Frances van Ruth: “Australians are innovative thinkers; we question authority in a healthy way”
Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance.
Frances van Ruth has spent her career promoting Australia’s strengths and building global relationships to help Australia grow. Facilitating trade, investment and international education opportunities for Australia through her current role as Trade & Investment Commissioner in San Francisco, Frances is laser-focused on building Australia’s economic relationship with the United States and Canada.
After studying International Business at University, working with Austrade for five years, and living in San Francisco for almost two; Frances has identified exactly what is Australia’s biggest strength, and what it takes for Australian startups to scale to different markets around the world.
Young Australian entrepreneurs take note; Frances’ words of wisdom may be just the ticket – literal and figurative – to take your business to lofty heights.
Can you tell me a little bit about your journey to San Francisco, particularly in how you came to be the Trade Investment Commissioner?
I've been with Austrade for five years, and prior to that, I was with the Victorian Government in their Economic Development Department. I studied International Business at Flinders University in South Australia, and after a stint working in the private sector, I went back to university to do my Ph.D. at the University of Melbourne. Throughout my studies and work, I've always been interested in Australia's commercial engagement with the world, and it has always been the international elements of business that have interested me most.
Was San Francisco a pipe dream or a happy accident?
Austrade works in the way where you throw your hat in the ring for different posting opportunities that come up, and it just so happened that the timing was right for San Francisco. Earlier in my career, I had a particular focus on Australia's commercial engagement with Latin America, and I'd seen myself one day potentially working there. But careers rarely take the path that you assume they will.
From your very international perspective, what do you identify as being Australia's biggest strength?
Perhaps it's cliché, but I’d have to say that Australia's biggest strengths are its talent. And it’s really such a great strength to have because that talent is what’s going to decide the winners of the future. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Bay Area, where the war for talent is truly fierce. Australians are innovative thinkers; we question authority in a healthy way.
Why do you think that is?
If you think about Australia's 200-plus years of history since colonization and the nature of the way in which Australia became a country: we were a bunch of troublemakers who were sent to the other end of the world to “figure it out”. Adding that to a migrant-rich culture, I think there's a diversity of thinking in Australia, and increasingly, an understanding in organizations that we really need to champion and give room for that diversity of thinking in order to be innovative.
How have the Austrade Landing Pads helped facilitate Australian Innovation overseas?
The Landing Pads are one part of the Australian Government's National Science and Innovation Agenda which launched in December of 2015. There are five Landing Pads around the world that Austrade runs. San Francisco was the first to kick off, but now we also have Landing Pads in Singapore, Shanghai, Tel Aviv and Berlin. We’ve had 31 companies through the program in San Francisco, which provides a 90-day residency at the Landing Pad. It allows companies to quickly embed themselves in the local ecosystem and understand the nature of doing business in this area. We connect them to potential mentors, service providers, enterprise customers and customers more broadly. I think as much as Australia and the US have a lot in common, we have very different business cultures.
What’s the most important skill Australian entrepreneurs need when coming to San Francisco?
Australian entrepreneurs that come to the Bay Area have to have persistence and a willingness to work really hard. I also think there's a certain amount of humility that’s necessary; you can't come in thinking you know all the answers, but you've also got to be confident. If you are not your own biggest champion in this market then who else is going to be?
People from all over the world are drawn to the Bay Area because of its unique combination of capital, world-class universities and research infrastructure, multinational companies and startups. They come and work in the likes of Google and Facebook and Apple and take those learnings and create startups of their own. The competition is so intense that you've got to know how to sell yourself, and you've got to know how to sell your business.
This extraordinary growth that the Bay Area has experienced in tech and innovation, you think that growth is sustainable?
There are many governments and industry associations around the world who are asking themselves how they can replicate Silicon Valley; how can they make Sydney or Vancouver the next global tech hotspot. Silicon Valley didn't happen overnight, it was 30 or 40 years in the making and I think its success was born from that unique proximity of national research infrastructure, universities and so-called ‘traditional’ hardware technology companies and the capital and talent that flowed to the area as a result. Does this mean other cities can’t replicate some of Silicon Valley’s success? No, but there is a lot of history that has gone into making Silicon Valley what it is. The challenges for the Bay Area, which create opportunities for other places in the world are the costs of doing business here. The cost of talent and the challenge of retaining that talent in the Bay Area is driving companies elsewhere.
What are the biggest challenges of expanding a business to the US?
The cost and competition. When you're competing with the likes of Facebook, Google, Apple and Salesforce for tech talent, it can be difficult to get an engineer or technologist to stick. They've got plenty of other opportunities; it’s all about the work environment that's provided; free cafeterias, ping pong and pool tables, beautiful campuses and breakout rooms, yoga classes and everything in between, companies are competing to keep that talent.
For this reason, it’s important that Australian startups coming to the US look beyond the Bay Area to other technology hotspots like Seattle, Denver, New York or Austin.
What advantages do Australians have moving to the US?
Australians have a great advantage over people from other countries thanks to the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement; the E3 visa category. Australians also have a great reputation in the Bay Area; there are a number of Australians in prominent positions in large technology companies and a number of Australian startups that have established a presence here as well. I think there is a general affinity between Australians and Americans and this can help with getting a foot in the door.
What do you identify as the biggest opportunities for Australians in the Bay Area?
A big sector that we're currently looking at is cybersecurity; something that is growing exponentially globally and has opportunities for Australia from a trade, investment, and research perspective. Currently, we have a cohort of companies in the San Francisco Landing Pad that are all in the cybersecurity industry. This is an initiative we’ve collaborated with AustCyber (the Australian Cyber Security Growth Network) to deliver.
We’re also working on bringing a large mission of 50-60 Australian cyber security companies to San Francisco in April for the world’s largest cybersecurity conference, the RSA Conference.
How would you describe the Australian community in San Francisco?
Wherever you are living overseas I think there's an affinity that Australians have for meeting fellow Australians. There are some great organizations in the Bay Area that Austrade works closely with; Advance being one example and the Aussie Founders Network another. There are lots of organizations in the ecosystem that are working to strengthen the connection between Australia and the Bay Area.
Recently we had a kickoff event for the new cohort in the San Francisco Landing Pad and had over a hundred people in a room, whether they were Australians or Americans working at companies which have invested or are looking to invest in Australia. There is a real camaraderie and a shared experience, that I think makes those connections easier.
You're very passionate about your job; what's the very best part of what you do?
Helping Australian companies grow and seeing them explore and establish a presence in international markets. It's a fantastic thing to go to work and do and I get to meet such a wide range of people and work across a variety of sectors and industries. There's never a dull moment in this job.