Take 10 with Hala Batainah

Ramesha Perera
Fri 19 Jul

She's the new Chair to the Board of the Canberra Innovation Network, in the ACT - the government agency charged with promoting new technological enterprises and fostering a community of innovators and entrepreneurs.  

With a backlog of experience and insights from some the biggest organisations in the world - have you heard of IBM and Microsoft? Hala is on a mission to turning Canberra into a globally recognised city where innovation and entrepreneurship fuels social and economic growth.


What was the best thing about being a diplomat's daughter?

The ability to live in different countries; meet, live and engage with a diverse range of people from many cultures. Our region (the Middle East) is highly political; so, I grew up in a household that discussed politics, every day current affairs and the state of the world. Seeing the work of diplomats around the world allowed me to see the huge impact public sector can have. I have respect and deep appreciation of the impact that people in the public sector can have on our daily lives – sometimes in not so obvious ways.

You studied at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. What motivated you to study computer science?

I was originally accepted as a business administration major, but for a variety of reasons, I decided after my first year that I wanted to do something different. Our university had a career counsellor who asked me a series of questions – the one I remember distinctly was him asking me what I liked to do, - and I answered that I liked to find and solve problems. He suggested I investigate computer science that the university was offering. Between his coaching and my parents’ support (I was an international student) I applied and was accepted. It was much more challenging than I envisaged because I had not had much experience with computers (outside of Atari gaming!) up until then. Computer Science taught me so much about finding problems – you are like a detective when you are working out the problem – as well as solving problems though coding that really hones one’s critical thinking skills and ability to breakdown problems into its components.

Promoting female uptake of STEM roles is increasing but is this the right push with the automation of roles and AI technology? What role do you see for females in STEM in the future?

Yes! Automation and AI technology are not the full answer for the myriad of problems we face as a country, society or the world. Promoting females is an economic as well as societal issue from my perspective. Increasing female participation in an industry that is growing can only mean that woman have a larger role to play and can benefit economically. It would seem ridiculous not to have females share in the 21st prosperity that innovative technologies bring. Secondly, females bring a perspective that has already been shown to be of value whether in studies about females on boards or organisations run by female founders and CEOs. Technology will continue to play a strong role in society, and females bring capabilities and perspectives that would be of value especially in AI which has shown that bias does exist in AI if you are programming with the same set of skills and perspectives. This also holds true for people in our communities with accessibility requirements. The more we can bring in a diverse network of people to our industry, to AI and automation, as well as new technologies yet to be conceived, the better the outcome is for all. Including women!

With all the opportunities and potential career advancements you could have made nationally or internationally, what drew you to Canberra?

Perhaps the question can be answered in a slightly different way: what keeps me in Canberra. As you say I could have had a national and an international career. In terms of national, I did several national roles for IBM from Canberra and I never felt that it disadvantaged me in anyway. I was fortunate both with IBM and Microsoft to work for companies that valued outcomes and impact above “location”. Yes, I travelled a fair bit (at one point in time I also covered New Zealand) but I utilised technology as was needed, whether it was using email, video conferencing, telephone, Voice over IP (VoIP) software to communicate with clients, my team and colleagues. I had strong leadership that understood how to lead and get the best outcomes from remote workers and the frameworks in place to support. I was offered many roles in Sydney, Singapore and at one time in China and Dubai (I speak Arabic), but Canberra is home for me. It has everything that a thriving, diverse and connected city can offer. It is a city that is accessible and tolerant. It has a progressive and future-oriented local government and a community that cares and is involved. I have not felt that I was disadvantaged career wise being in Canberra. I have a choice of amazing industry options whether to work in private sector, public sector, not-for-profits, research, world leading universities, institutes, think tanks or international organisations! The choices are a lot broader than many people think.

In your opinion, what makes Canberra such a magnet for innovation and startups?

We operate within a framework of a city governed by a progressive, future thinking ACT government and a Chief Minister that “gets it”. This helps tremendously because it means government is willing to fund, participate, engage and converse with startups and business in a close, relevant and personal manner. The city itself lends itself on a few fronts: we have one of the largest marketplace places for

technology alone with $9B in IT spend just in Federal government. We have a unique convergence of universities, research institutes, local and federal government as well as national, multi-national and small to medium enterprises that come together to solve some very interesting problems. That connected aspect of Canberra – where it really is one degree of separation – allows so many people to help each other, mentor, coach, do business and engage in ways that is mostly organic. The Canberra Innovation Network offers structured programs and provides the ability for people to connect in one place with a broad and diverse eco-system. CBRIN offers mentoring, coaching, training, access to funds, connections and space for early phase start-ups and scale-ups that gives the best possible chance for people to try something different, new and innovative, but also to fail and fail fast in a safe and supportive environment. All of this is possible because of the size of our city, the type of people that are attracted to innovation and the desire to change the world.

