INTERVIEW | EMMA ISAACS ON ‘WINGING IT’ IN BUSINESS AND IN LIFE
BY JESSICA BOSCO
Whether you’re a SAHM mum, a working mum, a mumpreneur or a dreaming of taking your side-hustle to the next level mum, sometimes we all need that extra kick to get out there and do the thing we’ve been putting off (or stop doing the 3,453 things we’ve been trying to unsuccessfully juggle).
Meet Emma Isaacs. If you haven’t heard of her then you would have definitely heard of her company, Business Chicks, the largest network for women in Australia (and they’ve recently expanded with huge success in the US).
After starting her first business at just 18, and with 20 years of business experience – and five kids – under her belt, Emma has just released her first book, Winging It, which is full of advice and tips drawing on her own experiences in business and motherhood, as well as advice from those she’s met along the way.
Emma is honest, she’s humble, she’s funny – but most importantly she knows her shit. Here we talk with her about calling the shots, the questions you need to ask yourself, the power of kindness and oh, that ever-elusive question, ‘Can women really have it all?’.
You’ve just launched your first book, can you tell us a little bit about Winging It?
The book is a culmination of my past 20 years in business and trying to manage the juggle of a family – for those who are doing that as well – and just drawing on my personal experiences and from the people I’ve been lucky to work with along the way, people like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, Diane von Furstenberg and a bunch of others.
Why did you decide to write it now at this point in your life?
Why now? I’ve been threatening to write a book for a long time! I just felt like it was the right time, I got approached by a publisher and I was pregnant at the time and I wrote it in a year. During that time I had a baby – my fifth baby – and was writing with a boob out typing with one hand. We just felt like it felt right to pen it now.
What do you hope people take from it?
I hope people are inspired to know the time isn’t ever perfect, and that we can’t wait for the right timing or the right opportunities. We really have to chase them down, and I want people to feel like they’re empowered to make their own decisions and call the shots. I think people often look at other people and think ‘they’ve got a better life’, or ‘they’re more attractive/smarter/wealthier’ etc and we look at them and think well they can do more because of that. But really, it’s within all of us to make powerful decisions and decide what kind of life we want to have. The book debunks a lot of those myths that we all have – and it just proves that anything is possible if you just get your mind right and surround yourself with the right people.
At what point in your career did you become a mum?
I was 29 and I’d had my first business for 12 years when I became a mum for the first time. I think my business really equipped me to be a mum, you know the whole thing of working really quickly and productively and how hard I hustled really helped when I started running a family and trying to fit as much as I could in.
With such an established career, did you feel like motherhood changed you or the path you were on at the time?
Because my whole identity was about being an entrepreneur I did find it hard to adjust a little bit, because that was so ingrained in who I was, and all I knew was running my own companies. I tried to keep on that path as much as possible and not deviate from it. I was 29 when I became a mum, and you have a lot more energy then – my foot was on the accelerator and if I took it off it would have made it that much harder to get back. So I did make a conscious decision to keep driving my career as much as possible and that worked for me, it might not for everyone – I didn’t take much maternity leave the first time around. But the benefit of being established in my business and financially secure was that I was able to make my own decisions and choose where I wanted to put my time, I feel very grateful that I started so young and set myself up so that when the babies came along I had a lot more choice available to me.
You’re a mum-of-five now – which is amazing – does it get easier each time or is it just constant chaos?
Going from 1-2 was a massive adjustment, you feel like you’ve just sorted it out and then you throw another one in the mix. But having had five now I think the biggest jump was possibly 2-3 – when they start to outnumber you! I’ll never forget the moment we had our third baby, the nanny went home one night and all three started crying and we just looked at each other and we said, ‘I don’t know where to start!’, it was basically which one do we like the best haha. But now it’s just all relative, I had three of them with me yesterday and it was so easy, but you just don’t know what you’re capable of until you’re capable of it.
So with talk of career and motherhood comes the inevitable, can women have it all question, what’s your take on the elusive question?
We can have what we choose, so for me, my life only consists of two things: my business and my family. I am a lousy cook, I am a pretty woeful friend at times, I do not workout – apart from lugging kids toys up the stairs 18 times a day – that’s my gym! My entire life at this moment is being in my company and with my family. I believe we can have what we choose –and we just can’t choose too many things.
But I do believe we’re talking about the wrong thing, I don’t think any young mum with a young family has the capability of ticking every box; it’s just not possible. I think we’re looking at the wrong thing and asking the wrong questions, I think it’s how we go about bringing mental health back into our lives, how can we ask ourselves if we’re enjoying what we’re doing and if we’re not; what can we change? Do we need to get more help, do we need to ease back a day in the week in the office, whatever it is, but it’s about having the conversation with ourselves and working out if this is working for me?
