Future leaders: 13 women reshaping the Aussie business landscape

future leaders

When you think of top business leaders, do you still think of ageing billionaires, tech bros and dudes in suits? If so, we’re afraid you’re living in the past.

This International Women’s Day, with the inside scoop from our guest editor Jeanette Cheah, we’re looking to the future of leadership.

These are the women who are reshaping the small business and tech landscape as we speak; the women forging their own paths, and bringing others with them.

Here are 13 future leaders to keep your eyes on.

Annette McClelland, chief executive of Tekuma

Annette McClelland is the co-founder and CEO of Tekuma, a startup “improving the ways humans interact with technology”.

Born out of the University of Technology Sydney, Tekuma was launched by McClelland and her co-founder Michael Griffin, back in 2016.

Since then, Tekuma has built a one-handed controller for drones, robots and other devices, allowing users to control anything with a single hand.

As McClelland says: “We reduce the time, cost, personnel and training required to get the job done.”

McClelland is also an alumni of HEX, the edtech startup run by SmartCompany’s International Women’s Day guest editor, Jeanette Cheah.

Danielle Seymour, director of Southstart

Danielle Seymour is the director of Southstart, South Australia’s impact and innovation festival.

The event exists to provide a hub for deep connection; created to unlock the ideas, connections and learnings required to navigate Australia’s collective future.

Southstart takes place in March, with an agenda of masterclasses, investment connections, wellbeing activities and regional explorations across South Australia.

Seymour started the festival in 2018, and also previously started Sidestep Creations — a business she still runs today. As Seymour puts it, Sidestep was built to foster various projects that “contribute to a future where no one stands alone”.

Needless to say, whether it’s organising Southstart or any other plethora of projects at Sidestep Creations, Seymour is working to make the world one where everyone is better connected.

Asami Koike, founder of Shapes and Sounds

Shapes and Sounds is a leading voice for Asian Australian mental health and wellbeing, and was founded by Asami Koike in 2019.

As a first-generation immigrant from Japan, Koike has the personal understanding of how to help Asian Australians improve their mental health and wellbeing with different programs that lead into nuanced conversations about race, culture and gender.

Koike is also a registered music therapist and yoga teacher, and has more than 17 years experience working in the youth mental health, trauma and community sectors.

Asami Koike

Shapes and Sounds founder Asami Koike. Source: supplied.

Lauren Black, social impact specialist at the Atlassian Foundation

As a social impact specialist for the Atlassian Foundation, Lauren Black works to design and deliver evidence-based programs that will influence young people and build a more gender equitable and sustainable future.

Black engages employees in skilled volunteering opportunities and creates social impact through commercial partnerships, including with Danielle Seymour’s festival Southstart.

Previously, Black worked as a program coordinator for Women in Engineering and Information Technology, at the University of Technology Sydney. She says she is “willing to openly share knowledge and experience on STEM education outreach, gender equity in STEM and delivering high impact mentoring programs”.

Lauren Black

Atlassian Foundation social impact specialist Lauren Black. Source: supplied.

Cara Davies, CEO of Steppen

Young gun Cara Davies launched Steppen during the lockdown in 2020, aged only 22 years old — with her business partner, Jake Carp.

The duo dropped out of university to pursue the rapidly growing business idea, which is a free-to-use app that promotes exercise tips in the sense of a social media feed in an effort to “democratise workouts” — particularly for Gen Z.

Davies had the idea herself for Steppen Fit in November 2020 after realising people her age were using social media apps such as TikTok and Instagram to find workouts and exercise advice, but noticed the broadness of it all.

Hence, Steppen Fit was built to bridge this gap, and bring a specific exercise-social-media feed into existence.

Marina Wu, founder of Earlywork

Marina Wu is the co-founder and chief community officer at Earlywork — a startup she is building with Daniel Brockwell and Jonathan Herman.

Earlywork is a community for young people interested in startup careers, which aims to challenge the conventional career narrative by “building a social fabric for the founders and operators of tomorrow, and unlocking careers opportunities for those who care about the ‘why’”.

Ultimately, Wu says she wants to “tackle the big, audacious problems in the world, and solve these by building simple, beautiful products”.

Earlywork founder Marina Wu. Source: supplied.

