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The trailblazing women founders of Canva, Job Capital, AgentArts and Envato – The Australian Financial Review

They may all be women working in technology, but Jo Burston founder of JobCapital, Kerri-Lee Sinclair, Melanie Perkins of Canva, and Cyan Ta’eed of Envato took very different paths.
Perkins rarely thought about failure when starting Canva; Burston had the courage to take control of her first pitch by sitting in the future investor’s chair; Sinclair decided to abandon start-ups for career development in big business; Ta’eed had to learn how to say she’d worked hard for her success.
But there’s one thing these women have in common: they never imagined careers in technology, despite now being leaders in their field.
Canva chief executive Melanie Perkins. Sahlan Hayes
“I think my mum was interested in computers, working in maintaining computers when she was pregnant with me in the ’70s,” Sinclair says. “My dad was really interested in computers too, but I was looking at more traditional careers when I was going through school.”
Perkins and Ta’eed were the same, having both gone to university to study graphic design before starting their tech companies.
“I went to uni to be a graphic designer, but only worked in an agency for a short time before I thought I’d go out on my own,” Ta’eed says.
“When I look back I realise my main career influence was my father and he was a freelance photographer, so I always saw him running his own business and it did rub off.”
Women make up 28 per cent of technology workers, with 43 per cent of all workers in professional industries being women, according to the Australian Computer Society and Deloitte’s digital pulse report released last year.
This is something which all these women hope will change as the digital technologies curriculum is adopted by the states and territories’ schools, with more female role models in technology leadership positions and as Australian businesses implement diversity initiatives.
Job Capital founder Jo Burston is a champion of women in technology. louise kennerley
Burston in particular is a champion of women in technology, having founded Inspiring Rare Birds, a platform for connecting, teaching and sharing the stories of female entrepreneurs worldwide.
“We’re going to establish Rare Birds communities all over the world. Imagine having a woman in Uganda connecting with a woman in Perth and sharing their knowledge,” she says.
“There are 700,000 female-owned companies in Australia at the moment out of two million enterprises and that number is growing. Women control 27 per cent of the world’s wealth, which is about $21 trillion dollars… so if more women founded companies, the economy would be more empowered.”
But the issue of diversity is not just about encouraging more women to enter technology careers, is also about hiring people of different ages, socio-economic backgrounds and cultures and with different qualifications.
KerriLee Sinclair of QSR International.  Louie Douvis
Web design start-up Canva has focused on what people can achieve from day one, says Perkins, “rather than if they tick some box” of age, culture, or background.
“I didn’t tick many stereotypical boxes as a founder when people were choosing to invest in us. Most people would have been living in Silicon Valley, have a technology background and be male.
“We hired a 17-year-old engineer because he could fly through our challenges. But Guy Kawasaki [Canva’s “chief evangelist”] is in his 60s. It’s about if they can do the job and if they care about it.”
Melanie Perkins may be fresh-faced, but the entrepreneur has experience beyond her 28 years. As a teen she sold scarves from her home in Western Australia, at 19 she started a yearbook design company Fusion Yearbooks, which became so successful she dropped out of university.
Envato co-founder and executive director Cyan Ta'eed.  Pat Scala
Four years ago she founded graphic design start‑up Canva. Last year ​Canva was valued at $US165 million, when it raised $US15 million. The money came from US firm Felicis Ventures, Vayner Capital, celebrities Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson and existing backers Blackbird Ventures and Matrix Partners, and it has been singled out as one of Australia’s next billion-dollar businesses.
While four years seems like a short amount of time to hit such a high valuation, Perkins says the company’s success did not happen overnight.
“About four years ago I went to San Francisco for three months – it was only supposed to be a two‑week trip,” she says.
“We’d had Fusion Yearbooks for several years, but I didn’t know much about the outside world of venture capital. It was really eye-opening and it was where I met Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen.” Perkins was introduced to Rasmussen through MaiTai founder and investor Bill Tai.
“When I first pitched to Bill, he seemed very uninterested, he wasn’t talking to me and he was on his phone the whole time. It turned out he was actually sending out introductions to other people he said would be keen to invest if we could find a technology team,” she says.
