Courtney Blackman has worked in London, Melbourne, the Dominican Republic, Canada, Costa Rica and more. Following a long and impressive career in the music and fashion industries, she recently shifted her career into the tech sphere and is now CMO at YBF Ventures.
Courtney has shared her experiences working in different countries, different industries, and among constant change.
- You’ve had an incredibly international and diverse career across multiple industries. What have been the biggest challenges of moving your career across countries and sectors, and how did you overcome those challenges?
I’ve loved the challenge of diverse roles across multiple geographies. Straight out of university, I worked in real estate and hospitality in Costa Rica; then moved to the Dominican Republic to set up processes and systems to create a sustainable back office for a school for vulnerable children. Then I moved back in America (I was born and raised in the States) and did stints at the World Trade Office in Vermont and at an institutional investment advisory firm outside of Chicago. After that, I side-stepped in to fashion and music after moving to London and hovered there for 15 years working in PR, television and publishing – I actually exited two small businesses in London, one which I founded, one which my partner and I acquired. Sandwiched in the London run, my partner and I historically restored and operated a hundred-year-old opera house and ran an art gallery – both in Canada*.
*We don’t have children, so we do a lot of stuff, and then more stuff on the side.
I’ve been in Australia for nearly three years and once again have shifted to a new industry: tech.
You know when you get hired at a new company and the onboarding takes a few weeks, as you’re learning new systems, a new corporate culture and new skills? I think the same can be said for changing careers and moving to new countries – you have to take the time to learn the key components that will enable you to do your job. It’s just a different context – and maybe an actual new language.
One of the most noticeable things for me when I moved to Australia was the lack of any network whatsoever. In London, I had spent 15 years nurturing businesses and a solid, wide-reaching network. You don’t realise how important that is until it’s not there. When I moved to Australia, it wasn’t just moving to another country where I knew no one, it was moving to a new industry with a network of zero people in it. I’m nearly three years in and am still building my network, still always learning things about tech and I try to squash any feelings of being an imposter the moment they creep into my brain.
- Many people dream of an international career – is it as glamorous as it sounds?
Working internationally is an amazing way to deeply experience a country or culture. When you go on a holiday for a contracted period of time, you’re not deep diving into anything and in fact, you might actually be participating in a “set up” tourist experience.
Spending serious time somewhere allows you to understand deeper cultural norms – whether a country is high-context or low-context if it’s polite inclusive or polite exclusive to linguistics and beliefs and how everything spills over into everything everyone does including the way they conduct business.
Once you get past closing down a life in one place and moving across an ocean or a continent, get used to the time difference and realise you don’t have any friends or family around, you have to move fast to plant roots and get your head around your new career.
It’s a lot of moving parts all at once and it can be pretty stressful with its fair share of embarrassing moments. When I moved to the Dominican Republic from Costa Rica, I was at the airport and thought I was asking the person behind the counter for a plastic bag. It turned out in Costa Rican vernacular I was asking for a bag; in Dominican Spanish, I had requested a certain area of the male anatomy! Whoops. Even in the UK, one of my bosses once asked me to fetch him a rubber and I was horrified, as growing up in the US, the word “rubber” was synonymous with condom. He in fact meant the small rubber bit on the end of a pencil. Phew.
Is it glamourous? Due to the nature of my job in London (fashion and music), I got to attend some incredible events and meet extraordinary people. Looking back on it now, sometimes it feels like it was someone else’s life.
- What instigated your shift from the fashion and music industries, into tech?
First off, I loved working in fashion and music and as mentioned above, I got to meet and work with remarkable people from all over the world, from so many different backgrounds.
An opportunity was presented to my partner and I to move to Australia. The company that I work for, YBF, is also the company that he works for. YBF’s Board was looking for a globally-experienced CEO in 2017 and my partner was the top contender (having had executive roles at BP, Motorola and GE). He was like, “Do you want to move to Australia?” I’m always up for an adventure, so I said, “Yes”. We shut down our lives in other countries and here we are.
When my partner took the reins of YBF, the company needed to internalise the marketing and PR function. As I had run a PR company for so many years in the UK, I was tapped on the shoulder. Doing PR and marketing for a tech company isn’t all that different from the fashion and music industries – a small business (be it a designer or a musician or a tech company) is a small business – all the same fundamental elements are there – they are just different languages with different sets of vocabulary as you move in to specifics.
