LUCY TALKS BUSINESS
The Prime Minister’s wife on taking risks in the new economy
Lucy Turnbull is holding a plastic supermarket bag filled with mushrooms. “Look at these,” she says. “I got these at Campsie – $13.50 for the lot!”
Turnbull is in the Potts Point office of Turnbull Partners, the private investment company she has built with her husband. Those mushrooms would have cost a small fortune in this end of town and the Prime Minister’s wife is delighted that a trip to Campsie – 14km to the southwest to check out transport there – has yielded such exotic, high-quality ingredients. “I’ll do a fry-up at the weekend,” she says. Turnbull is just back from a week in Israel leading a group of Australia’s top women CEOs and directors to look at the startup sector. Campsie, where about 30 per cent of the population was born in China, Korea or Vietnam, is a long way from Tel Aviv – where the use of technology blew Turnbull away. But she has become adept at juggling her portfolio career over the past 30 years, combining her work as a “urbanist” involved in city planning, being a company director and involving herself in non-profit organisations. She spent the day on the train in her role as chief commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission, as part of a tour to look at transport plans in the suburbs – including Campsie.
It’s not easy maintaining a public career when you are married to a prime minister in the middle of an election campaign, but Turnbull was keen to stick with her commitment to lead the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce trip with Jillian Segal, one of Australia’s leading women executives.
Segal, who is chair of NSW AICC, devised the all-female tour deliberately. She had noticed that in mixed groups, especially when there were more men, women found it harder to engage. Segal tells The Deal: “My hypothesis was that a group of woman at a senior level looking at innovation together would find that very exciting and that it would engender its own level of discourse and thought about what we could bring back to Australia.” It worked. The group of 36 returned to Australia inspired by a nation of eight million people who punch above their weight and have more start-ups per capita than anywhere else in the world. The women are now keen to organise a similar delegation from Australia to Australia – a domestic tour, in effect, to familiarise themselves with the local sector. Turnbull says she is “fascinated by the potential science has to change our lives” and thinks a home tour is a great idea: we already have a lively research and start-up sector in Australia but it is sometimes not recognised.
“We have a lot of creative thinking about innovation in this country but I don’t think we are aware of it and the really interesting good things that have happened around innovations with accelerators and incubators in the last year or so,” she says.
“It is not all doom and gloom. You have to talk it up and also realise where we can do better.”
One area for improvement is collaboration between universities and industries which “has been a weakness in our system”.
There is a continuing debate (see our story “To hub or not to hub” on Page 16) about how best to assist the tech sector, and Turnbull won’t comment on the federal government’s policies in this area. But asked if it’s possible to build hubs or whether they should develop organically, she says: “Well, a little bit of help doesn’t go astray at all. It is quite clear that around the PyrmontUltimo peninsula in Sydney, around UTS [University of Technology, Sydney] and other digital media businesses, there has been a proliferation of start-up culture. There are places like [start-up space] Fishburners and [fintech hub] Stone & Chalk and there are innovation ecosystems developing in Sydney and other parts of Australia. The NSW government is talking about a biomedical tech hub at White Bay, which could be terrific.”
But, she says, we are ignoring “the greatest technology hub” of them all – our universities. Transferring technology from the campus to commerce is “something we need to get better at doing”, says Turnbull, who is chair of the listed start-up Prima BioMed, which is developing cancer therapies.
Getting the structures right is important, but the Israel trip was a lesson in how culture plays a role in business. What makes the Israelis so good at tech?
“The people we came across were very resilient,” says Turnbull. “They were very confident and displayed to a very high degree that can-do confidence and resilience which is quite a conspicuous attribute of entrepreneurs and innovators. You don’t get many shy and retiring, inarticulate innovators. The champions of innovations and the people who do the start-ups usually have a very clear and direct voice and confidence in what they are doing, which is why they are doing it.”
Some commentators have identified Israel’s compulsory military training as a factor in creating a determined, aggressive population. Turnbull says that everyone she spoke to mentioned the experience of leaving school at age of 18 and entering military training. The experience of “diving in and being given responsibility to do things” had been very positive.
“To me it is interesting the effect that the army has,” she says. “It offers leadership and risk taking and responsibility, and you also have to communicate with your group.”
It’s hard to replicate but Turnbull wonders whether teaching at universities could be adapted to give people a chance to learn by “diving in” to projects. Internships are another way to build practical skills, she says.
