Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Tapping into start-up thinking

Vodafone exec aims to nurture new ventures with potential for growth
Women working in technology need to be resilient, says Nicole Buisson. Picture / Doug Sherring
Women working in technology need to be resilient, says Nicole Buisson. Picture / Doug Sherring

Technology start-ups bring out Nicole Buisson's creative side.

Even her role as Vodafone's head of new ventures and partnerships, and head of its xone programme, was crafted specifically for the 38-year-old just over a year ago.

"I've never really had a job that existed before -- roles have usually been created," she says.

"Even in what I'm doing now, it's about partnering with start-up businesses and seeing what we can create together."

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Buisson will next month announce the results of a nationwide search that will see up to 10 innovative high-growth companies supported by Vodafone in its new accelerator programme, called xone.

For six months, the first intake into the programme -- one of six that Vodafone runs around the world -- will get a business boost of funding, mentoring and workspace in the company's new Christchurch headquarters.

Buisson's role will focus on nurturing these new ventures in a bid to create innovative products for customers and potentially drive new sources of revenue for Vodafone.

Traditionally, Vodafone has provided the network infrastructure, she says, but her role is to think about what else it can do, given the increasing importance of new revenue streams and new products.

The challenge for telcos is that minutes and data now have a price point, says Buisson, so creating new revenue streams means fresh thinking.

Potentially, the opportunity is bigger than just New Zealand for those companies which are successful in grabbing a place in the xone.

"We really see New Zealand as a testbed for the world," says Buisson.

If we can launch something successfully in Vodafone in New Zealand, you can see there is potential to expand it.
Nicole Buisson

"I think it's a great place to be an entrepreneur -- we're quite entrepreneurial people -- and if we can launch something successfully in Vodafone in New Zealand, you can see there is potential to expand it.

"They often look to us for new innovations from around the world at Vodafone's other op-cos [operating companies]."

Buisson brings a world of experience to the role, having cut her technology teeth in Silicon Valley at the turn of the millennium.

Brought up in a family that valued overseas experience -- her dad's academic career took them on sabbaticals around the world -- she always set her sights on heading abroad, but the traditional London OE wasn't on the cards. Winning an overseas scholarship, she chose to do her final year at Berkeley University at a time when Silicon Valley was abuzz with dotcoms and Google was emerging as the search engine of choice for computer scientists.

"It was a different experience but I was always happy to go somewhere and work and be a part of it rather than doing the backpacking thing, so that was my motivation.

"I wasn't sure I would come back to New Zealand at the end of it, and it was such a vibrant time to be there that I decided to stay."

She jumped into working for a firm that had $6 million in venture capital backing to make the first iteration of web commerce apps.

If you're a young women the advice I would give is don't be afraid to be different.

Then the bubble burst. "Venture capitalists were beginning to realise they had a lot of the same company in their portfolio.

"They were shedding those companies out, so a lot of those companies closed, including the company I was working for."

With three months left on her work visa, a venture capitalist she knew referred her to Ernst & Young's Silicon Valley office, which had a venture capital advisory group.

"So I started to get more of a feel for investing and what you look for in a start-up." Her job was to track the market -- who was getting financing, and identifying the ones that would make great clients.

"We very much had a 'follow the money' approach so those that were getting the most financing from the venture capital community, those with solid management teams, great ideas, market potential -- all of the things that you typically look for in a start-up."

When the Silicon Valley team was being replicated at Ernst & Young's London headquarters, Buisson was scooped up as part of a small team aiming to roll out the Silicon Valley advisory model in other EY locations.

Several jobs later, including roles with investment firm 3i Plc and Carphone Warehouse, Buisson was eyeing her next career move after the Hong Kong-based mobile company she worked for changed ownership.

It was a global search but also an opportunity to bring her two children -- since expanded to three -- back to experience a New Zealand upbringing.

"My belief is New Zealand for young kids is really the best place to be."

The technology industry doesn't have such a fabulous reputation when it comes to women.

Buisson says for women starting out, particularly in Silicon Valley, it's a tough place to be, with very few role models at the top.

"Because there is that lack of role models you need to be quite resilient." Early in your career it can be scary being different, she says, but as you progress you'll realise that point of difference makes you successful.

"If you're a young women the advice I would give is don't be afraid to be different.

"It takes a while to build that confidence but the further you get through your career the more you realise that it's those unique things that are valued."

- NZ Herald

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