Meet Michelle Chee, Program Manager and Mentor at Cicada Innovations

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the accomplished Michelle Chee, Program Manager and Mentor at Cicada Innovation’s  in Episode 2 of the Pop Perceptions podcast. Michelle talks about her career progression from ‘vanilla’ high school student to internships in a global Med Tech firm being based in Bangalore, India at the age of 22 years old. An internship at the U.N. and more recently her work at Australia’s Leading Deep Tech Incubator. This conversation is an honest and frank account of a career path that began with a Bachelor of Science, with great insights and advice for those unsure of their career direction and interested in making a difference in the new world of work.

Podcast Transcript

Bec McIntosh: Welcome to Michelle Chee Program Manager and Mentor at Cicada Innovations . Some maybe familiar with Cicada Innovations in its previous incarnation of ATP Innovations, Australia’s leading Deep Tech Accelerator, so welcome to the show Michelle.

Michelle Chee: Thank you so much Bec for having me.

Bec McIntosh: It’s a pleasure! So let’s take it back in time to the high school years, what were you excelling at school. What were the things that you were doing, at school.

Michelle Chee: Well, in terms of academia I was pretty vanilla, not very exciting to be honest. I did a language, I studied Japanese, I did biology, chemistry. Chemistry is really interesting, I had a fantastic teacher which sparked by attention there. Even though I wasn’t the best performing student she had a profound impact on me. But, during my high school years I did a lot of music. I has classical guitar lessons and was in the ensemble. I was in the choir, did singing lessons and I felt like quite a creative person and I really enjoyed that. Thinking back I really should have applied myself more, I think it was great. Something to note in high school is that I didn’t really enjoy it in general. I went to an all girls catholic high school and I guess I felt I really didn’t feel like I fitted in anywhere. I was the quiet one in the library not really outside talking about sport or dresses, or things like that. Something that seemed to consume the interest of others at the time.

Bec McIntosh: And did that sense of belonging change when you went to university?

Michelle Chee: Definitely

Bec McIntosh: And so the path led to a Bachelors of Science. Where did the thought processes come about in terms of you looking towards a career path in the area of Science.

Michelle Chee: So again, looking back it was that chemistry teacher that really inspired me and at this point in time I knew I wanted to to something important, or something with impact. I really did not know what was. I thought at the time, what is a problem that I face? Growing up I have had various skin issues so I thought I would study chemistry and be a chemist and work in a big corporate like L’oreal However, as I went through it things changed dramatically, particularly in the middle of my Bachelors.

Bec McIntosh: Was that a thought ‘beyond the bench’, that you were going to step ‘outside’. Was there any particular guest speakers that came in that opened your eyes to a different world beyond the lab?

Michelle Chee: No, what I found during my Science degree was that I wasn’t enjoying it that much. I found it interesting in terms of how it could be applied to technology and impact in that way. But actually doing the science, I didn’t really fit in and I didn’t enjoy it that much. It was a little bit isolating and I loved talking to people. So I thought I’m not seeing myself working in a lab down the track. So I was half way through and I thought I just need to finish this because it would be a waste if I completely changed and it wouldn’t make sense either. I didn’t know what I wanted to do if if wasn’t science so I thought, just finish your Bachelor of Science and figure out what you should do next.

Bec McIntosh: And during your Bachelor’s you went overseas to China and experienced life in another country. What was that like? Was that your first time you had been overseas?

Michelle Chee: No, the first time I went overseas was in Grade 12 (the final year of high school) for a NASA competition. We had to create a space settlement. That really opened my eyes and that was fun and meeting other students from around the world, working this big project and not sleeping from 48hrs. It was incredible, it was so fun.

Bec McIntosh: An early introduction to startups?

Michelle Chee: Exactly.

Bec McIntosh: Maybe that was where the seed was planted?

Bec McIntosh: Towards the end of your Bachelors, there was a point where you secured a very competitive opportunity from the Queensland Government through Trade and Investment Queensland A cadetship which took you to Bangalore, India. Can you tell us a bit about the process for getting into that program and what it was like in that process?

Michelle Chee: The one thing I did know at the end of my degree was that I wanted to go overseas. I was hooked on travelling and wanted to get out of Brisbane. I guess I didn’t appreciate Brisbane at the time. Now I love it but it was a bit too slow for me and I wanted more and I thought overseas was the best thing. I was so obsessed with this idea of being overseas. I didn’t really care what job it was.I just looked at every single opportunity I could find and I came across this international business cadetship and it sounded like it was tailored to people who studied business but it said it was open to all graduates from all fields, so I thought, why not? I applied and I put in a lot of effort and I actually got a call and they said you have made it to the next round. What I didn’t realise that was, out of about 250 applicants only 4 people had science degrees, the rest had international business, so I really stood out from that perspective. Also what I didn’t know is that one of the corporate sponsors was a medical device company. They saw the value in having someone from a scientific background to go on this cadetship and do a project.
It was a laborious interview process. I did everything I could possibly imagine to get this job. I researched to the nth degree about the economics of India. Talking to former trade ministers, if I could to prepare myself. I would have this little book and I would write my notes in detail. And I guess it wouldn’t have happened, if I hadn’t put in that hard work.