Lastly, the ability to travel relatively easily in and around Canberra, makes it accessible for people to move around – proximity to work-to play-to rest is quite apparent in Canberra and very appreciated!

Do you think the government is doing enough to promote an innovation culture in Australia?

I assume you mean Federal government. The short answer is yes, the long answer is there is more to do. From my conversations with government, there is an understanding and a strong desire to ensure Australia is a relevant, engaged and contributing to the new 21century world. We do not want to be “left behind” and we don’t want to only consume. We want the ability to create and participate in the new economies, technologies and innovations that are emerging.

There is focus on innovation in the public sector itself, evidenced by Public Sector Innovation month in July and sharing the innovation that does occur there. The great support that Department of Industry, Science and Technology provides whether through grants, services or know-how is amazing. There is a strong desire to connect and link science, research together with innovative businesses. So, there is a lot that happens perhaps sometimes behind the scenes!

There are areas that Federal government can perhaps accelerate support whether it’s tax waivers for start-ups in their first three years of operations; some relief on technical development (as opposed to R&D); funding for programs that run business coaching and guidance so start-ups don’t run foul of the rules. It takes a lot of bootstrapping to get a business off the ground and many founders and start-ups need clients (i.e. purchase orders). So, another way that governments can help is to be early adopters of some of the business innovations and provide an easier way for start-ups to engage and for Public Sector agencies to procure.

What are your plans for CBRIN and promoting innovation in Canberra?

CBRIN is 4 years old. It took what was an idea by some amazing, dedicated Canberrans, incubated it and delivered the start of a fantastic umbrella of innovative programs and impact to Canberra. We have an ambitious and doable strategic direction that ultimately focuses on expanding the entrepreneurial capacity of Canberra and help launch more businesses from our city and promote at the national and international stage. We want more businesses in Canberra – living, hiring, spending and impacting on our net economic prosperity. To ensure our city continues to grow and be a diverse and attractive hub for businesses.

At CBRIN, we want to focus on building research and academic entrepreneurial capacity – so much innovation there! We want to continue to identify, connect with and accelerate the growth of innovation companies in Canberra and the surrounding region – broaden the impact and bring more people on the journey. Fostering an inclusive and diverse entrepreneurial culture in Canberra is critical. We want to connect more – and with a wider and broader set of amazing organisations, including Federal government – through collaborative initiatives– to deliver deeper and relevant programs. And finally, we want to share more stories about the amazing companies that are thriving in our eco-system, those that are just starting and those that are scaling up and those well on their way to becoming billion-dollar companies!

How does your experience inform your attitude and goals for CBRIN?

Having worked for some of the most innovative technology companies, I have an attitude of collaboration and connection to move things forward. Nothing is done alone that is of any significance and I see this translating to CBRIN. We have started a great journey through the support of our foundation partners, ANU, UC, CIT, UNSW, CSIRO, Data61 and ACT Government, and great community and corporate support. The question remains: How can we bring more people together to drive more innovative businesses for Canberra and the surrounding region? What programs can we execute that brings Federal and local government, small to medium enterprises (in tech especially), multi-national and national companies to drive the innovation agenda forward? What does our community, members and city need from us that is not currently being met? Collaboration and communication coupled with strong leadership at all levels continues to be the cornerstone of driving any worthwhile outcome. One just can’t get away from the fundamentals. Do those right and everything else falls in place.

Where would you like to see Australia/Canberra in the international innovation environment in the coming years?

I would love to see Australia and Canberra having a huge and positive impact on some of the curly and wicked problems we face today. We do this by fostering, funding and assisting innovative thinking to stay in Australia and launch from here. I would love to see Australia recognized by our own citizens as a hub where innovative, home-grown and funded organisations that are changing the world are based and that our talent stays here and we attract more and more of the world’s talent to come and contribute and make our country even better. And I would love to see other countries in our region and beyond look to us and where we look to them to collaborate to make a better world and have lasting impact.

What changes do you think we need to undertake to get there?

We need to continue to be diligent against hubris, overconfidence and thinking the music will continue even when we outsource the band! We need to continue to guard to be tolerant of new ideas, different approaches and new ways of thinking. The not-invented-here syndrome sometimes lives strongly in our psyche and we often neglect to notice the goodness, the innovation that happens in our own backyards in favour of other countries. By all means, let’s learn from and share with other countries because innovation itself is a self-feeding loop, but let’s not be blind to the amazing talent and fantastic companies, institutions and individuals that are doing great things here