Profile: The reluctant technologist


Last year, Louise Ackland transformed from someone barely able to open an app to tech entrepreneur talking to software developers in Silicon Valley. This year, Louise continues her professional development journey on the Victorian Regional Community Leadership Program through a place funded by the Victorian Rural Women’s Network.

Louise’s journey from Sunraysia in North West Victoria to Silicon Valley was an accidental one. In September last year, Louise took part in a software design and development event, or Hackathon, to brainstorm ideas for problem-solving technology. She participated alongside her daughter Julia, an agribusiness student at La Trobe University.

“Julia and I entered with no clear idea of what we were getting into,” says Louise. “I was prompted out of interest, and the organisers’ claims that the event was not just for technology specialists.” She adds. The Hackathon, based in Mildura, was part of the La Trobe Accelerator Program, an initiative to support, mentor and provide seed funding to regional start-ups and entrepreneurs.

Louise insists that she is not keen on technology unless it can enrich her life in a useful way. However, she uses technology in the family business, Payne’s Farm Contracting, which provides specialist pruning services to Sunraysia growers. The business uses technology for frost and pump alarms, moisture probes and irrigation scheduling, as well as administration and communications software.

Louise’s experience in the business plus a background in quality assurance meant she was in a good position to problem solve in the Hackathon. Participants were asked to address an issue faced by their industry and pitch a technology solution. The idea of FarmMate was born — a customisable ’one-stop shop’ of resources and programs to help farmers prioritise tasks and save time and money.

Farmers need information at their fingertips, ranging from the weather to drone footage, occupational health and safety, budgeting, mental health, chemicals and more. The ‘one-stop shop’ platform proposed by Louise and Julia was enhanced by networking features to allow farmers to communicate in a trusted environment and reduce their isolation.

Louise and Julia recognised that farmers are often frustrated at having to find and pay for information from different sources. The pair analysed the problems and gathered insights from farmers they knew to present a business case that met the competition criteria.

“The hackathon was a great experience at my age in my mid-50s to realise that is not how techy you are that really matters; it was all about problem solving, understanding and articulating ideas that was at the heart of our project to make life easier and better,” explains Louise.

The duo won tickets for a funded trip to the United States tech hub Silicon Valley in December 2018.

“It was eye-opening and an excellent learning experience. While our idea sounds easy enough, accessing funding, finding trusted software engineers and getting it off the ground is a whole different ball park,” admits Louise.

Louise says that she and Julia are still exploring how to offer a version of FarmMate that is affordable to develop. Louise also remains passionate about her own and community development opportunities. Now that her kids are older and more independent she has transitioned from a career in quality assurance to the family business, which has led her into advocacy for the region’s horticulture industry.

In the meantime, Louise’s focus is on furthering her professional development having recently secured a funded place through the Victorian Rural Women’s Network on the Northern Mallee Leaders Program, run by the Victorian Regional Community Leadership Program.

“Tech is on hold and the Northern Mallee Leaders Program is my ‘project’ for this year. I am looking forward to meeting more people and having the ability to represent my region and industry, which is encountering some significant challenges,” says Louise, who has enjoyed developing her skills and ideas around leadership.

“Leadership for me is firstly deciding what you represent and what your key values are. Then you get to demonstrate and model those values in whatever area you have expertise, interest and involvement, all for the betterment of others,” she says.

Applications for funded places for the 2020 Victorian Rural Women’s Leadership and Mentoring Program are due to open from May 2019. Keep an eye on the Victorian Rural Women’s Network’s social media and website.

Image above: Louise Ackland (right) with her daughter Julia (left) on their visit to the United States’ Silicon Valley in December 2018.

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