Bridging the gap between uni and the real world: meet Claire

In transitioning to a knowledge economy, Australia needs knowledge commercialisation.

In other words: people who know how things work in universities and can help shift brilliant innovations from the minds of students and graduates into the hands of companies and consumers.

Skalata Associate Claire Bristow has spent most of her adult life moving through the rungs of academia, while also finding the time to create a social movement turned ecommerce startup.

Having studied Health Sciences and Nutrition and Dietetics at Deakin and Monash, going on to complete honours projects, a PhD, and a stint in lecturing, Claire comes to Skalata with an intricate understanding of the academic world, and a passion for tapping into the enormous talent pool that exists within.

Claire, you’ve been in academia for a decade. Tell us a little about your journey.

So I actually was enrolled in both Science at Monash and Arts at Melbourne. I deferred, took a gap year, and realised I don't want to do either.

During that gap year I did my Cert III and IV in fitness just to teach classes at gyms. That was an area I ended up interested in, so I started a degree in Health Sciences at Deakin with Physical Activity and Nutrition as my majors.

I then jumped over to Monash in the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics. It's very common for people with a history of eating disorders, like me, to study nutrition or dietetics.

I did an honours project there involving heavy weight loss trials. Given my history, I had quite a big issue with that. I wanted to look at the opposite side of the coin, because we have all this messaging around obesity...

“But when you know someone with an eating disorder, or any kind of body concerns, you realise those messages can actually be really harmful.”

So this is where you started looking for a solution?

I started Her Society as an Instagram page in 2015. The original purpose was to create a community for women to share experiences with eating disorders and body image.

At the time, #bodypositivity and #instagramvsreality had not yet hit the mainstream and this kind of content was novel. We reached a 14k following rather quickly.

As we grew I launched a bunch of complementary stuff like events and merch. Proceeds were donated directly to the eating disorder charity The Butterfly Foundation.

Her Society was accepted into Monash University’s Accelerator program in 2019, where teams receive $10,000 in funding and embark on a 3-month intensive in the name of #scaling/#growth.

Commercialisation was the goal and solving the problem while also making money was tough! We pivoted and created a size-inclusive fashion marketplace which only stocked brands that catered to at least up to a size 18. We helped brands extend their size offerings, and showed women what the product would actually look like on their bodies through diverse and representative modelling and advertising.

The store existed for a while and we got a bunch of brands on board. I knew the problem was important, but I struggled with the day-to-day of trying to sell people clothes.

I discovered I wasn’t passionate about running an e-commerce store, and felt further and further removed from the problem. I ultimately decided to step away when I’d spent almost a decade in the space.

What did you learn from the whole experience?

I learnt that while you need to be deeply connected to the problem, the solution is incredibly important, too.

“If you’re really going to dedicate a significant part of your life to the thing, it has to be something you’re willing to do day in, day out.”

Many Australian fashion labels still don’t go above a size 12-14, that’s still a huge issue, but Her Society, in the form that it existed, wasn’t the solution.

I look back at messages from people saying it significantly impacted their lives and perspectives of their bodies, and that’s meaningful to me. But I definitely got caught up in the pressure to scale and that was a big lesson. Some things don’t need to be million dollar businesses.

So how did you find your way to Skalata?

While my PhD was only officially finalised earlier this year, I’d been working full time in the lecturing position since midway through last year. I thought being a lecturer could be a strong springboard, and it also provided some comfort and safety. But I knew that it wasn't going to be forever because I was itching to experience professional life outside of the university.

When I was reflecting on what's next, I realised I felt the most motivated, inspired, and driven when I went through the accelerator program with Monash (The Generator).

Those three months were some of the most intense, but some of the best three months of my life in terms of how I changed, what I learned, how I was challenged, and the people I met.

I was just lit up. I would do enormous days. I wanted to stay longer and I just loved it. And then I was like, “I don't want to do my own thing anymore, because I'm not ready”. So working for a VC now makes sense.

Initially I thought I’d end up working for another startup, but now I get to work with dozens, which is incredibly rewarding.

Why Skalata specifically?

For three or four months, I'd been researching, applying, having a lot of conversations, getting to final stages, and something just wouldn’t click. And then I saw you post about the Venture Associate role.

I never thought of VC because I had this concept that it was a little bit untouchable and for a certain type of person.

This world has a lot of buzzwords, and you can feel really intimidated if you're not across that when really they're actually simple concepts. I also had in the back of my mind, “who am I to tell someone what to do when my startup failed?”.  

I learned who Skalata were through a few of the coaches at The Generator who were also involved with Skalata. When I switched up my thinking I realised I could really be working at a VC.

How do you think your experience as a founder can help you in your day-to-day?

A lot of it comes from understanding the process. I’ve been through an accelerator program and I’ve done these pitches dozens of times.

“This industry has a lot of buzz and flashy headlines and I think it’s easy to get caught up in it when you first start- because I absolutely did. So I hope I can provide some insight or grounding there.”

It’s also about empathy. The founder journey is unique - it’s challenging, and at times, can be lonely. Being able to empathise with the founders that walk through our doors is, in my opinion, an essential part of the job.

What were your first impressions of the place? What were you most excited about when you started?

So in the most cliche example, after my 1 hour interview with Justine and Wahid, I felt like I had learned more and had more motivation than I’d had in a very long time. Just being in this environment and learning by osmosis is exciting to me.

Meeting founders, finding out what they're doing, and supporting them on that journey is also super rewarding - especially knowing how crucial my mentors were for me.

I think I'm going to grow massively by virtue of the people I'll be around, and their diversity of experience. This role is a privilege and one I don’t take for granted.

What skills have been most useful in helping you transfer from academia to venture capital?

I'm a generalist, and I think that's super helpful.

As a lecturer, my job was to find everything there is available about a certain topic, synthesise it, and make it comprehensible. So even if I approach an area I have zero knowledge of, I know how to find what I need and get across it quickly – how to critique information to know what's good, what's bad, and what do I actually need to know. I also understand quite intensely how universities work. A big part of startups is in spinouts from universities.

“I see how people are doing research, how people are doing their work, and also how the university works - both the challenges and the opportunities in getting something out of the uni and into an actual company.”

Any wise words you could leave us with?

I alluded to the flashy nature of startup culture earlier, and how it’s very easy to get caught up in the buzz. I once heard a saying: “The people who are really doing well, you never hear from. They’re busy doing the work”. That’s stuck with me ever since.