From healthcare to fashion to hospitality to marketing, women are showing the world that they have a seat at the table.
And they're not done yet.
Read on to learn about six female entrepreneurs who navigated 2020 with empathy, who started a business from just an idea, and who are inspiring the next generation of leaders.
Adrienne Clark, Founder of Qualified Quacks
Adrienne Clark loves finding soul stories. Whether she’s talking to the ninety-year-old woman in the grocery store or a five-year-old on the playground, the conversation tends to always end up the same — learning about that person’s life.
“All the material things come and go at any point, but the memories that you have, and the experiences that you have, throughout your lifetime — that's what you can take with you,” says Adrienne.
She had been a nurse for 12 years when her disenchantment with the healthcare industry came to a head. “The bureaucracy of healthcare was dictating a patient's health and what kind of care they received,” says Adrienne. “I began to realize that by having nurses overstaffed with patients, things were falling through the cracks and significantly impacting patients’ health. And it was just acceptable that nurses would spend more time at a computer than they really do with the patient. That's not why I went into nursing.”
A single mom of three working 12-hour shifts, that work/life balance was hard enough. But when one of her kids was sick, Adrienne would have to take all three kids to the hospital. It was a struggle, and she knew it was for other people.
She thought, “What if doctors made house calls instead?”
So Adrienne founded Qualified Quacks, a “concierge practice” that doesn’t take insurance. Qualified Quacks provides medical assistance to anyone who needs it, in their home, without the stress of dealing with mounds of paperwork or commuting. As Adrienne puts it, patients shouldn't sacrifice the type of health care that they get because of insurance.
In the beginning, it was just Adrienne and her medical director (now husband). For the first year and a half, Adrienne was the biller, the appointment scheduler, the marketer, and the nurse. Eventually, she grew the staff to 15 nurses, an office manager, and a project manager.
But it wasn’t easy.
“When I said I wanted to go into medicine, that wasn't something the people in my life believed I could do. They said I was a jock — basically I wasn’t smart enough. And, and sadly, I believed it,” admits Adrienne. “It took me a long time to realize that wasn’t true. When I was graduating from Johns Hopkins nursing school, I was sure that somebody would actually say they weren’t sure why I was there to receive my diploma. It took me years into my nursing career to feel confident.”
Adrienne started Qualified Quacks on a prayer and $5,000. And now her practice is 100% debt free.
“I think that it's important to highlight women and the contribution they make to their community,” says Adrienne. “And I don't mean just entrepreneurs. There are women in all roles across life who make a difference.”
“I love my life. The biggest lie we say to people is think outside the box. Because the lie is there is no box — we build a box ourselves, based on what society pressures us into. If you can imagine it, you actually can bring it to fruition. And there will be challenges, but there's a way around or over them.”
“I think that's what International Women's Day is about,” says Adrienne. “Highlighting women in all walks of life to show that you can really make your life what you want it to be, whether it's the CEO of some company, or you know, the most amazing stay-at-home mom who homeschools our kids. And all of them have equal value.”
Toni Webber, Co-Founder, Mr Paisleys
“I like to think I see the beauty in all things — even better when it's got a story or some character,” says Toni Webber, as she crochets and her husband lounges on the couch.
She’s in her element when she’s surrounded by and immersing herself in creativity. From listening to Doris Day and Frank Sinatra to shopping in vintage stores, Toni feels like she can transport to a different era.
Her style is signature. In fact, her style is the influence of Mr. Paisleys retro style. According to Toni, the more color, the better.
Toni founded Mr Paisleys, a healthy, sustainable cafe, with her husband after their children grew up and left the house. She worked in a health food shop for a few years and learned a lot about the human body, gut health, mind, and healing. Her love of food — and healthy food — paired with her husband’s chef and coffee roasting experience gave them the foundation they needed to start Mr Paisleys.
There was a non-negotiable though. Happy staff.
“Our staff are the backbone of Mr P’s,” says Toni. “I believe that the leader sets the pace. Although hospitality generally has a high turnover rate, I wanted to change that, to keep staff as long as possible and support them in their lives. A big thing for me was to ensure that my staff are happy at work, be treated fairly, and support and lift each other up, not down.”
Toni’s ensured that gratitude is embedded in everything they do at Mr Paisleys. All of their dine-in coffees come with a positive affirmation. At the cafe, they want to inspire people with mindful thinking and healthy food. And, Toni says, great retro music helps set the moods too.
Toni and her husband work as a team to keep their business not just running, but flourishing. And in addition to her husband, Toni feels lifted up by her community.
“I’m proud to be part of this amazing tribe called woman,” says Toni. “And the older I get, the easier it is to love who I am and what being a woman stands for. I believe I can do anything.”
