Prominent female entrepreneur and feminist activist veteran, Eve Mahlab AO, talks to Rare Birds Writer, Saul Sebag, about her experience in the business world; her ongoing involvement in promoting the rights and prospects of women; the importance of intelligently matched mentoring; training women to be more assertive; plus her achievements, current endeavours, and future goals for the Australian Women Donors Network.
This interview is Part 1 of 3. Today, Eve uncovers her journey to success, Viennese-Jewish background and her family’s escape from Nazis Germany to Australia, and the impact that business has had on her life and those of many women:
Eve, you have always been a strong advocate for women in business and chose to start up Mahlab and Associates, that operated in the area of legal recruitment, legal costing and publishing. Since selling your company, you have served on the Boards of Westpac as well as several other Boards, co-founded and are Chairwoman of the Australian Women Donors Network (AWDN)…Why do you think you have spent your business career with such an interest in recruitment, as well as aiding and supporting women?
My career has focused on women because I hate waste and they are an underdeveloped resource, and also because of my own experience. I trained as a lawyer. As a young mother, having had three children in three and a half years, I was unable to get an interesting part time job in law, It occurred to me that there would be lots of other women in the same position.
I thought if I started a recruitment company I would be able to reach out to a new supply of part time lawyers for the legal profession. But I soon found out that there was a much bigger market than just women and so I expanded my business and ended up as the market leader in the field.
Then one year there was a recession and no one wanted to pay an employment agency for recruiting lawyers. So I looked around for other things that would be a source of revenue for the company. At that time legal costing was something that was done by clerks, and I realised it had the potential to be done better by lawyers.
I developed a system by which we ferried files out to women lawyers who did the work in their homes. We not only supplied lots of jobs for women, we provided a much better service than had previously been provided. The publishing business was just something that I saw an opportunity in and really had nothing to do with my drive about women and girls.
In Victoria, the state where I live, there was a Legal Directory /Diary that was published by the Law Institute for its own members. There was nothing similar in NSW where I also had offices and so I decided to do it in NSW. It was a great product. 98% of solicitors in NSW bought this diary / directory every year. It was pre-the digital age.
Could you just tell Rare Birds community about the thinking and goals behind starting the AWDN?
It is a small not-for-profit company, which reaches out to a network of more than 2000 women and men in the funding, wealth management and NFP sectors. Our goal is to make the world a better place for women and girls through the influence of philanthropists and their money. We” inform “by presenting the statistics about women’s disadvantage and the waste of their talents, we “inspire” by celebrating “game-changing” philanthropists and their grants, we “enable” through our online project Showcase, which connects Donors with “Genderwise” Projects. We integrate a “gender lens “ into the process of funding so that women are seen and included.
What would be your tips for success to women trying to start up in the present climate?
I think you need a good business idea and you need to have thought it out, you need to have done your research and have a business plan. You need to have considered what is the worst that can happen to you financially and personally and whether you can cope with it if it happens. Both Optimism and Persistence are very important.
Do you think this current project is the most clearly defined manifestation of your beliefs and purpose in which you have committed your life, to date?
Yes. It is a very strategic project because it impacts the flow of money to the whole of the NFP sector. I could have confined my efforts to raising funds for specific causes such as women in leadership or domestic abuse or female poverty. But I thought that if I can influence the whole funding sector so that they consider gender in all their funding choices and through their influence force NFP organsations to be more inclusive of women and girls, it was the most effective thing I could do for them
Role of Business played in finding purpose in life…
Do you think the entrepreneurial journey has allowed you to connect, fine tune beliefs and develop true life direction in a career that affects the way people live? Does the entrepreneurial path facilitate personal growth and identity for young people?
[Being an entrepreneur] can mean being independent, being creative, being autonomous. It means not being controlled by some superior in a hierarchical organization. It means reaching out to other people who know the things that you want to know.. I guess its more that you can decide the boundaries of everything you want to do. It offers flexibility, depending on what you do and how you do it, gives “meaning” to your life.
From your own experience, what would you say to women who are concerned about the life-work balance and practicalities of raising a family and running a business?
I think it can make a woman less available to her children. In my case, I was able to leave my office at 3 in the afternoon and pick my children up from school. But that didn’t solve the problem of me thinking about business when I was with my children. So today my children say that I was often not present emotionally for them when they needed me.
