South Australia is home to talented, intelligent and innovative women across diverse fields – but many are moving away to further their careers.
Spence Club is a new, exclusive networking group for young, local women with a focus on creating opportunities right here.
Founder, Lauren Zwaans, has made a name for herself as the creator of fashion website, The Urban Silhouette, while working in media and communications both locally and abroad.
She believes Spence Club is a unique addition to the South Australian landscape because it offers young women the opportunity to be involved in a club with their peers across industries that won’t cost them a fortune in membership fees.
“So many women who feel like they’re in the developing stages of their career have said they feel like there’s such a need for a group like this,” she says.
Lauren kick-started her own career before finishing university, but when she moved overseas she experienced what so many SA women face – the need to build professional connections from scratch.
“It was actually while I was living in London, I was just feeling quite disconnected from home,” she says.
“Obviously I had LinkedIn, but you immediately feel that professional disconnect and want to stay engaged.
“I was part of some networking groups in London, some of them were really amazing and the connections I made helped me to get my job and make a lot of friends.”
Lauren hopes that through the Spence Club, other women who leave Adelaide might one day return.
With plans to fly home, Lauren was inspired to create a similar platform for local women to form a niche community.
Ironically, this very issue came up not long after she returned to her position as a Media & Policy Adviser with Greens MLC, Tammy Franks.
“In my first week back after London, I was in Parliament and a Family First MLC was delivering a speech saying young women were leaving South Australia and what a problem it was,” Lauren says.
“I was sitting just behind Tammy and she called out, ‘Lauren came back’.”
Lauren hopes that through the Spence Club, other women who leave Adelaide might one day return as she did and build a career in their home state.
“I think it is a real issue for South Australia that we do lose a lot of good talent,” she says.
“So the Spence Club is about keeping some of that talent engaged, and hopefully drawing them back and creating new opportunities.
“First and foremost it’s about networking for young women, but it’s also about finding that support network.
“I’m a strong believer in gender equality and I would happily term myself a feminist.”
The glass ceiling certainly still exists in the workforce. Fewer women hold senior positions and the gender pay gap is at a 20 year high, according to recent data.
With numbers like these, Lauren believes it’s very important for women to band together.
The Club is named after feminist and pioneer Catherine Helen Spence – a name put forward by fellow founding member, Lucy Travers, and an appropriate title given its focus on empowering young women.
So far more than 160 women have become members, with a further 50 applicants that the steering committee needs to sift through. Lauren has found herself inspired by the women who are applying, proving SA has significant homegrown talents who should be encouraged to stay.
“The vast array of different jobs people have is really exciting – there are so many that I know little about and I love finding out about the paths that the women involved have chosen,” she says.
“Our membership is very diverse. There are women who are artists, women who have started their own not-for-profits, lawyers, accountants, engineers, fashion designers – the list goes on.”
Despite the impressive applicants attracted to Spence Club, Lauren says the group is primarily for women in the earlier phases of their career.
“The Club is less about exclusivity, and more about the ambition and the qualities that young women can bring to the table,” she says.
“We want to include people who feel they’re in the developing stages of their career.
“I feel like we have a lot in common, I feel like we can really support each other and understand each other.”
But like any group, Spence Club has criteria and members must be ambitious young women who call South Australia home, whether they are currently residing in SA or not.
“At a minimum they need to be tertiary educated, or have at least five years of experience in their field,” Lauren says.
Statistics show women in their twenties are leaving at higher rates than men of the same age and Lauren wants to target this demographic and get them engaged with the Club in case they one day return.
It’s not surprising considering she recently returned from London, while fellow founding member Lucy Travers recently moved home from New York. The remaining two founding members, Madeline Charlton and Vanessa Jeyapal, are based in Ottawa and Sydney respectively.
In fact, more than a quarter of Spence Club applicants hail from Adelaide but live interstate or overseas.
Three of the four founding members reunited in Adelaide last month for the Club’s inaugural event: a Long Lunch at Carrick Hill.
The event was planned by a steering committee of local members and the event raised more than $2500 for a local charity, Time for Kids.
The group intends to host four premium networking events each year, and any profits raised will go to a charity chosen by its members.
“The plan is to have one or two really engaging speakers at each event and make them really lush and go to a lot of trouble to make them special for our members,” Lauren says.
“This is also a way for us to work together to raise money for some great charities.
“So many people say philanthropy is important, but we don’t do enough of it, so let’s do more in that sphere.”
While the set-up may sound akin to old boys’ clubs of yesteryear, Lauren says the “elite element” is actually about recognising women’s accomplishments.
“There is an element of exclusivity only in the sense that we can’t include everyone from a logistics perspective, and have a specific demographic that our events are aimed at,” she says.
“It’s an Australian thing – there’s such an element of tall poppy syndrome here.
“I really feel like it’s particularly bad for women, and a lot of women play down their achievements.
“This is about actually celebrating the achievements of young leaders who represent the next generation of women who will excel in all sorts of industries.
But, since launching late last year, one of Spence Club’s criteria – the 18-45 age range – has attracted some criticism on social media.
“You’re obviously going to get criticism any time you put any idea out there into the public domain,” Lauren says.
“The founding members and I have spoken at length about the age criteria, and we feel that this is a club specifically for younger women.
