by Valentina Cano
In this interview, Australian entrepreneur Scott Wilkie discusses how he became an entrepreneur “by accident,” his philosophy for seizing opportunities, and what it’s like to be working in Australia.
Scott, an experienced senior executive and company director, has spent the last decade focused on developing exceptional global companies. He cut his teeth as an international investment banker with Credit Suisse and UBS on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and in several Asia countries. With an itch for the entrepreneurial lifestyle, Scott leveraged his finance background to become an adviser, senior executive, and founder at several Australian- and UK-based companies.
While providing strategic policy advice—digital transformation and cyber security—to Australian governmental departments and the Commonwealth Science Innovation and Research Office CSIRO, Scott co-founded Wavebreak Ventures (an Australian VC fundWavebreak) AUCloud (an Australian Public Sector IaaS businessAUCloud).
Scott, who holds a Law Degree from the Queensland University of Technology, is a recognized expert in the governance of, and strategy for, sovereign cybersecurity systems. He occasionally lectures at the National Security College in Canberra on these matters—but Scott would rather spend time supporting youth safety and veteran’s mental health issues.
Tell me a bit about your story: What made you transition from a degree in Law into finance and then entrepreneurship?
I describe myself as an “accidental entrepreneur.” In the 1980s, “entrepreneurship” was seen as narcissistic and built on unbridled capitalism. Hollywood captured the moral essence of the time in the movie Wall Street and I couldn’t have pictured myself further removed from those characters.
However, I’m a firm believer that when opportunities come up, you should take them. After Law School, I accidentally ended up working on Wall Street and gained valuable finance experience. Then, during the 90s Internet boom, I moved to Silicon Valley for my wife’s job, where I was exposed to the world of innovation and tech.
I knew nothing about dealing with the real world after law school, but Wall Street and Silicon Valley provided everyday access to people who were trying to change—and rbuild a cultural and capital ecosystem to support such change. Investment Banking was a life-changing experience for me that, in spite of my privileged upbringing and education, I learned immensely from people with diverse backgrounds. The shock of being wholly outwitted by my peers with street smarts quickly gave way to admiration and intense competition—books can have very deceiving covers, and unintentional bias must be quickly overcome!!!
What do you think is the essential skill to have nowadays?
I constantly misquote Alvin Toffler along the lines that “the great skill of the future is not one of coding or a particular outcome, but rather the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn constantly.” I agree with the observation, and it’s something I look for in myself as a leader and in my professional network.
Are you a planner?
I’d probably answer this in 2 parts: First, because I have never been creative enough to develop something new from scratch, my value has always been in developing and executing a well-planned strategy to enable other far more creative people to become successful.
Second, my career has been a journey that no one could have ever planned out. I didn’t have an exact career path; I feel like the opportunities that presented themselves to me had a reason, so I took them seriously.
A fantastic early mentor would always tell me “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I think that one’s career path is tethered to intuition and an understanding people around you. Many times our first job might be something you don’t always put on your resume, such as working at a restaurant; but I think these first jobs are precious because they teach you about behavioral psychology and people skills. I believe that everything comes back to understanding people and creating intrinsic value in their lives.
Are diversity and inclusion important in the Australian job market?
In Australia, I’m often in a room filled with people “like me”– 50-year-old white men with Law degrees. We are all working to develop policy and increase innovation in the country, but we do not know what it is like to live within other identities, and this is a huge issue.
There are some proactive diversity programs in both the public and private sectors with a current focus particularly on female representation on public company boards. Traditionally, cultural diversity was not a priority. But because of Australia’s location, near Southeast Asia, and an influx of non-Anglo Saxon immigrants, there is growing realization that the workforce is increasingly diversifying.
When I look around, even though we’re increasingly doing better on gender diversity and representation, I still think that Australia is not diverse enough in government or business. I many times have to ask myself: am I part of the problem and what more can I do to help change?
