“Let’s hope in ten years these rare birds won’t be so rare!” exclaimed one of the sponsors of the Rare Birds Conference on opening night. This was the first gathering of women entrepreneurs in Australia and for now, these women are still exotic (read: infrequently spotted) birds in Australia. I had the privilege of keynoting at this inaugural female founders conference and from what I experienced, it really helped to get the flock into formation.
Rare Birds is the brainchild of entrepreneur Jo Burston, an accomplished entrepreneur and long time member of EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organization). She created the Rare Birds Conference to help women learn how to ramp up their businesses, go global, celebrate both traditional and social entrepreneurship, raise capital, and award prizes in a pitch contest. It was also just “good fun” as they like to say in Sydney and there was all the giddiness and excitement of a first time conference (but none of the glitches!).
Quick facts about our Australian sisters:
- One in four startups was founded by a woman in 2014
- 7.8 percent of adult women in Australia are involved in setting up a business or own a newly-founded business
- 49.4 percent of all individuals studying management and commerce at Australian universities are female
- The number of Australian women business owners grew by 8.9 percent between 2006 and 2011, whereas the number male business owners shrank by 3.7 percent in the same period. However, just like in the U.S., they are still less likely than their male counterparts to raise capital.
- In 2014, 34 percent of all business owners in Australia were women, up from only 3 percent in 1994
- “Australia ranks second in the world as the best place for female entrepreneurship,” behind only the U.S., according to the 2015 Global Women Entrepreneur Leaders scorecard
- The Australian government recently made $3B in funding available to startups
- Legislation passed in February of this year legalized crowd-funding in Australia, allowing “companies with less than $5 million in assets and turnover [are expected] to raise up to $5 million … each year.”
The Rare Birds Conference was different from most American women entrepreneur festivals and conferences I’ve attended in that it widened the circle to social entrepreneurs, academia and government, leading to great cross-pollination and topics I don’t usually learn about like PROJECT ROCKIT, an anti-bullying social venture that has achieved national and even international scale and recognition.
Burston explains, “Rare Birds is not a women’s organization. It’s an organization that supports women entrepreneurs. It’s for entrepreneurs, agents of change, academics, government, industry leaders. We have fathers, brothers, sons and they all want to see us succeed.” That inclusiveness is part of what gives Rare Birds wingspan and the ability to take flight quickly.
Rare Birds has reached over 25,000 women since it started in 2014. In attendance at the two-day conference were over 250 women entrepreneurs in tech, fashion, consumer products, electronics, education, and retail, all looking to grow their businesses and be part of this fast-growing community.
I wanted to know what keeps women entrepreneurs in Australia up at night? Turns out they are facing many of the same challenges we know so well:
- How to scale
- Where to find the capital without giving up too much equity
- How to hire the best people and keep them
Then they have some Australia-specific challenges:
- Less developed capital raising ecosystem (fewer angels and VCs and those who are there are a bit more risk-averse)
- Necessity of going international if they want to scale
Because Australia has just 23 million people (about the population of California) scaling means selling to other countries early in a company’s life cycle. We sometimes take for granted as American companies that even a niche product can sell several million units of something right here in our backyard. Many Australian women have their sights on China, since Asia is geographically close and a natural partner for trade, and at times, financing.
Jessica Wilson, who founded the fashion app called Stashd, was invited to compete on a Chinese version of Shark Tank in Shanghai with her company. She flew there, spent over six weeks filming and competing on the show. And though she came in third, the relationships she created have paved the way for her to raise a round of funding from angel investors in China and Australia.
Many Australian women are making plans to export or fundraise in the U.S. For instance, Stef and Jess Dadon are bringing their high end flip flops, TWOOBS, to LA. With almost no marketing budget, these sisters are launching via high end pool parties and getting in with boutiques in top beach cities. Other women are traveling to LA and New York looking for partners, funding, and distribution deals.
The conference also featured some of Australia’s top social entrepreneurs whose companies are looking to make a return and produce positive social change.
Kate Weiss is one such social entrepreneur. Her triple bottom line company, Table of Plenty, produces organic food that makes it easy for busy families to make healthy decisions quickly, employs workers with disabilities (Kate founded the company after leaving her job to care for her daughter, who has a rare genetic disorder), and measures success by the number of people whose lives they transform with healthy, nourishing products that are good for the body—and the soul.
Nikki Durkin went to LA to take part in Y Combinator and raised $500k in seed capital to build out a fashion sharing app she called 99Dresses. The business didn’t take off, but she saw it as a really positive experience and interestingly found fundraising “sort of easy” in part, she admits, because Y Combinator had “pre-vetted” her.
Despite Australia being half way around the world (I took two 24 hour flights in 5 days—do not try this at home!) and the fact that women there really do say “no worries” and like to call themselves “girls” without irony, they were almost disarmingly JUST LIKE American entrepreneurs – fierce, funny, fantastic, eager to learn, connectors who are quick to help each other and determined to do what it takes to go big.
I’ll keep bringing you news of some of their expansion plans in the U.S. via my Twitter, FB and Instagram, and am excited to serve as one of the bridges to the incredible women I met there! Lookout for more exotic birds flying overhead—and maybe landing in a store near you.