She made her pitch to Rasmussen on paper. Nonetheless, he was impressed and eventually became an investor and adviser to Perkins in the early stages of the business. “Lars said he’d be happy to verify my co-founder, so if someone was interested in joining the business I’d send their resume to Lars, but everyone I brought to him he said was not good enough. It was very frustrating because it took a whole year to find someone.”
After a long search, former Google employee Cameron Adams joined the business and Canva closed its first fundraising round of $US3 million in early 2013.
Today it’s a different story. The business has more than 100 employees, 9 million members, a few designs are made on the website every second and before closing last year’s capital raise, five major US VC firms flew from Silicon Valley to Australia to meet the team. “It was quite a transition. This time it was us getting to choose our partners,” Perkins says.
“On a personal level, there’s been so many challenges in the early stages it makes me appreciate what we have now, but I always want to climb the next mountain and get to the next stage.”
It was 2006 and Job Capital founder Jo Burston​ was working in a corporate role at a services company when she was asked to fly to Melbourne to pitch her employer’s service to a potential client.
She didn’t realise it at the time, but that day was about to change the course of her career.
“I missed the meeting with the potential client, Philip Weinman, because my plane was late coming in. I rang his PA and said I’d missed the time, but that I’d meet with him any time of the day or night at his convenience.
“It wasn’t until years later that I found out she had only granted me a meeting that afternoon because I was really polite to her,” Burston says.
“I was given 15 minutes … he said to take a seat anywhere I wanted, so I walked around to his side of the desk and sat in his chair and said: ‘I’m going to be here one day, so I may as well sit here now.’ ”
Weinman was shocked, but quickly the pair roared with laughter and that was the start of an 11‑year mentorship where the two talked most days.
“It was a Sliding Doors moment for me. I didn’t know why I did it, but we got along like a house on fire. He said to me, ‘What are you doing working for this company, what are you thinking of doing next?’, so he sort of mentored me out of a job,” Burston reflects.
From this point, the creation of her first business, Job Capital – a migration, salary packaging, payroll services and contract management business – was fast. It only took six weeks from her first meeting with Weinman to launch the business.
She secured Qantas as her first client and recorded $500,000 in revenue in her first year.
By 2013, Job Capital had reached a turnover of almost $40 million, but there was a time when she almost gave it up.
“In the second year of the business my dad was diagnosed with prostate and bone cancer. It was a whole new layer of shit that was put on my back. I wanted to spend time with my dad,” she says.
“But my mum said: ‘You can do both, you can have it all, I want you to keep going.’
“I made the decision to keep running the business … I had to be the brave, fearless leader and walk into the office and wipe the tears from my face. Then I’d leave the office and cry all the way home. I did that for months.”
Burston watched her father die during the early years of Job Capital. Only a year later, during the global financial crisis, she was again feeling as if she was in over her head.
“When we hit the GFC, we actually grew. As an outsourcing company, we were replacing the people being laid off. Personally I was stretched and I was making the most horrific mistakes,” she says.
“I was hiring the wrong people, I was trusting the wrong people and I was making mistakes that got me into legal problems. I had two or three people on each desk because I didn’t have time to look for a new office. I should have hired more skilled people, rather than taking cheap people and lots of them.”
Burston learnt from these mistakes and has gone on to start four other businesses, including Inspiring Rare Birds, which aims to create 1 million more female entrepreneurs globally by 2020. It’s doing this by sharing their success stories and lessons, teaching women how to pitch and connecting them to investors.
“My vision is to give every woman globally the opportunity to be an entrepreneur by choice,” Burston says.
Having been an employee in big corporations and start-ups, an entrepreneur and now a chief executive, Kerri-Lee Sinclair has run the gamut of professional experiences. But if you’d asked her while she was in university what she wanted to do, she couldn’t have told you.
