In today’s world, we’re lucky enough to have mentors and other inspirational women around us also slogging it out to make their business dreams come true. We’re buoyed by stories on TV of those who’ve gone before and drawn strength in building our empires from participating in online communities and organisations like Co.OfWomen. Of course, it hasn’t always been this way, and we’re grateful for those women who did the hard yards before us — with very little support — so we can learn from their vast experience. Meet one of Co.OfWomen’s trailblazers.
Lee Mathias is a pioneer if ever there was one. At 35 she was the first matron to ever have a baby while still in service, and in 1985 she was part of only the second group ever to study for an MBA in New Zealand. One of only five women in her class, she was pregnant and working full time as well as studying — 'a real oddball' for that period, as she puts it.
Lee had very few role models in an era when entrepreneurial women were a rare breed. “Some women had dress shops and some ex-nurses ran rest homes but there were no real disruptors as we know them today.” But Mathias was a disruptor, even if she didn’t know it then. That MBA would lead on to her and a dedicated team opening the doors to Birthcare in 1995 and going on to start Labtests in 2006 among many other incredible achievements, including being made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Lee currently Chairs Unitec and the Health Promotion Agency and is a Director of Pictor Limited, Health Alliance NZ Ltd, the Health Innovation Hub, and a Board member of ADHB.
Lee would have liked there to have been more people around to give her advice when she was starting out so she was only too happy to share some thoughts with us after 50 years in the workplace.
1. DON’T BE AFRAID TO BE A DISRUPTOR
“When we started Birthcare it was a real departure from what was happening at the time in maternity care. Non-interventional births and breastfeeding weren’t commonplace like they are now, but we knew things needed to change so went with that idea, even though it wasn’t the norm.”
2. PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE
“It took me a long time to put myself out there and speak at events and be seen publicly. I always felt I needed to be the most qualified person in the room to feel comfortable speaking but I would like to have backed myself earlier. I don’t think men think twice about being confident and great things can happen when you get out there.”
3. USE THE SUPPORT OF YOUR COLLEAGUES TO THRIVE
“Women are excellent at supporting each other and the power of a group of collaborative women can’t be underestimated in getting things happening. We’re nowhere near as cut-throat as men and that’s powerful. Use your colleagues and let them use your expertise too.”
4. IF YOU DON'T ASK, YOU DON'T GET
“There was a restructure when I was on the ACC Board and I was moved to the board of Healthwise, the purchasing agent. I turned to the chairman and said, ‘I think I should be chairman!’ To my surprise, he said he thought that was a great idea and that I’d be a great chairman. I learned that asking was a good thing.”
5. NEVER BE AFRAID TO DO THE RIGHT THING
“Often women know something’s not right but are inclined not to do anything about it because it can be hard when it’s their business and they’re up against it. If you do the right thing, and it’s safe and legal, and people are properly informed, then that’s good business. That’s what we had to do with Labtests, as the New Zealand taxpayer was being ripped off so badly by the provider at the time.”
6. GET IN THERE AND DO WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE IF IT'S GOING TO BENEFIT THE BUSINESS
“Sometimes you need to roll your sleeves up and do whatever needs doing, if that’s going to help your business at that moment. Yesterday and today I was in the lab all day putting labels on tiny bottles as there was no way we were going to get an enormous order away if I didn’t. Sure I’ll be back in the boardroom as director and shareholder next week, but that’s what I had to do yesterday.”
7. TAKE SOME TIME OUT
“Once your business is in a place where you can have some time out, make sure you take some sabbatical. I waited far too long to take that time to recharge, and I had wonderful staff who could have coped. Being an entrepreneur is all-consuming and you need to disconnect and regenerate from time to time. Don’t wait too long.”
8. ONCE YOU'VE MADE A DECISION, GO FORWARD WITH IT
“Once you’ve made a business decision and it’s all signed and sealed, go with it and don’t revisit it. I‘ve made some decisions I’ve regretted but what’s done is done and dwelling on it serves no purpose.”
I‘ve made some decisions I’ve regretted but what’s done is done and dwelling on it serves no purpose.