Women in Tech

Women in Tech: Nicole McKeown, Chief Operating Officer at AusDiagnostics

Welcome back to Women in Tech! Today, we’re thrilled to have an insightful chat with Nicole McKeown, Chief Operating Officer at AusDiagnostics. This Sydney-based company has been at the forefront of developing innovative systems for molecular diagnostics that are making a real impact on healthcare outcomes.

Having navigated her career through a landscape largely dominated by men, Nicole has gathered a wealth of experience and insight. She’s gone from running her own business, to setting up successful business units, to revitalising businesses on the brink of closure, and now leading operations at AusDiagnostics – quite the journey!

In our conversation, Nicole shares her experiences as a woman in the healthcare tech industry. She reflects on the issue of professional equity she has observed in her time working across global markets, shedding light on the need for targeted strategies to tackle these challenges.

Additionally, Nicole explores her personal journey of balancing a demanding career with the responsibilities of motherhood, providing valuable insights for many women in similar situations.

So, get ready for an enlightening session packed with Nicole’s personal anecdotes, practical advice, and a heavy dose of inspiration. Stay tuned!

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Hey Nicole, thanks for joining us today! As a mum-of-four with an impressive career, your journey to becoming the Chief Operating Officer at AusDiagnostics is truly inspiring. Can you share some key moments or turning points in your career that have shaped your success in the healthcare industry?

Thank you for your kind words. I have been within the healthcare industry since 2009, and prior to this I had my own business within the services industry. 

I initially joined the healthcare sector because I wanted to secure a meaningful role which could have a positive impact in improving patient health. This has remained my passion and mission ever since.

I began working my way up from an entry level market analyst role and within the first year with the company, I quickly identified a new business model to expand sales through a global distribution strategy. The pivoting point occurred when I presented the business case to the executive team and gained their buy-in and investment to start a new business unit. In quick succession I built up a team and I believe this business unit is still thriving today. 

I was later offered the opportunity to move to Australia in 2011 to revive the local subsidiary from risk of closure. This position really stretched me and taught me a lot about all key facets of running a successful business within the biotech space, specifically in vitro diagnostics. I managed to turn a negative net profit business into a profitable one within the first year. I believe this experience helped to shape my career, make a name for myself in this market and create future opportunities within the industry.

Being appointed as COO at AusDx in 2021 and subsequently a named Director, has been an immense journey. I thoroughly enjoy the depth of my role in terms of the exposure and responsibilities across all aspects of the business. I joined the company in the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Navigating the volatility of the market during this time, whilst managing a global network and devising agile strategies to remain competitive and sustainable has been and continues to be a rich and rewarding learning experience.  I am fortunate to have a strong and supportive team to enjoy the journey with.

I might add, as a mama of four (soon to be five), I have a great support network at home to enable me to achieve my professional success – so I have my family to thank as well!

With over 15 years of experience working across global markets, what have you learned about the importance of representation and leadership for women in the tech and healthcare industries? How can organisations create a more inclusive environment for women to excel?

I have been extremely fortunate to have worked with several inspiring and strong female leaders within this industry (and other sectors) during my time.  I realise this is probably a unique experience, as I have observed there are still very few female leaders within this sector, particularly at c suite and senior executive level. 

Personally, it has been quite eye-opening, working across global markets. Experiencing so many different cultures has shown there is still a prevalent issue with professional equity, and sadly I don’t believe this is limited to this sector.  I think that it is important to raise awareness of this issue and formulate targeted strategies to tackle the problem.  

For example, we have recently revised our policies to confirm our position on equality in the workplace and incorporated KPIs to measure and maintain a diverse and inclusive organisational culture and demographic. We also recently launched a graduate scheme program to support women in the field of STEM by enabling a pathway from university into the industry. I have had the great pleasure of running this project which is very close to my heart.

You hold a Bachelor of Science with Honours, an executive masters of business administration and you are a Chartered Manager through the Institute of Managers and Leaders ANZ. What inspired you to pursue these degrees, and were there any female role models in the tech or healthcare fields who influenced your decision? 

I have always possessed a strong passion for learning and so it has always been my ambition to pursue every opportunity to learn more.  I believe we never stop learning and it is important to stretch yourself for further growth. During my EMBA, I had the pleasure to learn from a very inspiring female leader, also a mother of 5, who I am forever grateful to have worked with and for all of the wisdom she passed on. Our CEO Scott Gilroy, is a huge advocate for education and is very supportive in this respect. We offer our employees various opportunities to undertake training and education to support continuous development. 