What makes Wavebreak Ventures different? What do you like about working in Venture Capital?
I started Wavebreak with some friends from University because I wanted to invest and work with people I trusted. I like the humanity of it, watching ideas and passion come to life (cue Frankenstein video reel ha ha).
Ironically, our two most successful investments have been anything but “innovative”: lithium mining and a veterinary care consolidation play. I’d love to find more opportunities in Australia’s excellent research and innovation community, which is ranked among the best in the world but remains under-funded.
In 2016, Australia launched a Cyber Security Strategy initiative, “design to [meet] the dual challenges of the digital age—advancing and protecting [Australian] interests online.” After the launch, I became involved with the policy development and establishment of the Australian Cyber Security Growth Network, AustCyber.
Look out world—Australian cyber innovation is coming to a town near you, and we hope you like it!!! Some of my cyber colleagues are in Washington DC this week announcing new US investment and customers, so the progress is very pleasing.
Did you have a good experience in working with the government?
I’ve worked in and around both the UK and Australian Governments, and it has been a fantastic experience. I felt that there was a real interest in turning what has worked well in private enterprise into public sector policy changes, and to work with local businesses and to grow Australian industry, instead of outsourcing our sovereign capabilities to multinationals such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Google. My goal is to develop private companies in each of the countries I work in that become good corporate citizens, representing the interests of that nation, paying taxes locally, and supporting community development.
How is the Australia entrepreneurship vibe and how is it different from the US?
In the United States and other parts of the world, entrepreneurship is like drinking water—essential for survival and growth. During the 80s, 90s, and 00s, Australia focused on core businesses such as mining and, to a certain degree, banking. But during the last ten years, there has been a succession of Australian governments that have celebrated entrepreneurship, particularly our current Prime Minister who was previously Chairman of Goldman Sachs and a very successful innovation investor himself. Unfortunately, most large-scale investments are still in physical goods, commodities, and real estate rather than transformative IP and platforms. I sometimes wonder if we aren’t enthusiastic enough about the creativity and hard work inherent in entrepreneurship because life here is excellent, i.e., “why work this weekend when the sun is shining, and there is a music festival at the beach?”
Compared to my experience in San Francisco, Australia is not that much of a “melting pot” within the workforce. Even though Sydney and Melbourne are culturally diverse, this is not necessarily the case in the business sector.
In your mission statement, you say that you are “supporting youth physical and mental health causes.” Can you tell me a bit more about that?
I said to myself: “I’m not clever enough to resolve complex multi-variable ecosystems like youth health and safety, so I want to invest my time in smart people who will.”
Through my friend network, I began working with two organizations: Act for Kids and the Corsham Institute. ACT for Kids works to protect and treat abused children in Australia, and Corsham Institute addresses mental health issues of members of defense forces in the UK.
How long do you think it takes to found a company?
Unfortunately, I can’t answer this without sounding facetious. There’s an old cliché that the hardest part about founding a company is to take the first step, so my technical answer to this question is it only takes a few minutes to register a domain and the corporate structure. On the other hand, to build a company, there is no one rule: Some launch and scale right away, and others take years.
Any crazy advice or stories?
When I was young, magnificently naïve and full of energy, I once cold-called the CEO of Starbucks, and he took my call because I sweet-talked his Assistant using my Australian accent; he wanted to learn more about the Australian market. My advice would be to figure out how your difference as a human being gives you opportunities and brings value to the world then use that mercilessly. As a truism, be nice to every EA you talk to – they are real people who deserve to be respected and are the gatekeeper to key decision makers. Being nice is good for society and business.
What is your favorite book?
John Steinbeck’s East of Eden—I’m not sure I have ever become so “involved” with characters in a book so re-read it every few years to anchor my humanity.
What is your favorite movie?
The 1956 film High Society: How could you beat the style and elegance of Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and music by Louis Armstrong.
“Who wants to be a millionaire…. I don’t”
– Frank Sinatra, High Society.