Five Women. Five Questions. Five Days.
Who: Diane Foreman, entrepreneur
Why: As the woman who founded, chaired and ran Emerald Group, straddling multiple businesses across a number of sectors, she is considered one of New Zealand’s most successful businesswomen. But not just that, she’s well known for her charitable endeavours, chairing the Ferguson Foreman Foundation, and believes mentoring is one of the keys to success.
This interview with Diane Foreman has been scheduled for weeks and yet I’ve still not read the bestseller she released late last year, In The Arena.
It’s not that I’m disinterested. I had intended to read it over the Christmas break but the Netflix doco-series Making A Murderer stuffed up that plan. And anyway, I feel as though I already know enough about Foreman from what I’ve read about her in the media – she’s the entrepreneurial firecracker with an estimated fortune of $180 million, who trained as a typist and ended up becoming - as Forbes magazine puts it - one of the most powerful women in Asia.
Last year, I lapped up Foreman’s Fast 50, which she rolled out on Facebook ahead of her book launch. They were her 50 top tips to success – little nuggets like no. 41: “Innovation is everything” and no. 48: “Communicate, communicate, communicate”. But now having whizzed across Auckland on my scooter in rush hour traffic, as I stand outside Foreman’s gorgeous home on a gorgeous leafy street, it’s no. 6 that I can’t get out of my head: “Never hire someone with dirty shoes.”
I look down at my rather pathetic, tatty flats. I’ll just have to explain that I’m riding a scooter, but tip no. 38 is now blaring like an alarm in my brain: “Never complain, never explain.”
Minutes later I’m sitting on a sofa in Foreman’s lounge and we start with a question I know she’ll have no trouble answering. I preface it by explaining what I perceive to be a commonly held notion - that there is no inequality for women in New Zealand. Why? Well, just look at how well Lorde, Helen Clark and Lydia Ko are doing on the international stage. We have no trouble recalling the positive stories we’re fed through the mainstream media, and thus tend to think there is no cause for concern because women like the aforementioned are doing so bloody well. But the not-so-rosy stories are easily forgotten.
Take last year’s Human Rights Commission’s Tracking Equality at Work report which showed that women had higher unemployment than men; were under-represented in leadership roles in both the public and private sectors, and made up two thirds of those earning minimum wages. It probably made a few radio bulletins and covered several column inches in the papers, but I doubt many really remember it.
The bottom line is – Kiwi women are underrepresented, underpaid and undervalued. So where are we going wrong? And why are fewer women sitting at the top of the table in our boardrooms?
“Our current problem is that we train our women to sell time,” Foreman whips back without losing a beat. “And selling time is wonderful, but you’ll never create a business out of that. We’ve got to train and empower our women at a much younger level. To get women interested in business, we’ve got to start going into the schools and we’ve got to start making being a businesswoman as sexy and as attractive as being a doctor or a lawyer, or an accountant.”
Foreman spends a lot amount of time visiting schools and sharing her story and she thinks others should too. “It should be a government directive that schools have got to get business people on their boards. But that person has to do more than just sit on that board. They’ve got to get into the classrooms and work with the kids.”
According to the Ministry for Women for every dollar a man earns in New Zealand a woman will earn 11.8 cents less for the same job. “I find it absolutely abhorrent. I’ve employed thousands of people in my life and I have never paid a woman one cent less than I’ve paid a man. And none of the organisations I’ve bought or have been involved with have either. So I kind of want to understand why, and who is doing it?”
I ask Foreman whether she thinks some of it can be attributed to the common belief that women are useless at negotiating.
“Men tend to fake it before they make it, whereas women tend to be more authentic and genuine. It’s that authenticity that gets them into trouble. That’s their biggest fault in negotiations – women tell you how it is and men tell you what you want to hear. Men are not necessarily better negotiators, they’re just better at bullshit.”
If Foreman was entering the workforce in 2016, how would she approach a job interview? It’s difficult to answer because of course she’s now got the benefit of hindsight. But still, I ask her to imagine she’s just starting out. She’s done her research and knows that her pay should range from $60,000 to $80,000. “Well I’m an entrepreneur,” she replies. “So I’d say, ‘Pay me $60,000. But let’s renegotiate that in three months after I’ve achieved my KPIs. Because then I’ll be worth $90,000’.”
