Growing up on a property in northern Queensland before moving to Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays, Tech Ready Women founder Christie Whitehill had something of an idyllic childhood. Days were spent riding horses and exploring nature. “At one stage I wanted to be a park ranger and idolised Ranger Stacey,” Whitehill tells KBB.
Tech played a very minimal role in her life. Apart from her CD Walkman (a present for her tenth birthday) and her parents’ very slow computer, Whitehill has few ‘geek girl’ memories. That Whitehill has grown up to become one of the nation’s leading proponents for women in tech may seem contrary for this outdoorsy gal from the beach. Yet Whitehill has never let a lack of knowledge inhibit her from pursuing her dreams.
Whitehill confesses she grew up thinking she wasn’t smart. She didn’t fit the traditional academic mould and says she almost failed high school.
“It wasn’t until I left school that I realised what my talents are,” she explains.
Taking a job in retail, Whitehill quickly moved up the ladder, eventually managing teams of up to 50 staff. She began to broaden her education, enrolling in business workshops and soaking up everything should could from mentors, along the way. At 26 she got the idea for her first tech startup.
“It was then that I fell in love with solving problems using technology and became obsessed about learning what I could about the skills needed to succeed in the industry,” she says.
Whitehill was about two years into her startup journey when she first got the inkling there was a need for an organisation like Tech Ready Women.
“Back in 2012 I would turn up to meetups and be the only woman there, it was quite intimidating, and I hardly understood what anyone was talking about,” she tells KBB. “I had to do A LOT of googling and self-education via youtube/courses to develop the knowledge I have now.”
However, it wasn’t until she was pregnant with her son Zac that she honed in on her experience and decided to become part of the solution.
“I decided that I wanted to do something really meaningful for my next venture. I was so passionate about supporting women in the industry and at the time there was a huge gap in the market to provide training and support for women in early stages of their tech journey. I designed the Tech Ready Program to solve this problem.”
Whitehill has seen firsthand the effect of gender imbalance in the startup sector and knows all too well the need to encourage more girls and women to pick up STEM skills. She suggests making content that is relevant to girls is the first step and suggests teachers should be provided with easy access to engaging content and hands-on activities to make STEM more accessible. Finally, she believes education needs to start at home, with parents encouraged to support girls and remove their gendered perception of STEM-based roles.
Whitehill says in the early days of her tech startup she was often overwhelmed by the male-dominated culture.
“I was quite intimidated by the ‘blokey’ culture and I consider myself quite a confident person. I know a lot of women would not have stuck around, but luckily the support and communities for women are growing.
“Not all challenges were gender-related, although I once had a male investor tell me I’d need to freeze my eggs if I were to grow a successful company,” she laughs.
She tells KBB that while raising capital can be difficult for any founder, women are particularly challenged traversing the VC landscape with recent research by Dell showing less than 3 per cent of VC capital goes to female founders.
“I think for women because most investors are male, it’s important to learn to speak in their language in order for them to take you seriously. I was not good at numbers but quickly realised that I was going to have to be if I wanted to raise money,” she says.
Another frequent barrier for female founders is a lack of technical skills, which often prevent them from bringing their ideas to fruition.
“Without the knowledge of how to develop and validate new technology product ideas, it is very hard to build tech products and services and also attract a good tech team. When I started out I made plenty of hiring mistakes with engineers because I had no idea what skill set I needed to hire for,” Whitehill explains.
“I was definitely taken for a ride on a number of occasions. Mostly by male engineers who knew I didn’t know better and I didn’t know the right questions to ask. I wasted a lot of money with the wrong people in the early days. These days I have a very good bullshit detector and know what questions to ask. I also don’t second guess my gut feeling if something doesn’t feel right.”
Thanks to Tech Ready Women, future female founders may not have to face these challenges. Whitehill is proud to say Tech Ready Women not only provides women with a tech and business education it also delivers access to world-class mentors, connects them with the startup community and allows them to create the businesses of tomorrow.
“We currently run a program that gives women the skills and confidence to build technology products and services. Very soon we are launching our university program,” she enthuses.
Still, Whitehill says it’s not a level playing field, yet. More needs to be done to make diversity and inclusion an integral part of the startup sector.
“I think there has been a lot of support in the industry and there are some really great male champions who are really active in supporting women in tech. However, with 24 per cent of startups founded or co-founded by women, there is still some work to do.
“The median age of people starting startups is 35, the same age people are bringing up new families. However, in society women are still expected to be the primary caregivers in the majority of homes making returning to work and starting a startup increasingly hard because of the cost of childcare.
“A suggestion for the government would be to implement a new policy for families/women to access childcare rebate for starting a business or spending the time upskilling to enter the tech industry whilst on parental leave.”
She wouldn’t mind seeing a few co-working spaces adding parent rooms to their floorplans too.
“It can make pumping breast milk much nicer than sitting in a toilet cubicle,” she laughs.
Christie Whitehill is number 9 on our KBB Power List as voted by you.
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