Eclectic career backgrounds are common for women, believes senior businesswoman and entrepreneur Wendy Simpson. It seems a genetic predisposition to multi-task may translate for women into an innate ability to practice diversity in our careers as much as we do everywhere else in our lives.
Very early one morning, having reflected on what she thought I might want to achieve for our Ruby interview, Wendy Simpson emailed to postpone the time and place of our scheduled meeting. Instead of her offices at 9.30am, it became her club at 8.30am the next day. The Chairman of Springboard Enterprises (a US-based Venture Catalyst group providing business opportunities for women entrepreneurs, which was launched in Australia in May) is determined to shake up the Union Club’s traditional Victorian England caricature of itself. And that means getting women through that partially concealed entrance.
It’s a cool clear autumn morning and I’m sitting, for want of a better word, in a brown-leather Sherlock-Holmes style chair. My legs form a parallel line with the carpeted floor due to the depth of the seat. Wendy is possibly more comfortable in a stiff green leather upholstered carver-style table chair. We are in the hushed quiet of the Club’s library; a chessboard and double analogue stop clock sit on a table near us. Outside, the muffled roar of morning peak hour traffic, horns and airbrakes, is the only sign a modern world exists. Past Australian Prime Minister’s portraits –traditionally rendered – surround us. I wonder, out loud, if they’ll eventually put one up of Julia Gillard. Without irony, Wendy replies, they have to hang her portrait; she’ll have been Prime Minister.
A Commonwealth-Scholarship-holding high-school graduate, Wendy was bonded to teach once she finished her degree and so she did – running a school in Melbourne for “juvenile delinquents” – but not before she’d shelved her interest in becoming a goldsmith.
On an orientation tour of Melbourne’s RMIT Fine Arts department, Wendy distinctly remembers the disappointing answer to her question “to remind her again about the financial prospects of goldsmithing”. Her father had been ill for sometime and her family’s rather straightened economic circumstances made her painfully aware of the need for money. The prospect of not earning very much ‘unless she was lucky’ sent her back to student intake searching for another course tour.
“There was one going in the School of Social Sciences. They were discussing their very new courses in business information systems, document storage and retrieval. It was the very early stages of the Internet,” says Wendy, who has an innate and uncommon ability to recognize the potential of pivotal world altering moments, latch on to the shift and act on the catalysts to further develop the potential.
In the early 1990s, as an adviser to Victorian Premier Joan Kirner, in the Ministries of Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Small Business, Wendy found herself working on two interesting pieces of policy. Policies she believes had “an amazing impact on the social history of Australia” and form one of the seismic shift moments she’s had the great fortune to find herself around.
Firstly, there was Kirner’s radical action in the early 1990s to only accept delegations, particularly from the lobby groups, that included women members.
“People got very hot under the collar, saying they’d be sending whoever they chose,” remembers Wendy.
Joan’s approach to that, explains Wendy, was, “it’s my diary and I can decide how I’ll allocate my time and I’m deciding to allocate my time according to outcomes.
“She was sick of the table-thumping male dominated groups coming to tell her, ‘you’re running the State badly, you don’t know what you’re doing, you need to do this and this’. They weren’t interested in conversation, they just wanted to yell at her, and in the end there were no concrete outcomes. Delegations with women members in their ranks, on the other hand, spoke about outcomes, what could be achieved out of the meeting and what would be done.”
The direct outcome of the policy, says Wendy, was to exert pressure on industry associations to look for talent in a new way and to increase diversity: “It meant the groups and associations had to find the women, explain to them what was going on and what they were out to achieve, as well as why they were going to see the Premier. It changed things.”
The second piece of policy involved Public Service interview panels and candidacy diversity. Kirner demanded interview panels include women and, if possible, there be women candidates in the mix for jobs.
Initially, Wendy says, people complied because they had to, but compliance had the desired effect. Women on the panels soon began to understand the importance of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the interview process and what happens at the panel level that is not visible to the candidate. It also alerted many of the women on the panels to the fact that many of the male candidates, and it was mainly men going for the senior roles, were not as qualified or as skilled as they were themselves. They soon understood they should be on the other side of the table.
