Meet Sarah Hawley: Former programmer turned serial entrepreneur, and all-round champion of diversity, inclusion, and empowerment. Sarah has founded eight companies since 2009, and co-founded the League of Extraordinary Women as a space to uplift and empower women in tech. Most recently, she built Growmotely, the world’s first ever all-in-one global platform for remote hiring.
In this interview, Sarah tells us all about her latest venture—and the personal journey that led her there. We also discuss the life-changing potential of remote work, the importance of diversity and representation, and what it means to defy limiting beliefs and bias. For more inspirational women in tech, check out this round-up of our top 9 women founders and tech entrepreneurs to watch in 2021. For now, over to Sarah!
Hi Sarah! Thanks for joining me today. Would you mind telling me a bit about yourself?
Sure. I originally studied for a diploma in software development in IT and spent a couple of years working as a coder and doing IT help desk support. Then I ended up falling into business and finance. I was working in my family business with my dad, and eventually ended up abandoning the whole tech thing in terms of pursuing a career as a software developer. It’s been an interesting journey because, you know when you start to learn something new and then you see how much more there is to learn? That little bit of knowledge makes you feel way more stupid than you did before you actually started looking into the topic.
I always had ideas for technology in every company I’ve ever built, but because of my background in tech, it actually scared me because I had a sense of “Ugh, this is so big, there’s so much to do.” I sort of blocked myself from going into tech because of that bit of knowledge I had from the start. Rather than my original field of study being something that empowered me, I actually found that, for whatever reason, I created a belief system that I couldn’t do it. I only got limited experience in the field, so I never really validated for myself that I had the ability to do it—whereas in business and finance, I was very confident. So it was quite a journey to get back here [to tech], because I always wanted to build technology, as I mentioned. I always had these different ideas but I was too afraid to actually pursue them. Afraid’s probably not the right word, but it felt too hard. I didn’t think I could do it.
You’ve had a pretty long and successful run in the world of entrepreneurship (Sarah has founded eight companies since 2009). Tell me about your latest venture, Growmotely—what’s it all about, and where did the idea come from?
At the end of 2018, I sold all my finance companies and was trying to decide what to do next. I stepped into Grow My Team, an HR partner with a focus on building culture for remote companies. We’d been around since 2014, and then I stepped in as CEO in January 2019 to build the business up. I knew it was a good business because I knew the future would be remote. I never expected Covid to happen, but I did think that, over the next ten years or so, more and more people will be working remotely.
About halfway through the year, I was in a team meeting and we were talking about the challenges of tapping different markets for talent. We have really good inroads in parts of Europe, Asia, the US, and Africa, but we hadn’t yet tapped the Latin America talent pool or the Middle East. We were thinking, like, “How are we going to find these people?” We finished the meeting and I realized that’s the problem: there’s no global job board. So, with Growmotely, it started as an idea of just being a website with a job board, and I decided I wanted to build it and that I’d raise some money to do so. I saw it as a huge opportunity. I said “yes” to the universe and started going down that path, and then even more ideas came for this technology, ideas for what we could build well beyond just a job board.
What’s it been like building a new platform and launching a business in the midst of a global pandemic?
Ironically, it was March 13, 2020, when I closed out the pre-seed round for the technology, so literally the week before we went into lockdown. At the time, I still didn’t really know what Covid was, then a week later, I was in lockdown. But still, I thought it would be for two weeks. So it was really interesting because, very quickly, I was like, wow, the world is now working remotely. At the time, I didn’t know how long it would last, so I was thinking, now many people will be exposed to remote work. Then, as time went on, we realized that, ok, we’re going to be in this situation for a lot longer…
Now we’re seeing that many people don’t actually want to go back to working in their offices. This is something I bet on pretty early on; for many, it can be a much more freeing, much more enjoyable lifestyle, and that’s what I wanted to show people. But, previously, people couldn’t get their heads around how you could be productive and not be in an office. We moved as quickly as we could to build the Growmotely platform and really started to think about the bigger picture, looking at how we could integrate benefits into the platform such as payroll and culture tools—essentially creating an end-to-end management platform for building global remote teams.
So Growmotely is essentially an all-in-one solution for anyone who wants to hire remotely—an extremely relevant tool in today’s climate. And how are things going?
We’re in a very closed private beta site right now, and we’re looking at March for a public launch. Saying that, I’ve tried to have launch dates in the past but it just doesn’t always work out. Such is the nature of technology that, if something isn’t working, you can’t just go live with it. We were supposed to go live last year, and it’s been a frustrating journey to get here, but we’re nearly there.
