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Kristen and the latest UNSW New Wave cohort

The pandemic has radically changed the way we work. Throughout the Pandemic, Australian women have disproportionately left the workforce due to sector shutdowns and increased care responsibilities. At the tail-end of the pandemic, women are reassessing what they want from work.  

With the Great Resignation looming and millions of Aussies anticipated to quit their jobs, more Australian women than ever are turning their attention to launching startups. 

Dynamic Business spoke to Kristen Phillips, program manager at UNSW New Wave’s Founder program, which fosters female-founded startups. 

How has the pandemic and changing world of work impacted women?

Kristen: “While most people’s lives and work have been negatively affected by the pandemic, women have been disproportionately impacted by a resulting loss of work, hugely increased care burdens, and schooling obligations. In Australia, total female employment levels have fallen by 1.4 per cent, compared to a decline of 0.4 per cent for men. Young women have especially borne the brunt because they are overrepresented in the industries most affected by lockdowns, like the retail and arts sectors. 

“With women accounting for 70 per cent of the health and social care sector, they also face much greater risks working on the front line, increasing their exposure and potentially their family members to the virus. 

“The pandemic has not only exposed the comparative circumstances of women but has exacerbated the gender gap. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency estimates the new national gender pay gap is now at 14.2 per cent – an increase of 0.8 per cent over the past six months. However, there also comes a glimmer of hope in that an increasing number of women who have found themselves in career difficulties due to COVID have started to turn their attention to launching their own startups instead.”

Has the shift in how we work tipped the balance for a lot of women who were previously unsure about starting their own business?

Kristen: “Even before the pandemic, we all too often heard women say they’re tired of working longer hours in lower-paid jobs with fewer benefits than their male counterparts. Those women who do stick it out long enough to attain a ‘powerful’ job status often lose their appetite as they get older – particularly around the 35-50 year mark – perceiving the burdens of a ‘successful’ position outweighing the benefits.

“During the pandemic, 85 per cent of employees globally experienced higher burnout, and nearly half reported having a worse work/life balance. This is leading to the biggest movement of talent in Australia – The Great Resignation. One such movement is an uptick in women starting their own businesses. With many unable to get back into the industries they once worked in, they’ve turned their eye to their passion projects instead. 

“UNSW’s New Wave program is a female-led startup program addressing the under-representation of women in entrepreneurship by empowering UNSW students, staff and alumni who identify as women with the skills, knowledge and networks to launch startups tackling real-world problems. We’ve seen a real uptick in the number of women interested in taking part in the program, highlighting the increased appetite for females wanting to pursue their business dreams.

Has the startup landscape changed recently to encourage female entrepreneurs? Could you give me some examples?

Kristen: “Entrepreneurship has a gender equality issue, and for too long, women’s participation has been incredibly low. While it is getting better — women’s involvement in the startup sector has increased by 3 per cent in the last 20 years — there is still a long way to go to reach parity. 

“Access to funding can present a major issue. It’s frustrating to see that women-led startups take up to 9 months longer to secure funding than their male counterparts. Angel investors and VC companies are traditionally male-led and because of this only 5.2 per cent of global VC funding in 2020 went to wholly female-led startups. Women simply don’t have access to the same level of social equity as males and COVID has aggregated this further.

“Yet, businesses founded by women deliver twice the revenue per dollar invested than those founded by men. That’s why more female-focused entrepreneurial programs are being developed and why we set up UNSW’s New Wave program. We want to support 500 more women entrepreneurs by 2025. Ideally, we’d like to 10x that figure as we endeavour to level the startup playing field and empower more women to solve real-world problems – problems that are often deprioritised as a result of the male-dominated industry.”

What is your advice to women experiencing burnout who are considering starting their own business?

Kristen: “Go for it – you’ll never know unless you try! A change of work direction, where you can focus your time and energy on something you’re hugely passionate about, is often a good antidote to prolonged periods of burnout. At UNSW New Wave, we support women from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances to pursue new career opportunities. We’ve already helped almost 400 women and 150 startups to date and aim to help at least another 500 by 2025. Our vision is to give more women the skills, knowledge and capabilities to lead startups and global tech companies that will shape our post-pandemic future.

“Take Melanie Perkins – CEO and Founder at Canva – as a shining example of all that is possible for women when they step into a startup leadership role. Australia’s COVID-19 recovering plan relies on getting more women into entrepreneurship. Reports show our global GDP will increase by $5 trillion, and in Australia, this will grow by up to 10% if we get more women launching businesses, so my advice would be to not let fear of failure hold you back. Fear is natural, but overcoming fear is powerful!

What are your top tips for budding female entrepreneurs?

Kristen: “Don’t do it alone. Find a dedicated women-led support program for female entrepreneurs – there are heaps out there. Here, you’ll meet and learn from industry-leading businesswomen and mentors, get access to unparalleled support and advice, find inspiration from like-minded women and most importantly, boost your confidence so you can turn that startup idea into a reality. 

“One example is UNSW New Wave cohort nine winner, Cindi Shaw. She was applying for jobs in tourism as COVID hit. As tourism was a hugely impacted industry, Cindi struggled to find a job and instead turned her attention to her dream startup idea – toGet. toGet is now up and running as an online marketplace that connects local small businesses with local consumers. 

“Cindi believes that without the support from the other 75 inspiring women who attended the program alongside her, she wouldn’t be where she is today.”

 Cindi: “I’ve experienced many other relational benefits stemming from the program’s facilitation of authentic networks and relationships, particularly with mentors (of all genders) and other inspiring women participants: Being surrounded by other passionate entrepreneurs committed to solving real-world problems is incredibly motivating and humbling and reinforces the value of lifelong learning and having a strong support network.”

Read more:Tech23 awards showcase 23 of Australia’s most impactful deep-tech startups

Read more:Female founders take out top fintech industry awards

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Heidi Heck

Heidi Heck

Heidi Heck is a Journalist at Dynamic Business. She is a student at the University of Queensland where she studies Journalism and Economics. Heidi has a passion for the stories of small business, as well as the bigger picture of economics.

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