Kiwi-born Kath Blackham – the founder and CEO of VERSA – has seen and done a lot of things – and scored many interesting firsts. 
Take her “crazy” work experience  at a trading company in Russia, for example, where she opened the very first foreign supermarket. There, working in Vladivostok at the tender age of 19, she had to ‘dodge’ bullets, seek protection from security guards, and constantly rely on drivers to escort her around safely. 

Closer to home, and many years later, Blackham is still achieving firsts and kicking goals, but this time in the technology realm. Consider her ground-breaking work in the world of artificial intelligence (AI), where she was the first to create a voice and conversational AI agency in Australia – and still scoring wins with the recent launch of the world’s first conversational AI led website. As such, she’s now considered a global leader in this space. 

Her mission: To use technology for good and to help others. In fact, she believes “technology can help us improve accessibility and reach the unreachable” and wants to use VERSA as a platform to move the needle on things that she’s most passionate about: mental health in the workplace, diversity and inclusion, and using technology for good, not evil. 

And there’s no slowing her down. In fact, she’s a self-proclaimed agitator, a change maker, a ‘wannabe nurse’ –  someone who’s always striving to connect with people – and a person who doesn’t sit on the sidelines.

“I’m the person that goes full steam ahead and runs towards whatever disasters are facing me.” 

Stories Ink caught up with Blackham to discuss her vision and passions in life (what she considers her “life’s work”); her role in AI and how voice and conversational AI can help brands interact better with customers; why culture is so pivotal to her business; and a fun fact or two – like how she ended up dining with a KGB agent at 13. 

Quick time frame of where you were born, raised, schooled. Tell us a bit about your: 

Birthplace/Upbringing/Childhood

I was born in New Zealand and that’s where I spent most of my upbringing. Although I did spend a small amount of time in Australia with my father, I spent most of my time with my mother and stepfather in New Zealand. I was from a very small town called Fielding in New Zealand, so it really is on the road to nowhere.

My two worlds were polar opposites. My mother was a nurse, she was very giving and philanthropic. Even though we had no money and she was working five days a week, we would spend our weekends volunteering for the intellectually handicapped. My father was living an extravagant lifestyle by the beach in Port Melbourne. He was always incredibly charismatic and the life of the party. Whereas in New Zealand, my life was a typical country upbringing, humble and stable.

My father would do some crazy things. When I was 13, he took me to Russia during the communist era and we had lunch with a KGB agent. He wanted to introduce me to international travel and business. So when I was 16, I did an exchange program in Spain for six months. I guess that set me on a path to travelling, which I absolutely loved and gave me very itchy feet.

Schooling

I went to Feilding Agricultural High school. Anybody that knows me, knows that’s so far from who I am today. Once I left high school, I went to the University in New Hamilton for a year, but I was always destined to travel. So I then took off and worked in Switzerland for a while, and then went back to Russia for six months and I lived in Moscow and Vladivostok.

Later, I went to the University of Leeds in the UK where I did my honours degree. 

Growing up, what did you want to be?

I always wanted to be a nurse growing up. I think there’s always been a part of me, right through my career that really wants to help people – it’s almost to my detriment. My mum was a nurse. So growing up she was a huge influence in my life. God knows how she did everything: she raised three young kids (four, six and eight) on her own; was a full-time nurse at the local doctor’s surgery; and then worked nights for the Samaritans, which was the suicide helpline in New Zealand. She would then also volunteer for a not-for-profit on the weekends for intellectually handicapped children. We’d drive around in a van, picking up and dropping off kids to different events and activities. That’s how we spent our weekend. And so I think being a nurse was kind of the natural thing. But once I got into my older years, and I spent more time with my Dad, who was an entrepreneur and ran various businesses for 40 years, I realised I had a passion for international business and travel. I then recognised that my interest for nursing wasn’t necessarily going to get me the exposure to travel, so that’s when I went down a very different road.

What were some of your first and most memorable jobs?