Bec McIntosh: There was hard work in the application but then, eyes open, on the ground in Bangalore, a youthful 22 year old in a research project with a lot of responsibility in a medical device company. How did that feel in the first couple of weeks?

Michelle Chee: Going there I felt proud and I felt I had made it, it was so exciting. I landed and then India just hits you in the face in all sorts of ways and all senses. From the smells to the sounds and the sights and culturally just so different and the way you get treated as well amongst all of that is quite profound. I struggled a lot as I was working fine, but I didn’t have a good support network. Naturally I would try and find some friends and as a 22 year old female in India, it was really hard to find friends and a support network to feel like I really fit in and enjoy that aspect of it. It was hard, a lot of other people working in India were older men, expats. It’s not a group of people you want to hang out with all the time. It taught me a lot about myself and it actually broke me towards the end to be really honest because it was that isolating. It was hard from a mental perspective. Travelling, you had to plan it out. It wasn’t so easy in India, so I think that was a pivotal point in my life where I got off my high horse and really felt vulnerable for the first time.

Bec McIntosh: Those types of experiences are often a turning point as to where you look to next. You have had the opportunity through proving your aptitude to secure a grad role in a multinational company. What did it feel like moving from someone who needed to prove themselves in an internship did you feel you had done that in your internship and you just needed to forge a path?

Michelle Chee: It was great that I produced something that Cook Medical were happy with and hence they took me on and they had bigger plans for me. I started off doing enterprise risk as an in between role and that was something a bit funny for me. When they were ready a few months later I was transitioned into the Research and Development Team. I had a great boss, Dr Samih Nabulsi and I’m still talking to him now, which is great. He had a vision of building a new technologies team to go scout around the Asia Pacific for new ideas and concepts that clinicians have and research that was going on at universities and could be applied at Cook Medical and the products there. There was no such team that existed and I was charged with building that from scratch and really it was a blank slate and that was really fun. Through that experience I learnt that I really loved to build things, so I set up all the processes. I did a lot of relationship building, not just with the hospitals and the universities but internally as well because when you work for such a huge company you can, kind of operate in silos between departments. I had to go in there and pull the right stakeholders in and really pull them on board to this project to make sure it was a success.

Bec McIntosh: And in order to do that, that is quite a sophisticated communications skill set. When you talk about your time at high school you were on of the quieter people in the class. Did that change over time when you felt more comfortable in a role or where you in a place where you had just found your rhythm you found the things that really clicked with you?

Michelle Chee: I think that I hadn’t found my rhythm yet but it was a stepping stone. For me, to be able to speak to more people and be really comfortable with that is because I had a very specific task or objective in front of me. That was the thing that I needed to achieve so if that meant that I had to talk to a lot of people, then, yeah, I was fine talking to a lot of people. But at that time I still had not found comfort within myself. To be natural about that but it was a stepping stone.

Bec McIntosh: How long did role in building out this team in Cook Medical take, because there was a point in the future where you decided the path was going to look a little different for you.

Michelle Chee: It started off with only two of us co-designing this program. And then it grew to 5, 5 of us actually doing that. Our processes were working well, I was also working with this particular clinician on developing his technology and taking that through the different R & D stage gates and that was fun. But it did start to become a bit routine and I was still hungry to learn more so I thought I’m going to study a Masters. I chose to do a Masters of Finance, now it was really different to what I studied in my Bachelors.But I think that’s the reason why I decided to take it, because I could see the value of studying finance as well. To be able to speak to non-scientific people, people who weren’t engineers to bridge that gap because I saw that in my role as a technology scout. How do you bring the scientists and the engineers to talk to the business people and have a common language? So that’s why I chose to do finance.

Bec McIntosh: In that Finance Masters there were other opportunities that you took advantage of including a study abroad period to France. What was it like in the European scene. Were you exposed, I mean Universities can often have a different feel to the ‘real world. Were you able to tap into the MedTech scene over there and get a bit of exposure?

Michelle Chee: There wasn’t a lot of Med Tech, I guess, things that I was related to however, it’s a private business school that I attended, one of the top 3 Business School’s in France and they talk quite differently. The Professors worked in industry for a while so they had that industry knowledge and it was very, very practical. It was a little less academic then you would traditionally think from an established university. There was lot of group working with Europeans and that was fun and it was hard mentally but very rewarding in the end.

Bec McIntosh: Coming back to little old Brisbane, Australia and winding up that Masters of Finance. Where were you looking to next? You had done a little bit of Europe, but the scene was a bit immature. You had explored a bit of Asia. Where did the path lead next?

Michelle Chee: At this point the same calling happened. I just want to make an impact and I still wasn’t really sure of how I was going to make that impact, but I think naturally the most default thing people think of is working for an NGO working to help disadvantaged communities. And so I went down that path to explore that and I did an internship in the United Nations in Thailand, in Bangkok. I realised though I couldn’t change the world as a little intern in this huge bureaucratic, slow moving organisation so that wasn’t going well. But my head was still in that ‘help disadvantaged communities’. I had a friend who was living in Myanmar and we met at the United Nations. Myanmar had recently opened up in terms of their economy to the global world and I thought well, and I thought well, I’d be part of the grass roots movement there to build their communities, so I spent some time in Myanmar and again realised my skill sets did not match the kinds of jobs of what the NGO’s really needed there. And so I came back to Brisbane and on the flight back I connected with Petra Andren who is the current CEO of Cicada Innovations. I sent her a message and I was like, Petra, I loved working with you in my days at Cook Medical. I am just wrapping up my Masters now and looking for new opportunities. Is there anything at Cicada? By chance she was like, yes, please apply now. we are actually looking at growing the team. So it was really good timing in terms of that.