“I was looking at more traditional careers when going through school. I looked at doing a mechanical engineering degree, but then ended up moving into fine arts,” she says. “I just fell into tech. My first job in Australia was with McKinsey and Company as a project manager and then I met LookSmart co-founders Evan Thornley and Martin Hosking and became operations manager for them and helped them move to the US and list.
“Then I started my own start-up [a music organisation platform, AgentArts, which preceded Spotify] but I exited that business and joined Telstra Wholesale and then went to Aconex.”
AgentArts was eventually sold in 2007 to Microsoft-owned company Fast Search & Transfer, but by this time she’d already stepped back from the business.
Unlike many entrepreneurs, Sinclair made the decision to move back into corporate life after running her own business because she wanted more training. “One of the things you struggle with in tech start-ups is there’s no real professional development opportunities,” she says.
“I was struggling with whether I was a start-up person, or a senior executive, and if I wanted to be a senior executive, I had to go somewhere where I could learn how to be one.”
Moving to Telstra gave Sinclair this chance, but by joining what was then a small team, she maintained some of the elements of working in a start-up.
“It was like a start-up within Telstra, but I got to do leadership courses up to the director level and went to INSEAD in France to study strategy. It was stuff I wouldn’t have done in a start-up,” she says.
In September 2015, Sinclair was appointed chief executive of QSR International, a qualitative research software developer. Now she has the challenge of kick-starting a new growth phase in a 21-year-old business that has plateaued. She intends to do this by implementing scalable systems across the business to allow it to focus on what’s unique.
“I also need to put in systems to enable us to hire more staff. We’re at 110 employees, but if you want to get to 200 people, just doing that is difficult in a business that’s been growing the way QSR has been.
“You need recruitment systems and more HR, [or] you burn through people and money,” she says.
Sinclair went back to work after she had children. “I had this lifestyle where I was flying around the world, meeting interesting people. Then I was sitting at home with a baby at 2am, and I had this feeling that there was more to me than that,” she says. “There is something in the way I’m wired that my brain has to be engaged in multiple things at multiple times.”
Sinclair says she doesn’t believe that there is a “conspiracy” to keep women out of the top jobs, but that unconscious bias exists. “You have to be quite tough and resilient,” she says.
“I’ve been sitting on a plane before and the person next to me asks what I do and I say that I work for a software company. The person next to me then says ‘oh, so you work in marketing?’. You don’t realise the buckets we put ourselves into.”
A few years ago Envato co-founder Cyan Ta’eed​ realised she needed to work on her self-confidence. The moment of realisation came not long after Ta’eed met with some venture capitalists who were interested in the digital marketplaces’ business but she was dismissed very quickly.
“The way people pitch and communicate their talents is very different. I’m naturally self‑deprecating – Australian women generally are often very self-deprecating,” she says.
“At the time I was offended and I didn’t understand why. I kept talking about luck and it’s something I still do now … But I mentioned luck on stage during a speech once and afterwards a very senior person came up to me and said I had to stop talking about it and that I’d worked hard for it.
“What I’d always considered humility was in fact self-deprecation and I’d been putting down my own strengths.”
But as luck would have it, Ta’eed, her husband Collis and best mate Jun Rung (the three Envato founders) did not need VC funding to make their digital business – which sells creative assets for web designers – a success. The company is now 14 years old and has come along way since Ta’eed and her husband started it with their savings, a maxed-out credit card and money from Collis’ parents. They lived in a basement with barred windows; in a former life it had been a urinal.
Envato has 6 million members across its marketplaces and turns over more than $50 million a year. It has also been named by investors such as Niki Scevak​ of Blackbird Ventures as being one of the next Australian unicorns.
In the early years of the company, Ta’eed had employed a “fake it until you make it” approach, but since then she’s changed her mindset by following two rules – don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be afraid of failure.
“I realised I’d wasted a huge amount of time by not asking questions. I assumed I was supposed to know things and that people would think I was dumb if I didn’t know the answers. A useful tool for me was to reframe it from wanting to look smart, to actually trying to be smart,” she says.
“The other big one was not being afraid of failure. I used to think, ‘well what if I fail’? I realised I needed to stop doing that.”
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