- What’s your advice to others considering a career shift into tech? Why?
Almost every aspect of our lives is touched by tech. Why not be involved in shaping it?
- You’ve mentioned before that diversity is important. What role has it played in your life and career?
I’ve always been curious about different cultures. When I was very young, I was almost magnetically drawn to foreign exchange students. I was obsessed about anything different and learning about things that were unfamiliar to what I knew and was comfortable with. I’m still the same, and with a more experienced take on the world, understand how important diversity is. Understanding the way other people think and operate is so important not for just for making up a diverse workforce, but for creating products and services that reach a wider audience more effectively and efficiently.
Prior to the global pandemic, when we were holding regular tech events at YBF, my team was always very cognizant of trying to create as diverse panels as possible and we know that it’s not something that we can do on our own. We turn to our networks for panellist and guest speaker suggestions. My personal goal is to not just to represent gender diversity, but cultural diversity as well, which is often an afterthought in the world of tech. I’ve learned so much and continue to learn from Winitha Bonney about how women of colour are marginalised and look to Winitha to make sure YBF is practicing diversity in as many aspects as possible.
- Where have you seen diversity make the most positive impact in the workforce, and where have you seen it create a negative impact?
Diversity shifts behaviour for the better in a workforce. I’ve been in a meeting with only male coworkers and the one leading the meeting only made eye contact with the other males and if I tried to speak, I was met with a sarcastic laugh and an eye roll – like how could I (a female) possibly have anything to add. It turned out another female in the company was also feeling gender excluded by this individual. It was a problem and one that was eventually sorted with the removal of the individual and replacing him with people that shared the company’s values. The impact was immediately positive across the entire team, which was an incredible revelation around inclusivity. That person’s behaviour had made everyone uncomfortable and less likely to share ideas.
- What are your biggest priorities at YBF this year?
The world has shifted significantly since the pandemic, but our mission at YBF is always to help startups to scale, scaleups to succeed and corporates to innovate. We’ll see how the next several months take shape, but our priority will always be working toward those three key company goals.
Later in the year, we’ll plan on opening more internal innovation hubs. Presently, we’re home to Melbourne’s largest fintech hub, Australia’s first Web 3.0 and legaltech hubs, and we’ve recently opened a proptech hub in Sydney.
We also aim to hold our Lift Off Awards later in the year and will continue leading from the front in regards to tech-focused content creation: we produce three branded newsletters, multiple videos each month, written content on our News page and last year we launched a podcast: People Building Businesses.
- How are you integrating diversity initiatives into the organisation? What do you foresee becoming your biggest challenges?
Along with making sure our own team is diverse – we’re 50/50 gender balanced and we come from seven countries, speak over eight languages and have an age range from 20 to mid-50s – we have KPIs in place around diversity and support female-led events and diversity-focused initiatives. Our newsletters are all edited with great effort to ensure diverse representation and we make sure that the guests for our videos and our podcasts are a balanced representation of all of the people that make up the tech industry in Australia.
Inclusivity will always be something that we and any company should make sure is managed alongside diversity. You can build a diverse team, but if inclusivity isn’t part of the value proposition, diversity fails.
- For other business leaders wanting to encourage and enable diversity in their organisations, what’s your advice?
It’s not hard to do. Put a policy place around diversity (and inclusivity) and make sure that everyone supports it. For example, at YBF, we have a community statement that is sent to every new member and anyone using our event space has to sign off in agreement to it and ensure that they and their guests acknowledge our values. The statement expresses that YBF is an environment that fosters inclusivity and embraces diversity regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, disability, age, gender identity or sexual orientation. It also goes on to say that members, partners, guests or anyone passing through our doors are required to treat people with respect.
As far as building a diverse team, it’s just a matter of effort – thinking about the language of job postings and the recruitment process to ensure that unconscious biases are eliminated and an active plan is not only in place, but being followed.
About the expert
Prior to relocating to Australia, Courtney was a firm fixture within London’s dynamic fashion and music landscape and scaled and sold two media businesses. Courtney founded and acted as producer and editor-in-chief of The Industry, a multi-platform media company that was exited in Courtney founded London’s Forward PR in 2004 and served as managing director for 13 years. Courtney has also been featured in and provided commentary for numerous publications including the CNN, NBC’s Today Show, The Guardian, Business of Fashion and Vogue.