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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

“I Didn’t Get to University Until I was 40. And Studying at 40 Was an Aha Moment”- The Mind Lab CEO Frances Valintine talks Bravery, Motherhood & Why There’s No Time Limit on Starting Again

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In Partnership with BNZ

For more than 20 years, The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab Founder and CEO Frances Valintine has dedicated herself to democratising the digital world so that everyone gets the skills and opportunities they need to future proof their careers. Here are some of the highlights from our Capsule Chats Over Coffee Instagram Live – available to watch in full here – where Frances spoke to us about starting a business, going to university at 40 and the unexpected moment of validation (starring Richard Branson) that made her realise her business was on the right path.

Whenever I talk to people about their career path, I always start off by asking – when you were in high school, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I always thought I’d end up in design, I was a really avid designer right from a very young age – whether it was painting or photography or creating things. I always assumed that would be my path. I actually went to five different high schools but at 17, I finished what was the equivalent of Year 12 and went on a one-way ticket to London. 

I didn’t know why I was going but I had this incredible curiosity about the world beyond our shores and it took me in a completely different direction. Once I landed in London it was the beginning of the consumer tech revolution and so suddenly you had people talking about personal computers for the first time and I was in the thick of it, and it took my career in a completely different journey as I thought about technology and people and development of talent and capabilities.

I’ve never really left my creative side behind – I still love a lot of different creative outputs – but I definitely stumbled into technology and education, in a very profound way, and decided that was going to be my life. 

Did you have role models in that career path that were ahead of you or was it more about forging your own path?
Initially my role models were a bunch of innovators who were really carving new spaces and they were all male, which was really interesting because it was technology and there was really an absence of females at the time. But there were these visionaries who were coming into the technology space and I was mesmerised by this idea that you can create something from nothing, create an entire industry that no one has ever heard of before. 

I was mesmerised by this idea that you can create something from nothing, create an entire industry that no one has ever heard of before. 

It was over time that I started to understand that technology was a tool, and that tool was going to be a profound instrument for so many people in their industries. And now we’ve completely changed what we do in life. I look back – I was an early 70s child – and when I was growing up, there was only 3.5 billion people in the world. There’s now nearly eight. Everything was analogue, everything was predictable. I think about how much has dramatically changed in my lifetime – and all of it has been changed because of technology. And most of those things are beneficial to humans. We’re in a much better place, in many, many ways – although right now you could say it’s a bit tough. But we don’t have that same levels of some of the issues we had in the 60s, 70s, 80s, where it was that idea of ‘the haves and the have nots’ to a greater extent. 

I bypassed the whole university experience and didn’t get to university until I was 40. And studying at 40, it was like an ‘aha moment.’ 

Do you think that awareness of ‘the haves and have nots’ played a big part in why you wanted to set up The Mind Lab and democratise that access to digital skills?
Before setting up Mind Lab and, more recently, Tech Futures Lab, my view was about ‘how do you democratise education’ so that people don’t get intimidated by the traditional system. Just by the very fact that I had gone to London at 17, I bypassed the whole university experience and didn’t get to university until I was 40. And studying at 40, it was like an ‘aha moment.’ 

I’d been in education for a long time at that stage, but I’d never gone through the formal pathway and once I became a student myself as an adult, I suddenly realised just how impactful having really bold and brave conversations with thinking people was to build confidence to do things differently.

So, I look back and, at 35, I’d never stood on a stage. I’d never been a spokesperson for anything. I’d gone around living my life as an employee or having little tactical side hustles on the side, but I’d never thought I’d been about being an entrepreneur because of my confidence. I didn’t think that I could stand as a leader. And then when I went into education, I realised that I had all the ingredients to become a leader and make a decision and become an entrepreneur. It was all about education, that made a difference. It gave me the empowerment to say that with knowledge, you can do anything. 

You can literally reinvent yourself completely; you can decide to walk away from your career and start something new. You can start a business; you can take that side hustle into something that is quite significant. 

It makes you realise just how many people have got a dormant passion for something that they desperately wish they could initiate and follow through on. 

I love the idea of going to university at 40. I feel like we’re so bombarded with ’30 under 30’ ideas of success, it’s really good to see examples that there can be real benefits to being older when you pivot or change careers.
Between the Mind Lab and the Tech Futures Lab, we have around 8000 graduates now and the average age is 44, so I was in good company. We even have scholarships available for over 60s, so people who are doing a masters of Technological Future, at 60, at 65. The idea is we need to increase that participation in learning and as a country, we have the lowest participation in professional development in the OECD. 

