I’m sitting on the deck of the countryside home of one of Australia’s foremost digital pioneers admiring the views of rolling hills, orange trees and horse paddocks when Leanne Kemp’s car races up the driveway and screeches to an abrupt halt.
“Sorry I’m late. I have a crazy schedule on this trip,” says the serial entrepreneur, who jumps up on the deck with a broad smile as she shakes my hand.
“I see you have met Mum,” she says, pointing to a pretty green urn on the table near where I’m sitting. “My friends have often mistaken this urn as some type of fancy oolong tea jug — so there have been some embarrassing moments when I’ve had to yell at them ‘don’t drink Mum’s ashes!’ ”
Kemp is founder and chief executive of Everledger, a technology company headquartered in London that uses blockchain technology to track the provenance of diamonds and other valuable products. Last month the World Economic Forum named Everledger as one of the most promising technology pioneers of 2018. In March the company completed a $10.4m funding round led by the Canadian arm of Fidelity Investments, enabling Everledger to ramp up its global expansion by opening an office in Israel. It already has offices in the UK, India, Australia and Singapore.
Since founding the company in 2015, Kemp spends her time travelling between Everledger’s offices, customers and trade events. She returns to Brisbane at least once every two or three months to visit the local Everledger office, recharge her batteries and reconnect with family and friends.
“This is an oasis for me. I get to regenerate all the cells in my body and detox in this beautiful environment. It really is something special,” she says.
Kemp’s seemingly boundless energy is infectious as she leads me on a tour of her six-acre estate, which is built on a former grass bobsleigh and ski resort about 40 minutes’ drive outside Brisbane. The resort closed in 1993 and was subdivided into nine properties, one of which Kemp purchased in 2007.
She introduces me to Charlie, one of her horses, her chickens and raves about the 60 goats her neighbour keeps on his nearby property. Her godson lives in a big ramshackle house on the estate while Kemp stays in the “Train Mahal”, the home she has built out of an old Victoria Railways train carriage that she bought on eBay in 2010 and had shipped more than 1,000 kilometres across Australia.
“My friends call it the Taj Mahal of trains — they think it’s a bit over the top. But I love it,” says Kemp, who completed a lot of the renovation work herself. “I’m a self-taught engineer and whether it’s the deck here in the train or building a piece of software code — it’s kind of within me to do it.”
The train is a 12m long by 3m wide guards’ carriage, which was built in the early 1970s. The dark grey steel structure is grafted on to the side of a small wooden house to create a unique two-bedroom home that nestles under a row of Drooping She Oaks, a native Australian tree, which provide shade from the sun.
The kitchen and living room are built into the train carriage, which means they have to be compact and bijou due to the narrow dimensions. The original doors and windows of the train have been retained. Two large gold and red ampersand sculptures hang on the walls of the living room.
“The thought that this symbol literally means ‘and’ always pushes me to go farther,” says Kemp.
“I have an ampersand sitting next to my computer in London and when I’m working on a concept, it always catches my eye and makes me think ‘&’ what else Leanne? The thought challenges me to keep creating.”
Kemp founded and sold a handful of technology companies before Everledger, providing her with the experience of managing businesses and the financial security that she craved following the break-up of her parents’ marriage when she was 13 years old.
“I think this may have given me the drive and determination not to be affected by external risk and [the] push for financial security,” she says, when asked to reflect on why she became an entrepreneur. “And I have a curious mind.”
Kemp is one of a new wave of female entrepreneurs in the traditionally male-dominated technology industry, which has a reputation for sexism and paying women less than male employees. Last year a survey of 950 technology workers by Women Who Tech, a non-profit group, found 53 per cent of women had experienced harassment, compared with 16 per cent of men. The US Department of Labor said in 2017 it had found evidence of “systematic compensation disparities” at Google, which has denied the allegation.
Kemp says she hasn’t experienced sexism in the sector, which probably reflects the fact she hasn’t had a conventional role that leaves employees at mercy of a company’s corporate culture.
“I’m quite sure it does happen but I’m probably just ‘bulldozer blind’ to it all,” says Kemp, who nevertheless has recruited a 44 per cent female workforce at Everledger.
Kemp built the “Train Mahal” after her own personal life “imploded” with the end of a long-term relationship in the mid noughties. She took a backpack to Nepal to do some thinking and then came back to Australia with the impetus to build something of her own in a sustainable manner.
“The property here is all run on solar energy and is fully sustainable. If you sit out here this is God’s country,” says Kemp, with a sweep of her hand towards the estate.
“We have something special in Australia and it saddens me to think of what is happening to the Great Barrier Reef and other natural wonders.”
Kemp’s Australian hideaway is a far cry from her apartment in the heart of Westminster, London, which she says incorporates all the “vileness” of big city life, including high-end bench tops, air conditioning and central heating. However, she has made one concession to comfortable living at the Train Mahal in the form of a large spa bath in the bathroom, which is the biggest room in the house.
The main bedroom is conventional with a double bed, wood panel walls and a splash of colour provided by canvases of an electric guitar and a dog riding a skateboard.
“I have been around dogs since my childhood and have always loved being in the company of our four-legged friends,” says Kemp, who wears a puppy dog necklace of white and black diamonds around her neck.
“My dog was with me every day — through the early years of my career, in every meeting under the desk, a constant companion. My dog’s death was much worse than my separation,” she says.
When Kemp finished renovating the Train Mahal she sought a new challenge and moved to London, where she began learning about blockchain — the distributed ledger technology that sits at the heart of the cryptocurrency bitcoin.
“I saw a large amount of financial institutions employing cryptographers and thinking about bitcoin — so I just started to ask some questions and then one thing led to another,” she says.
Kemp was invited to be part of a Barclays TechStars accelerator programme, which provided seed funding for Everledger. The start-up developed a suite of different technologies — blockchain, RFID and data matrix coding — to track diamonds from mines to retailers and is now diversifying to prove the provenance of fine wine, gemstones, metals and the lithium and cobalt in next-generation batteries.
“When I look at what we can do at Everledger, just like Amazon moved beyond books, we can move beyond diamonds to tackle problems in the world’s biggest supply chains. These are huge tectonic plate shifts happening,” she says. “I think we are going to have a billion-dollar impact.”
Favourite thing: Antique wooden bocce balls
These were made in Italy and handed down to Kemp by one of her life mentors, Andy Donaldson, a farmer and strong influence over the past 15 years, who passed away recently.
“We talked about everything over those old wooden balls and a good bottle of red wine — the principles of marriage, raising kids, theology, careers and even cooking,” says Kemp.
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