Don’t Just Survive, Thrive: “Don’t Let the Buggers Get You Down!” A Globally Successful CEO Shares her Tips for Getting Your Business off the Ground, Leadership and the Work/Life Juggle

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In partnership with BNZ


Welcome to our new series, Don’t Just Survive, Thrive – where we talk to Kiwi women absolutely nailing it in business. We’ll be talking to wonderful wāhine about their experiences – good and bad – in starting businesses, and with the support of BNZ, the tools that make business banking easy. Today, we talk to a globally successful CEO about being a tech CEO at just 24, creating a sustainable brand, motherhood and how to get ahead in business.

If you were looking for someone to go to for advice on how to build a business, how to find success, how to be a good leader, support other women and raise a family along the way, there’s really no better woman to go to than NZ’s very own, Helen Robinson, ONZM.

Helen has experienced success on the global stage – her current role is as CEO, Director and founding partner of Organic Initiative (Oi), a feminine hygiene brand with a social conscience. Founded in 2015, it is the fastest growing feminine hygiene brand in NZ and can already be found in thousands of stores in the USA (including CVS). They’ve also just announced its foray into Australia with its range in over 800 stores.  

But to rewind a little, Helen began her story when she “kind of fell into” the IT industry at an early age. By her early 20s she had already found herself running IT companies and it would be an industry she would spend nearly 30 years in. “Which sounds crazy,” she laughs, “at 56 I’m not that old!”

Her last corporate role was running a little old company you might have heard of – Microsoft NZ – before she got asked to help set up a company on behalf of the New Zealand Stock Exchange. This new business threw her into a new field – the environmental marketplace and came off the back of the newly formed emissions trading scheme. Within eight months the environmental markets registry was a worldwide success, with offices – that she set up – in New York and London. She stayed on after it was sold off and “commuted, ridiculously,” she says. “Spending weeks in New York, Auckland, London, – and doing that with high school children.”

But after that exposure to the environmental space and seeing first-hand the effects of climate change during trips to far flung areas of the world, Organic Initiative (Oi) was formed – a for-profit social enterprise with a mission to take plastic hygiene products head-on. The mission is to remove toxins, chemicals and plastics from the market, starting with feminine hygiene – partly because many women (and men!) are unaware of what is actually in these products. “Tampons are considered medical devices,” explains Helen. “And are not required to have their ingredients printed on their packaging. Even those products “made with organic cotton” are mostly made from synthetic materials. Without the ingredients listed on the packaging, consumers make a natural assumption that the whole product is sustainable.”

Then comes the issue of exactly how much waste we are creating with traditional hygiene products. “Every woman, over her lifetime, will use about 150 tonnes of tampons, pads and liners – that’s enough to scale the Auckland Harbour Bridge many times over,” she says. “And here’s a shocking fact – the average sanitary pad has the same amount of plastic as four grocery bags. We have eliminated plastic bags from our supermarkets but what about from our sanitary products?”

Helen is on a mission to change the industry completely – not just here in NZ, but globally. And with her track record, if anyone’s going to be able to achieve their goal, it’s Helen.

Now that we know more about Helen – she’s here to give us some pieces of wisdom, as well as her top five tips for succeeding in business…

Girls can do anything

“I come from a big family with three older brothers and two sisters, and went to an all-girls Catholic school. Whatever people might say about nuns and Catholic schools, the one thing that they really taught me – and when you look at all my fellow classmates – is that we were raised to believe that girls could do anything. So, I try to focus on what’s really important and not let unimportant things affect me. One time this co-worker called me up and absolutely abused me – he was swearing, he was so condescending. And while he was ranting I talked over him, and said ‘When you can talk calmly, call me back’ and hung up. One of the biggest challenges for women is having the confidence to stand up for ourselves. In the past there has been challenges with numbers of women in leadership roles, in tech, on boards – it has been an old boy’s club, but it is getting less so, although one gap right now is the numbers of women in CEO roles. The stats prove that when companies have women involved, they outperform those that don’t.”

