The Prime Min­is­ter’s wife on tak­ing risks in the new econ­omy

The Australian - The Deal - - Front Page - Story by: He­len Trinca Pho­tograhs by: James Croucher

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

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