Renata Cooper
11 Dec

Interview with Renata Cooper, CEO of Forming Circles Global

This interview by Rosemary McKenzie originally appeared in Samara Magazine.
Interview with Renata Cooper, CEO of Forming Circles Global

While her earliest career dream was to become a death-defying acrobat, fortunately Renata Cooper didn’t run away to join the circus. Instead, she defied the critics by launching and running Forming Circles Global, which offers angel investment and mentoring to women with great business ideas. Here we chat with Angel, Renata…

 

So, Renata, tell us about your business…

Forming Circles Global (FCG) was launched as a unique Australian angel investment and mentoring organisation to invest in women-led technology startups and businesses. It was born of a desire to give women with great ideas access to funding and a support network conducive to growth.

FCG invests in women who we believe are exceptional founders, challenge the status quo, disrupt industries and want to give back. We are helping women achieve their goals and making their business vision a reality.

How did you come up with the name of your business? What does it mean? Does it have special significance?

It took around three months to come up with our business name. It was a massive brainstorming process and we came up with names like ‘Clever Girls’, ‘She Wolf’, ‘Sphere’… but none of them were right. It was quite depressing, really.

Inspiration came late one night from an amazing book by Michelle Johnston, Woman on the Verge: The Subject is Herself. While I was flipping through the book, I wrote down 20 most meaningful words used in this book that represented what I wanted to create and, voila! Forming Circles was born. We have added ‘Global’ as the company grew and our focus became global investing. Forming Circles really signifies what I am about — it is inclusive, growing, embracing, and creating a ripple effect that amplifies. It is about growing community.

Did you always dream of opening your business or was there something else you wanted to be ‘when you grew up’?

No, I didn’t. Each stage of my life created an urge for something different. My first ever job ambition at age nine was to join a circus and become an acrobat. Then I wanted to be an Olympic athlete and organised our own games in a local park.

I studied agriculture and wanted to work with horses. Then I left Slovakia and came to Australia as a refugee. I was 19 with just $20 on me – no English, no family and no job. The next 10 years was about survival and educating myself.  I generally balanced working with my hobbies and learning many new skills. It was only when I married and we started our own business that I put into practice all my life skills gathered along the way.

What inspired you to finally open your business?

My then husband and I got a windfall of money from the sale of a technology business. That financial gain gave me the confidence to launch Forming Circles and help other women with great ideas with the financial ability to follow their dreams.

When I looked around, I realised that, most often, the singular factor stopping women from launching their own businesses was the lack of financial support and the belief that they can do it. I wanted to change this and hopefully inspire others to do the same. Now, I stand proud to say that I have invested in many individuals, organisations and causes.

I think, as a community, we need to work collaboratively and help each other rise to the top so collectively, as a society, we all benefit.

What has been your biggest challenge so far? What obstacles have you overcome? 

Back in 2011, the concept of angel investment in early stage businesses was practically non-existent in Australia. Most people with money would invest it back into property, as it was less risky. People were sceptical about the direction I was headed in and many tried talking me out of it.

Fast forward to now and becoming an angel investor in a startup, particularly women-led startups, is ‘the’ trend. I think the hardest part when you have a vision for a future that hasn’t taken shape as yet is convincing others of the same. Very few will see it and support you on the journey.

I overcame this challenge by educating people, taking incremental steps leading to the bigger vision, and leading by example. For instance, one of the projects I funded was an anti-bullying short film A Cautionary Tail featuring the voice of Cate Blanchett that went on to win national and international awards. In this case, funding helped the filmmaker Pauline Piper get the positive message to wider audiences, and helped her deliver a product that the country can proudly call its own.

But this problem is a continuous one as the future will change and what I envision for the next three years hasn’t really taken off as yet. It’s a constant process of education.

And what has been your greatest business achievement?

My greatest business accomplishment has been using my own personal funds to launch Forming Circles Global to support women entrepreneurs in Australia and globally. I have an amazing portfolio of women entrepreneurs in my Founders Circle who are bold, ambitious and taking on the world with their ideas and action.

Who is/was your business inspiration?

It is hard to narrow it down to one person as most successful business people inspire me. Almost every successful person you come across will have a story about overcoming adversity and challenges.

Successful women in technology and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) particularly inspire me as it is a tough gig and they are among the minority. The CEOs in FCG Founders Circles inspire me on weekly basis. I am so proud to be part of their journey.

Were you among the first in your family and friendship group to run your own business? If so, were you supported or discouraged?

As Forming Circles was never a typical business, most people didn’t understand it and thought I was just throwing away my money. I never forget the first ever headlines in our local magazine that said something to the effect of, ‘Local woman sits behind her computer and gives her husband’s money away’. I was absolutely furious!

Visionaries are generally a misunderstood lot. It took all my willpower and determination to continue my vision against all odds. It is only now that angel investing in women is a trend in Australia and many relate to my vision. But, even now, it is looked upon as a risky gamble as only after business exits can you gauge profitability. Hopefully, there’s not long to go before we have proof of concept that we need.