Your mission at Growmotely is to “support the evolution of conscious work and culture. To create equality, growth, fulfillment, freedom and empowerment for all.” How are you incorporating that into the Growmotely product and culture?
It all stems from my own journey into remote work, which started back in 2014. As I was starting my various businesses, I realized that I was working really hard, going in before everyone else and leaving last to set a good example. I was burnt out, working long hours but not necessarily effectively or efficiently. I needed to change my lifestyle, and then when my dad died in 2013, that was an impetus to really think about how things were. So I decided to turn my company remote. I was running a financial planning firm back then, so it’s not a company you would traditionally think could operate remotely. Everyone was like, “That’s crazy, you need nice offices for when your clients come and see you.” But I said, you know what, I think we can do it. So we did it over a few years, and the results were remarkable.
As part of the transition to working remotely, we were able to open up the talent pool so that we could hire people in all different parts of the world. We transformed the company so that the financial advisors lived in Australia (in order to remain compliant), but everyone else in the company could be anywhere in the world. I was free then to travel, so I did that and then ended up moving to the U.S. in 2016. And I got to do all that while running the company.
At the same time, the company was growing and flourishing, and I was becoming a much better leader. One reason for that was that we were bringing diversity in; different cultures and conversations added a richness to our culture and what we were doing. We would talk to each other about how things were in our respective countries, and then find our way back to the difference between the culture we might live in and the culture of the company. It became this really beautiful evolution of people choosing to be a part of this company with this particular culture, irrespective of what it might normally be like in the workplace in the city where they live. That was really cool to see—how we were attracting people who were aligned and likeminded, and finding each other from all over the planet. I’ve been able to attract people from anywhere to my company, and it’s been a really amazing journey that’s led me to a more conscious way of leading, focusing on empowerment and trust.
Working remotely enabled me to question all of my stories, my beliefs, my limits, and start to push boundaries to see what’s possible in all different areas. This was a big personal growth journey for me and the people in my team, and I just want to bring that to the world. Going back to that mission statement on our website: The benefits that come from knowing who we are as a company—truly knowing who we are, not pretending to be something we’re not—and communicating that to the world, then attracting people who want to work in that way, it’s amazing. It means that we’re not just hiring people based on convenience or location. You’re never going to get the same level of engagement and excitement and joy for what you’re doing [as a founder] if the reasons people are working for you (and the reasons you’re hiring them) are based only on convenience.
When the world is opened up, the talent pool, the job market, we have a better chance of finding the kind of work we can be really passionate about—and finding the people who love what we do. If you find that person who loves what you do, not the person who just has the right background and skill set, that’s when companies really start to thrive and get great outcomes. When you give people that freedom and empowerment, they want to show up and do a great job. Most people want to wake up with fire in their belly, and think “How am I impacting the world today?” All these myths about people not really getting their work done if they’re not in an office are just, well, myths.
In addition to being a successful entrepreneur, you’re also an active advocate for diversity, inclusion, and empowerment. Can you tell me about the League of Extraordinary Women?
We founded the League of Extraordinary Women in 2011 or 2012. It was founded by myself and three other women based on our own experiences. We were going to entrepreneur events and trying to put ourselves out there and get to know people in the community, but we noticed it was a space predominantly occupied by men; the speakers were always men, as were the majority of other attendees. Women would show up once but then never come back; we were some of the few women who would show up regularly. It’s quite daunting, walking into a room and seeing that it’s 80-90% men. Even at an unconscious level, you feel: these aren’t my people, this isn’t my place. We were like, wow, this sucks. How can we help women have more of a community when they’re in tech and entrepreneurship? It can be really lonely, especially when you’re just starting out and you’re facing unique challenges. If you don’t have people who look and act and feel somewhat similar to you, it can be even more isolating.
So we had this idea to run a small event for women. We imagined we’d have about 30 or 40 women, and get a couple of really amazing, successful entrepreneurs and hear their stories. As it turns out, we sold 160 tickets in three weeks. That first event was a huge success, and we kept building it from there. We ended up running events in different cities all over Australia, and we’ve had events in the U.S., UK, and South Africa. We had two main conferences annually in Australia (pre-covid): Run the World, and Tech-Formation. We’d have between six and ten women speakers, and it was just amazing to showcase these women and to play a part in bringing more women into tech and entrepreneurship in general. Now it’s more of an online community, but it feels like the world is shifting, and I feel like we’ve played a huge role in that.
