It hasn’t been easy, but AIS Water CEO Elena Gosse has found her voice – and now she’s empowering other business people to find theirs.
Once an actress and entertainer in her homeland of Russia, Elena moved to Brisbane with her two young daughters and her Russian-speaking Australian husband, Kerry, almost three decades ago. She had no grasp of the English language and no social network to speak of.
Today, she’s the CEO of a multi-million-dollar company, the Lord Mayor’s Business Person of the Year, and a highly sought-after speaker, advocate and mentor. It was in this capacity that she appeared at the Brisbane Business Hub’s latest On The Couch event.
Elena’s company, AIS Water, is an innovative manufacturer of water disinfection technology and anode material for swimming pools. AIS Water’s technology has been exported to over 55 countries, and is currently used in 16 of the 22 Council pools across Brisbane – a turn of events Elena could never have imagined when she first arrived in this city.
“When I came to Australia, I basically became a nobody overnight,” she says.
“I had to start from scratch. I was at the crossroads – I could continue telling everyone the story of how successful I was in Russia for the rest of my life, and everyone would get bored with that. Or I could rebuild and actually do something with my life.”
When Elena began working at AIS Water, it was a family business made up of just three other people (one of whom was her husband).
“I never wanted to be a CEO or anything like that,” Elena says. “All I wanted was to survive, to fit in – to be useful again. I didn’t think I could go back on stage in Australia, so I thought I better help with the business instead.”
In order to “make herself useful”, as she puts it, Elena started taking English lessons at TAFE.
“There’s nothing more frustrating than being a chatterbox who can’t speak the language and can’t communicate,” she says. “After about six months of these classes I decided I needed to propel the process along quicker. So I went to the head of the TAFE, armed with the dictionary, and I said, ‘I just want to be useful’. So they allowed me to take an Office Administration course.
“Today, I’d probably do that course in 15 minutes. But back then, it was six long months of tears and self-doubt. I was really going through it. But I’m glad I did it, because that course helped me to learn more about the culture here. That’s the only way to learn a new language – to immerse yourself in a situation where you have to speak it.”
Armed with her Office Administration qualification, Elena gradually took on a larger role in the business, culminating in her appointment as CEO. Ultimately, it was her vision, and her strategy to single-mindedly focus on water disinfection and resist diversification, that made AIS Water a global leader in its field.
“In most local businesses, you’ll find it’s the women who are the ones doing the work,” Elena says. “But women are always doing their hard work in the background, and men are always out in front. That’s because women always judge their own performance to be much worse than it actually is, and men always think their performance is much better than it actually is.
“Confidence is what makes the difference, and that’s why women hardly get any recognition. That’s what needs to change. I mean, when someone says this is a ‘male-dominated’ industry… this is not a male-dominated industry. This is my industry.”
Clearly, Elena has no shortage of confidence. But she says it was only about 10 years ago, when she stopped conforming to other people’s expectations of her, that she found her voice and became the strong leader she is today.
“When I embraced my authenticity, I think that’s when I really arrived,” she says. “It was when I was trying to live someone else’s life, when I was trying to please everyone, when I was trying to walk in someone else’s shoes… that’s when I failed. Because that wasn’t authentic. That was false.
“But once I understood who I was, and what I stood for, that’s when things changed. That’s when people started to say, ‘Oh, look at her, here’s someone who actually leads with heart. She leads with vulnerability. She isn’t afraid to cry in front of her staff. She isn’t afraid to admit she doesn’t know something. She isn’t afraid to ask for advice.’
“In my view, that’s what made me a leader.”
Elena says it’s essential for any woman in business to find her own voice.
“Our ‘voice’ is our personal brand, and how we communicate that brand,” she says. “What is your expertise, and how are you communicating that? What do you stand for? What won’t you bend on?
“To find your voice, you need to get to the core of who you are as a person. People will often say, ‘Oh, these are my values’, but when you look at how they actually live, they’re a long way away from those values. Your voice and your values need to work together.
“There are a lot of ways to develop your voice. Here at the Brisbane Business Hub, for instance, there are opportunities to be mentored and to collaborate and find the right people to talk to [about building your brand]. But first you need to decide, ‘I am a strong woman. I have my voice. I know what I stand for.’”
The finish line
2022 was a particularly eventful year for Elena. Under her leadership, AIS Water constructed and opened its third Brisbane manufacturing facility, at a cost of $9 million.
She was awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for her service to manufacturing and the community; for encouraging female leadership; and for her strong advocacy for victims of family and domestic violence.
Having personally experienced the impacts of domestic and family violence as a child, she cares passionately about solving this scourge on society, and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities, including Women’s Legal Service Queensland.
But it was another award Elena won in 2022 – the Lord Mayor’s Business Person of the Year Award – that had a particularly special resonance for her.
“When I won the Lord Mayor’s Business Person of the Year Award, that’s what made me feel like I had finally arrived,” she says.
“When I arrived in this city nearly 30 years ago, I desperately wanted to fit in. I desperately wanted to make Brisbane my second home. So to be named Brisbane’s Business Person of the Year… that’s the recognition that I made it.
“It means I did something for this city that deserved recognition. AIS Water invests in this city. We invest in our people, we create more jobs, we raise money for the prevention of domestic violence, and with our technology, we’re saving millions of litres of water in swimming pools around the city.
“I love Brisbane. I think it’s been the best city for me to grow my business and raise my children – and now, to see my grandchildren grow.”