To Toni, International Women’s Day is about celebration, empowerment, and support. “I’m a huge believer in women supporting women,” says Toni. “We need to take a step back, take a breath, have compassion, and stop the judgement. When we jump to conclusions and make assumptions, a great question to ask ourselves is ‘what would love do now?’”
That positive thinking has driven Toni to pursue her passions, which are ongoing. “Be brave,” says Toni. “Use the strengths you have and then surround yourself with people that are better than you. This will always push you harder and you will learn from each other. And always give back to your customers, make that extra effort when you can.”
Alexandra Conroy, founder and CEO of Reliant Healthcare
First and foremost, Alexandra Conroy is a person. She’s a mother, a daughter, a sister, and a friend. She’s a sailor, preparing for the Laser World Masters Championship.
And she’s also a founder.
Eight years ago, Alexandra founded Reliant Healthcare to provide independence to people — in whatever form that may mean to them. Reliant is expert in enabling the independence of older people, people living with a disability, and people needing specialized care.
“We offer personal, reliable, and heartfelt care like I'd want for my own family,” says Alexandra. “We have built a solid vision and strategy coupled with compassion, empathy, and high emotional intelligence. I believe that should be every founder's catchcry.”
Compassion and empathy are ingrained in the culture, care, and community at Reliant Healthcare.
“At Reliant, we recognise that people seek out carers at the most vulnerable times of their lives, and regardless of circumstance, it can be an emotional decision to seek help at home,” says Alexandra. “We needed to make that process easy to understand, stimulate a call to action to find out more, and overcome the reluctance of stigma to seek help.”
So the team provides personal attention to those they care for. Alexandra has helped implement streamlined processes so the team can focus their attention where it matters — on their customers.
Alexandra counts herself lucky to be surrounded by women in her life that have helped make her dreams possible.
“For me, International Women's Day provides an opportunity to stop and reflect on the amazing women around me and to also consider the work I need to do to continue to elevate women,” says Alexandra. “I have sought to work with incredible, diverse women who bring their wealth of experience to Reliant. As a young, female CEO, providing opportunities and pathways for education and leadership is a privilege I embrace.”
Alexandra encourages others to not be afraid to be themselves. Getting it right might be trying a lot of different things — you never know what will resonate. And she’s always open for a coffee if anyone wants to connect.
Zoey Henderson, Founder of Fungtn
Zoey Henderson has been in advertising, worked as a plant-based chef, and founded a juice bar and a coffee shop. Now she’s currently working on a diploma in naturopathic nutrition.
Her last formal role was Operations Director of a plant-based restaurant group and after being in the hospitality industry for years, took that knowledge and began consulting in the mindful drinking space.
Then in 2020, amidst a global pandemic, Zoey founded Fungtn, the UK's first range of adaptogenic non-alcoholic beers. Fungtn is a 0.5% craft beer range with a difference — vegan, gluten-free, and brewed with functional mushrooms.
“I was just waiting for the right inspiration at the right time,” says Zoey. “This time last year, I was sitting in my garden on my laptop, trying to think about what I was going to do. I was never a beer drinker, but I started drinking non-alcoholic beer because I loved the taste. (minus the hangover) Interestingly the profiles of hops are really similar to functional mushrooms, which are earthy, nutty, bitter, sweet. They have a really interesting flavor complex, which pairs perfectly with hops.”
So it was a mixture of Zoey’s background, her lifestyle, and a lockdown that inspired her to start her own brand.
It wasn’t without challenges though.
“I had connections who would sell my product in their establishment, but with lockdown, no one was open onsite. So I had to go straight to Direct to Consumer and use online channels. Funding was also a big challenge but I knew that this was the perfect time to launch this type of product. I saw the gap in the market and I decided not to wait until I raised money. I managed to get a government-supported startup loan and then put in my own funding with a few spare credit cards. I wanted to prove the concept and then raise it as soon as possible.
Zoey believes in a more sustainable, planet-forward mindset. She thinks there are some really exciting opportunities for society to change what and how we consume. If people change their daily habits for the better then suddenly, the picture doesn't look so bad.
“The future is looking more multi-colored,” says Zoey. “It's looking more female-led. We need to continue to encourage women to support women. Because if we create a positive space for the next generation of girls that are growing up, I really see that there's unlimited potential of what they can do.”
“Go with your gut,” Zoey encourages. “If you're sitting at your desk each day thinking you want to do something else or you’ve had a dream to do something, do it. There’s something deeply ingrained in women’s psyche that tells us we’re not good enough.”
