PEOPLE: Inspiring the Multicultural Youth Affairs Network in New South Wales

The Multicultural Youth Affairs Network in New South Wales would not be the same without Hannah Lai. Leading from the front, hear from her experiences in leading one of Australia’s most active multicultural youth organisations and the challenges that come with that. Here’s the story!

Can you tell our readers d what a normal day looks like for Hannah Lai? 

I really feel like I’ve got the best job. I help coordinate the Youth Ambassador Program at MYAN NSW with some fantastic folks. 

So, typical day (working from home)…

I like waking up early-ish so I have time to myself before I give time to other things. Often, I’ll stretch or do a workout. Get the blood flowing, you know!? 

Once I start work it is a mix of admin, event planning, individual support and connecting with other services. Relationship building is a huge part of work, which is awesome!

When I finish work, I like to go for a walk with my partner to transition from work mode to home mode. I also love being outdoors – camping, hiking, surfing.

How important is diversity to you and in the work that you do?

I’m passionate about people feeling like they belong. It took me a long time to get comfortable with myself, but I’m here now and I want others to feel like they belong here too!

People should feel welcome when they come to Australia. They should feel welcome not because they’re ‘diverse’, ‘deserving’ or ‘resilient’… but because they’re human. 

Working with young people, whether they’ve been through a refugee or a migrant experience, is ultimately about walking with people as they grow their confidence in who they are. Walking with, not walking over. 

Have you ever faced challenges in your professional career from others because of your identity and if so, how were you able to overcome that?

When I was younger, I didn’t see my culture and my lived experience as an asset. Now I do. One of the challenges I faced was that I doubted myself. I thought I hadn’t lived in Australia long enough to apply for certain jobs.

Now I know, my lived experience is one of my biggest strengths. If an organisation chooses not to hire me because of what I AM, I don’t want to work there.


Find people you feel home with, people you feel safe with. People you don’t have to ‘explain’ your identity to. 

When you find those people, nurture those relationships. They are your support system.

And don’t forget about your physical health because your body is there for the long run! 

Oh, and that first year of full-time work is going to be HARD. You are not alone. It will get better. And yes, majority of society is working those super long hours. It’s weird, isn’t it?

Want to follow and support HANNAH ?

@myannsw is where I work

My LinkedIn is Hannah Lai 

About the diversity champion:

Hannah (she/her) is passionate about belonging, cultural identity and what it means to feel at home. She works with young people of migrant and refugee backgrounds at the Multicultural Youth Affairs Network (MYAN NSW). Prior to this she was a caseworker with unaccompanied minors, people seeking asylum and families exiting detention. When she’s not working, you might find her learning a random hobby, camping or playing a board game. 

Image description: Hannah is looking at the camera while wearing a blue scarf and light blue shirt


PEOPLE: Trailblazer named as a Finalist for the 2021 Women Weekly’s Women of the Future

Mannie Kaur Verma was recently named as one of six finalists for Women Weekly’s Women of the Future for 2021. That achievement speaks volumes in introducing her as our next diversity champion.

As a lawyer, public speaker and advocate, we speak to Mannie about her journey through law and advocacy and what diversity means to her. Here’s the story!

Can you tell our readers what a normal day looks like for Mannie Kaur Verma? 

Well, I would start by saying that no two days are ever the same for me. What does remain consistent is that I am woken up each day by a kiss from my three-old-son. No one in my household needs to turn an alarm on, because without fail, every day my toddler is awake by 6am and his first job of the day is to wake everyone with a kiss on the cheek. The tantrums and the fight for the TV remote, with his six-year-old sister, start soon thereafter, by which time we are all truly awake. 

My husband and I are both lawyers at Vision & Regal Group and we generally begin our workday at around 8.30am. We have the luxury and privilege of grandparents looking after our kids while we are busy with work (whether in the office or from home). A typical day at work generally entails lots of zoom meetings, lots of back-and-forth email correspondences, drafting and implementing workplace policies and constant legal research. There are regular court hearings and mediations, all via web conferencing in the current COVID-19 landscape. 

After work, on most days, I have at least one volunteer commitment that runs for about an hour, whether that’s an EMILY’s List meeting or Amnesty Australia or One Girl Org. I currently volunteer for 9 different non-profit organisations. Once that is taken care of (or sometimes during the meeting) I would feed the kids dinner (my mother-in-law usually cooks) and spend some time checking my daughter’s homework. Sometimes we cheat on weeknights and have a movie night watching an Avengers movie or something from the Harry Potter instalment. I usually dedicate time on weekends to catch up on my studies and research with Deakin University. 