Bec McIntosh: As Australia’s leading Deep Tech Accelerator it offers something very special and niche in the Australian startup scene. It offers with an opportunity to work with clinicians, founders, investors. There is a fantastic network surrounding the accelerator. I suppose that brings you so much closer to the ‘impact’ in terms of the change, being at the front line of impact when you are working with founders and you get to travel in those founders shoes. Tell us a little bit about your role as a mentor?

Michelle Chee: Definitely I feel like I am able to create the impact, not directly, but indirectly through the founders and you get to travel in those founder shoes and they are working on some amazing things. I guess I should give a little context about Cicada because it is a big beast and it will probably give you more of a sense of what I actually do. We run our accelerator and pre-accelerator in Med Tech (Medical Technologies) and also Ag Tech (agricultural technologies). Then we have the incubator, so after we have created and validated businesses through this program we can nurture these startups over a longer period of time and provide tailored mentoring for them for up to 5 years. Now this is critical for Deep Tech, because Deep Tech takes a lot longer to get to market and a lot more capital. It’s not like your digital apple marketplace where you can scale that really fast and quickly. There is a lot of testing hardware involved there is a lots of regulatory barriers you need to jump through and also manufacturing to scale. That is why we have a pipeline to be able to serve these deep tech founders about different stages of the journey. So my day to day involvement might be meeting with these startups regularly. That might be daily that might be weekly and delivering some of the content for the program we run as well, how do articulate your value proposition to, how do your properly structure an investment pitch and how do I build a financial model? I am a generalist across all these areas and always be able to educate founders on these topics. But also when a level of knowledge needs to go a lot deeper or they need professional advice, make the right introductions to those people and we have a wide network there.

Bec McIntosh: In working with the founders you have developed quite a sophisticated skill set not only in the journey of a startup founder but also in the quite challenging area in the regulatory environment of working with medical technologies. Where does the path lead for you now? Have you been bitten by the startup bug? Is there inspiration you have sought seeing some of the problems trying to be solved? Have you thought you would jump into a role in a startup? Which side of the fence does the path lead? Have you seen that journey and understand the depth of their soul the founders are giving to their startup and think impact can happen more in a broader sense working with founders rather than as a founder?

Michelle Chee: The last thing you mentioned.

Bec McIntosh: That was s very long winded question, apologies for that.

Michelle Chee: You have seen that journey I think we all have seen it. It is a really long journey of a founder, and I congratulate them for taking that wild ride of entrepreneurship, because it’s not easy. It is a really fine balance of being confident about what you are doing or about being yourself and not being a dick about it. But for me in the future, at the moment I am not trying to plan too far ahead, I am at a stage now where I really feel I am comfortable in my own skin and I not that sky girl anymore in high school. I feel I can accept myself for who I am and I’m not going to to the best at everything and I think my journey up until now from a career perspective has been, I have to be the best, I have to be exceptional to be noticed, I have to know everything. That’s actually quite tiring and exhausting and it’s not who anyone is because none of us know everything and are perfect and I think now I have been really able to accept that and now in my role at Cicada there is plenty to do Building a new maker space, designing a new hardware program, I am really enjoying that now and finding that challenging and I think this is going to keep me very busy for a while. So I’m no planning too far in advance.

Bec McIntosh: For aspiring Bachelor of Science students who are looking to develop a career working alongside founders in the Medical Technologies space. What kind of advice would you provide them about how to build the right skills and characteristics to secure a role?

Michelle Chee: I would say, never turn down an opportunity even if you feel you don’t know how to do that or achieve that, just take it. Don’t just stay inside your scientific world, branch out, talk to the business students or look for experience where you can peer into the business world so you become more well rounded. Don’t be afraid to cold call someone, to reach out over the phone, to reach out for help or you want to find out about their experiences or what is available? It has worked for me and if you don’t try then, you will just never know. Just go for it!

Bec McIntosh: Having come to this point in your career. Thinking back to how you felt as teenager around the age of 15 years old. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you provide to your 15 year old self?

Michelle Chee: Talk to a lot of people and ask advice but don’t necessarily take that advice. If you listen to yourself, I think, you can’t do yourself wrong. The thing is your values and aspirations are going to change over time and that’s ok. I also want to elaborate on talk to people to get advice but don’t necessarily take the advice. I remember I was told at the end of my Bachelor of Science, you have to do an Honours program or you’re never going to get a job. I was actually quoted that by someone. I also remember I was at a careers fair and I as looking at a company in the infrastructure and I approached the person there saying, I am interested, can you tell me about it. I actually got looked up and down and they said, we don’t really look for girls, we look for men who are more suited to the job. I walked away at that point and you just listen to your drive and if something doesn’t feel right, then walk away.

Bec McIntosh: Michelle Chee, it has been an absolute pleasure, so exciting to talk to you today and hear how your career path has sky rocketed and I look forward to keeping in touch and seeing where the next 5 to 10 years will take you. Thank you Michelle

Michelle Chee: Great, thank you so much Bec.

