Andrea Myles: China + Innovation + Entrepreneurship

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance

Andrea Myles has come a long way since travelling to China as a young backpacker in 2002 on her first ever adventure overseas.

Driven by her passion, a slight frustration of the transactional nature of the Australia-China relationship and her impatience for positive change, Andrea co-founded the highly-successful China Australia Millennial Project to connect leading talent in both nations via a world first incubator and social change program, and she is the inaugural CEO.

In 2014 she was named one of Australia's 100 Most Influential Women by Westpac and the Australian Financial Review. She has also been nominated by Australia's Former Foreign Minister Professor Bob Carr for a 2015 Telstra Business Women's Award.

What drew you to China when you first moved there?

I grew up in regional NSW, in a small town on the edge of the Blue Mountains. I studied neuroscience as undergraduate but quickly realised I didn’t want to spend my whole life in a lab coat performing solitary work; I wanted to be in the midst of people. So naturally I saved up and moved overseas! This may seem like a “normal” thing to do now, however I come from a working class background where travel was not the norm. To give you an indication, my parents still don’t have passports. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I really thought it was my only chance to get overseas in my lifetime, as it was an amazingly big deal to go away. I wanted to choose my destination carefully, to go somewhere as opposite to Australia as possible, somewhere with a different political paradigm. I travelled to China knowing no Mandarin and having no international skills. That was back in 2002 – a very different China!

And then you decided to stay on?

I stayed there for three months, landing in Beijing and travelling all the way west to the Pakistan border. I decided then that it was my passion in life – the country, the people and the culture. While I was there, I applied to do a Masters Degree at UTS back in Australia in a tiny little café on the border of a Sichuan, I remember the Internet being so slow. I really considered study my lifeline back to China, and it was. Education has changed everything for me. I’m not from Chinese background – I knew I had to get some study under my belt to be taken “seriously” there. My life has been ping ponging back to China ever since. I’ve worked in China for about five years, mainly in the regional areas, including the Himalayan plateau.

Is there anything Australia can learn from China in terms of gender equality in the workplace, and vice versa?

I think in Australia, there is a false sense of achievement with how good women have it. There’s still plenty of gender inequality and the metrics are actually sliding backwards. When you take a look at the composition of ASX CEOs in terms of a gender balance, it’s a bad ratio. There are more CEOs named Peter than there are women CEOs. The one child policy in China has actually had a strange (but positive) after-effect, where parents may encourage and support their child to succeed as much as possible whether male of female. If I pitch to Venture Capitalists in China, the room is often 35-40% women, whereas in Australia it’s about 4% women. In Australia, pitching usually involves speaking to a room of white men over 50. And they the think I’m the weird one! Where else on earth would you find such a bias? Don’t get me wrong, prejudice absolutely exists in China around gender equality, but you do see more women in the field. You seem them leading some of China’s most innovative companies.

You’ve been named one of Australias 100 Most Influential Women by Westpac. What do you think it takes to be influential? 

I think to be truly influential you have to start with a thorough understanding of yourself. Sure, you can put forward someone else’s perspective, but people can see through that in a heartbeat. The number one thing is knowing yourself and being damn proud of it. I own all of the things that have made me “me”. Everybody loves somebody who’s truly confident and there’s something really inspiring about being authentic. Power and influence is being completely reimagined. There are plenty of untold stories out there which influence many once they rise to the surface.

What advice would you give to the next generation of women in business?  

That would be to understand the context of what you’re working within. Sometimes that game is not fair and you won’t be treated equally even when you want to be. It’s also important to understand the data and the metrics. Over the course of two peoples' careers, a man with a Bachelors Degree will earn more than a woman with a PhD. Another thing is to work ahead of the game. I was learning Chinese when few people studied Chinese – I was able to step in to roles where no one else could, therefore I passed a lot of people. Take a look at the context around you – the world is changing at a very fast pace! Diversify your skills. If you have skills that are modern and if you can hustle, you’ll be able to work anywhere in a world under disruption.

How have you overcome any gender-related setbacks during your career?

I realise in order for my message to be heard it doesn’t always need to be spoken by me. There have been times I’ve needed an older, white male to “mansplain” exactly what I’ve said to the rest of the room, and only then will my idea be heard. Those things are absolutely infuriating, but they need to be done.

One way to overcome this is to create a business that is so kick ass that it just can’t be ignored, or pigeon holed. We did that by creating a space and a business that takes a look at Australia’s national interest and China's five year plan, and spotlights how we can support, forge and create new business opportunities based on that. Essentially, it’s about being so audacious that people can’t help but take notice.

What is the biggest misconception about women in business, and how can this be overcome?

That they’re somehow different to men!

Questions like these need to be asked of men rather than women. Ask the people with the misperceptions to do the work.

For once in my life, I’d like to enter a room as a person, and not a woman. Like a lot of Australians, I’m not married and I don’t have children – my female life is not so radically different to any other entrepreneur or businessperson.

Whats the best thing about being a woman in 2017?

I enjoy opportunities that my mother couldn’t have dreamed of. I’m the first generation in my family that got a University degree, and I have chances that women in my family never did. My grandma lived to 100 and read every day of her life – but traditional training and education was not an option for her, whereas I’ve had opportunities to explore the world. We have more and more women participating and leading, we’re going to see a very different 21st century.

What advice would you give to your 20-year old self?

I wouldn’t tell myself a damn thing! I needed to be curious, naïve and not know the answers. I would say: just go for it.

Which woman inspires you, and why?

One of my biggest inspirations is RuPaul, the African American actor, musician and drag queen. Our world is quite scared of the feminine – whether you are male or female – and she puts it out there that the world just needs to catch up, there’s a boldness in that that I really resonate with. I also can’t help but to be inspired by Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister. She led the country in extremely difficult circumstances, not to mention delivered a (now viral) lecture in parliament on misogyny.

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