So, we only have 5% of our population have a post graduate qualification, and that compares to the average across the OECD of around 15-20%. So, part of it is ‘how do you get back into those conversations that challenge you’ and I think if you go back into learning as an adult, it means you have the tools to go ‘actually, I can start something.’ And one of the things that I love is that so many of our students go on to become entrepreneurs. 

They follow a path that they’ve always loved but never been brave enough to step into it. It makes you realise just how many people have got a dormant passion for something that they desperately wish they could initiate and follow through on. 

And part of that is having confidence and I think particularly for women, we are so deeply concerned about that imposter syndrome that we all know about, that I think when we get amongst a group of like-minded cohorts of people, particularly other females who are going through the exact same thing at the same time, it’s pretty inspiring. I get inspired every day by the students. 

It was so interesting because I was SO shy and so introverted as a child, so ‘brave’ wasn’t something I would ever describe myself as.

You talked before about bravery and a couple of the anecdotes that pop out from your own career path are along those lines – taking a one way ticket to London at 17, starting a different career path at 40. Do you consider yourself a brave person?
I’ve definitely got braver as I’ve grown older. I was incredibly shy when I was younger. Strangely enough, I’ve just finished writing a book that comes out next year – got to do the plug for Harper Collins, who called me up and said, ‘you should write this all down’. And when I was writing this book over this year, it was so interesting because I was SO shy and so introverted as a child, so ‘brave’ wasn’t something I would ever describe myself as.

But as I grew older and got more comfortable in my skin, as I learnt that my ideas were okay and they had legs, it definitely helped. I also surrounded myself with a bunch of really remarkable women. I have a group of women where we’re thick as thieves and we actually call each other ‘Sister wives’, which is actually a bit creepy, but the Sister wives and I have a Slack channel and we have constant Zoom conversations. 

They are my rock and having someone that you can reach out to and say, ‘is this a really dumb idea?’ and put it out there… I think a sounding board of people you can trust is super important. I didn’t meet this group of women through my kids or through my work, I met them through curated experiences where we were at an event and we sought each other out and connected on a level of conversation that was really interesting. 

It’s like any of those conversations in life where it’s surprising how quickly and intimate a conversation can be, where perhaps your sharing things you wouldn’t expect to be sharing within a couple of hours of meeting someone, but you have a huge amount of trust and you know there’s no judgement, you know they’re there for the right reasons. 

When you follow the people you grew up with, or the people you went to school or university with, you miss the input of people you need a different stage of your life. So that’s why learning is so important, it puts you in cohort of different people to who you might normally be surrounded by, in the same way if you take up an art class, or kite surfing, and you mix with a new group of people. I think it’s super important that we keep growing those connections, for different reasons. I think we need people to support us when things are tough but also to help us bounce around ideas that aren’t so strong.

When you are an entrepreneur, you are making decisions that are influencing your entire team… if I make bad decisions, I’m making decisions that affect, potentially, a huge number of people who I love and care about. 

Do you think having that group of women helps build resilience, as well?
It’s really important. Even in the weekend I had a conversation with them about ‘do you think this matters?’ and a couple of them were like ‘pull your head in, Frances, you’re just in lockdown blues,’ and I realised they were right and I went for a power walk and came back feeling better [laughs].

For every entrepreneur, and every female entrepreneur, it’s important they have a team of people behind them like that. Sometimes it’s people they’ve known for life and other times it’s people who have come into their lives and nurtured new friendships. But you cannot do it alone. When you are an entrepreneur, you are making decisions that are influencing your entire team. I know, across my team… if I think of the effect of 100 people and their families, if I make bad decisions, I’m making decisions that affect, potentially, a huge number of people who I love and care about. 

So, there’s a weight of responsibility and sometimes that’s really isolating, so you do need people – not always inside your work, because some of the things that worry you, you don’t want to worry them with. There’s always that burden of responsibility and we all have it to a certain extent in our jobs… but I think it’s next level when you’re an employer and you’re trying to grow an organisation with a huge amount of impact and desire to do something different, but in the back of your head, you’ve got this disquiet about ‘are you doing the right thing? Is this going to pay out okay? Am I going to be able to grow?’ and I don’t hear that same niggling sound in the ear from a lot of male entrepreneurs. 