Anna Robson CEO of Refugee Talent

Anna Robson and Bec McIntosh recording the Podcast Pop PerceptionsIn the first ever Pop Perceptions podcast launched on International Women's Day 2018 we #PushforProgress highlighting the stories of amazing women over the next 5 weeks, because you can be what you can see. In our first episode we interview Anna Robson, CEO of Refugee Talent. Anna is a pleasure to talk to, her passion to help refugees lights up every aspect of her work. Providing refugees with employment opportunities is one of the most important social levers for migrants through facilitating a community connection, a sense of belonging, role modelling in the family and feeling valued by delivering value through your work. While Anna is literally changing lives everyday with her co-founder Niari, the platform Refugee Talent has over 250 employers on the books providing paid employment. As CEO she juggles business development, strategic and financial planning, recruitment, sales and the occasional marketing brochure, all in a days work. Anna's relaxed approach belies the steely determination of someone hell bent to change the world. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did. It's the story one women and a refugee changing the world, one job at a time.

Podcast Transcript Episode 1
Welcome to Pop Perceptions, we are here today with the fabulous CEO of Refugee Talent, Anna Robson. We will be talking about your career and how it has grown….from little things big things grow. Let’s take it right back to the start where did you grow up and what was it like growing up as a child in the area you came from?

Anna Robson: I was born in country Victoria, Australia in Sale and a few years later moved to Melbourne. Went to school for a few years there and then my family moved to Brisbane. So I really grew up in Brisbane. It was a great place to grow up. Lot’s of outdoors and sports. Mainly sport was the main thing I did growing up. I really loved team sports: hockey, soccer and volleyball. I pretty much played every sport at high school and that was my life.

Bec McIntosh: Awesome, so team building skills right from the start. Was it just you and you family or did you have any brothers or sisters?

Anna Robson: I had a sister and my parents divorced when I was about 12 or 13 years old, as many people have experienced. In can be a turbulent time. It really makes you mature and I felt I was quite mature as a kid. I was good at chatting to adults and good at chatting to people older than myself through that experience. And no I have 4 step brothers as well but we didn’t really grow up together, but we have a big extended family now.

Bec McIntosh: So Christmas’s are big at your house?

Anna Robson: Two lot’s of Christmas’s

Bec McIntosh: Primary School to High School. 12 was when your parents split up as you were moving into high school. Tricky time for all kids when they are making that big step up. What was high school like for you? Did you have a good time and kept on playing team sports?

Anna Robson: Yes I think I threw myself into study and sports and I think I just had a packed schedule. Every afternoon you have something and on the weekend, play sport. I think like everyone you feel like you didn’t fit in and you are finding that place where you fit. But I enjoyed it. I played hockey, basketball. I just loved it, I enjoyed being part of a team and that’s where I thrived the most.

Bec McIntosh: Did you take that love of sports into your subjects? What kind of subjects did you do in Grade 11 and 12.

Anna Robson: P.E (physical education) was my favourite subject and I studied legal studies and business. I took the easiest Maths I could because it wasn’t my forte. Really sports and business where the ones I loved the most in Grade 11 and 12.

Bec McIntosh: In Grade 11 and 12 where you doing any community work at that stage or where you chockers with a full sports schedule?

Anna Robson: I didn’t really do any community work, just sports and study. I was a bit more quiet at school, I just kept to myself. I wasn’t an, ‘out there’ leader. I didn’t have the confidence then. People at school would probably say I was quiet and kept to myself.

Bec McIntosh: Coming into Grade’s 11 and 12 what were your thoughts about where you wanted to go and where the future path would lead for you?

Anna Robson: My goals at that time was to be a professional sports player.

Bec McIntosh: Woah, awesome! Was there any particular sports?

Anna Robson: Hockey or tennis were my favourites but then I finished school and started playing rugby. I made it to the high levels there and that was my goal. I made it to sevens at one point.

Bec McIntosh: Awesome, geez you must have been pretty quick that is a fast game.

Anna Robson: Yes Sevens is fast but I had too many injuries. I had a knee reconstruction and a shoulder reconstruction

Bec McIntosh: And what age was that?

Anna Robson: I had a knee one at 19 and the shoulder at 21 so that kinda killed my sporting ambition and career so I still had a love of sports so I studied sports at uni.

Bec McIntosh: With your sports degree you also did business, the subject from high school.

Anna Robson: Yes, I did a double degree. Initially it was human movement and business specialising in Accounting and while I was at uni I worked for an Accountant. I was like, I definitely don’t want to do that for the rest of my life! My course was anatomy and that side, but then I moved to Canberra and found a Sports Coaching and Sports Management degree, so a little bit more of a sports focus.

Bec McIntosh: With the degree and the influences you had in your course were you thinking about doing sports management or thinking about elite coaching?

Anna Robson: Well, lucky Canberra is a smaller town and I got an internship with the Canberra Raiders. So my next goal was working in elite sport and went on and did a sports science internship with them and more doing altitude training. Getting the GPS information and analysing the data of the activity they did each week which I was really interested in at the time. But then working in that elite sports environment, I just didn’t find it as rewarding as it could be so I thought lets not fight why I thought. I sort of travelled a lot overseas when I finished school and that was pulling me a lot to go back. I loved meeting people, experiencing different cultures and I wanted to learn more about the world and do something there.

