Michelle Redfern never thought of herself as creative. For most of her adult life, she was convinced she didn’t have what it took to be a true entrepreneur or leader. All of that changed when she began the Executive Master of Business Administration at RMIT, quickly gaining the confidence in herself she had always lacked.
Nowadays Michelle owns multiple successful businesses, has an incredible amount of leadership experience, and is a well-known advocate for gender equality. This is her story.
Prior to enrolling in the Executive Master of Business Administration at RMIT, Michelle Redfern spent two decades building a career within the client management and service sectors. She slowly made her way up the corporate ladder before spending her final years in that industry as a senior executive at the National Australia Bank.
However, even with all that experience, Michelle still felt out of place. But all of that changed after she began her degree and came to two important realisations. The first was that she’d been wrong all along — she was innovative, she did have what it took. The second was that she needed to take back control and banish that feeling of being an imposter once and for all.
“I left school when I was 15 … so I had always had massive insecurities about my lack of tertiary education, I didn’t even finish high school,” explains Michelle. “I was in these really senior roles in corporate Australia … and doing the MBA made me realise that I had instinctively and intuitively picked up a lot of these theories and learnings along the way, but now I was putting a name or framework to them. It was very validating.”
“I thought I’d have to finish high school to get into university,” Michelle continues. “But then I started researching and I had the awakening where I had all this work experience, I’m female … and the ducks all lined up and the MBA is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Not long after graduating Michelle founded two businesses: Women Who Get It, a networking organisation “for women of all walks of life to learn, develop and thrive”; and Advancing Women, “an advisory practice that assists sporting and for-profit organisations move gender diversity from conversation to action” — the latter was a direct result of her experience in sports directorship. As a feminist, the idea of championing women was not new for Michelle, and since completing her MBA it has become her driving concept.
“I always knew I wanted to run my own business partly because … I have a fundamental disrespect for authority [laughs]… but I never thought I had a good enough idea. But the urge to be my own boss was getting stronger and stronger,” says Michelle. “Fast forward a few years to my MBA … I remember the ‘aha’ moment came during the strategic leadership capstone course … I had an epiphany. I realised I’m an activist, I’m an organiser and I’m a feminist who’s completely consumed by outrage at the inequality women face … people are constantly coming to me for advice … why am I not doing this?”
The main challenges Michelle faced in launching her predominant business, Advancing Women, were the obvious new start-up hurdles, but also the overt resistance to having a woman in charge in the sporting space. Of course, for someone as tenacious as Michelle, this pushback only made her stronger. “[Men saying] ‘you do not belong here, they do not belong here’ … that sort of experience is what tells me there’s still a hell of a lot of work to do,” says Michelle.
“But there are also men who say ‘this is an issue but I have no clue how to solve it’, and I really love working with those individuals because when they’re courageous enough to admit they need a hand I think that’s awesome … and that’s really important for me as a feminist to be inclusive,” Michelle continues. “The last camp are the men who are absolute champions. The men who are saying ‘I hold the power so I’m going to use that power ethically and deliberately to create equality’. I’d like that group to be the biggest group but unfortunately, they’re not.”
Michelle’s journey is an incredible one, and her advice to other women looking to advance in leadership is to “know your stuff” and not be afraid. “The world is in a constant state of VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, change and ambiguity. And as a leader, male, female or non-binary, you have to know how to lead people through a state of continuing VUCA. If you can’t, you need to work out how to do it,” explains Michelle. “For women, a lot of the time it’s about ‘how do I know this action will lead to this result?’… confidence comes from when you know your stuff, when you know your work.”
“The future of work is not the future … it’s right now. Every generation has always been critical of the young people coming through … that barrage of disparagement is just not useful … If I am going to give advice to a Millennial … I’d say be really clear about the environment you are best in,” says Michelle. “If you want structure and strong direction then that’s the environment you need to look for. If, however, you are an ideas person who doesn’t necessarily respond well to authority, who wants to be heard or make a difference, then that’s the environment you need to gravitate towards. Millenials are the future … any employer, brand or university that ignores Millenials, do it at your peril.”
We sat with Michelle to get her thoughts on the below.