Thinking bigger and finding gold

Written by Lana Weal on the 16th of August, 2018

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Danielle Owen Whitford is the founder and CEO of Pioneera, an AI platform that uses language and behaviour to predict and prevent workplace stress.

A former high-flying corporate executive with academic qualifications in communications and psychology, Danielle took the leap into startups with a view to changing her life and the lives of others.

Here, Danielle shares the unexpected lessons she learned from the SheStarts USA Delegation.


There are times in your life when a gift falls in your lap – you win some money, you find the partner of your dreams, or you get opportunities you’ve only ever read about.

In June, I was very lucky as one of these gifts tell into my lap.

SheStarts: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

When I was accepted into the SheStarts program last year, we were told the program included a trip to the USA to meet tech companies and potential investors. Companies such as Salesforce, LinkedIn, Airbnb, Cisco Meraki, Box, Google and many more. What an opportunity!

We were told it would be amazing and it would open our eyes to the huge potential of our startups. We were told we’d meet great people and start some good conversations. We were told we’d see technology on a grand scale.

What we weren’t told was how it would completely change us…

How the USA changed me

I’ve been in business for a long time. I’ve studied, visited and worked with businesses in the USA. When I left the USA to come home, I realised this trip was different.

This trip changed the way I thought about and approached my business and myself. Here’s how:

  1. I was holding myself back.
  2. I need to work differently.
  3. Never be afraid to ask.
Danielle Owen Whitford, founder of Pioneera on Demo Day!

Danielle Owen Whitford, founder of Pioneera on Demo Day, just two months before the USA Delegation.

1. I was holding myself back.

My market is much bigger than I thought. I no longer see Australia as my main and only market.

Workplace stress is costing the Australian economy over $15bn. If you think that’s big, consider this: workplace stress is costing the USA economy over $500bn! Stress is a massive global issue and visiting these huge companies in the USA reminded me that I need to start thinking bigger and working in that way.

BlueChilli advisor Alan Jones told me recently that the barriers to Australian companies entering the US market from the start are much lower than they once were, so I’m going to make the most of that.

I didn’t realise it, but one of my biggest hurdles was myself.

It was only when I spoke to some incredible women who inspired and challenged me to think differently and stop holding back, that I clicked.

Meredith Finn of Salesforce and Adi Abili of Angelhack challenged me by simply asking said “why not”.

Lizzy Wilmarth from Cisco Meraki encouraged me to stretch my self-imposed limit. Why just pilot in Australia when I can pilot in Australia and the USA? Since I’ve started thinking bigger, I’ve had two organisations in San Francisco agree to pilot with Pioneera!

I was looking outside of me to make myself better. During a conversation with Laura Williams from LinkedIn, I realised I needed to look inside myself as the only thing holding me back, was me.

Danielle and Zoe SheStarts founders at Salesforce

Danielle Owen Whitford, founder of Pioneera and Zoe Condliffe, founder of She’s a Crowd with a trailblazer at the Salesforce Tower in New York.

2. I need to work differently, now that I’m not holding back

I am a night-owl and will often be working away on my laptop when my kids are snoring peacefully in their beds. Given the USA time-zones, I am now up and in meetings at 7am, so it’s forced this night-owl to change her patterns.

The question I always ask is, “is it worth it?” – and absolutely, it is!

Not only am I making great inroads to stress reduction, I am learning from incredible people which is helping me fast track my business, so I can help more people faster.

It also means my kids get themselves up and make their own breakfasts whilst mum talks to “America”. They grumbled at first, but these are good life lessons. They sometimes pop their faces on screen mid conversation and the fabulous people I’m meeting with, don’t seem to mind at all. In fact, they chuckle and seem to love it (Mark Bennett at Oracle, I’m talking about you!)! How is that for work/life balance?

I’m thinking bigger and making sure I connect with my key people in both Australia and the USA which is something I wouldn’t have expected to be a part of my daily routine before the trip.

3. Never be afraid to ask.

Every person and every session in the US talked about an “ask”.

Samantha Katz, CEO and co-founder of Left Tackle Capital, said to me after a two minute conversation “what is your ask?”. That caught me off guard, but I went ahead and asked for what I wanted and she said “yes!”. It was a clear lesson and taught me to be confident in making an ask. So now I am. And surprisingly people say yes all the time and I’m now doing some incredible things I never dreamt of.

Unexpected lesson on being open

But the biggest thing I learnt from our time in the US was simply a reminder… to be open minded.

When good things come your way, you can just go along for the ride, or you can take the gift and turn it into gold. Gold comes from being open to how it might challenge and change you, and have you leaving better than you arrived. I didn’t expect it, it wasn’t always comfortable, but I’m incredibly grateful.

Thank you to the SheStarts team and incredible advisors at ANZ and MYOB that made sure I was open to the possibilities. I will always cherish the empowering pep talk Leigh Gibson from ANZ gave me one evening over my struggling pitch deck. These advisors and support networks continue to help me grow since I returning to Australia and I’m so looking forward to what’s next.

So take the step, take that chance – you’ll never know if it’s going to be gold until you try.

SheStarts founders before traveling to America

The SheStarts team before the flight to the USA.