Bec McIntosh: So when you went overseas you went to Korea and you were in the U.S for a little bit.

Anna Robson: Yeah.

Bec McIntosh: They sounds like two very different experiences.

Anna Robson: Yeah, well I first went overseas when I finished school. I backpacked Europe with my boyfriend at the time for about 2 months and I think that really opened my eyes to the world and then when I was at uni I backpacked Asia and I met people there that were backpacking full time. It was a different way of life and living that I hadn’t seen before and I thought, now that’s cool. And then when I finished you I just kinda wanted to throw myself up in the air without a plan because up until that point there was always study and sports and I always thought my life was so structured and planned so I just wanted that freedom. So I decided I wanted to go to India. I felt something was telling me to go to India. So I decided to go to India by myself for 3 months which, was awesome experience and I just did so many different things there. I rode motorbikes, I travelled with random people. I stayed in this little down called Dharamsala
where the Dali Lama lives and then I had the chance to have this beautiful experience where I got to teach these young Tibetan kids English and Sports. And really meeting them, they were 8 or 9 years old just living there together but by themselves. They treated each other like family and just grateful for life and they had great dreams, dreams to give back to their community. Seeing people in that situation, in such a hard situation. Wanting to do something so positive with their lives I think, really gave me inspiration and from that then I had this plan to Canada and teach sports there but didn’t have much money left so I had a friend in South Korea I met in uni. I had also met a few people in India who said that teaching English in South Korea was quite a good job and good experience. I thought, oh, that sounds interesting, I might just go there. And it’s not far away so I can afford to fly there. So I just turned up and stayed with my friend, who luckily put me up for the month and then I found this cool jobs at a camp teaching English and Sport which, was a really good fit for me. And there I kind of bloomed and found ‘my people’ who were other expats looking for random things. I had a lot of fun there and played expat rugby there. I taught English and taught sports and really enjoyed my time in Korea.

Bec McIntosh: And then after Korea was that the point where you went to work in a startup?

Anna Robson: Actually then, after that I did travel South America. I did travel up the coast and was there for a few months and thought, I’d better go home and see my family as I did miss them.

Bec McIntosh: You should touch base so they remember what I look like;)

Anna Robson: Yes, so then I got a job working in a hostel doing night shifts.

Bec McIntosh: That is quite possibly the toughest and worst job in the world.

Anna Robson: It is very tough staying awake in a job from 11:00pm to 7:00am every morning for your full time work but I kinda just had the travel bug and just wanted to stay attached to it. But I kept thinking, I just need to get back to sports. What I am good at doing and is positive. Then I saw this job on Naru in a detention centre with Save the Children and it was sports and working with vulnerable people and I just thought, hey, that’s kind of something that I want to do. So I applied and got the job and ended up on Naru for about a year in the detention centre.

Bec McIntosh: And that must have been an interesting experience from day 1.

Anna Robson: It’s so tough and nothing can prepare you for that. People living in tents, on rocks in 35 degree heat every day, locked up behind fences. When you ask someone their name they tell you their boat number back because they are used to being treated like an animal or worse. Really just use sports or activities just to get people through the day and just learn about them, their life and their culture and just share that between two human beings. And that’s all I saw it was just two human beings and I wouldn’t want my family, friends or anyone going through that and couldn’t believe this was happening. Yeah, one guy and his son, just beautiful people, just so kind, and they just want to contribute to the world and we were stopping that and that’s just so tough to see people go through that.

Bec McIntosh: It must have been difficult for you to do that over a long period. That stuff gets you, it gets into your head. Especially if you are feeling it and you are travelling the path and spending day to day with them. That wasn’t something you could do, long term.

Anna Robson: Definitely, not. I was only there a year but people work there for many years and the impact on people who did work there over the years was enormous and really we did have each other because we were trying to support someone in detention and you are trying to hold yourself up to support them in the best way possible. We were lucky we had each other and alcohol.

Bec McIntosh: Self Medicating.

Anna Robson: Yes, that’s exactly what we did but a lot of us ended up not well ourselves. Certainly nothing compared to what the people had been though. It was a tough situation that either of us shouldn’t had to be in that position.

Bec McIntosh: You came back to the mainland. Back to Australia. That would have felt a bit weird?

Anna Robson: Every time you came back to Australia, you feel like you are leaving them behind. It felt hard to enjoy it and won’t enjoy it. I felt like you won’t forget them but I decided that once I had finished on Naru I decided to go overseas and travel and get away for a little bit. I just went to America and ended up randomly working for a startup and kind of just fell into it. That experience was quite good and made a difference but I certainly hadn’t forgotten about them. It stuck with me and will always be stuck with everyone. I felt that if these people (in the startup could do it) I certainly could too.

Bec McIntosh: Back in Australia you took that with you and were drawn to events like Refugee Hackathon.

Anna Robson: I sort of decided to randomly learn coding and fro doing that I heard about these hackathons and hackathons are a two day event over the weekend where you come up with solution, using technology to solve a problem. And this one, Techfugees was to solve refugee problems and I thought that’s where I want to be, I want to go to that.

Bec McIntosh: On the day, there are a whole bunch of people in the room, you have no idea who they are. What were the circumstances that lead up to you meeting your now co-founder of Refugee Talent?