“What impresses me,” she adds, “is when people say, ‘I’ll prove it to you’.”
So simple and yet it’s a tactic I’ve never thought to use myself.
There is another cliche about women in the workforce I want to discuss. It’s something I’ve heard a lot – men are better bosses than women because women are threatened by other women who are younger than them.
“I completely agree. I think women are much tougher on other women. I call it the elbow block, they put their elbows out and they think, ‘It was really hard for me to get here, so I’m going to make it hard for you too.
“Also, women are quite vain and I think if you’ve spent your whole life making yourself look attractive and you get a great job and then you see somebody who is 20 years younger, who looks better than you, is slimmer than you and can do your job better than you, women tend to try and knock them down. I think it’s really poor. Men are much better bosses to women.”
I hadn’t expected such an affirmative response from Foreman. Perhaps it’s because there’s a part of me that so wants to believe all women are looking out for one another.
“Women have to give themselves a good shaking and say, ‘Hang on, I want to do a good job here, which is making the best possible return for my shareholders’,” she says. “You need gender diversity in the work place and you need to know your faults, and you need to compensate for them, so you always need to ask yourself when you’re hiring, ‘Are they better than me?’”
We continue talking about a couple of other myths – one, that having children holds you back and two, that women are too emotional to run good businesses. For the record, Foreman doesn’t believe being a mum necessarily has to be a roadblock to success and nor does she think women are too emotional. That said there’s nothing wrong with showing a bit of your softer side. After all, it’s women who are making the big purchasing decisions and having someone who can appeal to that softer side is good for business, she says.
In all of this, what strikes me is that Foreman is so incredibly fair. I stop her at one point to tell her that she’s really challenging my negative preconceptions about business people. “Oh good,” she says. “Business is about being fair. If you’re a fair person and an even-handed person you’ll be successful.”
I’m back on script now – I only have five questions and I’m worried I’m running out of time. My next question is about ‘millennials’ or Generation Y. It seems to me that we’re now living in an age where young people believe they can have it all, and yet, they’re operating in an environment in which work expectations are extreme and probably the toughest they’ve ever been. Simply put, can you still be successful (and rich) if you’re someone who doesn’t want to check emails at the weekend, or work long into the evening?
Sorry guys, the answer is no. And not just no; it’s a big fat NO.
“Work life balance is a really important thing and if you want to 9 to 5, that’s great, get a job that’s 9 to 5, but don’t expect to be a multi millionaire,” she says.
“People think I’m money obsessed. But I’m choice obsessed. If you’re a very successful person, you make money and money buys choice. Once you’ve got the choice, you can decide whether you’re going to lie on the beach. But you can’t have it all. Work buys money, money buys you choice. And that’s the bottom line for me.”
Foreman’s amassed such a fortune she’s now in a position where she could lie on any beach in the world. She says she’s not money obsessed, but I still think it must be difficult to separate money from success. So I’m intrigued as to how she’ll answer the fifth and final question - can you pinpoint a time in your career when you were your happiest and most fulfilled?
She knows the exact moment. It takes place in 2010. She had been named Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009 and was representing New Zealand at the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year in Monte Carlo.
“I had just presented to the judges as the New Zealand winner and I knew there was nothing left in me. I knew I’d prepared myself really well, I’d given a really good scope about my business, I’d put myself up against the world’s best – I didn’t win – but I felt like I’d given it everything and I felt like I was at the pinnacle, that everything I’d done led to that moment in that judging room.
“I walked out into a beautiful day in Monte Carlo and it was just fabulous, the harbour was spread out before me, all the boats were there and they were twinkling in the sea and I thought ‘You done good’. It was a really special moment.”
I stop recording and that should be my cue to leave. But I don’t.
Foreman asks me what else I’m working on and we talk about a project I’m mulling over. I sit there in her living room for a good 20 minutes more, soaking up every piece of advice she’s offering up. She’s inspirational and she’s been so giving of her time. I was that girl who never thought a career in business was an option. I still am. And I laugh at the thought of me trying to run my own business. But perhaps I could. You know what, I am pretty sure I could.
She walks me to the door and tells me to stay in touch, then hands me a copy of her book. The book I’d put off reading so I could watch Making A Murderer. I won’t make the same mistake again.Support Villainesse