These lessons Wendy mentions when she talks about Springboard and utilizing the talents of women entrepreneurs. By providing women with knowledge, information, role models and opportunities, she believes, they can be tempted to think further and do more.
Wendy’s own career moved on to TNT in the 1990s, where she was the first woman to manage its airfreight operations. She then took a position in the telecommunications industry, shepherding it through deregulation, the single most traumatic, in fact only sizeable event, in its past 100-year history, explains Wendy, who when she took the job was the “first senior level employee to be put on in 15 years”.
In the late 1990s with telecommunications deregulating worldwide, she was approached by a “head hunter” for a role with telecommunications giant Alcatel. Her TNT business experience – understanding ‘how to have a common backend but a multi-customer front end’ business model – prompted the approach.
“The interesting thing about airfreight,” explains Wendy in relation to the operational aspects of deregulation and the offer of the Alcatel position, “is that everything goes on the same plane. There’s very little differentiation in the backend, but it’s the customer systems and the way you treat the customer at the front end, that’s what makes the difference.”
Invited into the Alcatel role, she went on to lead the Sales and Marketing and Government Relations teams for the company in Asia Pacific during deregulation. Based in Shanghai she brought the Internet and mobile phones to 16 Asian countries, including the huge emerging market of China.
“Bringing the Internet to China was like taking someone who has lived their whole life in Alice Springs to the coast and showing them the ocean: mind blowing,” explains Wendy about her role in that piece of history.
She draws an analogy between what the Internet has done globally – shaping us all, bringing us new industries and ideas and introducing massive change at all levels of our lives – and the eventual outcomes she sees for Springboard: “I meet people who want to know why do we need to push all these women entrepreneurs? Why can’t we leave it alone and just see what happens? I used to hear that about the Internet. I think by elevating and pushing women entrepreneurs forward and up we’re on the cusp again of developing a whole new way of thinking and doing business and In Australia, we have to be there on that cusp to take advantage of the potential. We can’t sit back and get left behind and we don’t want to be left behind.”
In 2010, Wendy was invited by Dell Computers to attend the inaugural global women’s entrepreneur conference in Shanghai where she met Kay Koplovitz. Koplovitz brought cable TV to America, beginning a company that became USA Networks and which she eventually sold for $4.6 billion. In that sale lay Koplovitz’s lesson and her reason for beginning Springboard in 2000.
Having raised the capital and built the cable TV business up to what it became when it sold, her investor at the time pointed out he had put the cash in therefore he would get all the cash out. Koplovitz was unable to alter the outcome. Springboard is her way of making sure women are not only taught how to create a business but how to retain significant ownership so that when it is sold – and no matter how many times they’ve raised capital – they receive an appropriate reward at the end.
Springboard in Australia as it is in America is an accelerator , a Venture Catalyst, getting businesses investor ready. Says Wendy, “we create a place where we can tell stories of the ‘been there run that’ variety and now we’re going to mentor you through the process.”
In 2011 Wendy was set to attend the second Dell conference and was preparing to launch Springboard in Australia when she was diagnosed with an extremely rare and aggressive form of cancer. Normally associated with children, usually with a fatal outcome, there have only ever been about 25 diagnosed globally of the cancer, which settles in a muscle group rather than in a specific primary organ site. A year on and following some debilitating treatment, she has received the all clear.
“I’m not saying it hasn’t been tough,” says Wendy. “But it’s been a joyful experience. Not a word you usually hear associated with life threatening cancer and aggressive treatments but I was never scared. A lot of people are you know? I had fantastic visitors, positive uplifting people many of whom were praying for me and who brought not just me but the others in the ward a lot of joy.”
Focused again on the task at hand, Wendy’s looking forward to establishing Springboard with her board and the help of her US allies: the 480 women entrepreneurs and the mentors who helped them raise over $5billion in capital to date.