Anna Robson: I went there with just my Naru experience and no real idea what I would build that weekend or come up with. I just thought I’d join a team and add to it and there I heard Niari Dacho speak and maybe 10 other refugees talk about their experience in Australia. My co-founder Niari had a Masters in IT, has 10 years experience in the field, perfect English, had applied for 100 jobs since arriving here from Syria. He couldn’t get a job even after applying on SEEK for an entry level role despite being a lecturer and having a Masters and I thought, this is crazy. Other refugees were saying the same thing. I was just on Naru where people were locked up and here even when you’ve got to Australia you couldn’t use your skills. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Everyone had the same idea that we should work on the idea of employment so will all joined together.

Bec McIntosh: That would have been a pretty awesome experience, the highs of a hackathon, that intensity, that fun. And then back to reality. How did you move on? Did you say, yeah, this has maybe got legs?

Anna Robson: We had over 10 people in the team that weekend, we didn’t win but we had some businesses say this is a good idea. And then me and Niari and a couple of other people were like, yeah, we’ll meet up next week and keep going and really once you see an idea that doesn’t exist already it is your duty to do this, so me and Niari just kept going and lots of people dropped aside for various reasons but at that point I was an Uber driver so I had the flexibility to work on it and just felt I had to this.

Bec McIntosh: And at the startup when you were I the early stages of building your startup did you decide. I’m going to prototype this thing up? Or I am just going to contact a lot of people and see if it will fly with them? Did you do down a technical prototyping route, did you do a bit of business development route, gathering the champions, or did all those things happen at the same time?

Anna Robson: We really didn’t have a clue, we were just tyring to figure out the next step to take. Luckily Niari has an IT background so he was building the MVP. (Minimum Viable Product). I reached out to refugee organisations at the hackathon and organised a meeting with them. People give you a business card and you organise a meeting and you just do the nest thing that came up in front of you. You register your business number, register your domain name and next thing you really have a business and there are next steps to take. One thing leads to the next thing and you get another meeting and then someone introduces you. Then there was a little business program through the refugee program to help us write our marketing plan and then you think, oh yeah. marketing plan. It would be good to have one of those, business plan. Oh yeah and we have to think of this. And it keep you moving along and doing the next thing.

Bec McIntosh: When did it feel like a real business? Was it a keystone client? Or the amount of refugees you brought onto the platform? What was the point where you went, woah, wait a second?

Anna Robson: I have to say we met in November, we had our website up by the February. March/April we had about 50 refugees on the platform. Then one of our mentors Vito, who you know, he met and arranged meeting with Commonwealth Bank and Macquarie Bank and we felt like such frauds going into those meetings. In May we got some coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age and then suddenly it launched us out there and we looked like we were really huge. So probably that article we really felt it was real. But I really feel that once you have business cards and a t-shirt and a website you can really can say you have a business.

Bec McIntosh: That is light to hustlers around the world

Anna Robson: But probably this first real client was the ATO they employed 25 people off us and we really felt we are a business now.

Bec McIntosh: You have built this out of a problem that you wanted to see solved. Did you want to be an activist or was it a conscious decision that you wanted to see changed created in a different way?

Anna Robson: No I don’t think it was a conscious decision, although I did attend a few protests about Naru obviously after working there and then founding Refugee Talent this was my chance to create change and show refugees in a positive light and be able to use this as a way forward to change this problem

Bec McIntosh: And it seem like you have actually tapped into something that businesses were actually looking for? But people didn’t know the doorway to open.

Anna Robson: Exactly, there is so much business support out there and they want to hire highly skilled people and if they can hire a refugee that is a double win. By having this technology platform where it is so easy for people to find you, that’s why we have been so successful. It’s easy for businesses to find us and even in the early days Niari appeared on Lateline to talk about this refugee problem and 10 businesses contacted Lateline wanting to work with us and help and the business support has been tremendous and it really shows you that they have sent he refugee crisis on the news and thought, how can I help and what can I do? This is a real that can tangibly help a refugees’ life and tangibly help other people’s lives.

Bec McIntosh And there is a very interesting impact that would have seen in employers working with refugees and the average Australian day to day doesn’t get to actually talk to a refugee to spend time with them and learn from them.

Anna Robson: Exactly I can speak form my own experience of working with Niari. I have learnt so much about Syria. He is from Assyrian background they have such amazing history and the food and the culture there. We teach each other words. I teach Niari slang words and he is teaching me Arabic and all those things. And why wouldn’t people want to learn something different, something interesting, it’s fascinating. We both gain something so it is really rewarding for the refugees and the businesses we help. It’s a win/win for both parties.

Bec McIntosh: And I think it has an ongoing effect ripple effect in terms of the culture of the organisation but also the staff and employers working together as a teams.

Anna Robson: It’s very engaged. And even society as a whole to be honest they are more aware where different people are coming from, different cultures, different religions. And also about understanding each other as human beings.

Bec McIntosh: In terms of you as CEO and Founder you are in a small group, when you look around there are not that many female founders out there. When we run our accelerators there is only 1/4 of applicants are female.

