Rebecca Mills: Building Strategies for a More Beautiful World

It's day four of Global Entrepreneurship Week and today we are profiling a globally connected big systems thinker.

Rebecca Mills is a sustainability strategist. Embracing the latest in sustainable business thinking, she has worked with some of the brightest minds in both New Zealand and beyond, towards global systems that work towards solutions for people, the planet and profit. We are thrilled that since the time of this interview, Rebecca has also joined the KiwiConnect Team.

Not one for tinkering around the edges, Rebecca is on our hit list of inspiring Kiwi women entrepreneurs, due to her ability to see the big picture, think globally and tackle problems at their very core.

Rebecca was the founding strategist working with the B Team – a not-for-profit initiative formed by a global group of leaders, including Sir Richard Branson and Arianna Huffington, to create a future where the purpose of business is to be a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit. She is also the New Zealand representative of the World Economic Forum’s group of Global Shapers – a community of young people who are dedicated to developing their potential to serve society.

We picked her brain about New Zealand’s entrepreneurial environment for women and the lessons she has learned from navigating global business circles.

Do we have the right business environment in New Zealand for women entrepreneurs to thrive?

I think the first point to make is that generally, New Zealand women aren’t currently thriving in entrepreneurship and leadership.  The Human Rights Commission’s 2012 Census of Women's Participation report opens with the cautious phrase: "New Zealand is making slow, incremental, but unspectacular progress for women in many areas." An example of this slow progress is that NZ women hold just 14.75 per cent of top 100 NZX company directorships.

I think that there are three critical ingredients for female entrepreneurs to thrive – they need good access to networks, good access to role models, and they need the ability to be able to see that they can be all that they want to be. NZ is small, compared to other countries, so we should have an advantage in our ability to network and connect with role models.

There are some key aspects of the ecosystem that we could nurture - a fair amount of competition exists between women in NZWe could do a lot better at supporting each other rather than competing.

What challenges have you faced as a woman navigating circles of global business leaders, and how have you overcome these?

I think in navigating these circles, it’s important to be grounded and brave. You need to be both of these things if you are going to be truly present, engage in the conversation and give the most value.

I’ve certainly been intimidated at times. One of the things that helps me in those instances is to remind myself that I’ve been invited there for a reason, and that as female entrepreneurs, we have valuable contributions to give. I also find myself going back to a comment I’ve heard from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, “There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”  It’s reassuring to me as it points to the fact that we all feel like this.

I know through experience that perfectionism is a killer of confidence. Study after study confirms that perfectionism is largely a female issue, one that extends through women’s entire lives. We don’t answer questions until we are totally sure of the answer, we don’t submit a report until we’ve edited it ad nauseam, and we don’t sign up for that triathlon unless we know we are faster and fitter than is required. Just being aware of this has helped me tremendously.

Within the current environment in New Zealand, do you feel that successful women can have it all, or are there compromises that need to be made?

I think this an issue for both women and men. But I’m not sure that the use of the word compromise is useful here.

There are three spheres I like to work in, that make up the life I lead – dreaming big, getting stuff done, and having fun with people that I love.

When I look at these three spheres, sometimes I need to prioritize one area over another, but I don’t really look at that as a compromise. What I think is important is to keep a radar over each sphere and be aware of where you are focusing your energies. If we find we’re focusing too much on one area, we should pull back and re-orient where required.

As a woman in business, I try to think that this is a reality of living a full life, practicing acceptance and feeling blessed for everything we have. We need to be kind and gentle with ourselves and each other. I think women have a role to play here, to extend empathy to each other, and remove the guilt that we feel for not doing everything all at once.

What’s the one thing that New Zealand can do within the next few years, that would encourage and support more women going into entrepreneurship? 

I think there’s one very simple thing that that New Zealand could do, and that’s to tell the stories of the women who have already done this. It’s important for women to see other role models who are leading successful lives – and I mean successful lives in a holistic sense. Tell the stories of what it looks like, what it feels like, how they celebrate, what it’s like with their families, the reality of their lives 

There are a number of young female entrepreneurs who are concerned about these things – so I think telling the stories of what it is really like, letting them know it’s possible to maintain a balance, could really transform perceptions and inspire young female entrepreneurs.

You’ve worked in teams with some really inspiring women, the likes of Kathy Calvin and Arianna Huffington. How has working with such visionary leaders shaped your thinking?

I’ve learned so much from amazing women leaders that I’ve had the chance to work with. I recall the first time I met Arianna, I was somewhat overwhelmed and I made a slip up in conversation. I mentioned a great quote from Sheryl Sandberg, but the way it came across, sounded like I was attributing the quote to Arianna.

I was highly embarrassed, so when we sat down to lunch, I apologised and explained that I knew it wasn’t her quote. She looked me dead in the eye and said “Darling, do not give it a minute more of your thought. Thank you for your apology, but let’s move on”. And with that, she did not hesitate to move on to another discussion, asking about a project I was involved in.

So the lesson I learned here, is to be direct - to say what you mean, to apologise when you’ve slipped up, to forgive yourself and to also just be really present in the conversation.

It is possible to be smart, humble and empathetic, and still be driven as a female entrepreneur.

Which Kiwi women entrepreneurs do you admire? 

There are a number of Kiwi women entrepreneurs that I admire, and I’d like there to be a lot more of them. There are two that particularly stand out for me.

The first is Claudia Batten who is a big advocate of Kiwi women entrepreneurs. She has built two successful companies, Massive and more recently, Victors & Spoils. She has an amazing blog called Stilettos in the Boardroom, which is an honest and vulnerable take on the challenges she faces day to day.

The other is Kathryn Wilson, who has her own line of award-winning shoes – she’s got a really beautiful story of how she got into it, and she’s really starting to make her mark on the world.

Both these women have similar traits that I admire. They are both sassy, sexy women who are aware of their own brand, and aware of their own value.

Do you mentor? How do you choose who to mentor? What are you looking for in a mentee?

I mentor a select group of both men and women. I like to spend time with people that I feel a connection with, and people who believe its possible to be successful in business, while doing good in the world. To have a social and environmental impact while being entrepreneurs, leaders and visionaries. So I mentor not just entrepreneurs, but people who are working to find their purpose.

It’s really inspiring to see the sheer volume of young entrepreneurs who are working within this purpose-driven sphere at the moment, and that gives me a lot of reassurance about the future of our country.

Any advice for aspiring women entrepreneurs?

I’m going to keep this really simple. 

The best advice I have for female entrepreneurs is to start where you are, do what you can, and use what you have.

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