In your experience, what are the main obstacles that women face in tech and entrepreneurship?
One obstacle that remains is around seeing other really successful women and knowing that we can also do it. That’s something that was really lacking, and fortunately we are starting to see more visibility for women. We all have innate, unconscious bias, and we don’t even necessarily realize that we might have a limiting belief under the surface, but if we haven’t seen a woman do something to a certain scale, we think it can’t be done. It’s really great that we’re starting to see a lot more women being showcased everywhere for the amazing work they’re doing. I think it’s shifting, but it continues to be a challenge.
Another issue is funding. We know the stats; something like 3% of funding goes to women. If you consider the fact that about 50% of businesses are started by women, there’s clearly a breakdown that happens along the way in getting women to a place where they actually go on to seek funding and do all the things that men in the same position do. I think that’s a problem caused partly by unconscious bias, and a lack of evidence that exists in our everyday sphere that women can and will do this. I’m raising money right now and I’m very much choosing not to lean into that story, and to tell myself that I can and will do anything. But it’s tempting, when an investor says no, to think that it might be because I’m a woman. I keep pushing through and showing up.
We need to normalize women being really successful and doing great things in the world, we need to see more women in leadership. I mean, we were written out of history for thousands of years. If you read any history book, apparently women didn’t exist doing anything cool at all, right? So the more we can talk and write about and showcase women, the better. That’s what it comes down to for me: Constantly looking at my own beliefs and challenging my limits. I’m not going to project or accept other people’s stories about me or how they might judge me because I’m a woman. I’m just staying focused on myself and going after it.
Earlier on, you mentioned that one of the reasons you didn’t pursue a career in programming was your own belief that you couldn’t do it. How do you feel about that now when you look back?
Looking back, there were only two women on my course studying software development, and of the experience I did have, which was very little, I was mostly surrounded by men. I would say, rightly or wrongly, that I created or believed in the story that I didn’t fit in or didn’t belong, and that’s one of the reasons I backed away from it. I hadn’t been programming since I was five, that wasn’t me. I’d only just started because it interested me, but maybe being a woman and not seeing other women around me who were doing really well, only seeing guys who were obsessed with tech since they were little kids—I wrote it off for myself as a career before I’d even started. That was before I found my determination and understood that I can be and do whatever I want. The world has shifted and I’ve shifted, but back then, it was definitely a thing.
From a hiring perspective, what do you think companies can do to create a diverse and balanced workplace?
In all of my previous companies (in sectors outside of tech), I’ve naturally attracted either all women or mostly women for my teams, so it’s been easy for me to find super talented women. In tech, I realize I’m going to have to be really intentional about this.
When we’re not as easily or naturally finding that diversity, we have to bring intention to it. At some point, I will have to say, OK, there are some really great guys who could fill this role but I’m gonna say no because I want some women in here. That’s my perspective on the quota system vs. the merit system. It’s controversial, but my take on it is, until it’s totally normal to see whatever diversity factor we’re talking about—be it women or other underrepresented groups—we need to intentionally make it so that it becomes normal. I don’t really believe in the argument that says, “Oh, well, hire the best person for the job, and that might not be a woman.” There’s going to be at least one woman in the world who can do that job; just find her. Personally, I lean into creating more intention around hiring to make sure I’m actually creating balance rather than just being a product of the society that we’ve been raised in.
What advice would you give to any women reading this?
Do what you love. I was recently talking to a friend who’s a pilot, and he said, “Well, aviation is going to sh*t, maybe I should go back and study finance; you always did well in that.” I was like, I didn’t do well in finance. I did well (and do well) because I don’t do anything I’m not obsessed with or don’t love. It happened to be finance, business, and now remote work and technology, but none of those things were me making a strategic career move. It was more like: I’m obsessed with this thing and I can’t not do it. So my advice: Lean into what you love and what you’re passionate about. Trust that abundance follows passion and purpose.
We agree, and we definitely try to encourage our students to find their passions and pursue them if they can. Before you go—what’s next for you?
I always have different ideas swirling around, but at this point, It’s all Growmotely. In fact, I’m obsessed with it. I really feel as though what I’m creating is where most people will be in the future. This is the Uber or airbnb that’s coming out of this current global situation. There’s a lot within the Growmotely ecosystem that’s yet to come; the benefits program, the culture tools…We’re launching an MVP that won’t have everything from the start, but where I see this platform in the future and what I see it bringing to the world is just super exciting. I’ll keep you updated on the journey!
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