Theresa Gattung donates $2.5m to launch centre for women entrepreneurs

Entrepreneur, businesswoman and feminist Theresa Gattung is putting her money where her mouth is by funding a $2.5 million university-based centre to foster women in entrepreneurship.

• Theresa Gattung: An equal society needs women in business

A global search for an academic leader to run the Theresa Gattung Chair of Women in Entrepreneurship will start this month, to head the Aotearoa Centre for Enterprising Women within the University of Auckland Business School.

Apart from the academic side, Gattung wants the centre to teach much-needed practical skills. Women needed to know how to launch a business, read a balance sheet, know what venture capital was and how to access it, she said.

Gattung has pledged $2.5m over 10 years but told the Herald she may increase the amount once she assesses the outcome. She and the university hope the business community will get in behind the centre with financial support to help it expand more quickly, engage more lecturers and offer more courses.

In Gattung’s sights is a goal to improve the gender disparity in business, leadership and governance, and make New Zealand the best place in the world for women to do business.

The centre’s first undergraduate entrepreneurial course is scheduled to be launched early next year but Gattung and the business school have plans to widen the scope beyond commerce degrees.

In a world of portfolio careers and the gig economy, Kiwis who may not necessarily be studying business will also need to learn skills, they say. Gattung hopes that the centre will also attract those who are studying the arts, science or literature, and men are most welcome to enrol.

The centre will conduct post-graduate research to help drive policy outcomes for women, foster mentoring programmes and, once it is established, run shorter courses for people in the community who may not be at the university at all.

Business School dean Professor Susan Watson said now was the time to encourage more women – from the university and beyond – into the business ecosystem by equipping them with the tools to overcome financial hurdles and to succeed in enterprises.

“Providing women with an opportunity to engage with entrepreneurship – and the mindset and skills that accompany that – is one way of addressing current disparities in women’s business ownership, leadership and representation in governance roles in the business world,” she said.

People had a narrow idea of what business was. The skills learned could open up opportunities for a new career, a “side gig”, or be used to run a social enterprise or charity, or to serve on a school board in the future, Watson said.

In the Faculty of Business and Economics there was still a gender imbalance of participating students, she said. It’s an imbalance that Gattung has worked tirelessly to address in the business world.

She’s been a driving force behind the establishment of the Chair and will be involved in the centre as a guest lecturer and mentor.

Among her many roles Gattung is a member of the National Advisory Board on the Employment of Women, is the incoming chair of Global Women, and leads SheEO in New Zealand which finances and mentors female entrepreneurs. She sees first-hand the difference mentoring, financial support and business know-how can make.

But there was much to be done, she added. Back in 1999, Gattung was appointed as CEO of Telecom New Zealand, the first woman in that role as well as an NZX-listed company and, at 37, the youngest. But since then, she said, not enough women have followed in her footsteps.

Where are all the female CEOS and board chairs in New Zealand, she wants to know. And as for entrepreneurs, venture capital for women’s businesses runs at between 2 and 7 per cent of the pot.

“It’s pathetic,” Gattung said. “I so want to support women doing their own thing in business, doing it their way.”

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