We just need to be more kind to ourselves and know that no one can have every single piece of the pie. Do well the things you need to do well, and don’t choose too much.
So you talk a lot about winging it – but are you a fly by the seat of your pants type of person day to day, or are you a meticulous planner?
I’m a weird juxtaposition of being quite OCD but also being very calm and very, very relaxed. The name ‘Winging It’ came from personal experience. I’ve always been doing things without knowing how to do them; I started my company without any experience, I parent five kids without any experience, I wrote a book without any experience. We’re all so hell-bent on getting things right and getting all our ducks lined up in a perfect row, that we forget to just take it easy, have fun and try new things. It does come back to having a self-belief and backing ourselves, but ultimately we need to not take ourselves too seriously. I think it’s hard when we see people on social media, and we think they have it all together. We have to just have to come back to what we want out of our lives, what’s precious to us and just focus on that.
Also, we need to have more fun. I see people stressing out that things aren’t working out how they’re meant to, but there’s no blueprint for that, no blueprint for life that says you have to do things a certain way. The message is to just lighten up and have a go, even when you don’t have all the answers.
In your book you have a series of questions we should be asking ourselves, one, in particular, stood out as a good reminder to us all, ‘Have I don’t anything worth remembering lately’? This is one for business and for life that we need to remember as we all get so caught up in our own lives that we forget to do things for others.
Absolutely, not only can it serve you in your personal life in your friendships, but it’s such a powerful tool in business. These are the things that get you remembered. I recently played a practical joke on my editor, and she wrote me an email back saying ‘oh don’t do that you’re going to give your poor cardigan-wearing editor a heart attack.’ And then just this week after the book launch I had a beautifully wrapped cardigan to give to her as a thank you for all our hard work together. She was blown away that I had remembered, and she’s probably going to go home and tell her partner/mother/friend, and it might get them talking about me or the book – or it might not but I don’t do it because I want something from it. These are the things that make us human, it’s so important, and we forget that life and business can actually be that simple. It’s just about really seeing people and seeing what they like or maybe what they’re struggling with. And that’s the way we’ve really built our business over the years because kindness is where it’s at and there are ways to stand out for sure.
What advice do you have for mums who are keen to ‘wing it’ it but are afraid to take the leap, or that don’t know what they want to do?
Well, firstly it’s best to try something on the side before you throw in your financial security. But you need to really have a long, hard think, and it might be difficult, but think about why you want to do something. Do you just want to do it because everyone else is doing it, do you want to do it because you want to make more money – everything comes back to the why. If you want to spend more time with your kids you need to ask whether a small business or side hustle will actually give you that? Be super clear on why you’re doing something and then try and find something that fits around those needs.
And then it’s a matter of checking with yourself and asking, is this actually working? Because it may not be. I see a lot of small businesses putting themselves through a lot of hardship and financial stress just because they think they want to run a business. Being an entrepreneur is one of the toughest gigs you could ever do, and we do glorify it, which can be kind of unhealthy, but that’s why I admire people who share how hard it actually is to run a business.
Finally, network everywhere! I talk about this a lot in the book but you really need to start with an audience, and if you have an audience already then think about what product or service might benefit them. It’s better to attack your business from a ‘What’s my audience’ basis and go from there rather than trying to find people to buy your product, which is reversing the way a lot of people look at a business. It’s all well and good to say you’ve got to have a passion and love what you do, but business is business, and for it to work you have to make more money than you spend – that’s 101 – and a lot of people get lost in that. If you don’t need the money and can go and follow your dream then great, but most people need to make a living from their business, so you need to think about the ‘Why’.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
My first company was a recruitment business and I now run the largest network for women in Australia, and the common denominator of both of those businesses is people and relationships. I think that no matter who you are, a lot of success comes back to how well you can navigate relationships and how well you can build your network. There’s the saying about ‘Whenever you need a relationship its too late to build one’ so let’s just say for whatever reason, tomorrow you’re in a difficult situation you need to raise capital for your business, it’s very, very hard to start from the absolute get-go and to find people who are willing to fund you. But if you’ve been kind to people, you’ve kept in touch and done a lot more for others than you’ve done for yourself – and done so selflessly – because you never know when your network is going to need to be activated. So you cannot underestimate how important it is to be kind – and really work on that network.
Who are the women you admire?
I get to meet some pretty incredible people and spend meaningful time with them. I’m not inspired with or the least bit interested in fame, I’m inspired by people who are generous and real off stage. People like Diane von Furstenberg, she is one of the most generous and amazing women you will ever meet, she’s a very decent genuine person. Yes, she’s like that on stage, but she’s like that off stage too. It’s those sort of people, I cannot care less about whether you’re well known, it’s really about how you are to the people who can’t do anything for you that matters. That’s the most impressive for me.