How important is diversity and inclusion to you and in the work that you do?

I would call myself an intersectional feminist and therefore I do highly value diversity and inclusion. In a multicultural rich country like Australia, I think we ought to do more to promote awareness and implementation of diversity and inclusive practices. 

One way we can do this, is by placing Intersectionality at the core of our work.  We certainly apply an intersectional lens to all the work we do at Vision & Regal Group and the advocacy work that I absolutely love engaging in. 

I truly believe that there is real value in embracing our uniqueness and there is genuine strength in unity. We can achieve great success by providing an environment where individuals can bring their authentic, true selves.

Have you ever faced challenges in your professional career from others because of your identity and if so, how were you able to overcome that?

As a young, woman of colour, who practices in commercial litigation, I often encounter hostility, and this can take many forms. Sometimes it is as subtle as a judge asking at the time of announcing appearances, that Mrs Verma, do you have a counsel representing the client.  Initially in my career, this question would often intimidate me and if even I thought I was confident to appear at a Directions hearing or a mediation, I would engage a barrister just so that my client would appear stronger. There is this entrenched notion in the legal industry that the more senior lawyer you have retained, the stronger your case probably is. Race also plays a significant role.

However, now I refuse to be apologetic for my identity. I often appear at Directions hearings and mediations myself without a barrister and if faced with this question, I bravely and politely answer that no, your Honour, I am quite capable of competently representing my client. 

ADVICE FOR the youth

Don’t ever be apologetic for your identities. You are unique and that is what makes you special. Use your uniqueness to your advantage. Dig deep and find your unique value proposition. What is it about you that makes you stand out from the crowd? And once you have found it, embrace it, work on it, and use it to push for real, meaningful change in our communities. 

Until we stop trying to fit the moulds created by the biases entrenched in our societies and institutions, we will not emerge from the tyranny of the oppressors. 

Want to follow and support mannie?

Feel free to reach out to me via my website or I have very recently joined twitter (I know it’s a bit late) and my handle is @MannieVerma

About the diversity champion:

(she/her) Hi there, my name is Mannie and I am an Indian-born-Australian. A Lawyer. An Advocate. A Wife. And the most rewarding title – A Mother to two beautiful children. As a Lawyer, I feel tremendous gratification in empowering my clientele, particularly young women of diverse backgrounds, to fight for their rights. This may include demanding a respectful relationship, employee entitlements or justice in a dispute. I appreciate that I am in a fortunate and privileged position where I can advocate for people who do not understand our complex legal system or who are not in a position to fight for their basic rights. As a young woman of colour, I am passionate about advocating and empowering local communities to address the issues affecting young girls, girls from diverse cultural backgrounds and bringing these issues to the attention of key decision-makers.

Image description: Mannie is smiling at the camera wearing a bright garment with a grey background

People: How hairdressing paved the way towards a diverse and inclusive mentoring platform

The below is a guest post from Joan Dellavalle, owner of Ebony and Ivory.

As an international student who arrived in Perth from Zambia in 2001, I had never felt so excluded as when I sat in a local hairdresser chair trying to get my hair washed and blow dried. The experience though gave me the courage to use whatever savings I had to study, become a hairdresser and open my own inclusive salon space – Ebony and Ivory.

What does an inclusive salon space look like?

For me, it is a space where people of all backgrounds – race, colour, culture – can come in and not feel like what I felt two decades ago: that having a different type and style of hair is not something to be ashamed of, but an opportunity to learn more about other people’s diversity – their uniqueness.

Achieving an inclusive social space such as Ebony and Ivory does not have its roots in large amounts of funding or being able to recreate the current “it” style.

Instead, it comes down to acceptance and a genuine interest to listen, discover and empathise with other people’s stories – funnily something that I feel are the characteristics you need when you are a hairdresser!

After all, how many of us have talked non-stop, divulging often personal stories or funny incidents with our hairdressers?

