CEW ANNUAL DINNER keynote speaker – Robyn Denholm

CEW Annual Dinner 2022 keynote address
Robyn Denholm

I wish to add my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of this land and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

I would also like to acknowledge Chief Executive Women for this incredible event and thank you for the opportunity to speak to you tonight. I want to acknowledge all the dignitaries here this evening. I would name you all, but that would take up the entirety of my allotted time!

I am honoured tonight to be surrounded by so many incredible women, not just those in this room, but to colleagues, leaders and friends across Australia in Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and those online who have joined us this evening.

When CEW asked me to speak on the topic of courage, I will admit, I thought it was a perfect topic to meet the times. With the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, the devastating natural disasters that have ravaged the eastern seaboard, alongside our Nation’s recovery from a once – in- a- generation-pandemic. Surely this is a time when Australia more than ever needs to be courageous.

But I will also admit that when I first heard about the topic, I was a bit taken aback as I don’t view myself as being particularly courageous. You aren’t going to find me jumping out of a plane skydiving, or for that matter going to the moon, you’re very unlikely to find me swimming with sharks, at least on purpose. But as I thought about it, I decided that the stereotypical definition of courage isn’t what I wanted to speak about.

For me being courageous comes when no one is watching – doing the right thing, standing up for those who can’t for themselves, it’s about changing opinions, creating new pathways, it’s about being a contrarian and not going along with the herd.

For me, it’s about being brave enough to take big bold risks, knowing that you might fail, but constantly learning from the experience.

Tonight, I would like to talk about courage as I see it. I’ll draw on some of my own experiences, and I would like to talk about the role of risk and courage in helping to drive our great country forward.


My story

Let me tell you a little about my career journey, which now finds me busier than ever.  I am Chair of the Board of Tesla, a steward of the technology industry as the inaugural Chair of the Tech Council of Australia, and an operating partner at Venture Capital firm Blackbird, where we are investing in and helping founders build incredible Australian tech companies.  Most recently through my family office Wollemi Capital Group, we’ve become owners of two professional Basketball teams the Sydney Flames and the Sydney Kings.

I’m also a mum and a grandma.  Family is very important to me, and I wouldn’t be speaking to you tonight without them, or for that matter the many # people who have supported me along the way. I’m very proud that my Mum is here with us tonight, alongside my sister and my daughter.

To get here, well it’s been an incredible journey. I would love to say that my career was planned, and I am exactly where I thought I would be, but that would be entirely untrue.

The reality is that I have always been curious about the world around me and loved science, maths and business. Right from a young age, the challenge of solving complex problems has fascinated me. My mum often says that I was a difficult child, asking her questions that she did not have the answers to. I’m sure she meant it in jest, but equally imagine trying to answer the age-old question from a three-year-old: how does electricity work or how do you make a rainbow? I’m sure I kept her on her toes.

I grew up in Sydney’s southwestern suburbs, I’m the middle child of parents who immigrated to Australia from the Mediterranean in the 50’s. My parents opened a service station in the early 70’s in Milperra and on weekends and school holidays we all worked there – including my older brother and younger sister,  initially filling oil bottles and cleaning but eventually on the forecourt pumping petrol and helping with all aspects of the business.

Anyone who has been involved in a family small business, especially a start-up, knows that there is no “down time.” Business was discussed around the family dinner table all the time. Being privy to the discussions about the business, whether I wanted to or not, gave me an early insight into the role that the business community can play in solving problems. The problems can be as simple as creating jobs that put food on the table, or as complex as interest rate changes and the impact this has on businesses cash flow needs, or in our case, world parity oil pricing.

My early interest in business, science and maths was celebrated. I was encouraged at home that it didn’t matter what I did, if I did so with passion, hard work and put 100% of my effort in.

At my “garden variety” high school I was a conscientious student, played in the school softball, netball, and volleyball teams. For the HSC I did multistrand science (physics, chemistry and biology), maths, economics and english. I topped my economics class and my teacher said it would be a shame for me to not pursue economics at university and my science teacher said nothing-so that’s what I did.

