For women in business, the decision to #choosetochallenge – this year’s International Women’s Day theme – often comes with the territory. Whether that’s the daily task of reshaping perceptions, navigating bias, or breaking the mould entirely. 

To learn from, and celebrate, the experiences of women in business that #choosetochallenge, we spoke to two accomplished leaders at the top of their industries. Kate O’Callaghan, Chief Executive Officer of Southern Cotton and Nicole Chow, Founder of United Asia Group (UAG), agree that tenacity, self-belief and being very well-informed are just some of the traits that helped them succeed.

Charting a unique course to the top

In their ascent to leading significant and multi-faceted businesses, both Kate and Nicole’s experience highlights the multiple, and often unorthodox, pathways.

Kate’s career started after studying agricultural science. She pioneered a nascent industry growing red clover for the pharmaceutical sector and then worked with CopRice in quality and operations management. Kate was then approached to help establish a cotton ginning operation from scratch.

“Rather than having a career plan, I had almost accidentally accumulated the skills I needed to take on the challenge of building a cotton ginning business in southern NSW where the perception was that cotton didn’t grow. 10 years later we have ginned 1.5 million bales and integrated the business into farming, logistics and warehousing,” Kate says.

“I was able to draw on skills I acquired in business and family life. 10 years of Ag Research gave me analytical skills, I learnt to build relationships and negotiate contracts in the clover industry, while CopRice taught me to manage people and a manufacturing factory. I learnt about finances working on school boards and governance on sporting boards. You can’t undersell these experiences, they are sliding door moments.”

Image source: Supplied - Kate O’Callaghan, CEO of Southern Cotton with credit to Nathan Dyer

For Nicole, building a leading private property development business started in Singapore studying architecture before entering the construction sector as the only female selling building products. After moving to Australia in the 1990s, Nicole undertook her first development project, entering a ‘blokey’ local construction industry.

Nicole says “I needed to be resilient to survive the often chauvinistic and sometimes racist attitudes. I was tough enough to survive and eventually thrive; snowballing my profits from one project to the next and growing the business. It was a very intuitive experience, and I acknowledge the support I received that enabled UAG to grow into a successful company now 25 years old.”

Image source: Supplied - Nicole Chow, Managing Director United Asia Group

Bringing sharp clarity to career success

For Nicole, the pinnacle of her hard work and self-determination was the delivery of UAG’s ambitious ‘North’ residential development project in Melbourne. Nicole led the team that transformed an old car dealership site into a 19 storey residential tower replete with 454 apartments, shops and medical suites.

Beyond outbidding larger developers for the site and successfully delivering the project, it was giving back to the community that elevated this project for Nicole.

“I was approached by the Leukaemia Foundation CEO, who was seeking a new home for patients and families close to Melbourne’s hospital precinct. We custom-designed a full level of apartments for patients to feel nurtured and comfortable in luxurious accommodation while they underwent their treatments.”

A career-defining moment for Kate came in the form of national recognition, as Southern Cotton took out the Telstra Regional Business of the Year award.

“Winning the award was like performing a health-check on the business. It signalled that not only was our machinery working well, but it validated our business processes, human resources strategy, safety and importantly, culture,” Kate says. “My team deserve a lot of credit for that.”

Aspiration and inspiration

Kate explains that there are two types of role models in her professional life. People you work with that shaped her management style and public figures that inspire.

On a public level, Kate says that she aspires to be like Jacinda Ardern and Julie Bishop. “Both these women are strong, and when they make a decision, it’s well understood. But it's delivered with empathy. They don’t say ‘I am a woman doing a man’s job successfully’, they just do a good job.”

Nicole agrees that a combination of being smart and tough, yet warm, is a virtue. She says that Janet Whiting, a partner at Gilbert & Tobin and President of the Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, exemplifies these traits, and has been a great inspiration.

“Janet’s ability to juggle her family commitments, lead a large legal firm and also take on civic roles inspired me to keep pushing. Janet is an excellent example of a “can-do” personality, and she will tell you straight (whether you like it or not!), and I admire that.”

The fruits of choosing to challenge

Both Nicole and Kate have navigated a position of being one of only a few females within male-oriented industries in the earlier stages of their careers, and the resilience this helped embed.

At a careers day before taking up her agricultural science degree, Kate recalls being questioned by a professor about her ability to tell male farmers what to do.

“An old professor said to me, can you see yourself standing in a pub and telling a farmer what to do and them listening. And I thought absolutely I can – you have to believe in yourself.”

For both Nicole and Kate, challenging the status quo and believing in their ability irrespective of gender helped lay the groundwork for their incredible successes.

“Be tenacious and tune into your particular gifts and skills that enable you to shine, Nicole says. “Use those qualities to your advantage and remember, women often have a unique perspective when it comes to solving problems, and that can significantly benefit a business.”

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Things you should know

  • This article represents opinions and views of the interviewees personal experiences only.  It does not have regard to the situation or needs of any reader and must not be relied upon as advice. It is not intended to imply any recommendation or opinion about a financial product. Before acting on this information, consider its appropriateness to your circumstances. Commonwealth Bank of Australia ABN 48 123 123 124.