Christine Forster, Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship Speech, November 2018

December 20, 2018 / By The Warren Centre

Christine Forster is a Councillor in the City of Sydney. She recently gave this speech at our Inclusion2 Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship 2018 Celebration event in November 2018.

It’s a great honour to be here and I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the Gadigal of the Eora nation and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging and also acknowledge the people of the 200 nations that live in this beautiful city of ours.

It’s also fabulous to attend an event hosted by the Warren Centre, which as you would all know brings together industry, government and academia to create thought leadership in engineering, technology, and innovation.  

For myself, it’s particularly meaningful to be here because in my day job I work for Woodside, Australia’s largest oil and gas company. Like the Warren Centre, at Woodside we’re passionate about supporting innovation and technology in Australia and we believe that careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are essential to our children’s and our industry’s future.

That’s why since 2016 we’ve run programs in primary and high schools across our home state of Western Australia, in which Woodside volunteers have helped to engage with thousands of young people, particularly girls, to help them see the relevance of STEM for today but most importantly for tomorrow, so that hopefully they will get excited about a future career in the field.

But what about what’s happening here in Sydney where I’m a local councillor? To answer that I’m going to turn the City of Sydney’s Tech Startups Action Plan, which Council endorsed in June 2016, and I’m going to start with some of the challenges we’ve identified.

The sad reality is that in Australia a large proportion of first-time entrepreneurs are in their thirties and forties. Now that might not sound such a bad thing if like me you’re someone who’s on the wrong side of 50, and the upside is that these entrepreneurs are often experienced, understand their markets, have access to capital and enjoy existing networks of people and other businesses.  

Young people, however, who are inherently more likely to take risks, are just not becoming entrepreneurs in Australia. According to the City’s data just 6% of our startup founders are under the age of 25.

In comparison, it’s estimated that 20% of all students at the US universities CalTech, Stanford and Berkeley – and more than 50% of computer science students from those universities – form a startup before they graduate.

And of course the challenges are even greater for women, who are nowhere near the 50% representation they should have among ranks of entrepreneurs founding high-growth businesses.

In the US, for example, women lead only 3% of tech startups, and account for only 4% of the senior venture capital firms funding such startups. Only 3% of companies that received venture capital funding in the US had female CEOs.

The barriers to female entrepreneurship in the US include pay inequity, gender discrimination in male-dominated workplaces, the unconscious negative bias that has been demonstrated in choices not to invest in women-led companies, and the lack of coverage of successful women in the tech sector.

Now, whether or not women in Australia are facing the same barriers, the reality is that only 4% of Australian startup founders are women, according to the City’s data. And that means, just as it does in the US, that we are leaving considerable human potential untapped.  

Of course this is typically seen as a ‘women’s issue’ that is something to be solved for the benefit of women, in the interest of gender equality.  

In fact, as we know here in this room, it is an economic issue that affects everyone, because startups, especially high-growth startups, are key to job creation and leadership in new industries.  

With women now making up nearly half the workforce and more than half our university students, their lack of representation in building new high-growth companies has become a major economic deficit.  

The nation has fewer jobs – and less strength in emerging industries – than it could if women’s entrepreneurship were on par with men’s. Women capable of starting growth companies may well be our greatest underutilised economic resource.

Changing the face of business in the tech startup ecosystem – just as it does in every sector and industry across Australiarequires the involvement of men who care about the growth of the ecosystem, if not about the skills and talent of women and their right to full participation in the workforce in whatever role they choose.

If we can remove the historic sexism and barriers limiting women from launching and scaling tech startups, we could clearly generate economic growth and employment across the city.

Examples such as Pixc, started by Holly Cardew in 2013, show just what can be achieved when women are able to break down those barriers. Pixc is an online photo editing service built for ecommerce businesses. Pixc was able to expand to up to an average of 1000 sales per week in just two years and has now edited millions of product photos.

These are the types of businesses the City’s Tech Startups Action Plan seeks to support. The plan takes an integrated approach, recognising that the city economy is influenced by a range of factors such as liveability and amenity, access to affordable housing and childcare for parents – obviously a key one for many women – as well as having a diverse and well-educated population.

As part of the strategy, the City is expressly supporting women through its patron sponsorship of Springboard Enterprises Australia, an Australian-first accelerator program that connects women with other entrepreneurs, investors and industry experts.  

And in a really exciting move, the City last night approved a tender that will see the delivery to Council of its own startup hub space at a new Lendlease building between Pitt and George streets.

Council’s new Business Innovation Space will provide 3,900 sqm of floor space designed to be a focus for startup-related activities and a base for co-working spaces, tech startups, accelerators, incubators and investors. So if you’re in that space and you’re looking for a home, please do drop me a line and I can make sure you’re in the loop when the project is completed.  

Because I see a big part of my role at the City is to support entrepreneurial women like you. Facilitating technology entrepreneurs to start and grow global businesses will create more jobs, boost Sydney’s economy, strengthen our global connections and make the city a more desirable and interesting place to live, work and visit.

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