The most memorable job I would say would be working in Russia for a trading company. They sent me to Vladivostok where I opened the very first foreign supermarket. I was 19 years old and it was the early 90s. It was a Swiss company that was importing Australian products. It was a crazy experience, incredibly dangerous; we had eight guards on our door at all times, people were being shot at, you couldn’t go out by yourself, and you had to be taken everywhere by a driver, not one person spoke English. I was living in a shared residence with other foreigners that was run by a kind of grandmother, a babushka. Every night she would bring me hot water in a big urn to bathe and serve us up chicken Kiev that could have easily been served up for seven days in a row. People often ask me if I enjoyed it, and honestly, I look back on it, and can say absolutely it was memorable, because it wasn’t enjoyable.

I was desperately lonely, it was pre-email; the only way that I could contact my family was via phone and that was incredibly expensive. So I spent the whole year with very little contact apart from a few letters going back and forth with my Mum. She used to send me a letter every Sunday and that was really the only contact I had. It must be even more terrifying for my Mum, because she was aware that foreigners were getting killed all the time over there. So that was incredibly hard.

How did your path take you into your current role: Founder and CEO of Versa Agency? 

I initially started my path as the Head of Product for organisations like Seek, REA, realestate.com.au and Red Sheriff. I then spent a year in a start-up called Blue Freeway where we raised about $42 million on the ASX. Once we floated Blue Freeway, one of my roles was to choose and buy different agencies to bring into the group. It was during this time that I had gained exposure to some of these amazing agencies. It was here that I met Matt Griffin, the owner of an agency called Deepend. We soon became good friends and so when I finished maternity leave, Matt contacted me to start Deepend Melbourne. And that was the beginning of my journey. This is when I started my own digital agency.

Can you highlight your main responsibilities in that role?

In the early days, I was everything to everyone. I was winning the business. I was project managing the business. I was working on the vision. When you’re working as a start-up you need to do everything. As the business has evolved and grown, my role now involves working on the new business side of things. I really enjoy connecting with potential new clients and explaining the value of what we can deliver and working with them to uncover how we can solve their problems, particularly now that we’re working with conversational AI, where ROI is so huge and we can really make a difference for our clients.

I also work on the culture, the brand, the vision and strategy of our business – the why of what we do. What I take most seriously is the culture side of things, ensuring we’re talking about our ‘life’s work’. So not just the work that we do within the business, but what it is that we want to have as our ‘life’s work’. And for me, my life’s work is using VERSA as a platform to move the needle on the things that I’m most passionate about: mental health in the workplace, diversity and inclusion and using technology for good. It’s about protecting the reason that I started the business and ensuring the decisions we make, and the culture that we build, supports that. My life’s work supports the values my mother instilled in me at a young age – helping and making people’s lives better.

What do you love about your current job, and what’s your big vision for the role?

Every day I get to do something that I love and what I feel so passionate about. So I consider myself really lucky. Some days are hard; I’m tired and things aren’t going the way I want them to, but I have to keep reminding myself that I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m doing things that I truly love and believe in. I started in digital in 1999, at the beginning of the digital evolution. So being at the forefront in conversational AI and voice is such a privilege for me, and I just love it. I love the fact that I can come to work every day and fulfill my life’s work at the same time as fulfilling my career – it’s amazing.

I have a big vision for my role at VERSA. What I want to do is start speaking more publicly about things that matter most, like the four-day work week, accessibility and things that will make society better.

At VERSA, we’ve been so successful in rolling out some key initiatives, and over the years we’ve been lucky enough to win numerous awards on our culture and my leadership.  These initiatives and experiences have given me the platform to talk about mental health in the workplace, and how technology can help us improve accessibility and reach the unreachable.

Can you highlight your main achievements and milestones in your career thus far?

The highlight of my career so far is having two children and still being able to start a business. That’s an achievement -and still keeping my marriage together. That’s an achievement in its own right. I’ve been very lucky in my career. I was a super young female sitting on the leadership team of a global company and a publicly listed company. I’ve always been that kind of agitator and change maker when it came to females in the workplace, so I think that’s a pretty big achievement having had these big roles, really young.

But I can’t go past my main achievement – and that’s VERSA. It’s not easy owning your own business. In 2019, I bought out my business partner, Matt, and took over the Melbourne Deepend business and launched VERSA. This platform allowed me to showcase how voice and conversational AI can help brands interact better with customers. This has been huge, and I will always see it as a big milestone for me.