As a strong commercial leader and entrepreneur, you’ve profitably established and developed several business operations, including setting up Randox Laboratories in Australia. What advice would you give to other women who aspire to launch and grow successful businesses in the tech and healthcare sectors?

Perseverance, hard-work, dig-deep and don’t take no for an answer! I believe that it is also important to see the big picture and focus ahead on the vision. Consider what you are aiming for and keep that in the forefront of your mind. Additionally, understanding that there will be setbacks and you will make mistakes, but we learn from them, we adapt and we move forward. Remain calm in the chaos, steadfast and don’t give up.

Throughout your career, how have you seen the landscape change for women in tech and healthcare? What do you think can be done to further improve gender diversity in these industries?

I think it’s important to educate girls from school age regarding the opportunities within this sector and raise awareness of the gender imbalance from the grass roots. Promoting the prospects within the industry and educating younger generations should help to bring more attention to the STEM environment. 

We regularly observe within our recruitment drives that there is a significant imbalance of female applicants versus male applicants for engineering roles for example.  This is a dilemma that we are trying to overcome via various targeted acquisition strategies and our graduate scheme program. We are partnering with leading universities to open the pathway for women of STEM to join the industry. 

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Your experience spans across various roles, from Randox Laboratories to Meridian Bioscience, and now as the COO of AusDiagnostics. How has your journey as a woman in leadership influenced your approach to creating an inclusive and supportive work environment?

Throughout my professional experience as a female within this sector, I have seen first-hand that there is sadly a silent battle for females to build their professional profiles and win a seat at the table to have a voice, in a largely male dominant environment.

Statistically speaking only 27% of women represent the STEM workforce, and only 8% of CEOs in STEM are female, with women in general earning on average 18% less than men in all STEM industries (source). There is still a lot of work to be done to tackle this issue and it is a cause that I am fully committed to as a female leader within this industry. 

Juggling personal and professional responsibilities is a challenge for many women in leadership roles, especially with a growing family. Can you share some insights into how you’ve managed to find balance between your work and family life while leading at AusDiagnostics?

Organisation is key! Along with a supportive family and also a supportive work culture that encourages a healthy work-life balance. I am fortunate to have both! Managing a global subsidiary base which spans multiple time zones can certainly be challenging however, it works well where there is flexibility. 

For instance, I tend to take late night calls with our UK subsidiary after I have taken the time to enjoy dinner and put my children to bed and then I have the flexibility to do the school run in the morning before work starts again. 

Building connections and networking is essential in the healthcare industry. Can you share any personal experiences where mentorship or networking has had a significant impact on your career, and how you believe this can benefit other women in tech and healthcare?

I often say, it is who you know that can aid in reaching your next step. Networking is critical to make new connections and build your profile within this sector.  It is a surprisingly small world within biotech and it is important to establish strong relationships and alliances to support one another in this space.

I am an advocate for women supporting women and think we need to help each other to climb the ladder of success. As a chartered Manager and member of the Institute of Managers and Leaders ANZ, I am fortunate enough to have access to a great mentorship program and I would encourage anyone to establish a good mentor to help them on their journey.

As someone who has successfully led commercial operations throughout the Asia Pacific region, what advice do you give to women entering the healthcare industry on developing resilience and adapting to the ever-evolving global market?

I believe that it’s important to constantly assess the broad environment to identify trends and remain adaptive to change.  The market is more volatile than ever before and to remain sustainable, it is critical to be agile, resilient and accepting of change. Looking ahead and embracing the new is a good approach.

Finally, Nicole, as a visionary leader in the healthcare industry and a soon-to-be mother of five, what are your hopes for the future of women in tech and healthcare, and how do you plan to continue contributing to the cause of gender diversity and inclusivity through your work at AusDiagnostics?

Our core values as a company is centred on fostering an organisational culture that is rich in diversity and inclusivity, where we aspire to empower our people to achieve innovation and success.

As a leader within the business, I am cognisant of the fact that I have a duty to lead by example and I am mindful that my actions can impact the culture and direction of the business. I aim to continually play a supportive role and create avenues for teams to achieve their professional goals within a healthy, balanced and inclusive environment. 

I am hopeful that as a locally based and internationally represented company within the STEM environment, we can make a positive impact in supporting women within this industry and continue to create opportunities for female leaders to grow and develop to reach their professional goals.  

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.