Anna Robson: I think that it’s good that they see female founders visible and those role models and having those female founder days where they can come and try and be really comfortable. And often girls don’t have the confidence to say that they can do it and 1. Having female founders more visible and giving them a way to trail it so they can see, yes, that person is doing and I could do that too.

Bec McIntosh: In terms of your personality, I’ve had the luck of catching up with you a few times now so in every interaction I have had you are so humble. You are running a business with 300 customers, your traditional skill set has not been your CEO C-suite skill set so how has your background and influences helped you get where you are today?

Anna Robson: I think that all my life experiences have culminated into this role. It’s a juggling act so I can look back at my schooling and say my busy schedule always helped me to CEO and run many different aspects of the business. My coaching background and always working with people and being part of a team and those kind of things and my sporting background and those kind of things. And then just humanity, from travelling and learning about people and wanting to help people if they’re not in a good situation have all come together and then just believing in something. You know it’s your duty to do something when you see that there is a problem to continue it forward and do your best. And obviously my experience on Maru and working there and seeing that this could be a way to change the world. All these experiences have put me in the opportunity to do this and yeah, I have the duty to carry it forward.

Bec McIntosh: When it’s comes to where Refugee Talent is, where will the next few years take you? You have really good traction and you are making an imprint on Australia, what do the Australian operations look like and where’s next?

Anna Robson: So currently we work nationally across Australia but for the future we are expanding to New Zealand early next year. We have also won a seed funding grant to work in the Asia Pacific with our partner Host to make to help match up refugees stuck in the Asia region, match them up with employment there. We are also working an international refugee recruitment program in Australia at the moment which is really exciting, it’s a world first. Where an employer can hire a refugee straight out of a camp, say, in Lebanon or Syria with our partners there, Talent Beyond Boundaries. And we are also looking to work with another organisation, Chapter 2 in Spain so we are really just using the platform that we have built and we really want to replicate that anywhere in the world that needs it and really help those 65 million people displaced in the world, if we can help put a dent in that and match people with opportunities, that’s the future.

Bec McIntosh: Most startup founders have a purpose, but to have something thats linked to a real social problem, that’s a huge driver and research suggests that employment really is a key differentiator, to people’s sense of well-being, their contribution to society, the impacts on their family. Of all the things to be able to pick out and say I want to impact that, employment is a huge catalyst. You must feel good going to sleep at night?

Anna Robson: I get to sleep easily

Bec McIntosh: Advice to others coming through. A teenager who is a little bit lost, right into their sport not really what they are doing with a strong sense of purpose in terms of things they want to contribute to the world but can’t really find their way.

Anna Robson: I would just say to follow your heart and sometimes things just tell you do do something. Things just tell you to do that and follow that and try different things, a lot of things I didn’t enjoy but they were a good experience and I learnt something from that. And often the hardest experiences you always gain something. So really try new things, travel the world, meet different people see what’s out there and find your place and your thing that will drive you forward and can have an impact.

Bec McIntosh: And if we go right back to the start of those teenage years playing sport, slightly competitive. A key factor we have overlooked and is in every elite sports person. What advice would you give to yourself, would you do anything differently? What would you say to your teenage self?

Anna Robson: Have confidence in yourself. I didn’t have the confidence back then and felt a bit different and now it all makes sense. Even now even though I don’t fit into something but now I am more ok and understand why I didn’t fit in there, I didn’t fit in there. I kept trying new things because I wanted to, and I tried to fit in and didn’t, but that’s ok. Keep finding things you are good at and things where you can do good in the world.

Bec McIntosh: Well, thank you for your time Anna, we really really appreciate it and we look forward to talking to you in the future when you will conquer the world.

How to Leverage Your Difference to Get That Job

Getting a job isn’t easy for a lot of people, many career paths do not seem very open and inclusive from the outside looking in and even from the inside looking out but difference is increasingly becoming a cool commodity for employers as they try to build more diverse workforces and reap the benefits of a more creative and innovative group of employees generated from a wider variety of individual professional and personal backgrounds. If you have identified your unique offering of your age, abilities or cultural background, this is the age of owning it so let’s see how it is done.

1. Research – Step one in any career strategy is always research. Like any good marketer you need to know what your ‘customer’ the employer wants before your craft your message or strategy to approach them. You are marketing yourself to an organisation. There may be an alignment in terms of their customers or clients, manufacturers or their expansion strategy. You might have grown up in a regional area a company will expand to and your local knowledge and networks can ease their entry into the region. This information is not easily available on one click, that’s why it is called research. Start by listing all the companies/startups you are interested in working for, shortlist a top 10 and then take a look at their annual reports/podcasts interviewing the CEO etc to find your angle. Consume podcasts in your business area of interest, join a professional association, follow people on LinkedIn. The more you drill down into one vertical and build connections the more insight you will have in the industry and the easier it will be for you to highlight your unique offerings in alignment with their organisation and strategy.

2. Package it up – Now that you know what the organisation/startup wants, it’s now time to craft the message. Practice by writing one or two concise sentences about yourself and your experience really tailoring it to the organisation, based on the research you have done. You might make a connection to your language as a way to assist them negotiate with overseas manufacturers as you heard the founder on a podcast talk about the challenges of overseas manufacturing for an english-speaking team. You may draw on your lived experience to demonstrate an advantage over any other potential applications such as a childhood diagnosis of Diabetes on your application directly to a Director of Nursing in the Endocrine ward of the children’s hospital. Try to deliver your message to a person that is closest or influential about making a hiring decision. These days LinkedIn can be an effective channel for a direct approach.