Another recent milestone was launching the world’s first conversational AI led website earlier this year. Showing the industry where the future website design is headed with conversational AI is huge for me. I’ve been lucky I’ve been able to see where the market is going and I’ve never felt so sure of anything in my entire life as I do with conversational AI, and its capabilities. 

But I still feel there’s many more milestones in me. I’d like to write a book. I’d like to do something more significant around ‘reaching the unreachable’ and I’d love to start a not-for-profit that helps not-for-profits.

What technology trends/market shifts have you seen in your time as a tech/business leader?

The most significant tech trend I’ve seen is the introduction of conversational AI and it’s the reason I started VERSA. In 2017, I was in the US, and I noticed a huge shift – a paradigm shift – which was probably the biggest move we’ve seen in recent times from a tech perspective. When I talk about conversational AI, I mean technology to allow brands to have a two-way conversation with their customers. Up until now, if you’ve got a website, or you have an app, the interaction has normally been one way, from your brand to your customers. You could ask questions. You could take them to your FAQ’s. You could have them fill out a form or contact you on the website, but ultimately the only way to have a two-way conversation was through contacting your people in your customer service team.

Often these conversations were not very positive – people wanted to complain because they were trying to buy something on your website and couldn’t buy it. What conversational AI allows us to do is to actually turn that on its head and allow us to have a two-way conversation on every channel. Having consistent conversations – whether it’s a website, on the phone, on the app, in store on a kiosk, on WhatsApp – you can now have a two-way conversation with your customers, finding out what they want to buy and why they’re visiting your website in the first place. The technology also delivers valuable insight on what’s bothering them, what they need to know, allowing you to ask follow-up questions, and deliver a much more personalised conversation. This allows brands to open up to the world and scale their customer service team by using AI, so that for me is the biggest trend I’ve seen.

What are your main lessons learned?  

The best lesson I’ve learnt is listening to people around you, but also backing yourself. I went through a few stages where I’ve stalled a little bit because I haven’t backed myself. I still often have that level of imposter syndrome. I know people would be surprised to hear that from me, but I definitely have that level of fear, and often ask: ‘Can I do this? Am I able to run this business?’ And if anybody sends a little bit of doubt my way, I then start to second guess myself. So the big lesson for me is to back yourself. Another lesson is to not burn bridges. I don’t understand why anyone would burn a bridge in their careers. The market is too small, the ramifications are too high. I’m a big believer in allowing people to leave on good terms. I’m happy for them to leave, and I’ll open the door and help them exit in a way that allows them to come back.

Given you’ve had experience in many areas – including in the world of digital technologies – what excites you the most about the industry?

For me, the most exciting thing about the industry right now is the rate of change. For some people it’s terrifying. For me, it’s exciting. I love working in an industry where every day feels like a new day. There’s always something new starting, and new products launched, so you have to stay on top of your game. As a business, the real thrill of the chase is, ‘how do you work out what’s coming next? How do you make sure your team is up-skilled enough to take advantage of what’s ahead?’ That for me is the most exciting thing about our industry. The industry is moving at a faster pace than it was 20 years ago, where the impact of change for companies was limited.

It’s exciting to see how the work we’re doing now is truly impacting business’ bottom line; it’s impacting the experience that customers or their constituents have. We’re now seeing digital – especially in emerging technologies such as voice and conversational AI – delivering a huge impact both fiscally, but also from a usability and accessibility perspective – and that’s super exciting.

Voice allows us to talk to everyone including those with low literacy, are vision-impaired or an elderly person with dexterity issues. There are so many reasons why people can’t use technology. One of the biggest ones is the fact that English is not the first language for a huge segment of our population. The ability for an individual to use their voice and be able to do so in their own language is huge. For me, the biggest shift that we’re going to see in terms of how a government interacts with their constituents is the ability to use voice in a language to ensure all pockets of society have access to critical and relevant information.

How did you become interested in conversational AI, the Future of Work, and a speaker – and global leader – on this circuit?

