As a high-flying professional in corporate America, Heather MacKenzie thought she had the world at her feet, until she was the survivor of a sexual assault in the workplace case that would change her life completely and lead her here to North Queensland.
It was 2014 when Heather MacKenzie was working as an executive for a healthcare industry giant, a Fortune Ten corporation. Based in Denver, Colorado, Heather and her colleagues were dining with their employer’s largest client at the time – worth around $1 billion in revenue to the company – when the client acted in a sexually inappropriate manner towards her at the restaurant they were in.
Following this gratuitous public humiliation, Heather was thanked by a CEO for, “taking one for the team.”
“I couldn’t believe someone would do something like this, especially in the midst of an executive dinner. I wasn’t sure what to do,” Heather recalls. “We were in the middle of a contract negotiation with this massive client, and I thought to myself, if I report this, they will have to go to the client’s company and report what’s happened.
“In my head, in pictures I saw me wringing the neck of the goose who laid the golden eggs. I knew that we would lose at least part of the contract if I reported this now and that the people I was working with could lose their jobs. So, I made the decision not to report it until after the contract was inked.”
Six weeks later, the human resources and legal department of Heather’s company contacted her. Someone had reported the assault.
“The first two questions they asked me were, what did you wear to the dinner and how much alcohol did you drink,” Heather explains.
“They searched my computer to looked through my emails to see the ‘nature of my relationship’ with the man. I knew instantly that they were not here to protect me. I was in my late 40’s when this happened, I had a lot of corporate experience, and yet here I was, still naive enough to believe that my company was going to take care of me, look out for my interests.”
The company’s response was to offer Heather another position within the company…in London.
“I was a single mother living in Denver, Colorado, with six kids,” Heather said.
“I wasn’t moving to London. So, annoyed, they went away and came back and said, ‘you can’t keep your current job. It’s for your safety, we have to move you away from this man. We have an even better job for you in Chicago.”
Rejecting their second offer to relocate after realizing they were trying to move her geographically far away and would likely attempt to performance manage her out of the company within the first 90 days of her move, Heather hired a female legal team who negotiated her exit from the company.
The case came to a boiling point for Heather, and her lawyers knew they needed to sideline her in order to preserve her mental health. The following day after that decision, her relationship with her partner also ended.
“In 24 hours, I had lost my career, my income, my ability to provide for my children, my relationship, my identity. I went into a tailspin. I wish I could tell you I immediately took charge of my future, but instead I spent two weeks in my bedroom drinking, watching TV, crying and sleeping” Heather recalls. But after two weeks, she woke up and realised that the only person who would – and could – rescue her was herself, and she set herself onto a path of healing, working with various somatic therapists and energy healers.
After settling with her employer, Heather was offered a seven-figure settlement by the perpetrator himself to make the case ‘go away’.
“My legal team advised me that I should take the money,” she said. “I had two immediate intuitive messages my silence was not for sale and that I needed to write this man a letter of forgiveness in order to be truly set free from this trauma.
“Unfortunately, as a ‘whistle blower’ in America, even though I wasn’t the one who had reported it, I was essentially unemployable. We ended up negotiating terms that allowed me to share my story, which was the most important thing to me. This was before the #metoo movement, but I intuitively knew that this story was going to be important.”
This year-long legal battle and journey of self-discovery was the catalyst that sent Heather in a new direction, dedicating her life to new found purpose.
“I had a massive awakening that I had to change everything about my life, and my three life purposes came into total focus,” Heather says.
“My three purposes are to help as many people as possible feel genuinely seen, heard, loved and accepted. Secondly to be a global conduit and connector among people, ideas, organisations and capital. And third, I’m here to give voice, agency and access to the marginalised and under represented in our society.
In 2016, Heather stepped up as a member of the U.S. launch team for SheEO, a global organisation generating support, connection, funding and opportunities for female led ventures, which launched in Australia this year.
“It’s so important to support and fund women in early stage companies. We’re about to experience the largest wealth transfer in history to millennial women. We need to tap into their expertise and passions and the ways they see the world. Women only receive 4% of venture capital funding in the US,” Heather points out.
“I had previously worked in startups and biz dev teams. We’d taken a company from $1million in revenue to $110million in 24 months. So, I’d been in the startup world as well as the corporate world.”
It was her involvement with SheEO that reignited Heather’s passion for the startup sphere. “That really opened my eyes to what female founders go through trying to secure funding. I worked with think tanks, was doing community building works, a lot of mentoring and advising at programs like TechStars, Rockies Venture Club and startup weekends and I started professionally public speaking.”
It was this new path that lead Heather to Townsville.
“My first introduction to Australia was through Aaron Birkby, from Startup Catalyst in River City Labs Brisbane,” Heather said.
“He brings Australian entrepreneurs to regions around the world to study entrepreneurship. In the U.S., the two ecosystems they visit are Silicon Valley and Denver, Colorado, and in March this year he brought over Joe Hoolahan from iNQ here in Townsville.
“It was Joe who said, ‘How can I help you?’ I told him I wanted to get my message out into the world – not just the message of how my case led me to my true purposes, but the importance of discussing and tending to your mental health, building resilience – it’s a lot of things. Within three weeks Joe had organised a four-week tour of Australia with these amazing opportunities to get my message out there. I did 20 talks in 16 cities and towns across Australia in a month.”
Following this trip, Heather was invited to join a global consulting service, and tasked with finding inroads into Australia for 3 Lines Capital, a Colorado-based seed venture fund.
“There are a lot of really investable companies here that just aren’t getting elevated to the point where they can go global,” Heather said.
“We invest in health tech, agri tech, artificial intelligence or machine learning, internet of things, any sort of tech or data play for Smart Cities – that’s our portfolio, as our bigger play is helping to architect Smart Cities Alliances around the world. We want to be hand in hand with Australian businesses to help them go global, using our social capital and mentoring and advising, not just air drop a cheque.
“I’ve shortlisted Townsville, Sunshine Coast, Brisbane and Adelaide as the first 4 areas we’re looking at,” Heather said. “We plan to run a pilot in at least one of these areas early next year. Hyper accelerators where the right companies who are preparing to go global come through and we’re there for them. We see a much bigger ecosystem play in Townsville.
“We believe that Smart Cities are not about technology, they are about creating places that people want to live, learn, work and play – and thrive in inclusive communities. Townsville could be an amazing example of this. We see this as also being bi-directional so while we’re looking for companies who want to grow and go to America, we’re also looking at bringing American companies who want to start working in Asia Pac here to Townsville. Americans can learn from Australians who have taken businesses into Singapore, Japan and other Asian countries and how they did it. I’m hoping we can drive a lot of economic stimulation into Townville and other regional economies in Queensland.”