Startup Analysis

“You’re fighting fewer battles”: The women leaving corporate life for startupland

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

cyber security

Cynch Security co-founder Susie Jones. Source: supplied.

According to last year’s Startup Muster report, just 22.3% of Australian startups are founded by women.

And, while we often hear stories of men ditching their cushty corporate roles to take a stab at startup life, it’s less of a common theme among women.

The role of women in the corporate world is still kind of political. There’s a whole history of women behind them who fought to help get them into the workplace at all. And, while no-one is denying men work hard to get to where they do, women face different hurdles.

Try asking around — you don’t have to look far to find a woman with a story to tell about gender bias in the workplace.

So, once you’re there, why would you want to leave?

Role models

Julia Poloai is head of culture and talent at Brisbane-based startup Clipchamp, having previously worked in human resources in the insurance sector, and in organisation development in a payments tech corporate.

She notes that for women achieving success in the corporate world, there can be a certain pressure to stay where you are and serve as a role model to others.

“There is a lot of pressure on women to be making sure that they’re securing the leadership roles, that they’re getting invitations to certain seats at the table,” she explains.

And, once you’re on that trajectory, “that’s a really difficult thing to let go of”.

What is often overlooked, however, is the opportunity startups can offer women to shine from the top too.

Cynch founder Susie Jones took the leap into startup life after a career in corporate insurance, and a later stint at Australia Post, where she worked in the insurance, risk and compliance team and later became head of cyber security business services.

Jones had always worked in male-dominated industries, but it was when she moved into the tech world that this really hit home.

“The moment I crossed over into technology, then you get this ‘woman in cybersecurity’ title, and there’s certainly a lot of pressure to be an example, and to always do the right thing.” she says.

But she also notes the opportunities for women in tech. There’s a gender imbalance among startup founders too, and it’s important for women to see other women striking out on their own.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends or women that I’ve met along the way, who have said they’ve found it really inspiring that I’ve done what I’ve done,” Jones says.

“No time to fuck around”

Another perk of startup life is the agility and the relative ease of driving change.

Jacinta Jones, chief customer officer at startup Roll-it Super compares making meaningful change in a corporate environment to “trying to turn the Titanic”.

“There are so many things that need to be done.”

Jacinta Jones, chief customer officer at startup Roll-it Super. Source: supplied.

Rather than finding this frustrating, however, Jacinta, who previously held senior roles at NAB and Westpac, says she found it “to be frank, entertaining”.

She has a lot of friends who run their own businesses, she says, and sees the things they’re dealing with on a daily basis.

“If you had to worry about turning the lights on and paying the bills, would you get caught up in the minutiae?”

In corporates, people can get lost in the process of decision-making, forgetting to consider what is best for the business and the customer — even what will make them money.

“When you peel it right back like that … it makes you realise there is so much time and effort wasted,” she says.

In startups, things are a little different.

“There’s no time to fuck around … you’ve got stuff to do,” Jacinta says.

“You need to get the buy-in of the team pretty quickly … sometimes that comes from a more fluid conversation than from doing a six-hour powerpoint.”

There’s a stark difference between the two ways of working, and the latter would likely be more attractive to most. But, where this becomes gendered is the fact that when women are appointed to early-stage startups, they’re allowed a voice in business-changing discussions.

As Poloai points out, you’re no longer trying to convince people to get on board with a new program. You’re having informal chats that lead to business decisions that benefit everyone.

“You’re fighting fewer battles,” she says.

In the corporate world, you’re trying to change a culture “that already kind of exists, and is, numbers-wise, potentially stacked towards a specific demographic”, she notes.

If you’re a woman in a senior role in a startup, “we create that makeup right from the beginning”.

Small startups have the potential to grow into global giants, and so anyone who’s influential at an early stage has the opportunity to create the culture from scratch, and influence a new norm.

“I can’t speak for every startup, I can’t speak for every company,” Poloai says.

“But for us, having the opportunity to be influential, to actually have diversity and show it to the table, is really different to when you’re having to change minds in a large, corporate, existing environment.”

Julia Poloai (centre), head of culture and talent at Clipchamp, loving startup life. Source: supplied.

A leap of faith

As a founder, Susie Jones also faced a different challenge. For her, a lot of her identity was tied to her career, and her financial independence.

Having been busy “scrambling up the corporate ladder as fast as I could”, Susie had always been the main breadwinner in her relationship.

“The idea of having to rely entirely on my partner financially for the first time in my life was terrifying. It still is terrifying,” she says.

There were question marks over how that would change Susie’s relationship, but also her perception of herself.

“How much did I tie who I am and what I think of myself to what I earnt and the title that I had?”

In the end, of course, startup life won her over, and she committed to trying to solve a problem she felt passionate about.

“In the end, I wanted to define myself that way instead of by money. But it was terrifying at first.”

Susie also notes that for any founder who is also supporting children, the considerations here are different. Her male co-founder has kids, she says, and she believes the decision was just as difficult for him, but in different ways.

What she has found difficult is the fact that so few people in her social network have gone through the same experience.

“The majority of my friends are women,” she says.

And she’s the only one that has ever started a business, let alone a high-growth startup.

“There is an education process that I had to take my friends and family through so that I could continue to have their support,” Susie explains.

“It’s really bloody hard, and it’s a lot harder if you don’t have anyone else around you that’s doing it.”

More extraordinary than you know

Making the leap — either as an employee or founder — into startup life is a difficult decision for anyone. But for women, it’s arguably even harder.

“If women felt more secure, and also more financially secure, then I think they would be more inclined to take that type of risk,” Jacinta suggests.

“Women do not, categorically, get paid like men do,” she notes.

“They’re on the back foot in their capacity to have actually saved money.”

This sense of security brings confidence that can act as a launchpad, she says.

The corporate space — especially the financial corporate space — is dominated by well-paid, often white, middle-aged men.

For those men, switching things up is still a brave move, but it’s also one often backed by financial security, and socially ingrained confidence many working women just aren’t blessed with.

This is especially true for women who have taken time off to start a family.

While Jacinta says both NAB and Westpac were incredibly supportive of mothers returning to work after parental leave, and mindful of the challenges they face, she still saw women “come back to work after having a child and their confidence is shot”.

But, Susie says one of the reasons we don’t see so many women moving into startups, is that women are prone to giving themselves less credit than they’re due.

“I think men are generally much better at understanding what they’re good at and what they’re not,” she notes.

“Women generally think they’re more average than they are.”

Susie urges women, if they have an idea they think could work, just to go ahead and give it a go.

“Just try it. And, worst-case scenario, you just go get another job,” she says.

“Women generally are far more extraordinary than they realise they are.”

NOW READ: Supporting regional startups brings women into the ecosystem, says Fishburners chief Nicole O’Brien

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].

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