I started my career in an accounting firm and my client base from day one were the non-financial services companies, industrials/mining/electronics, and a bit of retail. This first role allowed me to understand the fundamentals of the world of big business. It also enabled me to work as part of a team and be part of a great cohort of people many of whom I’m still friends with today.

From Andersen’s I went to Toyota Australia, from accounting to cars. I moved through sales and marketing to manufacturing and ultimately to the Melbourne corporate office. My favourite thing about the job was seeing new cars being built in the factory- and being part of the team that supported building a new car factory in Altona. I got exposure to many areas of finance, including the use of technology in finance process. I had great mentorship from the CFO, who in hindsight, was so far ahead of his time in coaching and supporting up-and -coming-females in the very male dominated industry.

I had been at Toyota for close to 7 years, helping drive tremendous growth after the restructuring of the early 90’s.  I had been promoted to National Manager, had most of the finance group with about 400 people in my organisation. Toyota had gone from 3rd in the industry to number 1 for 3 years in a row.

The new plant was humming and profitable – but the year was 1995 and this thing called the internet that was starting to permeate businesses.

So, I answered a call to join a company which at the time not many in Australia had ever heard of, Sun Microsystems. I joined them as CFO for the ANZ operations in Sydney, with a mighty finance team of 7 people and at a time when the total employee count in Australia was less than 100. 18 months later I moved into an APAC leadership role. The growth across the region was astounding- what a rocket ship – amazing people, phenomenal culture. We were the dot in .com.

But change was on the horizon, in 2001, I packed up the kids and moved to the US…to take on the CFO role for the global service business. I was 37 at the time. I was as a VP with Sun Microsystems, firstly in Colorado and then moving to Silicon Valley.

I remember six weeks before we moved very vividly, I was in Boulder, Colorado having been offered the role to move to the US and remember being really scared. Here I was a newly single mum, with a 13 and 8 year-old and about to move them 10,000 miles away from our family, away from support….to take on a role I wasn’t sure I could do. So, I called my dad, and after downloading all of my fears and worries on him, he quite calmly said in his heavily accented English: Robyn, what’s the worst thing that could happen…. you go there, you try your hardest…. you screw up…and you move back home!

We moved. The kids started school and two weeks later 9/11 happened. What I have learned is that through adversity there are opportunities both professionally and for the business and the go-go years for Sun turned into the restructuring years, and the experience I had gained in earlier phases in my career meant that, I could firstly help re-organise the services business, and then I became the Chief Accounting Officer, and ultimately the SVP of Corporate Strategy.

Later I joined Juniper Networks which is a great company. Their customers are the Telco’s and cloud companies, globally, they make the internet work. I was initially the CFO and ultimately became the CFO and COO. I was able to expand the operational aspects of my skill set to IT, manufacturing, facilities and was a senior member of the team that saw considerable growth.

In 2014 alongside my Executive role at Juniper I joined the Board of Tesla as the chair of the audit committee. At the time Tesla had 9000 employees, with all manufacturing in Freemont California, and had only produced about 30,000 vehicles. Last year for context, Tesla produced nearly a million cars and had over 110,000 employees with factories coming online on three continents.

After 9 phenomenal years at Juniper and after 27 years of paying childcare and school fees, with my youngest having graduated university, I decided it was time for me to do something different. I decided to take a break. I was going to take 12 months off, recharge, play golf, travel, and figure out what next. It was 4 months into this life of leisure that we decided to move back to Australia.

I joined Telstra as the COO, which was an awesome role, with responsibility for all the networks, including the mobile network, IT and service delivery people, so finally a job where I looked after all the engineering functions within Telstra, and for only the 2nd time in my career, not having to worry about closing the books!

