3 Female CEOs Talk About Their Strategic Climb to the Top

Nicole Singh

As we take a strong stance on taking practical steps towards female empowerment this year, whether it be through remuneration, career progression, parenting or relationships, perhaps the one place where women are still working hard to chip away at the (seemingly impenetrable) glass ceiling is in leadership positions, particularly at the C-suite level. In Australia alone, according to this year’s report from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, while women compromise 46.9 percent of all persons employed nationally, we are still paid 15.3 percent less than men, and only hold 16.5 percent of CEO positions.

But within that small percentage are strong, successful women who have climbed their way to the top, and have shared their journeys with us, in order to empower more women to do the same. Below, three CEO’s talk career progression, obstacles, and gender inequality in their fields. Read on for a serious dose of Monday motivation. 

Emma Isaacs, Global CEO, Business Chicks

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My whole career has been a series of jumping in and saying "yes" to things I probably wasn’t ready for.

Emma Isaacs

Did you ever picture yourself as a CEO of a company?

I think I always knew I would be a leader… But of what I’m not sure! I was the eldest of three kids and my neighbours and family remember me as a child who was always telling others what to do and bringing people together for adventures. When I was seven I had my first business selling candy. I’d bring the kids in my neighbourhood together, tell them to borrow money from their parents, then I’d use that money to go and buy sweets. We’d all put them in smaller packets and sell them back to the parents at an inflated price! 

What were the key moments in your professional career that shaped your progression to becoming a CEO? 

My whole career has been a series of jumping in and saying ‘yes’ to things I probably wasn’t ready for. I had my first business when I was 18, and bought my first property when I was 19. When I was 25, a girlfriend invited me to attend a Business Chicks event. I loved it so much that I returned to their next event a few months later where I found out that the business was for sale. Even though I had zero events experience, something inside me just said ‘go for it’. So, I did. I bought it six months later. It didn’t worry me that I didn’t have any experience. I was brave and willing to ask a million questions and try new things, so I knew I’d be able to make a massive success of it. 

What are some traits that you think are integral for women to adopt in their careers?

You’ve got to be ready and open to opportunities. You’ve got to be willing to start and stop overthinking. You need to get the best people around you and let them in on your dreams, then ask for their help and feel happy in accepting it. You need to keep travelling forward but check in constantly that this is where you want to be going and what you want to be doing (and not be afraid to hit the reset button if not). And finally, you have to be willing speak up and speak out when things aren’t right—if not for you, then for the women behind you.

Do you think it’s harder or easier for women at the moment to enter C-suite?

I think it’s easier, but I still think there is a long way to go in terms of women having the same path as men do for the top jobs. I think there’s still a lot of discrimination against women in business. And yes, most of it is covert and most of the time people don’t even know they’re discriminating against women. We did some research recently at Business Chicks about what women believe the obstacles are to leadership, and the biggest barriers continue to be unconscious bias, being excluded on the basis of gender, the multiple roles we play as women and also, a lack of support from other women. That’s nothing new of course, but what we now know is more about the skills they think they need to overcome those barriers and we’re working hard to help them get there! 

What’s one of the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome in your career thus far? 

I think the greatest obstacle is having access to female role models, and I’ve overcome that by strengthening my network, and getting to know these women. I think Business Chicks is making some good inroads in terms of promoting strong female role models, and we’re passionate about introducing them to our community and will continue to do so. Meeting and learning from successful women opens your mind to new concepts and ideas, and teaches you loads, and not just about business and your career, but about life too.  

Carla Oates, CEO, The Beauty Chef

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"Look after your gut, be gutsy and follow your gut instinct."

Carla Oates

Did you ever picture yourself as a CEO of a company? 

My journey to founding my own company and becoming CEO of The Beauty Chef was a natural progression. I was working as a beauty editor about eighteen years ago for a newspaper and I became concerned with the amount of toxic chemicals in skincare. I had always been interested in alternative and holistic health, so I started researching the benefits of looking after your skin with clean ingredients, predominantly active plant compounds that rejuvenate the skin from the inside out. I made the decision to write only about natural and organic health and beauty and delve into more researching and formulating organic products to offer women healthier options. I had eczema as a child, and when I was a teenager I saw a naturopath who changed my diet and it had a profound impact on my skin. I understood the importance of what you put in your body for good skin health. So, I felt very passionate about helping to change the paradigm in the beauty industry.

I wrote a book called Feeding Your Skin ($23), became the beauty writer for WellBeing Magazine and penned a column called DIY Beauty for The Sunday Telegraph while also working with naturopaths, nutritionists and skin specialists to write hundreds of articles for different publications on natural skincare and beauty from within.