I first became interested in conversational AI while I was travelling in the US and going to events like South by Southwest (SXSW) every year. This gave me exposure to what was happening in the US market, and I could see the potential – and so I brought that back to Australia. We were lucky enough to be the first voice and conversational AI agency in Australia. I started the agency with this real desire to do things differently. I’ve always been striving to try new things, look at how we work in different ways and show people that you can be successful in business, but also be a family-friendly and flexible workplace. So that’s where the four-day work week came from.

And now, again going back to my life’s work, I want to use VERSA as a platform to move the needle on the things that I’m passionate about. What better way of doing it than speaking about them and telling people our story, and hoping that I can inspire other people to try new things. I’m always happy to see companies that have come across our story and get in touch with me to say, ‘We’re going to try the four-day week’ or ‘We’re going to try some of the things that you’ve been doing around gratefulness and mindfulness.’

Any scary aspects to AI? 

There’s plenty to be scared about. I think any technology that allows a machine to imitate a human is pretty scary. We need to be really mindful of that. I’m often asked about people losing their jobs because customer service optimisation can often be misinterpreted as cutting down jobs. And to be honest, sometimes that’s exactly what we’re doing, cutting down the number of calls that need to be answered by humans to allow for more growth and opportunities in other areas. But I do believe that we’re not going to be overtaken by machines. And I think we’re just going through our process at the moment, and our kids are going to have to be adaptable, as they won’t have the same jobs as we have today.

How would you describe yourself?

I can be pretty crazy. I’m very passionate. It can be hard keeping up with me. My mind works very quickly and I know that sometimes people that work with me can struggle because I’m always thinking five steps ahead.

I’m also still the ‘wannabe nurse’ from when I was a kid growing up; I still desperately want to help people. I’m always trying to solve problems for everybody and help everybody. I will grind myself into the ground before I will give up the opportunity to get involved in helping someone. I’m the person that doesn’t turn away from an opportunity or from someone who needs a helping hand. I’m not the person that turns the other way; I’m the person that goes full steam ahead and runs towards whatever disasters are facing me.

What does the term leadership mean to you and what type of leader are you?

I’m the type of leader that leads with love. I really believe in the sense of family. Leadership for me is about helping people do amazing things and being there to push them and challenge them, but also help them to celebrate when they get there. Leadership also means motivating others.

I’m a really big believer in leading with love, so making sure that every single person in the company knows that they’re  valued, that they’re loved, that you’ve got their back. This is my biggest challenge as a leader today because as time goes on and as we grow, I become less connected to people across parts of the business. I want to know everything about the person, who their partner is, what makes them happy and what makes them sad. And that’s a source of frustration for me because I’m best when I have a connection with people. And it feels a little out of control when you don’t.

Why do you mentor, and what’s your main advice on this?

I mentor because I believe that we have an issue with women, finding belief in themselves and trusting that they can have it all. And when I say have it all, I mean that they can work and have a family; they can have fulfilling lives, both at a professional and a personal level. I was at realestate.com.au when I had my first child, my daughter, and I was the Head of Product on the leadership team of a publicly listed company-  a massive role.  I cried on my last day of work because I truly believed that my career was over. So what I want to do with mentoring is to help women understand that if you’re 30 and you’re thinking of starting a family, it’s not the end – this can be the beginning of something. I went from that to starting a business, and I still believe that I’ve got another phase of my career to go.

What are some of your passions in life?

My passion is for my family and friends. I look after one of my best friends who has early onset Alzheimer’s. So, I guess one of my passions at the moment, and one of my favourite things to do, is to care of her and help her. She’s going downhill. She’s only 46, but she was 43 when she was diagnosed. It’s something that gives me fulfillment. And what I want to achieve moving forward is to see out my life’s work.

And finally, what do you wish to achieve moving forward?

I want to try as much as possible to be part of the solution for diversity and inclusion –  and that’s a real focus for me in the next 12 months. I want to make sure I’ve used tech for good, not for evil. Ensuring everything that we do is making people’s lives better, that every single piece of work that we do, we put up against our why and ask ourselves – does this make people’s lives better? Sure, not all projects will deliver on that ‘Why,’ but as long as we’re honest with ourselves and keep our North Star, we can make a difference and help make people’s lives better.

Do you know of a worthy ‘Close-Up’ contender? Get in touch with Jennifer at jennifer@storiesink.com.au to get the story captured.