Tracey Frost: Moving at a New York minute

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Tracey Frost is best described as being a Sydney-New York hybrid. She has the attitude of a New Yorker: direct, fast-moving and certainly no bullshit. Yet the personality of an Australian: relaxed, accommodating and supremely easy to talk to. 

Growing up with two brothers, one sister and lots of pets, Tracey studied Business Marketing at the University of Technology, Sydney, and then went on to obtain a Masters in Finance from Macquarie University.

Currently living in Tribeca with her husband Fil, a native New Yorker, and two daughters Natasha and Chloe, Tracey has called Manhattan her second home for two decades.

After a successful career in banking, Tracey wanted to change direction, and looked for something that was more closely aligned to her interests, emotionally as well as intellectually. Something that allowed her to “grow more”. In 2005 she founded Citibabes, a place where families could experience an exceptional preschool program and enrichment classes in a supportive and nurturing environment. It’s clear that Tracey didn’t just run a business; she ran a community.

A complication involving the Citibabes lease led to the business closing recently, and Tracey is looking to new horizons. With her pervasive Australian charm, palpable passion and keen sense of business – whatever she does next will undoubtedly be groundbreaking. 

Tracey recently donated some of her valuable time to share her story with Advance – one that would resonate with any eager entrepreneur. Try to keep up – her mind moves at a New York minute.

Interview by Molly O'Brien

How did you come to be living and working in New York?

I began my career in the financial markets, predominately trading gold. I was lucky to get in to that industry in Australia; we were well ahead of the curve. I was travelling a lot in my early twenties and initially came over to US with Macquarie Bank, where I was working at the time. I had also completed my MBA while I was with Macquarie then; and I literally fell in love with New York!

My mum, after raising four kids in Australia, actually ended up moving to New York before I did. I came over a year later to meet her, landed a job and wound up staying.

Was it difficult to acquire working entitlements back when the E3 wasn’t available?

Like all my Australian peers, I had an H1B visa – back when they were accessible. We actually all got offered green cards but didn’t want them because of tax implications.

What was it like being a woman in your field when you came to the US?

It was – and still is – definitely a male-dominated field. I was good at what I did and was never harassed, however I did have to work twice as hard. I went to meetings doubly prepared to stand out from my colleagues. My hard work paid off; at one point, I ran the team. 

Where did you live when you first moved over to New York? 

In 1996 I was hired by Deutsche Bank in to build their new commodity sales team, this was an extremely exciting time to be working in commodities with high interest rates and low gold prices, we built an amazing business. But when I moved to London in 2000 to run the sales team,  there was a pretty drastic change in the market. After the Enron Commodity crisis, Derivatives became a bad word. There wasn’t a whole lot for me to do at this point. I had met my now-husband just before I’d left New York – which was a contributing factor in quitting my London job and returning to New York. I tried to find something else when I was back in New York, but all the roles were going to be a step down. Perhaps if I’d had a mentor, and I could see a clear path that made sense in management, I would have stayed at Deutsche. 

How did you feel leaving the banking industry? 

I really loved working in banking. The work was great, the money was good, but I always had in the back of my mind it would be even better to do something I was wholly passionate about.

Was it at this point the idea for Citibabes came to you?

The idea to found Citibabes came to me before I was married and before I was pregnant with my first child – I just saw a market for it. I came from a big family and we had a big support network of family and friends and there weren’t as many babysitters – it was so different to what I was seeing in New York. A few things at this time came together to formulate my next move. One of my colleagues had just had a baby, my sister in law had become a child psychologist – and so began the hustle.

Do you think living in New York elicited that hustle, or is it an innate trait to who you are?

Both my parents were entrepreneurs, and they instilled that ethos in to me – I just didn’t have any fear. People would ask if I was insane when I was starting my company, but it didn’t even occur to me.

I began to do my rounds of due diligence; investigating cafes and spas and local hangouts. I couldn’t believe what I was discovering. They were all in dank and dingy locations such as basements and churches. The first SoHo House in New York had just opened – a place where creatives could work and socialize together. I thought – what if we made this a club that allow families to do this We ended up bringing in a business partner who was a local New Yorker.

What’s the most important thing to know when starting a business?  

The most important thing to know when starting a business is the financials, and the second is to outsource the areas that are not your own strengths. Even now, after being in this industry for years, I hire people in early childhood science – I never want to be the expert. I have strong opinions about how most aspects of the business should run, but my expertise lies within business development, strategy and financials.

What did you originally market the business as? 

A private family club. At the time, we had mums and dads coming in with their kids, and our facilities included amenities such as a gym and a spa. We opened up in 2005, and operated under that model up until the world fell apart in 2008, and we needed to pivot a little. The services that we’d initially offered for children started in early childhood education, but also had people begging us to do an on-site preschool.

Did you ever want to raise your kids in Australia to replicate the childhood you had?

Absolutely. I’m now at the end of 20 years and I would go back to Australia in a heartbeat… I’d love to move to Byron Bay. When it came to raising my kids, I believed – and still do – that I can hold on to the values that I believe are important regardless of where we are geographically. And as my girls become teenagers, there are lots of challenges: screen time, sleepovers, make-up … but my mantra – and I probably use it at least once a day – is “different rules, different families”. We don’t have to slavishly subscribe to the cultural or other values around us just because they are there.  My dad used to tell me that I’ve been questioning authority since I was five years old. 

Do your kids identify being Australian?

Absolutely. We may end up back there – but without a doubt they think they’re Australian. Aussies have wanderlust – they just want to travel. It’s because we’re so inquisitive. I have that and I’ve definitely passed that on to my kids. 

What advice do you have for young women looking to emulate a career like yours?

There are so many opportunities for women. It’s so inspiring, but also competitive. What I do know, it’s still hard. It sounds cliché, but you need to find what you are passionate about

I wouldn’t say that going from banking into starting your own business is an easy route. What I do believe, and what I say to my kids is, you do need to find something that you’re passionate about – and I do think that’s probably one of the reasons I left finance. It was unfulfilling to me emotionally and it was incredibly stressful. It made sense to me when I was earning a certain amount of money and making progress in my career, but once that slowed in step with what was happening with the markets globally, at a point it didn’t make sense.

Without a doubt, I am a big believer that you need to be able to hustle. You need to be able to work really hard, put your head down. But I think that is so much easier to do when you’re passionate about what you’re doing. Trust me when I say Citibabes would not have been a success if we were selling t-shirts.

How did the decision come about to close Citibabes?  

Very recently, we lost our space. The Real Estate market in New York is one of the most unregulated markets in the world. Landlords can really do whatever they want, and all you can do is go to court with them and their deep pockets – and most of them have very deep pockets. I don't think it's the end of the story completely – but if it is, I'm also okay with it as well. We have worked so hard for so long and have achieved a lot over the years.  

What’s next?

This time has allowed me to explore some of the things that I've been looking to do for a while like consult – and of course, help other women in business.