If you could go back would have done things differently?
If I had been more aware of it then perhaps I might have tried harder to be “present” for my children. But who knows? On the good side, my business contributed to the financial well being of our family. I have a marriage, which has lasted 55 years. My children are really very good parents and successful in their own right and seem to be happy, so…? And I’m not sure if I’d stayed at home and was thinking of my golf swing or winning at bridge it would have been any different.
To go back in time, tell us about a bit about how your Viennese Jewish roots and the experience being forced to flee to Australia as a refugee from Nazi occupied Vienna, influenced your decision to take an entrepreneurial path?
I was two when I arrived in Australia with my parents. Although I was very young, I think the feelings of exclusion and powerlessness that my parents felt nestled somehow in my psyche and I transferred my resentment to empowering women because women are a group that also lacks power and suffer exclusion.
So far as the business is concerned, my parents and grandparents were all in business of some sort or another – there is just a culture of entrepreneurship in my family and indeed in the Jewish culture. For centuries we Jews were excluded from the clubs, the guilds, the professions, the universities and from owning land. We survived by being opportunistic and moving into new areas, which honed our entrepreneurial skills. (What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!!). My Grandfather was a leading businessman in Vienna. My Father grew a small soft drink business into a public company in Melbourne. My Mother became a licensed real estate agent in the 50s.My daughter Karen is the Founder and Managing Director of ProBobo Australia, the leading media resource for the social sector, my daughter Bobbi Mahlab is the Founder and Managing Director of Mahlab Media, a leading content publishing company My son Ken and his wife Jackie bought a bakery out of administration and built it into a profitable cookie manufacturing business. We make a substantial contribution to the future economic wellbeing of the societies we live in
What do you think that household culture gave to you, specifically?
It made me feel that business was something that was achievable and a good way of earning money and having ‘a life.’
Did you have any involvement in your parent’s business’ growing up?
Not from a management point of view but I used to go to my father’s factory after school. I used to listen to him talking and I think over the years I understood the big shifts and the big initiatives that he took from time to time. So when there were stresses in the business I remember it being discussed at the kitchen table, with my mother who was very entrepreneurial.
What did your mother do?
She was a go-getter. She actually advised and criticized when she was in the soft drink business. But then she went out and got herself a Real Estate agents license and worked as a real estate agent.
What was the Australia like that met you when you arrived at the age of 2? How was school?
I don’t remember much. Senior School at Korowa and MLC were pretty repressive and very dull. I wasn’t particularly happy at school. I disliked the institutional culture where you had to walk everywhere in double file. I rebelled against conformity. I was smart but very difficult, I think I probably sent a few teachers hair grey.
Then, I studied Law at Melbourne University.
How old were you when you had your kids?
I married when I was 22 and I had 3 children in 3 and a half years.
What made you want to study Law, and in hindsight, do you think there was any link between your choice of study and your feminism?
I studied law because my father said I should study Law and I loved and respected him. I was a good student and he said that it was unlikely that a man would stay with me because I was too opinionated and difficult for a girl so I had to be able to support myself.
Why were you seen as difficult?
Because I was very outspoken, the culture at the time favoured girls who were compliant.
Can you give an example of an incident where you spoke out of turn and it was seen as unacceptable?
Yes, in my last year of school I told one of my teachers that she had made my life a misery. My parents were asked to see the Principal (not for the first time!) As a result I wasn’t allowed to go to speech-night. You are bringing up all these painful memories!
But then you started your own business, was that part-time work?
Well it probably wasn’t part time but it was hours that I decided on. It was virtually an employment agency for solicitors. It started from home and young solicitors who were looking for work would come to my house for an interview. I dealt with my actual clients, the law firms, on the phone. And that worked except it got too busy. Also my dog bit one of the young solicitors who came to be interviewed so I decided to move to offices. My husband was very supportive. He helped me look for offices and he set up the books and looked after the financials. He worked for a large company at the time but basically he took the time to do the things that I didn’t know how to and he helped with the children. He eventually gave up his position as a senior executive to co-start a restaurant business so he could be at home during the day..
So you used the people around you and used what you had. Is that the reason you moved into that kind of business, you saw an opportunity?
That’s right an opportunity that suited my lifestyle.
Part 2 of Eve Mahlab’s Rare Birds interview will share her experiences of the start up phase and opinions on mentorship.