To that end, creating an inclusive salon space at Ebony and Ivory involved:

  • Creating a warm brand that says “we’re open to anyone.” It’s amazing how things such as the design of your logo and what language and image you post on social media can say about you and your business!
  • Hiring and training hairdressers from diverse backgrounds and importantly with an interest in not just hair but the people under the comb, hairdryer, colour brush.
  • Taking that inclusive space to outside of the four walls of a salon! More on this…

From the salon to the streets of Perth

Hair salons are a grapevine of stories and I realised, a place to understand more what’s happening “out there.”

Two styles of stories generally come out – one of inspiration and the other of challenges – the latter often of how young people are lacking positive role models and the opportunity to learn about diversity, difference and a different perspective.

After years of listening to such countless, remarkable stories, I was reminded of how in Zambia, we would spend time with our Elders, just listening and talking as they shared their knowledge and wisdom. Here we learnt about the power of listening, of possibilities, of accepting, of being open to difference.

The stories and my experience of sharing them gave me the idea to create a diverse and inclusive space to the streets of Perth. That’s how the Ebony & Ivory Masterclasses and Mentoring Program began!

Since 2017, I have myself run more than 21 lifeskills Masterclasses, sharing my own story of changing exclusion towards inclusion and collaborating with role models (such as Dr Rishelle Huma, CEO of Indigenous Women in Mining, Florence Drummond and international educator and Oprah’s favourite guest of all time, Dr Tererai Trent) who didn’t let difference get in their way of achieving their dreams and also advocating for diversity and inclusion.

We start the Masterclasses with setting a promise to each other how we can all contribute to creating a safe, inclusive and diverse space to gather.

These Masterclasses are mostly aimed at adolescents – to date we’ve had over 80 – go through one-day through to seven week programs, designed around learning and accepting difference via immersive storytelling such as:

  • Watching the movie and talking about A Wrinkle in Time to talk about differences in spirituality;
  • Collaborating with relevant organisations such as Edmund Rice Centre to connect and listen to stories of refugees;
  • Open discussions about bullying and overcoming stigma, run by youth leaders or positive role models who have themselves experienced these challenges.

You know that it is possible for anyone, everyone, including a small business such as mine, to make a difference when you have the same young people return to your programs – confident and comfortable in themselves – to teach others about acceptance.

About the expert

Joan Dellavalle is the creative mind behind Ebony & Ivory hair and beauty. The Perth celebrity stylist and fashion designer has forged her Zambian routes into building the powerhouse salon that is Ebony & Ivory. The refreshing and colourful energy of Joan allows each client to feel as they are family when they walk through the Perth CBD store.

To find out more about Ebony and Ivory and our work towards a more diverse and inclusive community:

Image description: Joan is standing with her hands together, presenting in front of an audience, with three black, leather armchairs behind her. She is wearing a dark green velvet blazer over a matching green blouse, has blue, curly hair, and is smiling.

VIEW: What does International Women’s Day mean to me?

The below is a guest post from Dr Diaswati (Asti) Mardiasmo, Chief Economist of PRD Real Estate.

International Women’s Day has always had a special place in my heart, I am always filled with pride and a sense of peace and calm when I see the many events and initiatives celebrating a multitude of women from all different walks of life.

Personally, when I think of International Women’s Day three key words come to mind: strength, resilience, and unity.

2020 was a difficult year for me, as I went through the process of divorce. And yet it was my girlfriends who came to pray with me the day prior to my divorce hearing, and it was with their strength that I faced court. When I lost my unborn son in 2015, it was my girlfriends’ endless support that kept me going. They rotated to ensure that I had fresh meals and company each day.

When I look at myself, and the journey of my 35 years on earth, as well as all the other women around me – regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, relationship status, kids/no kids, health and family issues, and a myriad of other things that differentiate us as human beings; I consistently see STRENGTH.

I see an immense amount of strength through their laughter, joy, tears, worries, and even silent anger. I see their strength to always choose love and be there for the people that matter to her (partner, husband, children, family, etc); sometimes at the expense of herself. I see strength as she battles her own demons, her insecurities, her self-worth; to make sure she shows up and becomes her best self for the people she loves.

I look around at the women who have graciously allowed me to become part of their life and I see such amazing high RESILIENCE. The tenacity and determination to keep on going, keep on creating, keep on standing up, keep on pushing, keep on hustling, keep on growing – so much so that it takes my breath away. I see their resilience when they are told, “No, we cannot give you this opportunity as it would be more suited to someone who is not planning on having a family”, or when they become disadvantaged because of their gender.

