How Kiara Olrich landed a role as first hire and Head of Operations at Phantm

Bronte McHenry
September 8, 2021
A21 Women Fellow Kiara Olrich
A21 Women Fellow Kiara Olrich

Kiara Olrich grew up on her family’s farm in a small town in New South Wales. She credits her upbringing for her resourcefulness, but I would add tenacity, a willingness to try new things and a comfort with experimentation to the list too.

After first landing an internship, and then a full-time role, in management consulting after university, and climbing the ladder very quickly, Kiara felt it was time for a change.

A circuit break, an MBA and the Women Fellowship later, she has a role as first hire and Head of Operations at Phantm. Here’s how she got there. 

Part one: Rural roots

“I grew up on a sheep farm in north-west New South Wales, in a small town called Walcha. It was 20 minutes to town, so if you did the grocery shop, you did a proper grocery shop, because you weren't going to drive 20kms on a dirt road just to buy milk,” Kiara tells me. 

“I'm really fortunate that's where I grew up. The lesson of optimistic resourcefulness — making the most of what you’ve got — has stayed with me through my life.

“It also shaped my strong sense of community. In a small town, you know everyone, you always make the time to stop, say hello, and connect.

“I am so thankful to my parents for giving me the opportunity to attend high school in Armidale. It opened up opportunities to travel to attend science camps with students from all over Australia and the world. I went to Sydney, I went to Noosa, and I even went to Hong Kong with some students from PLC Sydney.

“This is when I really started expanding my sense of the world and what was possible.”

Part two: Pivot, pivot

“I decided to move to Sydney for university. I originally enrolled in nutrition science at USyd because I really love food, science, and helping people. It brought together a lot of things that I liked,” Kiara says.

“But while I was on my gap year, USyd changed the program. This caused me to pause, re-evaluate, and I changed to optometry at UNSW.

“I did the first term and realised physics and I were not friends. I couldn’t imagine doing optics to specialise in this niche degree for five years. So I jumped into chemistry, because that was the part that I loved the most.

“I took a few different pivots before I got there, but chemistry was awesome.

“I thought I wanted to be a research scientist. So, I experimented with this career. I tried doing some research projects, I realised it was too slow and again too specific. I couldn’t see how I would be helping the world.

“I was looking at internship opportunities on the UNSW careers website when I saw a listing for Nous. I'd heard about management consulting, but didn’t know much about it. I read the job ad, and thought it sounded like a good fit.

“I applied as an intern, they let me in, and then they wanted to keep me.

“I discovered that I loved Nous, and was good at management consulting. So that's where I ended up for seven years.”

Part three: Ticking all the boxes

“Management consulting is a wonderful environment because you get such variety. That’s a big part of what kept me at Nous for so long. You get project after project. If one project's not quite in your sweet spot, you learn from that challenge, and then it ends. And then you basically get a new job,” Kiara tells me. 

“The impetus for a change was doing my MBA. I had progressed quickly at Nous, and I wanted the break to reflect on the leadership journey that I'd had up to that point. I wanted to learn, get global perspectives and meet new people.

“The original plan was to go back to Nous. I was getting towards the end of my MBA when I realised I had changed so much that going back to my old job would be a big transition in itself. So I paused to think what transition I wanted to make next.

“I decided I wanted to get into startups. Startups had all the things that I loved about consulting and Nous, without the being-the-human-product factor of professional services.

“It just ticked the boxes. Great purpose. Great people. You can shape the culture. Working with intensity and pace. Tackling interesting and complex problems.”

Part four: The Women Fellowship

“The Fellowship came at the perfect time. The first month of the Fellowship was the last month of my MBA, so it was exactly when I wanted to be job-hunting,” Kiara says.

“I was clear on my goals when I went in. The first was to validate the type of role that I wanted. I changed my mind through the Fellowship, which was great. And the second was access to the network.

“I am really thankful that I got what I wanted out of the program. “

“And then there were the other things I got out of it — the inspiring talks from Founders and other Fellows, which really helped with keeping my energy levels up through a tough job hunt and transition process.”

“I found my current job at Phantm through the Fellowship — through reading the job posts, asking for an intro and going through the process.”

“I've joined as Head Of Operations and as the first employee, to help the team prepare for go-to-market.” 

“I started completely remotely, during COVID, and so far, so good. I've been rapidly catching up on what the team has been doing for the last 18 months. Phantm develops biotechnology that converts organic waste into a compostable natural material. We are busy on our research and development and preparing for a public launch in the coming months.

“It is a really exciting time to join a company working on recycling food waste and eliminating plastics. I am excited to just be a sponge, and learn from everyone on the team and in this new industry and about startups. And then to create a measurable impact in our planetary push to a plastic-free future.”

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