In this book extract, Theresa Gattung speaks candidly about her business journey and the role of women in business.
I definitely have created a portfolio life now. The biggest things that take most of my time are AIA in Australia and New Zealand, and SheEO. We sold majority control of My Food Bag to Waterman Capital, a New Zealand Private Equity firm, but I'm still on the Board, and I'm still a shareholder. I'm working on a new start-up, Tend, with James and Cecilia Robinson in the health sector, and that’s very enjoyable. I still do some public speaking, but generally just where I feel a connection with the audience and passion about the cause. I spoke at the last Be Bold conference, for corporate women. Dame Therese Walsh and Jolie Hodson got that group going a couple of years ago, which is fantastic.
I do think we've come a long way in the last 20 years. We now see business announcements in the newspaper the same size whether it’s an incoming woman as a new CEO, or a man, so it’s slowly becoming normalised. But it is still harder, and the penalties for perceived failure are higher. We’ve got women running three of the big banks in New Zealand, but interestingly we still have hardly any women running publicly listed companies in New Zealand.
In terms of funding businesses and start-ups, the statistics showing that businesses do better with women on boards, and with diverse management teams, are overwhelming. It's only recently, though, that Icehouse Ventures have launched a fund for women led businesses. The momentum is getting going, and may now accelerate. We are living in a time where it's cool to be a feminist. In my lifetime that hasn’t been the case. Thanks to the likes of actress Emma Watson, feminist can now equal glamorous, it doesn't mean ugly harridan anymore.
I'm on the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women, and recently was in a meeting with Ali Mau. Her columns are great and it’s wonderful to see that women’s matters have gone from fringe to mainstream. I was part of that early generation, the vanguard, and I think it was a lot harder because of that, but I've always had a strong belief in myself. I do think now it's becoming more mainstream. There is still discrimination, and it's still tougher, but I don’t think it's as hard as it used to be.
It is always tricky to generalise, but I do think women in business bring something different to the table. I’m not sure if it is innate in women, or if it’s just socialization. I think women do lead differently, and they often bring warmth and empathy, but it's not universal. And if you're the only woman, you can feel so intimidated that you feel like you have to operate in a more male way. In some ways, it is easier if it's your own company, with lots of female employees, and marketing to women, because then it just becomes the new normal. Cecilia led by example at My Food Bag and we doubled what was then the government requirements for maternity/paternity leave for our staff. New Zealand's record on maternity/paternity leave is woeful. We are not world class as a country, not even close. There are some obvious areas that should be remedied, and that could be remedied if there was sufficient public demand, and sufficient political will. Even though we've got a feminist Prime Minister, there are still some things that could change that would make a considerable difference.
In terms of women doing it differently, Cecilia was the CEO of My Food Bag and she definitely bought a very female, empathetic approach to strong leadership. She demonstrated that just as well at Au Pair Link too, where she role modelled that heart centred approach. There was a tragedy where one of the Au Pair Link girls was killed in a car accident in New Zealand and Cecilia herself went to the host family and cleaned out her bedroom and supported the family, as well as supporting her birth family. I think most male CEOs would've probably sent someone else. That's a sad example, but one of heart centred business leadership.
Are all businesswomen heart based, though? I think there's possibly an age factor here. Younger women, and younger people generally, are I think more inclined to be open to this combination of For Profit / For Good, and heart centred leadership. Women my age, some of them had to appear more male, even if they weren't more male inside, to be accepted, even as entrepreneurs. Some of them are my mates, and they don't necessarily have a particularly female style or way of doing things. For myself, you'd have to ask the people around me. I'm pretty driven, which is a very male characteristic. I don't have children, although I guess my cats are sort of like my kids in a way. I noticed that if you have children, you're immediately forced to think about what that means in terms of not just your life, but your team's lives. Women do still tend to bear the bulk of domestic responsibilities, even if they're really successful businesswomen, and that is a bit of a reality check, I think.
I didn't want children from quite a young age, partly because I know I need nine hours sleep a night, and I knew that I wouldn't be able to do it, and do it well - I wouldn't be able to manage. I'm an obsessive person, so if I hadn't been trying to be CEO, I would’ve been trying to be one of the best horsewomen in the world, or something else. Whatever I chose, I would’ve been going for it. I organized my life around my business goals for a long time, and I still have to remind myself to be more balanced. I've had more holidays recently than I've ever had before, because I wasn't well in 2018, and I know now that I just need to say no to some things, to spend more time recharging, and curb my responsibility gene - that notion that whatever I take on, I've got to fix, I've got to sort, I've got to make right.