I see their resilience as COVID-19 hit and suddenly their world is turned upside down. Whether it is transitioning to work from home, having to suddenly home-school children, not being able to see family, loss of income / employment, and many others. Yet through this, I see my female friends fighting through, to keep all balls juggled in the air.

Through it all, the good bad and ugly, I see UNITY. I see female friends banding together to create specific businesses. To make meals for each other and cry together over cake. To take turns in having playdates so that our children are entertained, and we give each other a break. To laugh together at virtual girls’ nights in our homes, with wine in our tea mugs.

International Women’s Day allows us to celebrate each other and remind ourselves that we are not alone. International Women’s Day reminds us that it is okay for us to reach out and lean on each other, and that we are united in our want to continue being strong and resilient.

International Women’s Day is also about saying thank you. Every day I draw inspiration from the myriad of challenges that they overcome, the joy that they share. THANK YOU to each woman on this earth for being you. Because without you, I would not be the woman that I am today. 

About the expert

Dr Diaswati (Asti) Mardiasmo is Chief Economist of PRD Real Estate. She monitors a wide variety of macro and microeconomic trends, both within and external to Australia, that directly and indirectly impact the Australian residential real estate (housing) market. She is a member of the Residential Committee 2021-2022 for the Property Council of Australia, a member of the Reserve Bank of Australia Liaison Program, and an industry partner within the Australian Federal Government Cooperative Research Centre for Longevity.

Asti leads a team which supports over 75 PRD franchises, providing them with market-leading local real estate knowledge. She initiates and contributes to property asset related research for a variety of governmental, academic, organisational and private stakeholders; as well as offering customised research services to a variety of clients which has previously included developers, planners, not-for-profits, private companies, individuals, and more.

Image description: Dr Asti is standing with her long black hair tied back, wearing a vertically striped collared shirt. She is smiling and standing inside an office building, with her hands folded in front of her.

VIEW: Why Australia needs an online Code of Conduct

The below is a guest post from Sarah Liberty, CEO and Founder of JustSociale.

In 2012, the UNHCR declared that our online human rights are no different to our offline human rights. Yet, almost ten years on, many Australians are still unaware that they have online human rights. And, in the rapidly evolving realm of the Internet and social media, navigating our online human rights – and knowing how to protect them – can be especially challenging. 

I should know because I’ve experienced it.

When my email and social media accounts were hacked, and I was digitally surveilled by an abusive former partner – a breach of Australian law – I wasn’t sure what to do, or where to turn to for support. 

When I tried to file a complaint with my local police station, it took weeks of persistence to obtain an ADVO, and even when I was successful, the police didn’t alert me to the fact that what my partner had done was illegal.

My case is not the exception. As a 2018 poll among women aged 18-55 commissioned by Amnesty found, one third of respondents had encountered some form of online harassment or abuse.

Inspired by my personal experience, and after gaining academic and professional expertise as an NGO and Communications leader in London, New York, Paris, Jogjakarta and Sydney, I established JustSociale as Australia’s first federally ACNC-accredited NGO dedicated to promoting awareness of human rights online.

We are a defiantly optimistic collective of social entrepreneurs, creatives, civil society actors, technology platforms, media outlets, activists, private businesses and members of diverse communities who are passionate about making the Internet universally accessible and inclusive, so that we can all use it to connect with each other, and the global community – safely.

Ultimately, our aim is to foster a culture of trust, transparency and responsibility for everyone operating in the digital domain, and to promote good digital citizenship. Much of our day-to-day lives now happen online, and Australians are prolific users of the Internet and social media: 71 percent of the population has active social media accounts. A recent survey even found that in the morning, “more than half of the adult population wake up and check their social media feed as the very first activity of the day!” However, as the eSafety Commissioner notes, 67% of Australian adults have also had a negative experience online (in the 12 months to August 2019), ranging from repeated unwanted messages or online contact (such as pornography or violent content), to scams, viruses, hate speech, abuse and threats.

This is unacceptable to me. It is why JustSociale is developing Australia’s first Online Code of Conduct –  to provide collective solutions that are shaped by the Australian public, and agreed upon by digital stakeholders – not forced upon them top down by securitising the digital realm, as the government is attempting to do. Our Code provides a set of guidelines that signatories can voluntarily adopt to demonstrate to the public, clients or their beneficiaries that they take online human rights seriously. 

