Inspirational Women: Emma Isaacs
Each week, SHESAID features an inspiring woman who has been kind enough to share her story with our readers. She might be a leader in her chosen field, someone still on their own path striving to make a difference or simply someone with a remarkable story to tell. These women contribute their own knowledge, expertise and life lessons in order to truly inspire others.
Name and role:
Emma Isaacs, CEO of Business Chicks, Australia’s largest community for women
What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
My role is CEO which means I inspire my team to do better, and I agitate for change and growth. I start most of my sentences with ‘What if we could …’ I have a lot of ideas, and it’s my job to keep my people and my community alive and awake to my vision of building a truly global network of women who support each other and want more for themselves and their lives. In a team of 30 people, I currently have four direct reports and my time is spent developing them so that they can in turn lead their teams effectively. I’m a natural leader, but a very ordinary manager so I try to stay top-line and let them focus on execution. I also drive the culture of the company – the employee experience is every bit as important to me as our customer experience.
When did you know this is what you wanted to do as a career?
I was always an adventurous and inquisitive child (might be the first born thing, if you believe in birth order biases.) I had my first business when I was seven years old! I’d gather all the kids in my street together in our backyard and ask them to go and bring back some money from their parents. I’d then go and buy lollies and we’d distribute them into smaller packages and then sell them back to the parents at an inflated price.
I always knew I wanted to be successful, and I figured that if I began early, I’d get the head start I needed. My next door neighbour had a restaurant so I begged her to give me a job – I think I started the day I turned 14 and 9 months (or perhaps a bit before!). While my friends partied, I worked every Friday and Saturday night and took every shift offered to me. I never resented it. There was no ‘a-ha’ moment of realising I had to be my own boss. It was never an ambition of mine. It just happened in that serendipitous way that all things that are meant to be happen.
You are only 35 and have already managed to take two businesses and transform them into extremely prosperous companies. What drove you to take on these projects at such a young age?
Perhaps I was born an entrepreneur, as somehow I knew that the conventional career path wasn’t for me. I spent six months at university but quickly realised that it wouldn’t get me where I wanted to be. At the age of 18, I joined a recruitment company, and a few months later was a 50% shareholder. I didn’t do it to become an entrepreneur or a business owner – I didn’t really even know what those two things meant. I did it to create, which is still what drives me today – the notion of not knowing where you’ll end up, but knowing that if somehow you can get your mindset right, it’ll be a heck of a journey with lots of cool experiences and learnings along the way.
Did you have a mentor? Who helped you to get your career of the ground?
My first experience of having a mentor was through a structured mentoring program when I was in the early stages of my first business. I was a young entrepreneur and the woman I was paired with couldn’t have been any more different to me, which ultimately was the most effective matching I could have hoped for. She’d grown significant businesses with market caps of over $100m and was tough and strict. She lifted me to new levels of leadership and had me question my effectiveness and strengths, teaching me many important lessons, such as the need to develop delegation skills which I’ve taken throughout my entire career. Since then I’ve had mentors through other structured programs, and also through my own relationships – I’ve learned something different from each of the entrepreneurs and business leaders who I’ve worked with and make a point to keep in touch with them.
What were the stumbling blocks, initially getting started and since then?
Business Chicks wasn’t my first business, so I’d had the chance to cut my entrepreneurial teeth a lot earlier than that. But growing Business Chicks was a unique learning experience in that it was unchartered territory, and in a lot of ways we were creating a category (and still are!). We struggled with all the traditional problems that plague start-ups: at the beginning we were probably underfunded and definitely under-resourced – there were great learnings but I’m happy to have moved on from those days!
How did you overcome these?
I don’t think I overthought it. I think that’s where a lot of people go wrong – getting stuck in analysis and not taking action. For me, I just saw a job that needed to be done. I didn’t wallow or give time to whether I’d be able to do it or not – I just gave it a shot. I don’t think I consciously knew I could make it a huge success, but I must have had some subconscious thinking that led me to keep going. And once you’ve gotten through the start up phase, and you’ve built a solid foundation of people, practises and profits, the rest is relatively easy.
You have 4 beautiful children, how do you find juggling being a mother and successful businesswomen?
It’s akin to being on a roller coaster – you just hold on tight and enjoy the ride! It’s amazing what we’re capable of as women. Before I had children, I would have never believed there was enough time in the day or enough energy in my body to juggle a business which supports over 35,000 women across Australia and has achieved a 40% growth rate for the past few years, as well as raise four children.
I’ve learnt to let go of striving for perfection and feeling guilty. I just try to do my best and be kind to myself. My secret is outsourcing everything. I don’t do housework and I get great people around me in my business and in my home that enjoy working with us, and can handle the pace! I’ve tried every conceivable make-up of help from live-in au pairs through to grandparents through to daycare and full-time nannies and when it works, life is great.
Through Business Chicks you have met some of the worlds most influential leaders, visionaries and entrepreneurs. How do you take on their advice and implement it? Is there anyone in particular who has resonated with you?
I learn something from every visionary we bring to the Business Chicks stage, but Dr Brené Brown immediately comes to mind. Her TED talk has been viewed over 17 million times and something she said stuck with me: “Vulnerability isn’t weakness, it’s our best measure of courage.” I always practice being as vulnerable, open and transparent as I can, and the more you flex the vulnerability muscle, the stronger it becomes! I also adored working with Arianna Huffington, and loved how she said “There’s no bigger networking skill than being a giver.” As a person who is constantly connecting others and doing favours for people, this really resonated with me. Diane von Furstenberg, Julia Gillard, Sir Richard Branson, Rachel Zoe and Sir Bob Geldof have also left lasting impacts on me.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I feel really grateful to be able to do the work I do. Business Chicks is now Australia’s largest community for women and it’s a privilege to serve our members. I feel really strongly about supporting women to be their best, to play a bigger game, and ultimately back themselves and support others along the way. When you have access to 35,000 high achieving women, inspiration is not hard to find!
What are your goals for the future?
At the moment our main focus is our expansion into the US, as we launch there in July 2015. We want to create a strong footprint in the US and then ultimately take the offering to Europe and Asia too.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow the same path as you?
Go for it! There is no more rewarding ‘career’ than being an entrepreneur.
Image via emmaisaacs.com