This interview is reprinted in full here from the Ernst & Young's Women in Leadership series, to some of Australia's successful and inspirational business women who have made a difference in their chosen fields and in their communities.
Go to http://www.ey.com/AU/en/About-us/Our-people-and-culture/Diversity-and-inclusiveness/Women-in-Leadership to read more NFP and corporate women experiences.
Renata (Singer) is a volunteer in a program in New York called the “Bottomless Closet” and on a visit to New York, we both started to think about starting a similar organisation in Melbourne and see how it resonated.
In March 2005, we pulled together a group of 50 women to see whether they thought the idea had some traction. We did a bit of research and discovered that there was a gap in the service deliveries to long-term unemployed women who were experiencing disadvantage.
Both Renata and I were committed to women’s issues and to find pathways to equality for women who have not had the same opportunities as ourselves. This was the first of its kind of service in Australia – a completely new way of working with women experiencing disadvantage.
In the beginning, the service was really only about providing the outfitting for women, but then we progressed to providing individual training and what we call, ‘conversations with purpose’. The clothing was a way to engage with the women and to then bring about sustainable employment for women experiencing disadvantage.
Our focus is not on making money. Our focus is on social capital.
What compromises have you had to make along the way?
It wasn’t so much compromises that we had to make along the way, it was tough decisions. Starting up a not-for-profit business with no capital is risky.
When we started the business, the social entrepreneurial sector was not as well understood as it is now and this added to the challenges.
One of the toughest decisions that we had to make along the way was when we decided to licence the original model of Fitted for Work. This turned out to be a disaster as we couldn’t maintain any quality control. We had to get rid of some of the licences in other locations and we moved to running a branch model. This was a critical shift in the whole running of the organisation. But it had to be done if we were to sustain the quality of our service under the model that we originally thought would work.
What is your definition of success and has it changed over time?
Our original definition of success was setting up a service that would assist some women in Melbourne. Our definition of success has definitely changed over time because we see the benefits of the service and so we want to reach more women and now our measure is 5,000 women a year.
The organisation’s success is in part due to our original vision and the energy and work that we put into making it happen.
What drives and inspires you?
The thing that drives and inspires us, particularly now, are the clients themselves. There is so much courage, perseverance and strength that we see in so many of the women that come into Fitted for Work. We see women from all ethnic backgrounds and of all ages, who have experienced terrible barriers in getting back to work.
The other thing that keeps us inspired is that the service resonates with people around the world. Once you tell the story, people are immediately engaged and find it easier to understand and they then inspire others.
What challenges do you think woman face in corporate life?
There seems to be no real commitment to include women who may want to have a life beyond a corporate life. There is a lot of talk about giving women time off etc., but then they don’t get promoted. I think there is a real cynicism about the reality of women in corporate life.
It is interesting to observe that many women feel that their life in the corporate world is totally lacking in terms of their ability to make a contribution, where they feel that they are making a difference and where they are valued. Many women we meet say, that if they could afford to, they would get out of the corporate life and work for a not-for-profit organisation.
For many women the reality is that if they feel unappreciated in their work and they don’t feel committed to their work.
Change has to be driven from the top. Attitudes have to be changed at the board level and at the CEO level. There has to be an absolute commitment to ensuring that women with skills, be they part time and be they on flexible work arrangements, have the opportunity to progress.
What should organisations be doing to attract, retain and promote women?
There are lessons that can be learned from the public sector. The not-for-profit sector operates effective and efficient services with very limited resources. There is not a cent wasted in a good not-for-profit organisation. If you look at the model of employment practices across the not-for-profit sector, they are value driven organisations, they actually value and appreciate the staff they have.
Do you have a view on targets and quotas?
They are a good way to get started. It gives an organisation something to aim at. There are so many women out there under-utilised – a huge pool of talent that is not being tapped. Targets will force companies to consider women for much higher positions. Once they consider women for these roles, they might notice just how capable the women are.
Do you think women sometimes lack confidence in their abilities?
There seems to be a lack of confidence that many women have that stops them from doing things. The other thing that is interesting is that women wanting to start their own business often have difficulty in accessing capital. Men seem to know how to go about it better. This lack of confidence that many women experience often stops them asking people to invest in them.
What advice would you give to women starting their own business?
Make sure that you have a vision and you’re very clear about your vision and hold true to it. Particularly in the early stages, you have to be opportunistic and grab what comes along. It is also vitally important to get good people around you who you absolutely trust and who understand what you are trying to achieve.
The views expressed in this article are the views of the author, not Ernst & Young.