Sarah Ju-En Tan, product specialist, REA

Sarah Ju-En Tan is an experienced product designer, with plenty of high-profile clients under her belt, including Google, NASA, Facebook, Adobe and Mastercard. Currently, Tan works for REA Group.

On her personal portfolio, Tan says her love for immersive tech started when working at Google, under their innovation department — the Google Creative Lab.

“This led me to find my passion in experimenting and pushing the design boundaries of AR/VR,” she says.

Her AV/VR work has been featured in Adobe, 7NEWS, 9NEWS, ABC, The Australian, SBS Australia, B&T, and more.

Sarah Ju-En Tan

Sarah Ju-En Tan, product specialist at REA. Source: supplied.

Emily Casey, founder of What The Health

In 2021, Emily Casey founded What The Health, a company that exists to “fuel the next generation of health innovation”.

Each fortnight, Casey sends a ‘fortnightly healthtech roundup’ newsletter, that covers the short and snappy need-to-know information happening in the sector – a segment she describes as the “TL;DR on Aussie Healthtech happenings”.

A proudly self-proclaimed “med School drop out turned tech and innovation geek”, Casey doesn’t only keep her finger on the pulse when it comes to healthtech — she’s also an explorer at AirTree, supporting the next generation of founders.

Emily Casey

What The Health founder Emily Casey. Source: supplied.

Priyanka Ashraf, founder of The Creative Co-Operative

Priyanka Ashraf founded The Creative Co-Operative in 2020 with a mission to promote anti-racism through storytelling and entrepreneurship in a bid to “write intersectionality back into society”.

With a particular focus on women of colour, the platform strives to redistribute capital more fairly through equitable hiring and training, and by connecting women with mentors most suited to their needs. 

The platform champions creative and entrepreneurial women of colour through community projects, campaigns and festivals, and has even produced a book of short stories and illustrations created exclusively by women of colour.

The Creative Co-Operative has already amplified the voices and profiles of about 200 founders and business owners from diverse backgrounds, and in 2021, received the Smart50 Community Hero Award.

The Creative Co-Operative founder Priyanka Ashraf. Source: supplied.

Mary Kelly, co-founder of Reusably

By day, Mary Kelly is community and partnerships manager at startup hub Stone & Chalk in Adelaide. But in her own time, she’s building her own venture, Reuseably.

The business is on a mission to eliminate single-use packaging from businesses and cafes, instead creating a circular economy solution using cloud-based tech.

An active member of the startup community in Adelaide, Kelly says she has a “strong passion for engaging young people in entrepreneurial activities”, while combining her passions of sustainability, inclusivity and community building.

Lorna Deng and Bedi Othow, co-founders of DivTal

Launched amid a global pandemic and an employment crisis, DivTal is a recruitment startup that connects organisations that want to diversify their workforce with candidates from under-represented communities.

Born out of the personal experiences of co-founders Lorna Deng and Bedi Othow, who are both South Sudanese migrants, DivTal is broadening the diversity and inclusion conversation in hiring beyond women, to include more women with varying life experiences.

“If you consider the experiences of an indigenous woman, a migrant woman and an Australian woman born and bred here — they’re all women, but their experiences are very, very different,” Deng told SmartCompany in 2020.

“Slowly, people are starting to recognise that diversity is broader.”

Divtal employment founders Lorna Deng and Bedi Othow

Divtal co-founders Lorna Deng and Bedi Othow. Source: Supplied.

Michelle Dang, digital natives lead, AWS

A former lawyer and journalist, Michelle Dang is now digital natives lead at AWS. She’s also a chapter lead for Asians @ Amazon and a passionate LGBTQIA+ advocate.

To top all of that off, Dang is also a mentor at HEX, helping create pathways for students into work at Amazon.

Some nine years ago, she also founded her own digital and communications agency, which she still runs, focusing on visual media content and digital engagement.

In her own words, Dang says she will “talk your ear off about diversity, big ideas and skateboarding”.

Della Katessen, founder of Perfectly Queer

As well as being a performer and host of everything from trivia to bingo, fabulous Melbourne-based drag queen Della Katessen has also launched a talent agency dedicated to celebrating and uplifting Queer talent.

The business is designed to provide an inclusive and respectful space for corporate and private clients to connect with diverse talent.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Katessen was able to take her shows online to an international audience.

Now things are starting to open up again “it’s the right time to share the love,” she says.


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