Retail, Innovation and Manufacturing reporter for the NZ Herald

Theresa Gattung's new bag: Helping women help women

She already has an impressive resume: Eight years heading Telecom, then co-founding My Food Bag and now Theresa Gattung is at work on a fresh venture.

Gattung's next big thing is a venture capital scheme which aims to raise money from women, for women entrepreneurs.

Having been that very rare thing - a female leading a New Zealand publicly listed company - Gattung says she has dealt with the issues that come with being a woman at the top.

The catalyst for her latest campaign came after attending a conference in the US last year, called Emerging Women.

It was there that she met entrepreneur Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO, a start-up that aims to be a major source of funding for the next generation of female entrepreneurs.

Saunders' idea is based on having communities of women investing into a venture capital fund, which can then be used to support other female-led businesses.

The model is based on 1000 women investing $1000 each to provide $1 million in funding for 10 start-ups. Saunders plans to have the model running in 1000 cities and Gattung is determined make Auckland one of them.

"There are already one or two smaller venture capital funds or groups of women in New Zealand but this is on a much greater scale," Gattung says.

"And it's not just wealthy women who have big lumps of money to put in, it's open to anyone who has $1000.

"I really like that aspect of it and the underlying philosophy, which is to stop asking permission and to say, we can do it ourselves and create the billions of dollars required ourselves."

The 54-year-old says she has always been passionate about supporting women in business and in fighting for equal opportunity.

Alongside her honours in business, Gattung did women's studies, something she describes as unusual now and unheard of 30 years ago.

While her latest campaign may seem slightly left field, Gattung sees it as a natural progression.

"This is lifelong for me. I've always been a feminist," Gattung says.

"I've funded women's causes since I got my first job and I've always felt an affinity with this issue, so choosing to do something in this area is completely consistent with how I live my life."

This is lifelong for me. I've always been a feminist.
Theresa Gattung

While companies are increasing the ratio of women to men in the workplace, and in senior leadership roles, this shift is still happening far too slowly, she says.

According to research by US firm First Round Capital, which helped fund the likes of Uber and financial services company Square, while women start companies at twice the rate of men globally, female chief executives receive just 2.7per cent of all venture funding.

In 1999, 10 per cent of venture capitalists were women, today this has dropped to 6 per cent.

It was those statistics that inspired Saunders to stop waiting for the world to change and set up her own model to help fund female entrepreneurs, through an organisation funded by women.

According to Saunders, women control about 39 per cent of financial assets in the US, around US$11 trillion ($15.3t).

While there have been similar ideas before, Gattung says it has not been done on such a global scale.

Although the project is largely focused on the US, Gattung says replicating the model in Auckland would be easier in some ways.

"This would likely get going faster in New Zealand because it's a very well-networked community, and women are not the minority, they are half," she says.

"I love the idea of creating a business where you can have this huge impact and do it effectively through networks of women," she says. "I'm really keen to see if we can do this and if it will create a lasting shift that New Zealand would be proud of."

Gender equality and diversity have long been issues in business, with discussions about whether to implement gender ratio targets or policies to ensure a higher proportion of women on boards and in the workplace.

According to Gattung, one of the main barriers involves unconscious biases and she offers orchestras as an example.

Worldwide, the proportion of women in orchestras was as low as 17 per cent, she says, prompting many major groups to start conducting auditions behind a curtain, where the player could be heard but not seen.

Since this move, the number of women in orchestras has jumped.

Since Gattung left Telecom in 2007, there have been few female chief executives of NZ publicly listed companies, and there are none among the top 50.

Although she says she doesn't believe women necessarily have to sacrifice more to get into business leadership positions, it isn't easy.

"First of all, you have to be incredibly determined," Gattung says. "I was incredibly determined; I chose not to have children. I have a very supportive partner and had a wonderful team around me and wonderful bosses. And I had a good dose of luck as well as just being so driven and so determined, and you do have to have that if you choose that life."

As part of the project, Gattung is also launching a female-focused conference next year in Auckland, and has already pulled together an impressive list of women speakers, including Saunders.

The conference will see 500 women come together for three days at Viaduct Event Centre.

Although she is underwriting the project herself, Gattung has a number of major businesses supporting her, including Fletcher Building, Spark, Westpac, BNZ and KPMG among others.
The aim is to inspire each other and to discuss issues around business, education and health.

"I got inspired when I went to this conference," Gattung says. "It was about a third women from corporations, a third commercial entrepreneurs and a third what you would call social entrepreneurs but there was no separation made. We were all just women supporting each other and working together. I came back and decided this was something we could do in New Zealand."

Will her new fund accept money from men? Stay tuned. That, and other details, such as who will manage the operation, are still to be worked out.

- NZ Herald

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