Following a significant restructure I became Telstra CFO and head of strategy for a short period of time before I was appointed Chair of the Tesla Board in November of 2018. I will say in hindsight it may look like an intelligent move, but at the time a very common response I got from many people was Robyn what on earth are you thinking? You’re giving up arguably the number 2 role at an ASX 20 company to join a controversial company, with a contrarian founder and that at the time was not profitable.

In unpacking my career and for that matter my life’s journey, the truth is that I have taken considerable career risks. I have done things that most people would not have necessarily expected – moving disciplines, moving companies, moving states and countries.

Some have worked out brilliantly and others not so much, but through each experience, the learnings have been amazing, and in deciding each move and having taken input from mentors, family and colleagues and diligently doing my pros and cons, I have always come back to  the question of – what is the worst that could happen and can I Iive with that?

Over the past 38 years, I have come to see that advancements don’t happen unless you take some risk and that means having the courage to accept some failures along the way. And I have had a few. My advice is try to make your failures “small” or at least “speedy”, but either way pick yourself up and deeply learn from the failures, own them, iterate on the thought process that got you to that point and try again.


Australia as a Courageous Nation

Having been back in Australia for 5 years now, I feel a sense of optimism about the role our country should play in solving complex global problems. With a population of 26 million people, Australia makes itself known on the world stage.  We have a great “can do “attitude and we are not afraid to change the status quo. I see this in the Australian technology sector all the time.  However, what baffles me is that we haven’t made more meaningful headway in diversifying the voices who participate at the highest levels of decision making.

Only 38 percent of our federal parliament representatives are women, CEW research tells us that women accounted for less than 10 per cent of chief executives of ASX 300 companies as of July 31 2021 and the proportion of solely female founders getting funding, according to The Female Founder Funding Report is 4.4%.

All of us here tonight know that having women participate in the workforce and at senior levels produces better outcomes for the individuals, enabling more economic freedom. It is also better for businesses,  as those that have diverse management teams and boards in turn produce better results.

But, beyond the clear economic benefits, why is it crucial to increase the role women play across our workforce? For me the answer is simple. It’s how to foster innovation. If we want to address issues as vital as saving future generations from the effects of climate change, recovering from the pandemic and safeguarding our geo-political security, we will need the very best minds to work on these problems. A diverse range of views allows us to consider any and all solutions. Clearly the thinking behind what got us here, won’t get us the solution to the problem.

In an age where technology is changing everything and complex societal problems must be solved, this is a time when now more than ever we need to be courageous. If we want women in places where decisions are being made, we need to actively encourage all leaders to be wildly ambitious, big thinkers, unafraid to fail and succeed. Risk taking is fundamental to a vibrant innovative and growing economy, but it is not fully ingrained in the Australian mentality – yet.

 Conclusion

My challenge to each one of you is to play your role in making it happen.

For those in the Boardroom, you play a vital role in ensuring there is risk-taking in your companies, that innovation – both in a leapfrog as well as in an incremental way – is fostered, which is the foundation for all technology advancements. Play your role in finding a diverse range of voices and create pathways for women to enter new fields and positions of leadership.

For those in Government, ensure that your policy and regulatory settings are focused on encouraging Australian companies. You play a vital role in fostering a mindset of failures being a springboard for success, where experimentation, science, research and development are a constant.

To our educators, don’t forget to speak up when young minds are seeking guidance on their career path. Science, maths and engineering should continually be promoted to our young people.

For those mums and dads out there, have the conversation around the kitchen table. Encourage your kids into a bold career, encourage them to take risks, work hard and include them in conversations about the role the business community can play in solving complex problems.

I hope that by telling my story tonight, you can see the way my career has been defined most by the moments of risks, but also by having the courage to fail and grow. I encourage you to do the same. We must promote and celebrate those who are courageous in taking risks to change the world. By doing so I hope to encourage the next wave of bright young minds to not take the safe career route but to reach for the stars and in the process, and I hope create an even better Australia.

Thank you for the opportunity to share my story tonight.

Robyn Denholm
CEW member

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