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Ten minutes with … Kate Irving, Women in Innovation

Business

Armed with solid corporate credentials and a knack for networking, Kate Irving has taken up the reins as president of Women in Innovation, a community of professionals keen to support and elevate the state’s innovative women.

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She says it’s an “exciting opportunity” to use her skills in commercial, business and governance, as well as her entrepreneurial expertise, to help the group make strides in the state.

Irving took time out from her packed diary – between board commitments and her day job as general manager at Bartons Chartered Accountants and Wealth Advisors – to talk with InDaily.

You have worked at Ernst & Young, the Robinson Research Institute at University of Adelaide, and now at Bartons – all complex corporate organisations. As new president of Women in Innovation, what do you bring to the table to deepen support for, and the effectiveness of, the group?

For this organisation it is the business skills, the governance skills and also the vision to help the organisation evolve and respond to the changing environment, and certainly to the support from the federal and state governments around innovative industries and innovative people to help contribute to the economy.

What does the state’s increased emphasis on fostering innovation mean for Women in Innovation? What more can the state do to support innovation?

There are a number of things in terms of organisations like Women in Innovation. It has a key role to play in collaborating with others in the space, rather than competing with them.

In terms of the state more broadly, government and industry and the community at large need to support and allow people to have a go, and support them if it doesn’t work out.

I think it’s about encouraging people to take a risk and creating the environments and the spaces for people to think about how they could do something differently.

Is the Government creating those spaces?

I think there certainly have been examples if you look at South Australia, but they haven’t been without their challenges. The Vibrant City movement, for example, has certainly done amazing things in terms of transforming the vitality in the city. And many other projects; the Adelaide Oval, the new Royal Adelaide Hospital, SAHMRI [South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute], while they may not be innovative in a revolutionary sense, they are in an evolutionary sense.

I think they are creating the environment but it’s not an easy battle. They are hard-won battles and that’s where bureaucracy and the community really need to step up and allow for that to happen more quickly.

Is there a particular focus you have for Women in Innovation – something you want to make happen during your two-year term?

We as a board have just reformed and we now have a board of nine – six months ago it was a board of three or four. The members on the board bring really diverse skill sets and at the moment that’s the questions we are asking ourselves. We are gathering our thoughts around what we can do to best benefit the community and the women in innovation space.

One of the cornerstones of it is what can we do differently. It’s not about just following the same path that everyone else is on, and certainly one of the main ingredients of that will be collaboration rather than competition.

What, if anything, is different about women in innovation than men in innovation? Is there a different set of skills that need to be looked at for women?

I think it’s the longstanding issue that women’s voices are not as loud as men’s. The platform for women for equality is still a work-in-progress. This organisation is a forum to really help and support women to step up and value their ideas and know that they are doing something amazing.

Do women innovators operate in different industries or sectors than men, particularly given the emphasis now on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects for girls in schools and beyond?

Not particularly.  It’s the industry areas under the banner now called STEAM, so it’s science, technology, engineering, art and maths – and art is a recent addition to that portfolio.

I think women are coming up with quite significant seed ideas that are yet to be commercialised or realised. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily different to the areas that men are operating in – it’s so broad that it really is hard to compare.

You set up and ran your own entrepreneurial venture, the Willow Blowdry Bar (a hair blowdry business), in Adelaide, between 2010 and 2012. How would you describe that experience?

That was a really great experience in terms of coming up with a concept and introducing a new concept to the Adelaide market, starting it from scratch and doing absolutely everything around how it would function, the feel of it, the experience it would deliver. I was very hands-on, doing everything myself and living and breathing it seven days a week. It was really a great experience.

The support and encouragement I received from the people I knew and the people I pitched it to, and the feedback I got, was very helpful.

What was the hardest part?

It was unknown how it would really work once it came to life, so it became about being adaptable to the market once it did take on its own life, and responding to that rather than keeping the rigid idea. And it did change quite a bit from the rigid, boutique idea to expand to meet market needs and customer demands.

Would you do something again – another entrepreneurial venture?

Yes I would … but no, nothing specific to speak of yet.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about an entrepreneurial pursuit?

Form your idea thoroughly. Test it and test it again. Back yourself with the idea and be okay with the fact that it might not work.

In terms of feedback, be discerning about the feedback you get and take on. And put yourself under the business plan and financial rigour that you would if someone else came to you with the idea. Also, put in key milestones to define where or when you will decide what the next step might be.

You are an avid arts supporter, having been on theatre boards and still active on the board of the SALA (South Australian Living Artists) Festival. Where do the arts and creative industries fit in innovation?

I’ve always had a passion for creative endeavours. I find it [the arts] a really inspiring and exciting medium to be involved in.

The arts across all mediums, if we really stop and look at it, they lead the charge. With little funding, little resources, it’s all about the passion and they [artists and arts organisations] come up with amazing ideas. Those of us who can’t do that wonder at what kind of a mind created something so amazing.  I do think the arts actually lead the charge.

SALA is a good example of an arts festival combining business and arts. Very traditional business venues are now becoming SALA venues – my workplace, Bartons, is becoming a SALA venue this year and they’ve never done that before.  So it is very exciting.

You have also been a facilitator and mentor for Behind Closed Doors, a national, invitation-only forum for professional women, for almost four years … what has that taught you about the challenges that women face in the workplace? 

I think often women get stuck. The platforms for Women in Innovation and Behind Closed Doors really provide forums for them to talk openly about how to get unstuck.

It’s about leaning on the experiences of others, getting objective input, and sharing experiences and problems so people can find their way out of it. I would hope that we can provide the support and encouragement for women to step out of the safe zone.

***

Nominations are open for the third, annual Winnovation Awards, which recognise innovative women and their projects, across 10 categories: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Design, Mathematics, Emerging Innovator, Innovation and Intrapreneurship within Government, Innovative Women’s Programs in Business, Rural, Regional or Remote, and an Open section focussed on education and community. The awards, which are judged by an independent panel, will be presented on October 25, 2016.

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