Keep your chin up

“My dad had hilarious sayings, and one he used to say to us is, ‘Don’t let the buggers get you down’ and the more time that has gone on, the more I think it’s incredibly apt! You can do whatever you set your mind to – don’t let the buggers get you down!”

Women must buoy each other up – not be in competition

 “Men can be patronising and difficult, but in my experience, women can often be just as bad. In my earlier days with a young family, I never stopped working – there was no such thing as paid maternity leave (which is so fantastic to have in place now). What always surprised me is women I admired immensely, who took maternity leave or were in a fortunate position where they could stay home with their children, then became condescending and critical. They were often worse than my male colleagues. In my view, there is no right or wrong when it comes to managing your so-called work-life balance. It’s completely an individual choice, and no person has the right to judge another.”

What it takes to be a good leader…

“It takes self-awareness – knowing what you are good at and what you’re not great at. Having the ability to pick the right people around you. The ability to manage ambiguity. Decision-making. Being agile and ensuring that you have great diversity in your team – and not just gender or race; but also capability, competence and experience. All of those qualities will make for a great leader.”

How to run a successful business:

1. Believe in yourself

“First of all, you’ve got to have a dream and really believe in the dream. Then you have to have a plan to bring that to life. And then, whatever you think it’s going to cost, know that it’s going to cost at least twice as much as you think it’s going to, it’ll take twice as long as you think, and be 10 times more complex! But humans are resilient and can do more than we think.”

2. Stay focused 

“Once you set your mind to something, “stay the course”.  It’s very easy to be all over the place, and I love driving change so it can be difficult to do for me! A good but simple example is while on the board at Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development (ATEED), now Auckland Unlimited which is responsible for major events, such as America’s Cup, Rugby World Cup, The Nines etc. ATEED would receive many requests to help “little Johnny’s football tournament”. Whilst it would have been wonderful to be able to support all the little requests, the focus was on the big picture. It would be very easy to stray and invest in these other events but then the primary focus goals would not be achieved. The same is true when you have a small business – it’s very easy to go, ‘oh, we could also do this, and that, and that’, but having that really focused plan is so important.”

3. Listen to your gut

“One of the most important things to do is to trust your gut. We all know that – people always talk about intuition – and it’s true. Once on an interview panel being the only person who didn’t think that the person we were interviewing was right for the role. I remember thinking, well, my fellow panellists are so much better qualified and knowledgeable than me, so accepted the majority’s view – only to later discover later my intuition was correct.”

4. Get yourself a great bank and business manager

“We’ve been with BNZ a long, long time and they have been hugely supportive of Oi, as a new company, helping us on our journey and working through what we need – whether it’s easy online banking, foreign exchange services or general support. What we’ve appreciated most is they have the ability to grow with us as we grow and I think that’s really important.  We’re very lucky, we have a super great business manager there… [and the] team around him have been fantastic.  We’ve had a few times where people have tried to buy product fraudulently and BNZ were fantastic in helping us recognise those situations. They’re very sophisticated scams – but we knew what to look for thanks to the support of BNZ.”

5. Your customer is Queen (or King!)

“You have GOT to take care of your customer. Understanding the good, bad and ugly in any business is essential. One of the reasons we really succeeded whilst at Microsoft NZ was that we really developed a customer focused strategy. On one occasion we received a hand-written letter of complaint from an older man so I called him personally (which he could not believe) and told him I really wanted to have a chat with him to get a real understanding of the issue. At Oi our customer is our priority. All feedback (good and bad) is addressed by following a formalised process. There have been occasions where a customer has started with a poor review only to later become our biggest fan. It is not having an issue that matters, it’s how you handle that issue. We all know this, but often forget to put it into practice. You have to encourage customer feedback because you can only drive change when you know about it. You’ve got to be aware of what’s going on and listen and learn from the customer.”

Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of Helen Robinson and Capsule, and do not necessarily represent the views of BNZ, or its related entities. This article is solely for information purposes and is not intended to be financial advice. If you need help, please contact BNZ or your financial adviser. Neither BNZ nor any person involved in this article accepts any liability for any direct or indirect loss or damage arising out of the use of, or reliance on, all or any part of the content. BNZ terms and conditions and fees apply to the products and services mentioned in this article.

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