She agrees that military training can teach people to be comfortable with ambiguity, which is central to a start-up mindset.
“You don’t know whether it is going to work,” says Turnbull. “Taking a risk is always riddled with ambiguities – will I make that decision, this decision? There are trade-offs and it is not a clear path to a product and commercial success. There are lots of pivots that you might need to take along the way. Ambiguity is another way of expressing uncertainty.”
Israelis are also “completely comfortable with the idea that a lot of start-up businesses fail”.
“We need to encourage people to feel comfortable about taking more risks,” she says, noting that serial entrepreneurs they met on tour enjoyed the whole start-up phase, the exit and the chance to do it all over again.
The skills base in Israel, where there is a strong focus on STEM and a training channel through military service, is acknowledged as a key driver. Turnbull wants to see more girls take up science and maths – one of the areas being pushed by Canberra.
“I think it is important for people to encourage [young girls] to take STEM choices wherever possible to give them a degree of career and study optionality,” she says.
She admits it’s “do as I say, not as I do” because “when I was
at school I stopped doing science for the HSC and that meant I could not study architecture. I probably would have loved to have been an architect but hey, I did law instead.”
Now she urges girls to keep their options open: “Even if you don’t become a maths guru or a science guru you should at least have the confidence to feel that you can play in that world. I have asked geek men and young girls why [they don’t study STEM] and they say because it is geeky. A lot of girls in adolescence have reservations about being seen as geeks.”
But times are changing. “Geeky girls are becoming supercool and I think there is no better magnet to attract girls than if we make geeky girls successful and role models. They are there. There are amazing women scientists in Australia.” She is keen to see women entrepreneurs stretch themselves. “If you speak to women in tech start-ups in Australia, often they are very confident in the retail services digital marketing space because that’s an area of perceived self-confidence and competence,” she says. “But I would like to think that over time women will consider that they can make an even greater contribution. One of the emerging areas is cyber security and I would really like to think more women can make career choices and subject areas that take them into that area.”
The involvement of women in business is now taken for granted by a younger generation.
“Even five years or 10 years ago, female participation was seen as a fairness and social justice issue, an equity issue, and nowadays big organisations realise that gender equality, equality of opportunity and participation of women in all levels of management and as directors, is a fundamental component of efficiency and productivity,” Turnbull says.
“So there is a strong economic argument for companies to have strong participation from women. Partly through Chief Executive Women and Male Champions of Change I think there is a much more widely held understanding of the importance of full gender equity and participation in the economy at all levels and particularly the upper echelon.”
Turnbull recalls a magazine article citing the way women such as Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, the powerful US Democrat senator, learnt leadership in the Girl Guides or Scouts.
It’s not quite the army, but there is discipline in those groups, she says: “You are told, you are going to climb up that hill, light a fire, cook your dinner and pitch your tent. That’s throwing people in the deep end and teaching them how to cope.”
CSIRO chair David Thodey has talked about how to attract talent from overseas when living here is expensive. At a recent Pivot Leadership (a Korn Ferry company) event in Sydney he said that while it was common to talk about the costs of cities as a deterrent, “I am not sure that the expensiveness of an area is a key determinant of innovation by itself. I think it does play a role but … it is the energy that keeps people going.”
Turnbull agrees: “You attract talent by having a very exciting ecosystem, by having a great place to live and work. There is a growing recognition that having great urban places and spaces is as important for productivity and nurturing human talent as a city being a nice place to walk around. It’s actually an important part of competitiveness. ”
To that end, and with her interest in cities, she was struck by the universal free Wi-Fi in Tel Aviv and the way it encouraged people to sit down together in coffee shops and park benches and work and engage. In Tel Aviv, about 60 per cent of people participate in an online digital citizens engagement platform as part of its DigiTel smart city initiative. DigiTel is an information services platform, which allows registered members to conduct their business with the city, such as applying for permits or registering their children for school. It also allows the city to send them information.
“I would love to encourage that. They identify people with things in common: they have a brilliant strategy of digital engagement and I would love our cities to do that,” says Turnbull. “We are committed at the Greater Sydney Commission to funding multiple platforms for citizen engagement.”
Her big takeout from a week in Israel was the “confidence and optimism and a great sense of anything being possible. Don’t hold back, don’t be afraid of failure, do what you want to do and follow your dreams. But it is already happening here: we just have to recognise and promote it.”
Left, Jillian Segal, and with Turnbull in Israel with other members of the tour