why lean inThis post originally appeared in Women’s Agenda and is based on a number of interviews we did with women making ideas happen on Ideas Hoist.


Bev Wilkinson is a university student who is building connections between seniors and young people through storytelling. Hollie Gordon is a young graduate empowering youth and supporting communities through an online volunteering platform. Alexie Seller is a mechanical engineer helping to eradicate energy poverty in India through sustainable technologies. Rosie Thomas is a passionate founder of a youth-led anti-bullying organisation. Amanda Reed left the corporate sector in favour of founding an online platform to buy and sell disability and mobility equipment.

These are just some of the fascinating ideas from women we’ve profiled throughout 100 interviews of ‘Australians making ideas happen’ on ideas hoist.

Clockwise from the top left: Bev Wilkinson, Hollie Gordan, Alexie Seller, Rosie Thomas, Amanda Reed.

Clockwise from the top left: Bev Wilkinson, Hollie Gordan, Alexie Seller, Rosie Thomas, Amanda Reed.

Approximately half of the social entrepreneurs and leaders that we have interviewed are women. They come from a wide range of organisations — including not-for-profit, social businesses, and technology and creative start-ups. Women are recognising gaps in the market where there is unmet need, and are stepping up to tackle some of our most pressing social needs and environmental challenges in innovative ways.

There is no disputing that women are under-represented in the boardrooms and executive levels of big business in Australia (and in most of the world). But maybe the lack of progress, as reflected in the statistics, partially represents a trend towards women choosing more accommodating and flexible types of organisations and career paths.

Is it possible that women are consciously rejecting leadership roles in ‘big business’ in favour of developing their own ideas and ambitions?

I believe there is a growing contingent of women that are not waiting around to be tapped on the shoulder for their next promotion, or to finish their study, gain their MBA or get 15 years of experience in their chosen field. They aren’t just leaning in; they’re leaping in with both feet – to places they feel they can make a real impact.

From solving a specific problem in their local area to world-changing ideas, these women are ambitious, innovative, purpose-driven and, above all, brave. A hefty measure of self-belief is required to act boldly and take the leap into the insecure world of entrepreneurship and small business.

All of the women that we have profiled are incredibly passionate about making connections between people and across sectors, in building communities, and in using collective and collaborative methods to develop their ideas and achieve their goals. They share a strong social conscience, but are also focused on achieving real and measurable outcomes. They are realists rather than idealists, and they understand that business has a large role to play in achieving positive social and environmental change.

The challenges of developing an idea from scratch to a successful social (or traditional) business can’t be underestimated. There are problems with women not paying themselves enough compared to their male founders, and this US study shows a disparity in the investment women founders attract compared to their male peers. But the advantage of greater flexibility, autonomy and personal and professional purpose is attracting more women to try their hand at developing their own ‘thing’.

At the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Melbourne, a program for emerging social entrepreneurs wanting to learn and develop their idea, 70% of the 250 Fellows are women, a number that is on the increase. Although male start-up entrepreneurs, particularly in technology, still far outnumber women, the female participation rate appears to be increasing.

As Jessica Livingston, co-founder of the famous start-up accelerator Y Combinator said in a recent article for Tech Crunch; 2014 could be the ‘tipping point’ for female founders:

“Because YC invests so early and is so focused on funding outliers, we tend to see trends first. So when we see that 25% of startups in the current Y Combinator batch have female founders, I’m certain something is going on here,” Livingston said.

“In any big change there’s always a moment when people think it is a tipping point. I wouldn’t be surprised if in five years, we feel like 2014 was the tipping point for female founders.”

As others have noted, we might be careful not to simply focus on the ‘top end of town’ when evaluating the progress of women in leadership, and take into account the financial and social contributions that women are making, and their personal choices about flexibility and where they choose to create their personal impact.