Do you have a mentor? (Or did you have a mentor during your business-building phase?) If so, how important was this relationship to your success?

In the digital age, I get inspired and educated every day. I read amazing articles written by incredible people and learn so much. It could be something that the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Sheryl Sandberg, Bill Gates or Elon Musk said, or it could be something that a local person does or says. I don’t have a mentor as such but I certainly pay attention all the time and challenge myself to learn a new skill.

Are you a mentor? If so, who do you mentor? Why do you mentor?

Yes, I am. I mentor the founders of all the businesses I have invested in and a few select others. Given the number of requests we receive for business advice, we run monthly ‘Coffee with the CEO’ sessions to mentor people in short bursts.

We also offer mentorship as an award to the recipients of our bi-annual small business grant. Diverse City Careers is the winner of our latest spring grant and they will get to be mentored by me and a panel of other industry experts.

As I set out to be an entrepreneur and investor, I realised that getting money was one thing, but for women to scale and grow their business, sometimes they also needed guidance from someone who knows more than them in certain areas.

I found that women do not often put their hand up to ask for help or support, and would try to shoulder the challenges and carry on. I set out to make mentorship an integral part of funding in women so the stigma of asking for help would also reduce.

I think, as a community, we need to work collaboratively and help each other rise to the top so collectively, as a society, we all benefit.

Empowerment of women and youth is an absolute necessity to future proof our country. 

Do you have an exit strategy? Do you think you could ever sell the company and move on to something else?

My aim is to invest in a solid portfolio of women entrepreneurs who will then exit their businesses in a few years’ time.

When you invest in a business as an angel investor, you do not expect to hang on to the company for a long time. The expectation is that your portfolio will hopefully grow and eventually exit by way of inital public offering (IPO) or sale. The nature of this business is relatively short-term. So I always knew I would be out of it in a few years.

Are you involved in philanthropy? What causes are close to your heart? Why do you think it’s important for businesswomen to be philanthropic?

Yes – extensively. Forming Circles started off as a social and ethical investment organisation that had a strong foundation in philanthropy and social causes. I strongly believe in causes related to women, youth and literacy. I believe that if we tackled these three issues, we would have a more progressive nation. Empowerment of women and youth is an absolute necessity to future proof our country.

It is easy for all of us to talk about change. But, at the heart of it, we need to play an active role in changing the system around us. I would not narrow it down to businesswomen but say that for anyone who wants to bring about change, the time is always now to do something about it. If you are in a privileged position to help someone else and would like to, then do so.

What’s the best business advice you’ve been given? And by who?

One of the best pieces of advice I received was when I had taken a small break to deal with personal matters. The person who gave me the advice told me to allow myself to go back to work and embrace it. Soon after, Forming Circles Global was re-born.

What’s the most humorous piece of business advice you’ve been given? And by who?

Not sure about the most humorous advice, but I was told many times to shut down my business and focus on being a housewife. Is that funny??

What’s the best business tip you can offer our readers?

For startups… try to solve a real problem that your customers have, educate yourself about finances, and surround yourself with an amazing team and true supporters. Finally, choose your investors wisely.

What’s next for your business?

FCG recently committed to investing half a million dollars over the next three years in women-led/formed businesses as angel investment, bi-annual business grants, and in Australian social enterprises doing good overseas. My focus for the next few years will be on ensuring we invest the money wisely and help people grow.

AT A GLANCE

Business name: Forming Circles Global (FCG)

Business structure: Pty Ltd

Location: Sydney, NSW

Year business established: 2011 as Forming Circles and morphed into FCG in 2015

Your position: CEO and Founder

Annual Turnover: As an angel investing firm, we don’t have annual turnover. Profits come after exits.

Number of employees: Outsourced teams

Industry: Angel investment

Name: Renata Cooper

Age: 50

Lives: Southerland Shire, NSW

Children: Two. One boy (10 years old) and one girl (6 years old).

Do you work from home, the office, or a combination of both? Majority of work is done from home office, business meetings in cafes and restaurants.

Typical work week (hours): There is no typical work week as it is usually driven by the activities that we have. Sometimes it is full steam ahead (60-hour week), and other times there are a few days that I can spend a lot more time with the kids and myself. Unless there are massive deadlines, I can choose to increase or decrease my work hours.

Typical work schedule (Mon-Fri etc): Usually I wake up around 6am, make a coffee and settle down to an hour of reading the latest news/articles and answer urgent emails. Around 7.30am, kids breakfast and prep for school. 9:30am-3pm (or 5pm), work-related matters. After 5pm-10pm, time with kids or business events. Occasional late night Skype with team.

Memberships, Associations: Scale Investors, muru-D (startup accelerator), Good360 AUS, Little Black Dress Group (LBDG), Heads Over Heels.

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