Inspired by Diane Foreman

Diane Foreman
Diane Foreman

Inspired by Diane Foreman,  recipient of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and listed by Forbes Magazine as one of Asia's 50 most powerful women.

Written by CHIA blogger Anna Watson

Diane Foreman dropped out of school when she was 15, married at 18 and was a single mum by 21. In her 30s, Diane led the sale of Trigon for $130 million; one of the biggest private company sales in New Zealand at that time. In 2009, Diane was awarded the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and was invited back the following year to be a judge for the Ernst & Young global competition in Monte Carlo. She recently sold her business Emerald Food Group for an undisclosed sum and is the patron of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women programme.

Quite the CV for someone who didn’t complete school certificate.

We find out a little more about what makes Diane tick, and how she thinks we should encourage the next generation of entrepreneurs to evolve.

Living the definition of entrepreneur

It wasn’t until Diane was well advanced in her career that she realised that entrepreneurship existed. Hatching schemes like a babysitting business to make pocket money as a kid came naturally to Diane; “I just thought it was how I was wired”. It wasn’t until Diane entered ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ and starting filling out the forms that she realised she definitely fitted the description of ‘entrepreneur’.

When I think of an entrepreneur, they have that cartoon lightbulb over their head. And this is exactly what Diane sees as the key first step to getting involved in business. Without an idea, you have nothing. With an idea, you have the beginnings of a business. Diane advises to find out about similar products or services, talk to potential clients to work out their expectations and transform the lightbulb into a detailed business plan. Finally, come up with a snappy three minute pitch to explain all of the above.

The traits of success

Once the business becomes a reality, it should grow four key traits in order to be successful. Firstly, “the customer needs to be king”. The business also needs a leader who knows how to prioritise, and how to inspire everyone to focus on making the bottom line grow. Diane also believes that you can tell a successful business by its attrition rates. If a company is always losing its staff, it will never be successful.

Women and the workplace

On the subject of employees, Diane states that “international research shows that companies with even one woman on their board make more profit”. So why are women so often left staring up at that glass ceiling? According to Diane, the need for entrepreneurs to be inherent risk-takers means the future of women in business is evolving only very slowly.

She believes that women, more so than men, need mentorship to fuel the courage needed to get into business and ultimately, leadership positions. And it doesn’t surprise me that Diane both talks the talk and walks the walk. She is deeply involved with the EY Winning Women’s programme, regularly gives speeches to women business groups, participates in international seminars on how to grow female entrepreneurship and is a mentor to six women (in addition to three men).

Don’t forget the kids!

Its not just women that Diane believes would benefit from mentorship. She would like to see New Zealand do more to encourage kids to think about business (anyone who likes a challenge, read on!). I have countless friends who headed for the professions because business just isn’t given the same level of attention at school.

Diane suggests exposing our young people to the best entrepreneurs to show them what an exciting journey could be ahead. Another lightbulb idea is a national competition for the top budding entrepreneurs with the grand prize of a university scholarship at an international business school and a life mentor to work with them and help them establish a business after university.

The options don’t end there either; Diane also suggests setting up an entrepreneurs’ fund for business people who could apply for the funding as equity so that when the business succeeds, the funding is repaid and more businesses can apply for and receive a monetary leg-up.

Put your best foot forward

Diane recently released a book “In the Arena”, in which she details her business journey and gives advice to the reader so that they may learn from the mistakes Diane has made. One of her ‘fast 50 tips’ advises never to hire someone with dirty shoes (I’ll let you pause here to check the state of your shoes). Diane recalls being introduced to a new headmaster on his first morning on the job. Diane immediately told a school board member that the new headmaster would not be a success. “The board member thought I was crazy but within 18 months they were looking for a replacement.” If a potential employee doesn’t care about what they look like to their new boss, they will not care enough about how the product looks to a potential client.

Embrace the hardship

Diane sees challenge as opportunity. The more people tell her she can’t do something, the more likely it is that she will do it. Diane admits she has had many critics but she “constantly reminds myself that ‘critics don’t count’”. When Diane was a young single mother, she and a friend split the cost of a single ‘going out’ outfit; that was all they could afford. Diane’s drive for success in the face of challenges that others would consider just too hard has not been for money itself but because money buys choice.

And the Golden Rule?

“Never hire someone you can’t fire.”