Michelle Garnaut has had an illustrious career as a restaurateur, building her iconic M restaurants in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. She has founded landmark cultural events, has spearheaded Mentor Walks in Beijing and Shanghai, and has co-founded a social enterprise that helps villages and girls in rural China. In 2018, she was honoured as an Officer of the Order of Australia.
Michelle Garnaut’s spirit of adventure accidentally landed her in Hong Kong in 1984 and she stayed. Within five years, she had opened her first restaurant.
What role did collaboration play in in the early days of your career?
When I started in my business in the late 1980s, no one really talked much about collaborating, or creative thinking, or design thinking, or mentoring. These were really foreign ideas, especially in Hong Kong. When you are an outsider, you really need to find ways to manoeuvre around the system and use all the tools that you have. You really have no choice but to collaborate as you really cannot do everything on your own.
Many business owners make the mistake of thinking that they can do everything by themselves. They don’t like to admit that they can’t do it all. Or admit that they don’t know it all. Until there’s some big mistake which highlights what they don’t know. All of those factors contributed to me figuring out how to move forward. Once you have a business, as any business owner knows well, the buck stops at you. You either let everything fail, or find a way to keep going.
Many business owners make the mistake of thinking that they can do everything by themselves. They don’t like to admit that they can’t do it all. Or admit that they don’t know it all.
Have you always had a collaborative outlook?
Yes very much. I grew up in an environment where giving back was very much part of the values of our family. My mother taught us to have empathy for other people, and was very strong in her convictions. I am the eldest of nine, so understanding that you need to get everybody onboard to get things done was part of my upbringing. I have always felt it is much more interesting to participate in a community. It is definitely much more challenging when it is not your language, or the place you have grown up in, but it is so important to be involved in a community.
Have you ever had a collaboration that has failed?
I am not sure about failing, but I can think of a lot of examples where collaborations have been a lot of work and so much more complicated than we bargained for. I remember the first Beijing Design Week and I suggested that we put together a two day workshop. We ended up with so many parties involved and it was so disorganised. The event is always on October 1st, which coincides with National Day in China, so we decided to do it on the 2nd and 3rd. However, they closed all the metro stations and no one could get to the event. There were about 30 people involved in collaborating on the event and we ended up with only a handful of people at the event. So putting a lot of effort into a collaboration which doesn’t work out is very disappointing.
You are the organiser for Mentor Walks in Shanghai and Beijing, where professional women (mentees) are paired in small groups with a mentor for a walk in the park to discuss their business challenges. What role did mentors play in your early career?
I don’t think the idea of mentoring really existed in the 1980s. The word ‘mentoring’ was something that belonged in a big company. More than mentors, I had role models. People I really looked up to. But I would never have had the courage to go up to them and ask them to be my mentor.
The idea for Mentor Walks originally came from a woman I heard speak at a conference in the US. I heard her say to her assistant, “I just can’t have breakfast, lunch, or dinner with anyone else. I simply can’t have another meeting over food. If anyone wants to talk to me, they can have half an hour and meet me at Central Park”. And I thought that was a genius idea.
This woman ended up creating an annual event for women to gather in the park and that got a lot of media exposure. But it was a once-a-year event for thousands of women. While I thought it was a good idea, it really was not one that could help these women with practical advice, especially when you are on a walk with 3000 other people.
It took us quite a long time to work out how to form our idea for Mentor Walks, and eventually we got our concept off the ground in Beijing, followed by Shanghai. Mentor Walks is for working women. It is a very simple idea, and fantastically successful. It’s not just the mentees who benefit, the mentors get so much out of it as well. In a small group setting, you also get support and encouragement from the other mentees you walk with. It is fascinating to watch and I hope it can spread to other cities.
Next year is 30 years since you opened your first restaurant. What’s next?
I think the next big step for me is figuring out what to do with my AO (Order of Australia). I did not realise how big a deal an AO was, until I received that honour. I realised just how few women have received this title. I believe that is important for me to remain a role model and see what I can do to support the cause of women. In my industry I feel there is so little recognition for the contribution of women – as chefs, as restaurateurs, owners of businesses, as the creative brains behind so many things. I have some ideas around giving greater confidence to women in my industry in leadership, higher management and business ownership. The time is now to run a business and have a social conscience.
Michelle Garnaut AO spoke with Miriam Feiler, co-Founder of bizzi, as part of The Small Business Collaboration Summit.
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