Just last week, Australian businesswoman Gemma Manning, founder and Managing Director of strategic marketing consultancy firm Manning and Co (M&C), and international accelerator Gemstar, was awarded the Australia Chamber of Commerce Singapore’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
The award coincided with the announcement of the Gemstar Singapore team launching a Diploma in Entrepreneurship and Innovation with private education institute Kaplan later this year, as well as the opening of the Gemstar Innovation Centre in Perth which opens next week. In a sit-down interview with Sneha Khale, managing editor oWomen Love Tech, Gemma talked about her businesses and their expansion across the Asian market, her move to Singapore from Australia and its challenges and rewards, being a female entrepreneur and a role model to her daughters, finding stimulating causes to work for, and pitching to Sir Richard Branson!
Congratulations on the award, and thanks for meeting with me. How does it feel, looking back at what you’ve achieved so far, from where you started out.
It’s exciting because we just celebrated 10 years of Manning and Co. I started the company after I had my daughter and I faced some workplace gender discrimination. And thankfully, my old boss who’d left by then, was quite supportive of me. He asked me to consult for him, and that’s how I started my business and it grew organically from there. If you’d asked me 10 years back if I’d be doing what I’m doing now, I would’ve said no way. But having the challenges has been great, and it’s something we talk about in the Entrepreneurship Diploma – entrepreneurs need resilience. Going out into the workforce where women still have to face the glass ceiling just didn’t compute for me. But the hardships that you experience in your life’s journey can give you the drive as an entrepreneur. So if I look back at everything I’ve been through, I’d say that all of that has shaped who I am today. And it’s given me the fire in the belly to be a role model for my two daughters, and show them that they can do anything.
You’ve talked about entrepreneurship being rewarding but also very challenging, and how having the right mentors and support networks is very crucial to be successful. Who were your biggest inspiration and mentors?
It’s interesting because most of my mentors have been men, although as a woman I have faced a lot of challenges. Even in Singapore, my mentor was in the room with me when I won the award; knowing I have his support and that someone like him champions me, means a lot to me. I belong to the generation of female entrepreneurs who didn’t have too many female role models to look up to. Which is why it was very important to me when we forged the Diploma and the YoungGems program that young women, but also young men, would have female role models to look up to in the future. There’s a lot of buzz around entrepreneurship and tech startups, and after over 10 years in the business, I have the battle wounds and the scars that prove that it’s not just the hype and the glamour that the media makes it out to be; there’s so much more that goes into it. And the right mentorship can help young people in the right, but realistic, direction.
I read an article of yours where you talked about the challenges you faced with the move to Singapore (such as finding a school for your daughters) because there aren’t too many women who make those moves. Most women move with their expat husbands, and maybe start their businesses after they relocate. What was the driving factor for you to relocate to Singapore?
I went through divorce six years ago, and have been a single parent. I think the biggest factor for my move was survival. Even the drive to start a second business with Gemstar that would go on to be bigger than Manning and Co. was part of a survival strategy. My move to Singapore was because I had a vision about how to start building the business there. I financed my businesses myself, and backed myself to expand (people think that the Australian government has funded me, but it hasn’t). So I couldn’t do it from so far, when you’ve put so much into your business and invested in it financially. People call my move courageous or brave, but I didn’t think of it like that in the moment.
What do you find different about doing business in Asia compared to Australia?
I lived in Japan as an 18-year old, so I had early appreciation for a different culture and language. I always had APAC roles in my corporate career. So I was good at adapting to the local culture. I think that’s what a lot of Australian companies get wrong. Respecting the culture of the country where you’re living, working, doing business is so important. I’ve put that time and energy; I employ local Singaporeans, I’m very much part of the local community. We’re not just an Australian company flexing our muscles, it’s about us wanting to make a difference to the locals as well. And you also need to build the relationships. I see a lot of Australian companies saying, “if we don’t have a deal by the second or third meeting, we’re done.” You can’t have that attitude.
Kiwa Techwear has come up from the YoungGems program. Are there any other products, or tech categories that you’re excited about?
We’ve unearthed about 20 Australian companies for us to support, that are ready to be introduced to the market. We’re helping these products from start to end. Tech startups need so much help with how they pitch themselves etc, it’s surprising. Kiwa won the YoungGems competition, and part of their prize was commercializing the product with them. Looking after them and navigating their progress is great. I think tech is a huge category by itself, but I like products that use technology to work on health or social good, which is what Kiwa does.
You do all your brand/creative/design work in house. How do you see see the consulting business shifting as technology improves? Do you see artificial intelligence or machine learning playing a role in your business anytime soon?
We’re automating some of our marketing content, but ultimately, you’re always going to need some human element that does the creative content and the storytelling. Most people can’t even write well, they can’t tell their own stories well. We have our marketing IP, and we’ve incorporated it in our diploma and at Gemstar. Automation is good, but the creative consulting industry won’t be as affected by bots and machines, not for a while.
You’re expanding to the emerging markets, like India and Vietnam. India, by nature, is a pretty chaotic market. What’re you doing strategically that makes the the entry easier?
Being in Singapore really helped me with expanding into India, because there are many Indians in Singapore and there’s a lot of business between those two countries. I made a lot of great contacts, but I’d never assume that I can go to India and be able to set everything up myself. So the first thing I made sure was that I had a really good local team to help me in Mumbai. I want to hire locals, no expats. They really are the strategic key to building my business there.
The Fire on Ice expedition to Antarctica, as part of the Unstoppables or a week on Necker island with Sir Richard Branson – how do such meet-ups help focus on the work you’re doing? How do they inspire you?
Those are great, because nobody’s talking about day-to-day business or how much money your company makes. You meet some really great people, and there are all these interesting ideas, about the world and the environment, conservation, and doing social good. It’s very inspiring, and the right kind of motivation when you’re back at work! They make you realise that there’s something larger than the business.
I know you write for various websites and publications, but with so much valuable experience, wisdom, and insight to offer, would you be interested in writing a book someday?
I would absolutely love to do write a book! And pass on the wisdom I’ve gained, absolutely!
Until you do, have you considered developing a women-focused network where female role models can help out aspiring female entrepreneurs?
That was the idea I pitched to Richard (Branson). For a non-profit called Light Years, that would aim to transform the lives of young disadvantaged women in all aspects of their lives through a holistic and comprehensive educational program. Ultimately, that’s what I want to do, be able to give back. I want Manning and Co., Gemstar, the Diploma Program and the innovation centers to work well, so that I can focus on the socially good causes, and be a role model to my daughters.
Well, we’re sure she already is!