As the recent Tinder and Bumble exposes highlighted – whereby investigations found a pattern of sex offenders blocking their victims after a rape to delete any trace of their prior communication – the onus has far too long been on individuals rather than the platforms themselves to report and put a stop to negative or harmful online behaviour. However, rather than strong-arming or blaming tech platforms, and promoting a culture of fear or shooting the digital messenger, I believe now is the time to build long-term solutions and practices that ensure all actors take the route of responsibility, trust and transparency. JustSociale is here to work with tech platforms, the government and all stakeholders with an interest in Internet governance to educate Australians of their online rights and responsibilities as digital citizens in order to self empower people, and to foster societal change.  

Despite the Internet’s extensive penetration in Australia, digital and cultural exclusion remain significant challenges. 2.5 million people – or just over 10% of our population – are still not online – either because of cost, location or digital literacy. The voices of diverse communities are also censored by algorithms on social media.

JustSociale’s national Alliance and Online Code of Conduct, however, will change this. We stand with diverse communities so they can claim their online rights and access the Internet equally, safely and confidently. As a report from the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly best put it, access to the internet is a basic human right, integral to allowing individuals to “exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

For more about JustSociale, visit

About the expert

Sarah Liberty is the Founder and CEO of JustSociale. A social entrepreneur, public speaker, radio presenter, podcaster and human rights advocate.Her career has spanned executive roles in the media and in international NGOs in London, New York, Jogjakarta, Sydney and Paris. Sarah recently completed her Master of International Relations: Human Rights, at Sciences Po University, Paris, and hosts a weekly international #FeministFriday Podcast available on all major podcast platforms reaching 42 countries. Sarah is an Ambassador for UN Women’s #GenerationEquality campaign and is regularly approached by the media to comment on human rights, social entrepreneurship, international relations, technology and social media news.

Image description: Headshot of Sarah in a black collared shirt, with short reddish brown hair. There are pink flowers in the background.

ADVICE: Transitioning from 23 years in health care to business management

Newly appointed COO of Physio Inq, Liz Pearson, Liz has been a clinical physio for 23 years but felt with her experience she could offer support to younger physiotherapists. After joining Physio Inq in September of 2019, Liz was supporting the co-founder as a state manager for the Mobile & Community services arm of the company. Her addition to the team helped define the role of a state manager.

Outside of her expertise as a clinician, Liz’s passion to assist those in need rolled over to developing a reporting system for clients with the goal to give NDIS clients the best possible shot at making a claim. The system that Liz setup scores each report from A down to E and looks for consistency and quality in the reports. The reports are used to ask NDIS for funds for home improvements, equipment, or whatever they need to get a quality standard of living.

In this interview, Liz shares her reflections on her career to date, and why she is still passionate about the physiotherapy field.

  • What made you originally want to become a physio? 

Way back in the 1980’s when I first started my physio course, I wanted to be a physio to help people, to understand the science of movement and body mechanics, and to use my brain and my body! 

  • How has your interest in the field changed over time?

I’ve learnt how incredibly diverse the field of physiotherapy is. I’ve increasingly become interested in holistic physiotherapy and the strong link between mind and body; actually that they are the same thing in our integrated beings! I’ve also become more and more interested in managing and leading other allied health therapists and supporting them in their individual careers. 

  • What were your biggest learnings as you transitioned from being a clinical physio to taking on business management roles? 

My biggest reflection would be that, as physios, we are problem solvers with our clients. That same skill is transferable to managing other amazing humans. Secondly, I have learnt how much there is to the world of business. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to start businesses, grow businesses and learn more about business with further education. 

  • What’s your advice to other health care professionals considering transitioning into business management and leadership? 

Do it! We need smart, empathetic and talented professionals to lead health care into the future; people who understand what it means to touch, care for and be part of the healing journey of other humans.

  • What are you currently most passionate about improving or changing in the health care sector through your work?  

I am passionate about shaping amazing careers for our allied health professionals, so they stay in the game into the long term and have truly meaningful and rewarding careers. Our purpose at Physio Inq is to demonstrate that a healthcare business model that is based on autonomy, innovation and the success of our team is the most commercially and socially effective model, consistently creating happiness and fulfillment for those we come into contact with. I am so passionate about being part of this big shift in the healthcare sector, for each professional, for all our clients and for the future of Australian allied health care.

