Juliet Bourke: insights from a diversity and inclusion pioneer

From mainstream lawyer to diversity and inclusion entrepreneur, Dr Juliet Bourke's career provides valuable insights for budding leaders in this space

In today's world, diversity and inclusion are widely recognised as catalysts for innovation and organisational growth. However, this wasn't always the case, especially not in the early 2000s. Dr Juliet Bourke, a trailblazer in the field of diversity and inclusion, saw an opportunity in this untapped market, took a pivotal risk and started a business.

“It's hard to think back to 2000, but people didn't talk about diversity and inclusion. It wasn't like it is now. So, there was a market opportunity because there were very few people doing it,” explained Dr Bourke, now a Professor of Practice in the School of Management & Governance at UNSW Business School.

Seeing a gap in the market, Dr Bourke co-founded a boutique consulting business, Aequus Partners. With a unique blend of academic rigour and practical expertise, Dr Bourke’s work has since made significant contributions in this field, making her a pioneer in diversity and inclusion. Following the acquisition of the business in 2011 after a successful 12-year run, Dr Bourke has served as a board member and an independent workplace consultant.

Dr Bourke recently spoke to her colleague, Dr Suleika Bort, former Associate Professor in the School of Management & Governance at UNSW Business School, and Chair of International Management and Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Passau. They discussed Dr Bourke’s entrepreneurial journey, key lessons she’s learned about building a business, and tips for becoming a more inclusive business owner and leader.

On starting a business: career evolution and adaptability

Dr Bourke's versatile career spans various domains. While she didn't have a specific plan to become a lawyer, entrepreneur, professor, or board member, her career evolved as she adapted to these opportunities and changes in her personal life. She held a decade-long leadership position at Deloitte, with the esteemed title of Partner, offering global executives guidance on diversity and inclusion strategies. Her influential contributions culminated in the awarding of a PhD from Brunel University in London, where she received the Dean's Prize for her work in innovation and social impact.

Speaking about her career journey, Dr Bourke emphasised the significance of being passionate about your work. She said that for any new business to be successful, its founders need to have a strong commitment to the cause or field to sustain motivation and success in something as demanding as entrepreneurship.

Read more: Empowering diverse teams: six characteristics of inclusive leaders

“You've got to be passionate about the topic or area you are working in. I don't think you can just do it because it will make money. I don't think that just making money, well, at least for me, is not enough motivation. I had to believe in what we were doing. And that gave me the strength to continue,” she said.

As well as passion and purpose, Dr Bourke’s career journey highlights the importance of being open to new possibilities and adapting to changing circumstances

Throughout her career, Dr Bourke said she never followed a set path but adapted to the changing world.  “When I graduated from UNSW with both a law and arts degree, majoring in psychology, I only imagined myself as a lawyer. I did that for the first ten years, first in criminal law then human rights and finally discrimination law.

“But really, I think what happened was that I evolved as a person, and I saw opportunities around me. So as I matured, and I guess the world matured, I could see opportunities to navigate in a slightly different direction,” she said.

Navigating market demand and embracing risk

While people often claim a demand in the market sparked their business idea, for Dr Bourke, it wouldn’t be several years before the market caught on to the benefits of focusing on diversity and inclusion more widely. And so, starting a business was a big risk.

For a founder to become successful, and for the risk of starting a business to be worth taking, Dr Bourke stressed that it must also be the right time for you personally. She spoke about how frustrated she was with her career trajectory as a lawyer, where she no longer felt like she was growing professionally. So, the combination of good timing, personal growth, and an opportunity in the market led to her starting a business.

“I'd hit a glass ceiling. I was also about to have a child. It sounds funny because having a child isn’t necessarily a good time to start a business. But actually, it's a fork in the road moment. I was 34, about to have my second child, and I thought, well, here's the time to start a business.”

Dr Bourke also spoke about the crucial role of collaboration and complementary skills for any business partner to be successful. Her partnership with co-founder and Professor of Psychology, Dr Graeme Russell, was marked by a harmonious blend of diverse skills and perspectives. Rather than allowing differences to create discord, she said they had harnessed these disparities to generate productive friction, significantly contributing to their success.

Read more: Three useful things to know about diversity and inclusive leadership

At the heart of their achievements lay a relentless dedication to customer service and the delivery of top-notch quality in their work, explained Dr Bourke. She said their unwavering commitment to putting clients at the forefront of their consulting endeavours paved the way for developing a robust reputation and cultivating strong client relationships.

“I think part of the success was that Graeme and I were so different. But we had very similar values. And a core value for us was around customer service. We were committed to our client's success and the quality of the work we delivered for them. They could always rely upon what they knew would be best in class, which built our reputation. The clients that I had, some of them are still my clients and friends now, 23 years later.”

Distinguishing themselves in the competitive consulting arena was also pivotal to their success. Dr Bourke explained how they carved out a unique and credible brand identity grounded by evidence-based research findings. “We didn't quite know at the beginning what the uniqueness of our brand was, but we gradually distilled it into this idea that our advice was credible and always research-based.”

The importance of financial prudence and employee loyalty

Reflecting on the formative years of her business, Dr Bourke emphasised the importance of financial prudence. The two co-founders began their journey with a safety net of six months' worth of cash reserves, a precautionary measure to ensure their financial stability during the initial stages when generating income might be uncertain. By keeping overhead costs to a minimum through the unconventional practice of working from home, they further bolstered their financial resilience.

Their commitment to employee growth and development was evident through the annual allocation of funds for personal development, fostering not only business expansion but also personal enrichment. Additionally, they maintained employee loyalty by offering competitive wages, narrowing the wage gap between themselves and their staff, thus preventing valuable talent from seeking larger opportunities elsewhere.

“There wasn't, in some ways, a great disparity between what we paid ourselves and what we paid them. We made sure we were paying them the market rate, if not above, even though we were a small business. And if we had money left over in the business at the end of the year, of course, we paid ourselves as partners a bonus, but we had great loyalty from our staff. We were doing really good work, and we were paying really good wages for them.

“And often, that feels hard to do in a small business. But you don't want to lose that person to a larger opportunity just because they're going to pay more,” she said.

In the early stages of their venture, Dr Bourke and her co-founder initially planned to sell the business within a five-year timeframe. However, the allure of their entrepreneurial journey, as well as growing enjoyment, led them to defer this plan. Ultimately, their exit strategy materialised when the business was acquired by Deloitte.


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