5 CEOs and Business Leaders Share How They Got Their Start


Everyone's gotta start somewhere.

Photography: Simone Becchetti via Stocksy

What does your first job say about the type of leader you’ll become? From new kid on the block to boss at the top, we reminisce with some of the biggest names in business.

Pam Anders, Director of Public Engagement at Oxfam Australia

My nanna was my first-ever boss and she was certainly a formidable woman. She ran the local bakery in Belfast and I would catch the bus there after school and close up the till on my own. When I think about my time there, my overriding memory is feeling so far out of my comfort zone. You could say it was only a local bakery, but as a 15-year-old holding the keys to a building and a business was a huge responsibility. I was overwhelmed by the opportunity I’d been given to contribute, even if it was just learning how to operate the bread slicer safely. It might seem a far cry from my job now, but that same discomfort factor guides each of my career choices together. I recently changed roles and knew I had made the right choice when I felt the same mixture of fear, apprehensive and excitement. I also learnt the rewards that come with hard work, as AU$4 an hour seemed so much at that age. I’ll also always have fond memories of the leftover apple scrolls I got to take home at the end of the day.

Jooman Park, Head of eBay Australia and New Zealand

A lot of people seem surprised when I tell them my first job was working in a veterinary clinic in the Korean military. I didn’t have a choice in the matter as military service is a national obligation where I’m from, so I decided to make the most of the situation and use it as an opportunity to learn English. That’s why I volunteered to serve in the unit that provided support to the American troops in the region. On my first day I was shocked to discover I’d actually been assigned to the vet clinic where my main responsibility was looking after dogs. I barely spoke a word of English for two years; all I heard was barking. That was a good lesson to learn – expect the unexpected as, with the right attitude, you never know what a strange situation will teach you. I learnt how to closely observe animals and read their behaviour without words. These communication and judgment skills are important to master in any industry.

Dane O’Shanassy, General Manager of Patagonia Australia

My first tilt at full-time employment was in the dusty warehouse of the iconic surf brand Rip Curl, counting off the piles of T-shirts, board shorts and hoodies that would be packed up for shops around the country. It was 1998 and I was paid AU$14 an hour, but as a teenager obsessed with surfing, it was a lucky break and I had a nervous start as I was desperate to make a good impression.
The warehouse was full of colourful characters, but it was a hardworking environment even though they knew how to have a good time.

I’ll never forget the value the company placed on every employee, from the management team down to young guys like me packing boxes. A lot of people, especially when they get to a certain level, don’t put their first jobs on their résumé, but I still proudly list mine on LinkedIn. ‘Responsibilities: packing boxes, answering phones and good old customer service.’

I think it’s important to remember where you came from. As general manager for Patagonia Australia I want to bring the brand to a mainstream audience, which is an exciting but humbling challenge.
Sixteen years on, while my days are spent on other activities, I still look back fondly on those times and the satisfaction gained after a hard day on the warehouse floor.

Malcolm Rands, CEO of Ecostore and a global authority on sustainable products

When I was seven years old I asked my father if I could have a bicycle. He felt like I’d value it more if I earned it, so instead he helped me build a little cart with wheels and sent me off to get a paper run. I’ve been working ever since – although thankfully I now earn more than my first wage of AU$0.80 a week.
I remember being terrified of the guy in change of us paperboys. He was gruff, but in the end his matter-of-fact manner was a good thing, as it normalised the experience for me.

We were all accountable for any undelivered paper – not just our own but any papers the other paperboys didn’t deliver. I remember feeling it was an unfair responsibility, but it probably kept us all in check.

As part of our responsibility, we had to collect the paper money from customers. Knocking on strangers’ doors and asking for payment was very intimidating for my seven-year-old self, but taught me the importance of being accountable and fronting up even when a task is scary.

Eventually I earned enough to buy a proper bike and I’d sit my younger brother on my crossbar and take him with me on the paper run. I’d send him running up the longer driveways to drop off the papers (I had entrepreneurial leanings even then) and just remember how great it was tearing around together just whooping for joy.

Theo Paphitis, Retail Magnate, owner of global stationary store Ryman, homewares brand Robert Dyas and was a judge on Dragons’ Den UK for nine years

My first job was assistant to the tea stirrer and filing clerk at Lloyd’s of London insurance brokers. I was on a salary of £1500, which felt like a million pounds at the time. It was a big step into the unknown for me as I have the developmental disorder dyslexia, although it wasn’t often diagnosed in those days. At school, it was just assumed you were either lazy, stupid or quite possibly both if you couldn’t read what was on the page in front of you.

As a result, when I started work I lacked self-confidence and was naturally incredibly nervous, even though my responsibilities were not that great. Being dyslexic is a tough burden, which you carry for the rest of your life, but can also be an advantage because even from an early age you learn ways to compensate.

To make a good impression at the insurance brokers, I knew I had to prepare, do my homework and generally work harder than most other people. I promise you, in the working world, those traits are a big advantage.

It’s no exaggeration to say my first job had an everlasting effect on the rest of my life. I met my future wife there, so if I don’t say it was a good move I’d be in serious trouble!

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