Home Business Behind closed doors of Emma Isaacs’ networking business

Behind closed doors of Emma Isaacs’ networking business


The owner of Business Chicks, entrepreneur Emma Isaacs, told this masthead that nine, not 13, employees were fired. “Unfortunately, that was the only option left to us,” she said.

A few hours later, she posted a message on Instagram. “I’ve had to make the difficult decision to cut staff and change the way we do things,” she wrote.

Emma Isaacs on stage at the Business Chicks event in Sydney in 2018.

There’s never a good time to make a layoff announcement, but the optics were particularly bad. Staff were stunned when they were sent redundancy letters a day after Business Chicks’ Sydney headquarters unveiled its newly refurbished office. The Movers + Breakers Gold Coast event is just days away.

But an incriminating Instagram post opened the curtain. Behind the bright, upbeat narrative of women’s empowerment and empowerment were claims that the business itself did not support the values ​​it publicly espoused.

According to current and former employees who spoke to this column, Business Chicks’ workplace culture was one of pursuing profit at any cost, often to the detriment of the mental health of impressionable young women; the practice of defaulting on transactions with suppliers; and the revolving door of employees.


Former employees said that the source of this workplace culture was the “founder” of Isaacs herself.

“They’re evangelizing her,” said one former employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, describing the aura Isaacs created around her as “the cult of Emma.”

“She turned a blind eye to bad business behavior in pursuit of creating a certain story about how it was. It all sounds very much like personal enrichment.”

Scratches under the surface

Business Chicks has been an overall success story, growing to a 30,000 strong women’s networking group hosting sold-out events that have graced some of the most respected names in the business world and Hollywood, such as Arianna Huffington, Richard Branson, Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Lawrence. . The platform has attracted partnerships with some of the world’s biggest brands, including ASX giants such as Telstra and the Commonwealth Bank, who saw an opportunity in the community – ie customers – in its database of hundreds of thousands of women across the country.

Former employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Business Chicks was a high-pressure environment where junior staff had to work long hours for wages that were below what they would be offered in the Australian market.

“They had minimal experience in other workplaces and didn’t understand that working inside was definitely not normal,” one group of former employees said anonymously.

When the country was shut down due to COVID in 2020, former employees claim they were put on four days’ pay but were expected to start more to help the company continue to operate during a time when public events could not be held. “It was really crippling – it was really hard. I couldn’t even afford to see my psychologist to deal with it,” one former employee said of that period.


As an employer and manager, Isaacs, who has worked in Los Angeles for several years, trying expand into the US – is described as an absence.

“She didn’t manage her team at all,” said one employee. “It was [former Business Chicks Australia CEO Olivia] Ruello, who succeeded. Emma flew in and out [of the US] several times and go to the event.”

Isaac’s expectation of profit at all costs allowed the bad behavior of some senior executives to go unchecked, employees say. One manager was described as “very, very volatile” and a “total bully”, with high turnover of six direct reports in one year.

“Nothing was done about her behaviour…Emma’s role in this was to turn a blind eye to this appalling behavior to ignore what was happening to this woman,” said a former employee who said , that she vomited several times. stress.

The apparent turning a blind eye wasn’t just about poor workplace culture; New hires were indoctrinated into a culture that encouraged layoffs and offered “counter-deals,” the exchange of services for reduced pay or no pay at all.

“We were encouraged to stop dealing with suppliers: ‘we’ll give you marketing in exchange for these things for free,'” said a former employee. “It was something drilled into us from day one.”

At least one former vendor who worked with the business confirmed Business Chicks’ preference for this practice. One Sydney florist, passionate about the organization’s mission to support women-led businesses, held three events with Business Chicks, but then no longer wanted to work with them. Instead of paying full price for the arrangements, which would have been between $1,200 and $1,500, the organization insisted on paying a below-market price of $300 for the flowers and promised branding and marketing in return.

Australian model Elle McPherson with host Emma Vosti on stage at the Business Chicks event in Melbourne in 2019.

Australian model Elle McPherson with host Emma Vosti on stage at the Business Chicks event in Melbourne in 2019.

“They had to promote us through magazines, newsletters. This has never been done,” said the owner of the flower grower. A small, new company at the time, she hoped that Business Chicks’ extensive social media presence could attract new customers. But once again, the social media platform Instagram proved to be a sore point. “Several times they published the event, but for example, they were wrong about us. Really simple things like that.”

But the experience of finding out that this supposedly female-oriented business did not live up to its reputation was the hardest pill to swallow.

“We were a women’s enterprise in which women worked. We have a crack,” she said. “This is what we thought we were teaming up with — a great organization dedicated to empowering women … We felt very disappointed with them.”

When the shine settles

As business operations have shrunk to a fraction of what they once were, there are more questions than answers about the future of business.

In an email to members on Monday, Isaacs explained that the group is looking for new roles for departing staff and the remaining team will “work hard to find solutions for our business model so we can transition gently and sustainably”.


It’s unclear at this stage what this more sustainable business model will look like, and whether the group will be able to pull off the scale of events it has in the past with a much smaller team.

Senior women in corporate Australia also came out in support of Isaacs on social media after she confirmed the sacking. Entrepreneurs such as OzHarvest chief executive Ronnie Kahn and fashion journalist Laura Brown, who recently appeared at a Business Chicks event, praised her via Instagram for her resilience and business growth.

“Running a business through COVID has been a challenge for the best people. My experience with her has always been incredibly positive — she’s always thinking about the impact she can have on the women around her,” Kahn told the site. “I think that’s commendable.”

Regarding claims of a stressful work environment, Kahn said that running a business requires a high level of demand from both the manager and the employees. “You can’t run a great business without great employees — and there’s pressure,” she said.

“The staff, although things are going well, are ready to do their best. I’m pretty sure Emma would have done everything she could and losing staff would be the last thing she would do in an attempt to save the business.’

Meanwhile, organizers of this week’s Gold Coast event praised the event on social media, highlighting the benefits of the organization and thanking Isaacs for creating a space where they could connect with other female entrepreneurs.

“Very grateful @emmaisaacs for being able to share my message,” said confidence coach Erika Kramer, “Queen of Confidence,” in an Instagram post.

If Instagram posts over the past few days are to be believed, we’re seeing a picture that looks a lot like business as usual: barefoot dinners on the beach, glasses of suds, and photo booth shots.

But the cracks started to show. There was almost no activity on the official Business Chicks account on Wednesday as more than 100 women descended on the Gold Coast resort for their annual conference. Isaacs is said to be the only one with access to the organization’s social media accounts since last Friday’s incident.

Attendees may have noticed that this year’s Movers + Breakers conference was less staffed than usual. Business Chicks Australia chief executive Gemma O’Neill was absent, as were at least two soon-to-be-sacked staff.

Former employees who spoke to this newspaper did not want to be named for fear of reprisals from Isaacs, not because they still work for her, but because of her high level of support. Taken together, the former staffers presented a broadly coherent story of an ambitious career woman whose vision of “women supporting women” was not something she felt she should subscribe to.

“It was ‘do as I say, not do as I do,'” said one.

“You scratch beneath the surface and it’s all rosy and magic and glitter and dust—and it’s not quite what it seems.”


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