by Jo Crompton
From putting herself through university playing saxophone in indie jazz clubs to managing multibilliondollar balance sheets at global banks, Ms Hayley Sudbury’s entrepreneurial spirit has always been her guide. Music might have been her first passion, but winning a scholarship to study business at Bond University led her to discover there were other ways to earn a living while doing what she loved.
Now, as Founder and Chief Executive of Werkin, Ms Sudbury (Class of 1997) spends her days helping others learn how to do that too. Cutting her teeth in the early days of start-ups in Australia, she then moved into the male-dominated world of corporate finance. Ms Sudbury’s natural talent and enthusiasm for her work saw her rise through the ranks to senior positions at ANZ bank and then in London at global giant Barclays bank. There she moved into a technical role, finding new ways to boost the bank’s bottom line. It was a challenging time for the banking sector and Ms Sudbury’s fresh approach saw her climbing up the corporate ranks.
“It was my mother who encouraged me to apply for the scholarship at Bond and that ended up being the determining factor. I found a whole new world at Bond."
“I was very excited about doing that … until I wasn't,” she says.
When she stopped for breath she realised something – no one else around the executive table looked like her.
“I started to look around in the corporate world and think, wow, you know, I’m at a pretty senior level now and there's just really no women above me. And there's no gay women. I was at a point where I was also coming out. I think you can be on that corporate treadmill, you're achieving, and it feels good.
And then there is a point where you reflect on who you are and what makes you happy. You look around and think, where do I fit within all this? Where do I want to fit in? What truly makes me happy? What is my heart’s desire? The environment I was in didn’t seem to be a very diverse place, but instead a whole lot of sameness.
And here I am, a woman, and I'm about to step into this new space - which took me a while to accept for myself – and to see no women, no gay women. I was like, wow, I think my experience here is done.”
So Werkin was born. The company embraces the creative use of technology to deliver modern mentoring and leadership training that focuses on transforming company culture. Ms Sudbury wanted to help companies unlock diverse talent by giving leaders specific tools, and employees increased visibility and support to not only survive, but to thrive in their workplace and career.
Werkin combines Ms Sudbury’s strong experience in tech gained over the course of her career with her ‘entrepreneurial family DNA’, as she calls it. Hailing from Ayr in North Queensland, her family have always run businesses in which she spent her early years working and learning the trade. But it was jazz music that first captured her heart and very nearly became her chosen career path.
“It was a pretty close run,” Ms Sudbury says. “When I was in Year 12 I was having a quandary; whether I go down the music route, which I loved and brought so much joy to my life,” she says.
“It was my mother who encouraged me to apply for the scholarship at Bond and that ended up being the determining factor. I found a whole new world at Bond.”
While studying for her degree Ms Sudbury made music her first business, showing all the hallmarks of the successful entrepreneur she would become.
“It was about thinking creatively about the resources I had and how I could use them to my advantage,” she says. “Music allowed me a great lifestyle while I was at Bond. I was performing and teaching music while doing my studies. It made sure I could drink exactly the wine I wanted to drink!”
Later, the decision to leave her highflying corporate career for the uncertainty of starting her own company was driven by that same desire to think creatively about what she had to offer and how to best meet her own needs. Ms Sudbury says coming out as a gay woman was a huge contributor – she saw a need to explore the ‘next part of who I am’ by stepping into a different environment that allowed her the time and space to go on a journey of self-discovery.
Going back to her roots, she first started small businesses that were passion projects as she came to grips with a new sense of self. Eventually she realised the corporate world still needed her talents and ideas but in a completely different way.
“I wanted to look at how large corporations could be better versions of themselves, and introduce new ways to bring that to life,” she says.
“I thought there was an opportunity to engineer better visibility of minority and diverse employees. But not only that, to help leaders and managers be better supporters, allies and advocates of these individuals so that they can help them stay and progress through the organisation and make it a richer place to be, rather than leave like I did. I don’t mean these corporations are the enemy - many are the economic backbones of our society. But we need to future-proof them, to have some different people at the top making different decisions, so as to positively impact social, economic and political change that is both complex and rich. These are important institutions and it's important who's at the top of them and who's also in them, driving society forward and they're dictating the flow of revenue.”
Werkin, with headquarters based between the United States and the United Kingdom, was always a business with a largely remote workforce, so when the Covid-19 pandemic hit Ms Sudbury and her team were ahead of the curve. She says the changes brought on by the shift towards remote working and flexibility have seen more companies seek the kind of guidance that Werkin offers.
"I started to look around in the corporate world and think, wow, you know, I'm at a pretty senior level now and there's just really no women above me. And there's no gay women. I was at a point where I was also coming out."
The pandemic has changed the conversation for many businesses and led to the ‘great resignation’ she says, because top talent is in high demand and employees have realised the importance of balance and flexibility. To not only attract but retain the best people, companies need to have meaningful values and live them. This is what Werkin’s mission is.
It’s also changed her own work life. Ms Sudbury is currently living in southern Portugal – walking the talk by dividing her time between there and her bases in North America and London. She’s planning a few months at home in Australia sometime soon.
“We were in the heart of New York City during the worst of Covid, and that disruption meant we had to re-examine the balance. We chose sun, space and beach, while still working as a team - not remotely which sounds isolating - but collaboratively, and still meeting our clients where they are. One of the good things to come from Covid is it has made people a lot more real. It’s made us a little bit more human in the sense of, we're not pretending to be ‘work Hayley’ and ‘play Hayley’. Those worlds have become one and as we collapse this down, we come back to humanity, and start to have different conversations. At Werkin, this is precisely the type of change we enable for people and their organisations. It moves us to be more holistic people in organisations that can respond to this ever-changing world.”