About the expert

Elizabeth Pearson is the Chief Operating Officer of Physio Inq, an Australian allied health provider offering a range of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech pathology and exercise physiology services both in-clinic and via mobile practitioners, the latter specialising in disability and aged care. With 23 years of experience as a clinical physiotherapist before she transitioned into management roles, Elizabeth is pivotal in the operations management development and compliance to onboard the additional services, practitioners and new franchises as Physio Inq’s national expansion continues.

Image description: Headshot of Elizabeth smiling, with light brown hair tied back and a grey collared shirt.

VIEW: Misconceptions About Women & Mental Health That Therapists Hear Often

The below is a guest post from Jennifer Okolo, who is a therapist and the founder of She Aspires.

According to the National Institute of Mental health and other evidence-based research, mental health disorders affect men and women disproportionately. There are mental health disorders that are more commonly diagnosed in women such as depression and anxiety. Within this umbrella, there are certain types of disorder that over the years have been more identifiable and unique to women. These include symptoms of mental health disorders during hormonal changes i.e perinatal depression. Abuse is also often a factor in women’s mental health problems and treatments need to be sensitive and reflect those gender differences. Since the pandemic this year following COVID-19, domestic abuse against women has unfortunately increased. It is important to point out that COVID-19 does not cause domestic violence, only abusers are responsible for their actions. Nevertheless, according to Women’s Aid, the pandemic has, however, escalated abuse and closed down routes to safety for women to escape and ultimately affects their mental health.

This emphasises various social factors that put women at great risk of mental health which include:

  • More women than men are the main carer for their children and they may care for other dependent relatives too – intensive caring can affect emotional health, physical health, social activities and finances
  • Women often juggle multiple roles – they may be mothers, partners and carers as well as doing paid work and running a household
  • Women are overrepresented in low income jobs – often part-time – and are more likely to live in poverty than men
  • Poverty, working mainly in the home on housework and concerns about personal safety can make women particularly isolated

One of the common misconceptions around women’s mental health is that all women have this innate readiness to talk about their feelings and seek out strong social networks to help protect their mental health. Additionally, there is also the era of Freud where the history of ‘hysterical’ women and great extreme pressures exists for women to be conducted a certain way. This perception is often derived from the notion as outlined above, that women have now started taking on more ‘male-dominated’ roles such as being the figurehead of the home; completely dismantling the nuclear family we all grew up to learn that was the ‘right’ way and also are juggling careers, businesses and family life simultaneously.

These misconceptions must be cleared up as it can help make a difference in how we can all contribute to combating these problems.

Here are 3 common misconceptions about women and mental health that therapists hear often.

  1. ‘Women are too sensitive’: A lot of the time when women are low in mood or anxious, they are likely to be dismissed as being too emotional or sensitive which is a myth that needs to be dispelled. Society tends to rank people based on certain characteristics, for example. More confident personality traits are perceived as ‘strong’ and those that are more sensitive are deemed ‘weaker’. This creates further stigma and shame and diminishes a person’s mental health symptoms, consequently leading to silent suffering. 
  2. There is a ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ emotional response: Women have a long history of taking care of everyone else but themselves. Even the idea of femininity, according to Psychology Today is often linked to vulnerability, although we are in the process of redefining what it means to be a woman in today’s world.
  3. It’s always a ‘chemical imbalance’: The theory of a chemical imbalance for women’s mental health is often at the first forefront of reference, but all this does is undermine the true complexities of the disorders that women face. It’s important to include societal implications and factors which can have an impact on how a person responds.

As a woman and therapist myself, I am working on dismantling these misconceptions by creating spaces where women are seen beyond bias. My work will continue in 2021 through my platform She Aspires, a career network which provides educational tools and career resources to support women to be more fulfilled and successful at work. Also, through my podcast She’s in a Pod, which I co-host with two other ladies, I hope to continue building a safe space for women to have unfiltered conversations about wellbeing, self-development and much more!

About the expert

Jennifer Okolo is a therapist and the founder of She Aspires – a brand centred around a digital platform that asks young females to write and interact on a series of real-world issues that affect them. Passionate about female empowerment, Jennifer has made it her mission to educate, encourage other women, as explored through social activism, podcasting as 1/3 of award-nominated ‘She’s In A Pod’, and numerous other public speaking engagements across Europe.

Image description: Jennifer is sitting with her legs crossed, smiling. She has long brown hair, dark brown eyes, and is wearing a grey collared shirt and jeans.