That responsibility gene is possibly a female trait. I'm the eldest sister, and my management style reflects that. Feminine traits in business didn't show up so much in my generation, because there were so few of us, but now that there's more, and the world is a bit more woke, it's more accepted. Therefore, you see more of it. There is more national conversation about embracing other areas of diversity now, too. Maori language week is a tangible example of this.
There are different energies for different times, and the energy we're in now is a more collaborative one. Whether it's environmental, or in business, there's a sort of repudiation going on. I believe right now in the world, the heroes are not the wealthiest people. The wealthiest people who are giving half their wealth away, like Bill Gates, are much more admired than wealthy people who are not. And he's not just giving it away. He and Melinda are working really hard to try and eradicate diseases, and she's now focused on the empowerment of women and girls. They are spending their time, their energy, their skills, as well as their money, and that's the newly admired mix, I think – to be successful in your own right, not beholden to any institution, but doing something with your success that benefits all of us. That wasn't the success model of the 80s and 90s, it’s the success model of this century.
My personal focus is mainly on empowering women and girls. I'm on the global board of World Pulse, which is the biggest women's digital network in the world, amplifying women's voices. It's all around the world, working on whatever issues the women in those countries are trying to campaign on, for example, supporting women who are helping girls to get educated in Pakistan. I'm also a big supporter of Tree Sisters, which supports women in poorer countries to plant trees.
A lot of what I do is around inspiring and empowering women and girls, but I still like the commercial edge of business. I believe business is a force to change the world, and I don't think charity is as powerful. I'm inspired by Vicki's re-imagining of business through SheEO, because I think that's an important pathway. I do some things that are purely charitable, like World Pulse, but I also enjoy being part of businesses that are re-imagining things. I like reframing things, doing it differently and making it better. I like being part of things that matter, that are meaningful, that make a difference. And I like living in New Zealand, this is my tūrangawaewae - I choose to live here. But I also like being part of the global landscape, so I don't restrict my activities - either commercial or charitable - to just New Zealand. New Zealand is seen to be world leading in some ways, because across the globe people need to believe that it is possible to live in peace and harmony. In that respect, this is probably one of the sanest places on the planet.
Something I learned along the way, and a key message I now offer to young people, is that it really doesn't matter what you do in your 20s, particularly your early 20s. People create so much angst for themselves about what they should do, and what they should study at university, and it honestly doesn't matter. I was in such a hurry in my 20s and I didn't realize that life is a really long time. You can do anything and you will learn from whatever you do. These days, if you feel like you want to work for yourself but you’re not sure what to do, go and work for an entrepreneur you admire - paid if you can, unpaid if you have to - and learn, learn on the job. Work is changing and you're not going to have one occupation for a lifetime anymore. The entrepreneurial magic is often in the integration of things that used to be separate. You take the Internet and spare rooms, and suddenly we've got Airbnb. It really doesn't matter exactly what you do, so don't be in too much of a hurry to decide what your occupation is. It's more important to understand what you're good at, what turns you on, and what your contribution is that you can make. When you've figured that out, do things that light your fire for that. Personally, I'm not big on working on your weaknesses, because what's the point? There are a million people out there who are better at that thing than you, so stay in the zone of things that speak to you. Look for that intersection of things that you love, and that you're good at, that the world will pay for - that's the crux of it.
Following on from that, in whatever situation I've been in, whether it’s a Not For Profit, chairing a big company, CEO or entrepreneur, always surround yourself with the best people you can. Don't ever be threatened by good people, or people who are more talented than you. Work in your happy space and surround yourself with people who are good at what you're not good at - that's how you get the best result. Don't hire people who are the same as you, because your team will be unbalanced – you’ll end up with lots of detail people and no one's got the big picture, or you’re all talking around the big concepts, and no-one wants to do the work! So understand your own strengths and work in a space that maximizes them, but also surround yourself with people who are good at things that you are not, and work collectively to do whatever it is that you are doing.
This is an excerpt published with permission from Her Way - Real Stories of New Zealand women succeeding in business and doing so with heart, by Jacqui Thomas, published December 2020. Available in good book shops and from jacquithomas.com/herwaybook