RICH PICKINGS: Rinehart's lonely rise

While Gina Rinehart's rise to the top of the rich list represents a milestone for female entrepreneurs, she shouldn’t hold her breath waiting for another woman to climb anywhere near as high.

The rise of mining magnate Gina Rinehart to the top of Australia’s rich list on Forbes magazine’s recent list of Australia’s richest 40 people represents a big milestone in female entrepreneurship in this country.

Frankly, the feat has not received the attention it deserved. Rinehart is one of the few women to break through the glass ceiling that still exists in wealth in Australia and abroad.

Consider the raw numbers behind Rinehart’s rise. 

It is less than five years since Rinehart finally pushed her way into the billionaire’s club of BRW’s Rich 200 list. In less than 60 months, Rinehart has boosted her wealth nine-fold, and now lays claim to a fortune conservatively valued at $9 billion – and an argument could easily be mounted that her wealth is higher than $12 billion.

While it should be said that Rinehart’s wealth has been valued in an over-conservative fashion in the past, it is hard to think of a bigger rise in a shorter amount of time in sheer dollar terms. 

Consider also the international context.

With a fortune of $9 billion, Rinehart is the second richest woman in Asia (behind Indian steel magnate Savitri Jindal, who has $12.2 billion according to Forbes) and the 10th richest woman in the world.

She is also likely to be in the top 75 richest people in the world when Forbes’ latest global billionaires list is published in the coming weeks. She will easily be Australia’s highest-ranked billionaire in the history of these lists.

Finally, consider Rinehart’s story.

While it is true to say that Rinehart inherited her fortune from her late father Lang Hancock, she bristles at the idea she hasn’t forged her own path, and rightly so. What Rinehart inherited from her father was a mess – while Hancock Prospecting owned some of the best iron ore assets in the world, the company was saddled with debt and crippled with cashflow problems.

Rinehart had been handed a Ferrari – minus the engine, three tyres and the steering wheel. She painstakingly paid off the company’s debts and then set about driving famously hard bargains with Rio Tinto to exploit Hancock Prospecting’s assets. Her skill – and the resources boom – has allowed her to do what her father never got close to.

There’s only one problem with Rinehart’s rise – she’s going to be very lonely at the top in terms of having other female colleagues high up on Australia’s rich list.

With the exception of Rinehart, the list is and always has been dominated by men.

When BRW put out its first Rich 100 list in late 1983, there were just three women. Five years later, when the list has been expanded to include 200 individuals, the number was still locked at three.

Ten years ago, on the 2001 list, there were 17 women. By 2006, the number had fallen to a paltry 11. On last year’s list, there were 15 women – still below the level of a decade ago. 

Unfortunately, the situation is unlikely to improve.

The number of women on BRW’s Young Rich, which tracks the fortunes of wealth women aged 40 and under, fell from 20 in 2005 to just 13 on last year’s list.

Whether any of these women can make it to the main rich list (which currently has a cut off of $185 million) remains to be seen – actor Nicole Kidman is the only woman to have appeared on both lists.

So why do women struggle to break in to the top echelons of wealth? While much work has been done encouraging female representation at executive and board levels, are we doing enough to encourage female entrepreneurs?

It’s a question that Melanie Kansil – chief executive of Customers Underground and member of female entrepreneur network Head Over Heels – has given a lot of thought to.

She says that while as many women start as men, only a third of businesses that have more than $1 million in revenue are run by females. This suggests few female entrepreneurs are able to build high-growth businesses of the sort that can propel their owner onto the rich list.

One of the problems, according to Kansil, is the idea of "capital punishment” – that is, women simply find it harder to get the necessary capital to grow.

By way of example, she points to a study by Dow Jones Venture Sources of capital deals made in the United States in 2009, which found that just 11 per cent of firms that received backing had a female CEO, or a former chief who was female.

"That funding is critical to building the sort of businesses that get people on the rich list,” Kansil says.

Kansil says that while markets must ultimately decide which businesses are successful and which fail, a level playing field – where companies run by both genders at least get the chance to access capital – is something to be encouraged.

She says programs aimed at helping female business owners join and build networks should be supported to help turn around the entrepreneurial gender imbalance. 

"Programs that can provide practical support and even just a bit of camaraderie can be really helpful.”

Of course, programs like this won’t help change things quickly. Gina Rinehart shouldn’t hold her breath waiting for another female entrepreneur to join her near the top of the rich list.