Zoey’s a solo founder. No team, no partner, no one to share the work.
Fungtn is going into its first fundraising round, in two steps. An equity raise to bring onboard smart investment and a rewards-based raise to open the brand to the community and raise through crowdfunding. If you’d like to support the brewery and the work that Zoey is doing, you can learn more and join the crowd here.
Tracey Whittaker, Founder and Managing Director of Twentieth Letter
Her plan was to become a psychologist.
Always interested in human behavior, Tracey Whittaker thought that was a logical career choice when entered Sydney University to start her Bachelor of Arts majoring in Psychology. Fast forward a little over 25 years, and she’s not working as a psychologist or even in the medical field. But she’s definitely using that degree.
Tracey spent 15 of those years working with large property companies before leaving the corporate world to start her own business.
She founded Twentieth Letter, an end-to-end marketing and communications company, in the second bedroom of her home. It started as a single-woman consultancy but has grown over the past 12 years to a team of experts in marketing, activation, and promotion for public and retail precincts, airports, marinas, shopping centres, development projects, and construction companies.
“We’re a team of specialists who support our clients with strategies and marketing plans,” says Tracey. “We execute across traditional marketing, digital and social media, creative and design, events and activations, and we also offer promotional staffing.”
While at work she exudes an extroverted personality, Tracey’s really more of a homebody, preferring to be with family, gardening, cooking, and having time outdoors with her partner and their dogs. She’s balancing a successful career, a fulfilling personal life which includes planning her wedding, and over the past year, dealing with the industry repercussions of COVID-19.
“Obstacles come in various shapes and sizes and some of mine are external and others internal,” says Tracey. “Being the owner of a business is in itself challenging — staffing, compliance, regulatory requirements, cash flow, business growth — and now COVID. These will always keep you up a little later than you’d like each night.”
Tracey believes in balancing idealistic business growth with sensible reality. And the only way to overcome obstacles in business is to surround yourself with people you can trust and to outsource to experts. In fact, a big lesson for Tracey was that she can’t do everything herself.
“And at times in my career, I’ve really had to focus on my own mental health and work with professionals so that I can be my best, healthy self,” says Tracey. “Conversations about stress and mental health have to become the norm amongst business owners. As a team, it is something that we focus on daily. Our new shared office even has a meditation room.”
Most importantly, says Tracey, is the principle of being frank and fearless. To acknowledge the issue at hand, to have the conversations (even if they are with yourself!), and to remain focused on an outcome.
“International Women’s Day is a chance for women to lead the agenda,” believes Tracey. “A chance for conversations to occur about the diverse range of issues which the diverse spectrum of women face every day. What this does is allows us to pause for thought and importantly to develop plans of action collaboratively across all gender identities.”
Mary Saunders, Co-Founder of For Days
Mary Saunders has always been passionate about clothing — the feeling you get from putting together an outfit, the creativity that goes into design, and the impact clothes can have on a person.
But not all of those impacts were positive.
“As my career progressed, I began to become aware of the negative implications of the fashion industry,” says Mary. “There was a ton of waste in this space, especially inefficiency around inventory.”
She had been in the fashion industry for 15 years when she and her co-founder decided to change the industry and founded For Days.
For Days is the destination for closed-loop commerce, meaning that they don’t just sell clothes. They also buy it all back. For Days creates 100% organic cotton basics, and then buys products back from customers for credit towards your future purchases. Then, For Days takes that fabric and material and upcycles it into a new product.
Mary’s career is an extension of the things that she cares about. “I’m passionate about and feel a responsibility to push the world forward and make the industry a little bit better,” says Mary.
She’s also balancing a booming fashion career with her career as a mom of a two-month-old son. She juggles two a.m. feedings with last-minute work emails and production questions. And she’s making ground-breaking advances with her team at work.
“Our team is almost a hundred percent women, including at our warehouse, which is rare,” says Mary. “Everyone is passionate about the mission. We all individually get excited about the work that we're doing every day and are very willing to work very hard to make that mission come to life.”
Being an entrepreneur, Mary believes you need to look inward a lot.
“As a lot of it ends up falling on your shoulders to create something that's never existed before, it can be a challenge,” Mary admits. “But what's beautiful is when you come through the other side and you realize you’re much stronger than you knew you were.”
In the fashion industry, most of the consumers, the producers, and the supply chain are women. But as you move up the ranks, there are fewer and fewer women, especially at the executive and board levels.
“I believe that if products are being sold to women, they should also be led by and created by women,” says Mary. “It's something that I've always wanted to push forward. When I think about International Women's Day, it's about celebrating the unique strengths of women and what can women bring to the table that can help push things forward and lead into the future.”