Ever since Zoe Piper left her home in country NSW at the age of 15, to move interstate, she’s talked her way into big opportunities that have shaped her career.
She turned a week’s work experience at the CSIRO into a seven-year stint with the agency, showed up at the University of Canberra on the first day of classes and asked them to let her into a Bachelor of Communications/Economics degree (having not actually applied and already accepted an offer elsewhere), and left the security of a full time role to become a consultant.
“Becoming financially responsible for yourself at the age of 15 forces you to grow up fast!” she tells Women’s Agenda. It also taught her to ignore the so-called importance of ‘specialisation’, to instead focus on developing a broad skills-set, and that life and career opportunities come to those who ask for them.
Piper’s since developed a diverse career in management consulting, technology, manufacturing and investment. But while she’s currently managing the Productivity Unit at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, it’s her work as an entrepreneur that’s caught our attention.
In 2009, she moved to chase the hundreds of major Green Star construction projects going on in Australia by co-founding Ecolour, providing premium quality paint, manufactured in Byron Bay. The products are non-toxic, carbon neutral, yet still cost competitive, chasing a domestic market worth $3 billion annually. Now in the final stages of a large round of capital raising, Piper is a finalist in the emerging entrepreneur category of the 2015 NAB Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards.
And because Piper’s learnt doing one thing at a time is overrated, she’s also doing a PhD in public policy at the Australian National University, expected to be completed in 2018.
Piper believes her adaptability has always served her well, something she puts to full use in a ‘portfolio career’ that has seen her work in IT, private equity, procurement, manufacturing and security risk management. She’s studied in the US, Europe and China and is the chair of the ACT Regional Council at the Australian Institute of Management.
“I’m aiming for a career as the ultimate generalist!” she says. “It all helps me to understand things from different perspectives, and to see how trends from different industries will begin to intersect and impact each other.”
The short facts on Zoe Piper’s story.
Born. Pambula, NSW
Childhood? Country NSW (most of my schooling was in Braidwood)
Leadership qualifications. Master of Management and MBA (and a young leaders program in China)
High school career ambition? I originally wanted to go into science
First ever job? Working in the Braidwood Bakery (followed by a summer job as switchboard operator role at Daydream Island Resort)
Who and what do you lead? I’m the Co-Founder/Director of an Australian based manufacturing business. I also manage the Productivity Unit at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI)
How do you stay informed? I listen to ABC Radio National in the car, and I subscribe to The Conversation and SmartCompany (and follow related publications)
And manage your wellbeing? Time with friends and family, and doing different activities to keep active are really important.
First thing in the morning? I’m really not a morning person so I start out with the easier tasks that don’t require too much brainpower (like getting through email so I know what I have to work on each day). Afternoon/evening is the best time for me to do more strategic/analytical work.
An average day in the life is.. Balancing my role as a company owner/Director and my work as a consultant (as well as undertaking a PhD) makes for a fairly busy day. There is always plenty of reading to do, reports to write, stakeholders to engage with, strategies to plan and budgets to manage. I’ll usually have a bit of a break when I leave the office around 6pm, then start again from home and work into the night.
Leadership ‘superpower’? Adaptability and having a broad skill base has always served me well. I’ve worked in IT, private equity, security risk management, procurement, manufacturing, and business productivity, all of which helps me to understand things from different perspectives (and see how trends from different industries will begin to intersect and impact each other). I’m aiming for a career as the ultimate generalist!
What needs to change in order to better support women at work? Acknowledging and addressing unconscious bias is key (Cordelia Fine’s work on this is excellent). I think that greater equality at home is essential to achieving greater equality in the work place. It would be excellent to see some ads for cleaning products that showed men undertaking this work!
Advice to 18-year-old self. Don’t ever doubt yourself, your experience and skills are far more valuable than you realise. Oh, and ignore everything you hear about the importance of specialisation/focus and not taking on too many things at once, doing things one at a time is overrated!
Zoe Piper’s story is the latest of our 100 Stories Project, in which we’re asking women about a turning point that’s shifted her leadership career. Telling 100 stories from January 1 2015, the project showcases the diverse range of leadership careers available, as well as some of the brilliant achievements and fascinating career paths of women. It also demonstrates how planned and unexpected forks in the road can take you places you never thought possible.
Other women featured in this series include:
Angela Ferguson: The woman designing the future of work (Google included)
Jo-Ann Hicks: eBay’s leading woman on the risks that made her digital career
Annabelle Daniel: ‘I’m the unlikely combination of CEO and single parent
Sarah Liu: Multiple job titles and variety: Life as a ‘slashie’
Lindy Stephens: When the power shifts, women should make the most of it
Kate Morris: Why I gave up law to become an online entrepreneur
Jacque Comery: Leading a team of 12 on an Antarctic base