Around 10 years ago, my daughter experienced some skin issues that led me to research what might be causing them. After investigating various studies that looked at what we eat and how food affects the gut and the connection between gut health and skin health, I put my family on a gut-healing protocol. Part of this protocol was the inclusion of probiotic-rich, lacto-fermented wholefoods. After I began including these foods regularly in the meals I cooked for my family (and they overcame the sulphuric smell of sauerkraut), I noticed a profound difference in my and my daughter’s skin, and improved wellbeing of the whole family. I didn’t ever imagine myself as a CEO, but here I am and I really enjoy the business side of what I do, almost as much as the creative side.  

What were the key moments in your professional career that shaped your progression to becoming a CEO? 

When I made the shift to writing about only natural beauty, and started making my own skincare products, is when everything fell into place. I knew then what I wanted to do. I worked with naturopaths and nutritionists and skin specialists and wrote hundreds of articles for different publications. I created many skincare-focused recipes in my book and became immersed in not only writing about health and beauty, but developing formulas. Then when my daughter experienced eczema, I delved deeper into to researching to correlation between gut health and skin health and the role of nutrition and probiotic rich foods and developed GLOW Inner Beauty Powder ($60). It all evolved from there. Along the way, I have thought about hiring a CEO so I can solely focus on the creative side of the business and in time I may do so, but it has been important for me to be at the helm to drive the vision of the brand.

What are some traits that you think are integral for women to adopt in their careers?

Confidence to pursue what you want to do and persistence to make it happen. Not taking "no" for an answer and also learning to say "no". Some of the best decisions I have made in business have been from saying "no". I'd also say, do what you love, because success requires hard work. As the saying goes genius is one percent inspiration, and 99 percent perspiration and it’s much better to enjoy that hard work, so it enjoyable, not endurable. Both looking after your gut health and exercising are very important for feeling positive and energised in work and life, as well as working on life/work balance. You are at your most productive when you feel balanced.  My mantra is: "Look after your gut, be gutsy and follow your gut instinct." 

Do you think it’s harder or easier for women at the moment to enter C-suite? 

There are more barriers in business when you are female, especially when you are a start-up. I have experienced this in many areas from finance to manufacturing. I think this is changing, however, there needs to be a much greater shift.

What’s one of the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome in your career thus far? 

When I first launched GLOW, many people thought it was an unusual idea—the concept of creating a fermented powder that you eat to make your gut healthy and skin radiant. It’s amazing to look at how far the brand has come since then. When I started in 2009, I was the first to create a product in the ‘inner-beauty’ category so it was a challenge to break into the mainstream beauty market. Although the reaction from wholesalers who tested the products personally was overwhelmingly positive, the feedback from a business perspective was that they were too left-of-field. Lacto-fermentation and the benefits of probiotics were more understood in the health arena, than the beauty industry, so it was a very new concept for the beauty world.

I remember there was a buyer who called me and said, “I tried your powders and my skin is amazing, everyone is asking me what I'm doing differently. I want to buy your product and put it on the shelves, but right now there's no category for it.”

Now our GLOW powder has become an international bestseller and can now be found all over the world, from the shelves of Selfridges in London to stores in New York and all over the U.S., to shops in South-East Asia and online at Goop, Net-a-Porter, and Sephora. I also believe there has been a paradigm shift in the beauty industry: Beauty is health and health is beauty. And it is so exciting to be a part of that beauty revolution.

Caitlin Barrett, CEO, Love Mercy

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There is a fine art to being diplomatic and inclusive, but also knowing when to take the lead and speak like a boss.

Caitlin Barrett

Did you ever picture yourself as a CEO of a company?

I didn’t ever picture myself as a CEO. My mother was a CEO before she retired, and I always hoped that I would reach that level in an organisation but I wasn’t ever driven by the title. I was more interested in being a position that could influence the direction and the outcomes of an organisation, as well as creating organisational change.

What were the key moments in your professional career that shaped your progression to becoming a CEO?

I worked hard as a volunteer for two years before the organisation was sustainable enough to have a full time employee. So the moment my career became real, was the moment I became Love Mercy's first paid staff member. It was a rewarding moment as I had spent many years dreaming of the possibility that I could do what I loved, make a difference in the world and get paid for it.

What are some traits that you think are integral for women to adopt in their careers?

Being direct is really important. Saying what you mean and using language that supports your point is crucial. There is a fine art to being diplomatic and inclusive, but also knowing when to take the lead and speak like a boss.

Do you think it’s harder or easier for women at the moment to enter C-suite?

I think global brands are realising the importance of authentic inclusion. Until an equal gender split is the norm, I think its important that we have gender targets for boards and senior leadership, but more and more we are realising and valuing the more feminine leadership traits that complement the business world and I think women have never been better placed to take advantage of that.

What’s one of the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome in your career thus far?

Self-confidence has been a big challenge for me. Having women ahead of me who are willing to mentor and guide me in my industry. There is a lack of women who have the capacity to take time out to support the up and coming generation of leaders, although this is changing and there are more mentoring programs that are becoming more and more accessible. 

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