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Slattery slashes six degrees

  • 22 June 2012
  • Written by 
  • Published in Profiler

Forget six degrees of separation. If you’re in information technology in Australia and want to meet someone, Rachel Slattery’s your woman. She’s probably no more than two degrees away from anyone in this business; a flesh and blood version of LinkedIn.

Malcolm Turnbull’s partly responsible for her technology bent. After university Slattery went into publishing, and eventually found herself handling a book list that included titles such as Turnbull’s Spycatcher.

By that time Turnbull had become a significant investor in internet service provider Ozemail, which was trying to encourage ordinary Australians to sign up for internet accounts  by offering start-up disks that allowed people four hours’ free trial. Turnbull arranged for thousands of the disks to find their way to his publisher with the hope that they would then wend their way into schools and libraries, and seed demand among the then internet-illiterate hordes of Australia.

Slattery could barely shift them in the early 1990s. Her book reps were returning saying that no-one really seemed to want the disks, or was interested in the internet.

In less than a decade however the world shifted on its axis and demand for new technologies and the internet caught fire.

Along the way Slattery was introduced to Mitch Davis, who was at that stage handling strategy for Encyclopaedia Britannica. He was and is, she says someone “who could sell ice to the eskimos - he taught me a lot.”

Slattery and Davis worked together on a series of models for how Britannica could survive and prosper. At the time it made sense and Britannica liked the models, but as Slattery candidly acknowledges they never saw Wikipedia coming.

Davis went off to the US with Britannica, leaving Slattery to run with some other projects including writing reports about technology and the still nascent internet sector. (Davis meanwhile went on to establish Massive, the company that developed the technology allowing advertisers to insert products into computer games – a business that sold to Microsoft for a reported $US400 million).

“I was getting paid to know stuff about what was happening. It was about talking to people, asking what people were doing,” says Slattery. Eventually she secured a deal to produce a weekly newsletter, the foundations of The Watch which survives today - condensing the week’s big news into bite-sized chunks that offered insight and value to stockbrokers.

But by then the dot com boom was starting to tip over. “Everything was smelling a little bit and it worried me,” she says. Even so Slattery went ahead and founded Slattery IT Consulting in 2000, although she admits now that; “it was probably the worst time to start in IT.

“I thought I would help traditional businesses become technical and help technology companies market themselves,” says Slattery. Law firm Minter Ellison offered to help sponsor The Watch, and also offered Slattery the use of its meeting rooms to host events.

That was the catalyst for what Slattery IT Consulting has become famous for – bringing together the right people at the right time. Slattery’s first event was on e-tailing. “We flooded the room - those were in the days of Greengrocer, dStore and The Spot.”

Slattery also knew that busy people don’t want to waste time – so she kept the seminars as short as possible. It was a formula that worked and Slattery attracted a good crowd – including venture capitalists looking for up and coming companies.

“I remember Geoff Garrett (former head of CSIRO and now Queensland’s chief scientist) saying that innovation walks on two legs.  There had been a study done that brought up six roles that were crucial for innovation – one of them was the party hostess and how for a good party to work you need someone introducing people – it’s the same for innovation.

“I’ve always enjoyed the accidents that can happen. In the tech industry there are people who are incapable of doing that and I find it quite easy,” says Slattery who is quite comfortable playing social ventriloquist for ultra-smart researchers who “can’t string a sentence to a stranger.”

Her role she says is often about; “Giving them the space to meet and hope that something happens.

“I get a real kick out of some of the young companies we may have helped either through information or contacts or even in some cases some attention. When something good happens to them, I really love that.”

She tells the story of two women who came to a VC Connect event, thinking they were ready for venture capital. They learned at the event that they had more to do before they could successfully pitch to a venture capitalist, but they met Starfish Ventures at the event, went away and worked on their business idea, and came back and got the venture capital two years later.

Today Slattery IT Consulting has a team of seven, running its own branded events , such as Tech 23, Agile and a range of Connect events, and also handling events and marketing on behalf of clients such as CSIRO, Telstra, the Communications Alliance, LinkedIn and Amazon Web Services.

Slattery, now in her early 40s, and the mother of two small children, was born in Melbourne - the oldest of six children. Her father started his own business – he’s a quantity surveyor – when Slattery was seven, while her mother had returned to high school teaching two years earlier.

A catholic girls’ high school proved limiting in terms of access to strong science teachers and mentors, something Slattery still regrets, but did hone a love of literature and the arts. (She is married to Adrian Collette, head of Opera Australia who she first met while working in publishing).

Asked to nominate a role model, it’s Slattery’s paternal grandmother who has just turned 90 who makes the grade. She had eight children and started her career at 48, when she established neighbourhood centres in Victoria that brought migrant Vietnamese women and local women together.

“It was in an area where the Vietnamese influx was at its height – there were these massive looms;  the Vietnamese women would teach the Anglo women how to weave and they would teach them English – it was about keeping people’s skills and respect up.” And making those all-important connections.

Despite the challenges of juggling new parenthood and a business, Slattery confesses to still being fascinated by technology, often favouring the big hard areas of technology such as robotics over the often frothier consumer sector. She’s the only person I know who wanted to throw an SKA party when Australia won the right to host part of the Square Kilometre Array radio-telescope project.

“I’ve always been attracted to the ugly tech side. I think it’s cleverer – and that’s where I find the challenge – I’m happy to deal with companies getting their $50,000 or $100 grand or $1 million – but how do you get the $10million to do something that’s really fundamental?

“The SKA – that’s so exciting – when you get techies, they have such amazing capacity to make something clever – but there’s the gap to the real world. I would love to get more involved in that – the commercialisation side interests me. There should be more incentives for people to be risk takers – should be more incentives for more of our super money to go towards more of the things Australia can do.

“I don’t understand how we can have a Future Fund that doesn’t invest in risky stuff – even one tiny percent of a percent could make such a difference.”


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