“There are plenty of groups out there catering to different demographics.”
In fact, Lauren is open to women driving the development of Spence Club and encourages them to bring their voices to the discussion.
“I’m hoping as we develop the Club, the members will drive the direction we take, so that it can be something that can exist long beyond my involvement,” she says.
“I don’t want it to be about me forcing my views or my ideals onto other people, I want it to be very much collaborative.”
The steering committee is currently considering its draft constitution, and Board members are expected to be elected in the coming month.
“I really hope that in the future we might become a voice for young professional women in our state,” Lauren says.
Mentoring girls from a young age, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, is one of Lauren’s ideas for the Club.
“School-aged girls would be looking up to young women and they might be more accessible than those who are further into their careers,” she says.
“I’d like the opportunity to go into schools and tell young girls about our careers and how we got our start.”
Stories Well Told sat down with Lauren for a chat about how her career got off the ground.
Did you find there was a lack of opportunities when you finished study?
I actually hadn’t finished [my Masters at] university when I got my first job as a journalist at The Advertiser. Now I’m going to do exactly what I told women at our first Spence Club event not to do and that is to say that I got quite lucky.
That’s exactly the sort of talk we want to stamp out with Spence Club, because I really want women to be able to own their achievements and not feel the need to play things down.
But I know that a lot of women in South Australia do leave because they’re not getting the opportunities that they want. I went overseas because I was seeking more creative opportunities.
I specifically wanted to work in fashion for a luxury fashion brand and there’s just not a lot in South Australia, and that’s why I went to London. I’m going to do it again and say I got lucky, but I obviously worked really hard to get there too.
Why did you leave The Advertiser to start The Urban Silhouette (TUS)?
That’s not quite accurate. The Urban Silhouette is my part-time side project, but I actually went straight into politics after that as a media adviser with the Greens.
I wear my ethics on my sleeve and I just decided that in terms of the best ethical fit for me it was time for me to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk. That was part of the reason that I was attracted specifically to the Greens. They fit my values and I believe in strong environmental action and protection and social justice.
I sought them out. Obviously with only two MPs in state parliament and only four in South Australia there’s not a whole lot of jobs going, but it was a case of being in the right place at the right time.
I left The Advertiser and went overseas on my honeymoon a few weeks later. I’d done some casual work with Tammy, and an opening came up when I returned.
Why did you start up TUS?
My sheer love of fashion and wanting to create a fashion blog with a strong focus on supporting emerging Australian fashion designers. TUS is different to a lot of blogs out there; it isn’t just about girls posing in different looks, although we do feature some outfit posts. It’s chiefly about the designers and stories behind this wearable art.
What draws you to so many different projects, and how do you manage them all?
I think for me it’s good. Obviously politics and legislation can be quite dry and quite heavy at times, so TUS is my creative outlet. Now with Spence Club, aside from the networking opportunities, I see it as a philanthropic opportunity to hopefully give back to charities; I think it’s something South Australia needs.
I don’t know how I balance it all; a very supportive husband and parents?. I write a lot of lists; I’m extremely organised and hopefully the people I work with will agree that I’m good at communicating and multi-tasking. With Spence, there are a lot of amazing women who have taken ownership of what we’re trying to create. I couldn’t have planned and executed our first event without them. I’m definitely not superwoman.
How have you navigated working on both sides of the media?
I think with newspapers and that sort of environment you never actually understand the realities of deadlines that journalists are working to until you’re in there, and I think until you’re in there too, you never realise the extent to which you shouldn’t take news as gospel. More than anything for me it highlights the value of tertiary education and the ability to think critically: to look at statistics or an interview and consider whether it is the full picture, and whether or not the author or media outlet has a particular agenda.
Being on the other side of it, I feel like media advisers and political advisers sometimes get a bad wrap. I can’t speak for others, but I don’t see myself as a spin doctor at all. I believe 100 per cent in what I’m doing, or I wouldn’t be here.
Tell us about working in London.
I was there for 14 months and at the start my husband and I travelled extensively in Europe. Then we arrived back in London and within a few weeks I’d landed an incredible job with Burberry; it felt a bit like a dream.
They were a fabulous company to work for. I’ve worked in all different sectors: the not-for-profit sector, the government sector, and the corporate sector, but Burberry was just such a slick operation; they’re a very impressive company.
Why did you return to South Australia?
A combination of factors; the idea of struggling through another winter for one. I actually wasn’t that homesick, but when there’s two of you to factor into decision making you do compromise.
I had my year of adventure and fun and I think both my husband and I really enjoyed it, which was brilliant, but we always knew we were going to come back to Adelaide eventually, so it was just a matter of when.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
That’s something I feel like I’m still working outI think I’ll always, at the very least, dabble in writing and journalism. It’s my first passion, but I love the freedom to go after the stories that I want to in that space.
I’ve never really been a person who knew exactly what path I was going to take. Instead, I’ve just seized every opportunity that comes my way. I don’t know what’s next, but I’m happy with where I am at the moment. In a political advisory role the environment is very fast paced, so that’s really great. My boss is fantastic and will no doubt kick many goals over the next few years, so I look forward to supporting her in that.
I’m starting to do some guest lecturing at university this semester, so education is one possibility, and maybe a PhD down the track.
The original article was published by Stories Well Told on March 5, 2015.