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