I was fortunate to recently spend an inspiring and motivating three days in Noosa at the CBA 2017 Women in Focus Conference. Together with 180 awesome women from all over Australia and New Zealand, I experienced the magic that happens when a diverse group of women, driven to make an impact on the world, come together to challenge their thinking, share ideas and imagine a new future.
I am so often in situations and at events where women are in the minority, that it was refreshing to spend a few days surrounded by women (and a few good men!). Here are my reflections:
1. The power of vulnerability
Right from the very first session with the tenacious Hon Judi Moylan and the dynamic Kristal Kinsela, a tone of vulnerability was set with a very personal recounting of their journeys and the challenges along the way. As Kristal said: ‘I saw disadvantage and said ‘I want better’. I took those experiences as motivation to drive me.’ The raw and honest accounts of ‘risking it all to shine’ from Jules Sebastian, Sue-Ellen Watts and Jacqui Louez Schoorl had the audience in tears one minute and laughing the next and quickly developed the sense that we are all here to support one another, through downs as well as ups. This sense of vulnerability not only in the speakers but also amongst the other participants was key to creating a space where we could all share our fears as well as our hopes.
2. Risks, courage and commitment
A strong theme amongst the speakers was the power of embracing (calculated) risks, having (at least 10 seconds of!) courage and being committed to our goals. Martial artist Nadine Champion, Mars One Mission candidate Dianne McGrath and adventurer Heather Swan blew us away with their powerful life stories of facing significant barriers and moving past them. They challenged us all to do something today that our future self would thank us for. As we heard from Nadine, ‘giving up is harder than trying’ and from Heather, ‘I can’t is the frontline of our fear’. I certainly walked away thinking about my own goals and ways in which I could practice 10 seconds of courage.
3. Everyone has a story
A highlight of the conference was meeting the participants and hearing their stories. I was so impressed with the incredible drive of the women I met: those running their own businesses, those working in community organisations, those juggling a family and work, from the big cities to the small rural towns – the farmers, the entrepreneurs, the industry leaders, the corporates, the social pioneers. What was incredible was how easily commonality was found and how many similar experiences we had all shared throughout our journeys.
4. Smashing stereotypes
Sandra Sully expertly facilitated a sessions, one with with Cathie Reid and then Wendy Stops, two women smashing stereotypes. Cathie’s session was about what it takes to go public and to Chair a public company and provided a rare insight into the highs and lows of listing on the ASX. Cathie is a great example of smashing the glass ceiling for women in finance and having fun doing so. Wendy Stops, Non-Executive Director of Commonwealth Bank, was very clear that, as a women, you have to go onto a board thinking you have the power (not just the influence) as much as everyone else. Wendy’s insights into joining boards were invaluable: the decision to join a board is a two way street – the organisation/company needs to think you are a good fit but you also need to feel that; you need to ask lots of questions and do due diligence; being on a board is hard work and time intensive, so be prepared for a significant commitment. Wendy encouraged us all to build our networks now, and to be strategic in doing so, even if we think boards are years away.
A recurring theme, from the opening dinner to the closing session, was light and luminosity. The light inside us all, the light we can shine on one another, the light that we find in our darkest hours and the light we can create together. Karen James explained that Women in Focus is about creating a community where everyone’s light can shine. The Hon Judi Moylan shared a beautiful Leonard Cohen quote that resonated with us all: “There is a crack in everything…That’s how the light gets in”. We need to focus on the light in us, rather than the light on us, and share our light with those who might need it in tough times.
6. I am because you are (Ubuntu)
Ubuntu, a traditional African philosophy, explains how we are bound in each other’s humanity. Translated as, “I am because you are,” Ubuntu describes a sense of unity between people through which we each discover our own strengths and virtues. Vanessa Nolan-Woods opened the conference by sharing the motivation for the Women in Focus community – it is our shared experience as much as our capabilities that really matter. Melinda Carpenter expressed the sentiment that we need to surround ourselves with others who want us to win. We need to have each other’s backs and support one another. As Karen James said, ‘when women help women then things shift – and the world and our planet need us to act now.’
The Commonwealth Bank’s generosity in hosting this conference and in building the Women in Focus Community is impressive and stems from an authentic belief in the power of bringing women together to forge meaningful connections. I am grateful for the opportunity to have taken part and look forward to being part of the incredibly giving Women in Focus community.