Perhaps it’s because there are a lot more competitors and leaders who are male, so there are a lot more people to bounce ideas off – and I’m really glad the next generation have more, there are a huge numbers of astounding female entrepreneurs, for every generation we get more and more. My role models growing up were the big, bold, shoulder-padded, talk like the boys, quite brutal females. And funnily enough, I still know some of them and now I realise they were just as terrified as anyone, it was all bravado. 

But at the time, it was their way of cutting through and feeling like they would be taken seriously. What I love now is that you can rock up now and be a very soft and observant leader, or you can be someone that comes in and just quietly goes about change, and not feel like you have to be something that you’re not. The last 20 years, particularly, have been a really big shift.

You talk about that feeling of responsibility and mental load is such an issue for women in business and in particular, women with children in business. How have you managed the work/life balance?
I don’t think there is such a thing as work/life balance, I think there are periods of really good balance. My children now are at university age, so they’ve basically gone but I still talk to them every day, but when my career was really taking off and they were younger, there were a lot of times where I said ‘look, Mum’s not going to be here for the next month,’ because I had to be overseas, I had to be driving something forward. But they had such a great network of grandparents and their dad, but it was the guilt that I carried. There were times when I would be sitting there thinking ‘why am I in this hotel room, when I desperately want to be with my kids.’ 

But actually, they understood that there were times when that had to happen and when I’d come back, I would literally put a line through my diary and say everything’s about you now. I would try to be the mum who dropped them off and picked them up from school, even at a time when working from home was almost unheard of, but I was trying to really present. And actually, at one point I took a year out of my career and just said, ‘I’m just going to be Mum.’ I got someone in to run my business for the year just to make sure I didn’t look back with full regret. 

I still have regrets – there are things that I’m going to look back on and think, ‘I can never buy back that time,’ but on the other side, I have the most remarkable relationship with my kids and they fully understand that that was part of a life growing up that enabled them to do pretty remarkable things and see great things because they often came with me. And now I’m starting to see their own views on business and wanting to start things. They’ve very different, the careers now are so different and they’re all-around technology and they’ll do their own journey and I hope I’ll be there to help them in their journey as well.

Because ‘imposters’ are bad things and so are ‘syndromes’, so I was like ‘why have we give ourselves the double whammy of having this terrible name of having ‘imposter syndrome?’ 

People talk a lot about imposter syndrome, and I wondered, when it came to starting your own business and running a team, when did you feel like ‘I deserve to be here, I’m doing a good job, I’ve made the right decision.’ 
First of all, I came to the conclusion that the terminology of imposter syndrome itself… I never wanted to have it. Because ‘imposters’ are bad things and so are ‘syndromes’, so I was like ‘why have we give ourselves the double whammy of having this terrible name of having ‘imposter syndrome?’ 

So, I came down to saying, ‘I have to be comfortable in my own skin of who I am and not feel like I have to be something that I think is ‘the right way’ to do things.’ Strangely, although The Mind Lab was not my first business, the first time I got a really big validation that I was onto something was an external one. We’d only been running for about a year and an award came up – which we hadn’t entered, someone had entered on our behalf – and it was an Asia Pacific award for The Best Start-Up and we ended up winning the New Zealand category and then we won the Asia Pacific category. Steve Wozniak and Richard Branson were the judges, and I was like ‘You can’t get better than this…’ 

And the second time was when I was at a bus stop and two people were talking about my business, and they were talking about it in a really positive way. It was so interesting to be eavesdropping on someone talking about your business in a way that was really articulate. It was like an elevator pitch I should write down! It was that surprise element of someone going ‘this is meeting a need and it’s doing it well, and it feels like it’s doing something others are not doing.’ I’m sure every entrepreneur has an experience like that, where someone unexpected has said ‘you’re doing something okay!’

For our previous Capsule Chats Over Coffee, where Brodie Kane talks about battling imposter syndrome and starting a business in a pandemic, click here

This article is only for your information. It’s not professional advice (financial, legal, or otherwise) and can’t be relied upon. If you do use or rely on it, then no one, including BNZ, is liable for any resulting losses (both direct and indirect). Opinions may not be the same as BNZ (or anyone else). For help, please contact BNZ or your professional advisor.

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