3. Build credibility – Sometimes it is what know, what you have experienced and who you know. It is really important to build out a network if you are transitioning a career into a new area or breaking into a new field. Absorb everything about your industry, clients, key influencers in your world. Start a twitter account and connect to people in your industry, go to conferences and meet-ups, follow up with coffees after meeting people at events and develop a deeper knowledge of your chosen industry. You might even consider some study to add value or reposition your career. But most importantly, don’t forget to tell the world what you want. Update your LinkedIn profile, Twitter handle or any other channel you use for professional purposes and be clear about the roles you are looking for and tailor your experience to suit the roles you are looking for.

4. Skip the queue – I call the ‘queue’ what you imagine happens when a role is advertised. There is a whole lineup of imaginary people at the front door of an employer. Meanwhile, there is a little-known side door which is opened occasionally to people who network effectively or directly approach an organisation with the right skills and abilities at the right time. With your packaged pitch from Step 2, approach an organisation directly or through a network connection and ask for any job opportunities available now or in the future. You should always have an ‘passive’ strategy of waiting for jobs to be advertised and applying, as well as an ‘active’ strategy of building your networks, researching and gaining knowledge of the industry and going to meet-ups and conferences to find out the organisations/startups growing, expanding into new markets or focussing their efforts on certain aspects of their business.

5. Know your ‘street value’ – You have to know what you are worth as when that organisation does give you a call out of the blue and offers you a role and asks what your salary expectations are, you don’t want to say, “I’ll work for anything”. Not only do your sound desperate, you are essentially not valuing yourself. If you know the industry, and are familiar with the roles available and annual salary then you should have a $10,000 range in your head you can draw on. Create a small business case to go alongside your salary pitch so the employer not only knows what you are salary expectations are but why you deserve to be paid the amount you are suggesting. The conversation could go something like, “I am aware of industry salaries in this area and believe based on my 10 years experience in business, combined with a personal knowledge of living with a disability I would expect to be in the upper salary range of $60,000 – $70,000”.

Now you have 5 actionable steps to leverage your difference into an advantage and it’s time to get active!

Gender Diversity in Tech is not a Women’s Problem

Female Drone Pilot Holding Drone

The stats are out demonstrating diversity (and not just in relation to gender) it makes more creative and innovative teams, better decisions for organisations and increases productivity.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency reports that women comprise 46.2 per cent of all employees in Australia, yet hold 14.2 per cent of chair positions, 23.6 per cent of directorships and represent 15.4 per cent of CEOs. Add to that the pay gap of 24 per cent identified by WGEA and there is some significant changes that need to be made.

But diversity is broader than gender and real cultural change needs to be more inclusive of the value of thoughts an ideas that come from just simply different areas of the business, cultural backgrounds and the backgrounds and values held by those in teams.

Organisations firstly need to recognise there is work to do and then develop strategies from recruitment to retention to support that diversity funnel through to senior management. Encouraging flexible working through HR policies, having parental leave available

There are now Male Champions of Change groups being established to support diversity in the C-suite. Great initiatives like InterTech Australia, an offshoot of InterTech UK, which was launched in 2014 by Facebook staff member Jan Hoffman which is an LGBTQIA support group for tech employees in Australia.

Unconsious bias is a huge area that needs to be addressed in recruitment so let’s all start making the change and challenging our own thoughts about diversity allowing people more opportunity to be what they can see!

Pop Perceptions: Career Diversity Stock Photography

You can’t be what you can’t see

Two years ago I was working at a University in sunny Queensland, Australia, and a week away from making a presentation to a group of researchers and looking for some imagery to spice up the text in the slides. I googled ‘female scientist’ and up popped an abundance of white, blond women with lots of makeup. I couldn’t bring myself to use it as it didn’t reflect who I see day to day on campus. Having had a background as a Career Advisor over the last 8 years I have seen the lack of diversity in many careers be a barrier to entry whether that is a male considering a nursing career, an Indonesian women choosing a PhD over a husband, a person with a disability starting their own business or an indigenous person pursuing a medical career. Often the person themselves is keen to pursue the career but the barriers to entry can seem high. It can be the perception, the establish structures and the ‘way’ we do things that reinforces the norms, making it hard to make change. It can happen so insidiously that it is often missed but subconsciously passed onto the next generation from the early years. There are lots of associations, clubs and movements which tackle diversity, but they normally choose a slice to concentrate on like, gender, ethnicity or age. We want to work across them all and take a new view in order to create change.

Pop Peperceptions three main objectives:

  1. To prolifically share images, video and voices of people not normally represented in their careers to inspire and inform.
  2. To support NFP’s and charities supporting those in career minorities by creating additional revenue streams.
  3. To change how people think and feel about diversity

How do we do it? We have some stock imagery free and we have some stock imagery for sale, with the majority of the proceeds going to the charities and not for profit professional associations which help people grow their career. On one side we want more people to see and hear these stories and on the other side we want we want to provide something tangible to assist people building careers where they are under-represented. We are also spreading the word through our Podcast, and social media channels on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

If you have a story to tell, let us know and if you want to get involved we would love to hear from you.