How A Pair Of Successful Businesswomen Helped Connect Others In Proven Start-Ups

Asking a business person why they’re good at their job is often difficult. Athletes can say they are fitter and faster, musicians that they are better interpreters than their cohorts. But for people running companies and founding start-ups, it can be tricky to articulate exactly why you are good at what you do.

With nominations for the 100 Women of Influence awards closing this Sunday, The Australian Financial Review asked the chief executive of innovative manufacturing company PAFtec Australia, Alex Birrell, and her friend, Seattle-trained entrepreneur and venture capitalist Melissa Widner, what makes the other so capable and why they take pleasure in their respective success.

Both helped create Heads Over Heels, an organisation connecting senior executives with proven start-ups run by women.

Alex Birrell:

Melissa [had only been] a few months in Australia when we met, trying to bury herself in the entrepreneurial/commercialisation scene in Sydney back when it was really in its very early stages.

Melissa’s a very successful, serial entrepreneur. One of the things she does extremely well is take in vast amounts of information, both details and big picture, and see it through for a commercial application or opportunity, then quickly translate that into the numbers. To see her working with the numbers, it’s quite phenomenal.

And she’s extremely focused, so determined. When she’s got something in her mind she just doesn’t see any other path. It’s wonderful to be part of that momentum, although there are lots of paths through to where you want to be, and Melissa will often take the straightest one … Everyone just stands back and watches!

Seattle she helped open a chapter for connecting women entrepreneurs to venture capital…and she found that the patterns of connections, who and how they get their referrals, is very important and very different to “networking”. You need to be introduced to the right people. In the entrepreneurial world, the unconscious bias we see in the corporate world translates as “Do you have the guts to take this forward?” Most of the people investing are men, and so for them, they think, “Great business, but I can’t see you as a CEO.”

Our biggest problem when Melissa, [co-founder and ex-McKinsey director] Janet Menzies and I go out to dinner is that we never stop talking over the top of each other. We could have three completely different topics running simultaneously. It’s chaos. We always wonder how we ever create anything out of it. Our meetings … the lines of conversations floating and skimming around the room, bouncing off the walls. But that creative tension is a big part of it – we are very complementary in our skills and way of thinking. And it does speak to heterogeneity, how much that can benefit an organisation.

Melissa Widner:

I noticed Alex had a unique combination of being highly intelligent, very compassionate and very entrepreneurial. Those were the things that really attracted me to her, she’s very “get it done”. And she’s calm under pressure, with a high tolerance for ambiguity, which is really important for an entrepreneur because in early stage companies there is so much you don’t know and so much you can’t control.

With venture capital, it’s a generalisation but women are maybe a bit more ready [than men] to admit what they don’t know. That can sometimes hurt you, because as an entrepreneur you’re supposed to be extremely confident, but I think as more women come through, the people on the other end of the pitch are starting to get used to it and think, “Well, this is a different style,” rather than, “This isn’t what a typical entrepreneur looks like.”

A few years ago, probably earlier in my career I would have said women should adapt to be more like their male counterparts. Now I don’t think that any more. It’s good to have different styles.

Heads Over Heels was a completely back of the envelope idea when we started and Alex jumped straight in. She hadn’t been an entrepreneur before, but through her experience with building it she became more courageous, saw more women starting and succeeding with business. She said those role models really gave her more courage to do it.

Alex does juggling really well. We both had our last children in our 40s. So she took over the company and started Heads Over Heels while she was having her third child. When I was CEO of my two companies, I didn’t have children. I look at that and think she’s amazing. Then I kick myself for thinking it’s amazing because no one would think it’s amazing if a guy was CEO with three kids.

Australian Financial Review

Heads Over Heels

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