PEOPLE: How Angela Wood is supporting communities with a Big Group Hug

Angela Wood started Big Group Hug as a way to redistribute pre-loved goods to vulnerable families. During the pandemic, the need for these services has skyrocketed, while the means to deliver the services have become more challenging. In this interview, Angela shares how she has established Big Group Hug as a volunteer-led organisation over the years, and how she has navigated the pandemic to help as many as she can.

  • How has the pandemic impacted Big Group Hug’s work and purpose?

The pandemic has been a stark reminder of what we’ve always known but never really had to face: no matter how comfortable we feel, many of us are only a few pay cheques away from being unable to cover our bills. It has hit our existing client base very hard – those who were already vulnerable due to financial hardship, single parents, risk of family violence, newly arrived families, those seeking asylum, families experiencing homelessness, illness, disability and intergenerational poverty.

Many people who were just scraping by have lost what little income they may have had and are dealing with extra pressures of having school-age children home 24/7. The lockdown has also meant that many of their social supports – such as grandparents who may help care for the children – are no longer able to help. Then you add to that all the people who have never had to ask for help before, and we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of requests we receive for material aid.

It’s all been a bit of a perfect storm for us, because at the same time as the requests for our services have been increasing, we’ve faced multiple challenges which have impacted our ability to operate and fulfill requests. For example, the lockdown restrictions have impacted both our ability to receive donations from our supporters and have also drastically reduced the number of volunteers that we can have in our warehouse to sort donations and process requests.

For example, this year we’ve responded to about 25% more requests compared to last year, but at times we’ve only had around 40% of our normal team working to process and fulfil them. It’s been really tough.

Back before all this happened, our main source of donations was people in the community who would come to our warehouse and donate pre-loved baby and children’s items which we would sort, clean, and fold and then re-home with a disadvantaged family that needed them. In the early days of the pandemic, we switched to contactless donation days, where people would book a slot to drive up and drop off their donations. These were very popular and would usually book out within about 12 hours, with 40 – 50 cars coming through in a morning.

But when we went into stage four restrictions, we had to cancel the donation days as well. We were running out of things like nappies and baby hardware (cots, prams, car seats etc), and had to get very resourceful to source them. You don’t want to have to turn down anyone who’s asking for help. If I can’t get a child nappies – it keeps me awake at night.

We’re very fortunate that so many local businesses and companies took our calls and came through for us with the things we needed when we were absolutely desperate. Just last week one of our volunteers even bought and donated nine brand new prams. It’s such a disheartening time to see so much suffering in our own communities, but it’s also been inspiring to see how our communities have responded to it and stepped up to help whenever we’ve asked.

  • How has the work you’re doing with children changed over the years?

When I first had the idea for Big Group Hug, it was just me calling up and asking maternal child health nurses what families needed and then sourcing pre-loved goods from my friends and networks. I was storing everything in my garage (and then my dining room, and then my hallway) and delivering the donations to the families myself. It was very humbling to go into people’s houses and realise how rough some families were living.

When Big Group Hug was formed, we formalised the process of taking and fulfilling requests. We’re just mums and dads and grandparents and carers. We don’t have any real specialty in social work or the expertise to deal with complex disadvantage, so we work through referrals from maternal health nurses, hospitals, and other social services. In most cases we never meet or have any contact with the people we help, but we don’t do it for the thank you. Whether we hear it or not, we know that what we’re doing makes a difference, and that’s enough for us.

In the beginning, I was just collecting anything I could find, and then trying to match it with the requests I got. Now we have a clear list of the kinds of items that we accept and what people can request. They can ask for as few or as many items from that list as they need. The first thing I ever provided was a single highchair. Now, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve driven up to a hospital and filled a labour suite with everything that newborn baby might need for the first year.

We’ve obviously grown over the years and now operate out of a warehouse and are assisted by almost 200 volunteers but are still small by charity standards. There are bigger organisations out there, but one of the advantages of being a smaller organisation is we can remain agile. From the start I wanted us to be community led and that helped shape Big Group Hug into what it is. I was determined we wouldn’t become bureaucratic but stay nimble so we can react quickly to changing needs and circumstances.

  • What have been the biggest drivers of change?

The economic and social impact of an extended period of lockdown are prime drivers of change for those we serve as well as for our organisation. Demand from those who have not traditionally sought material aid has risen and in particular, families who have no access to economic recovery packages are seeking help.

On the plus side, a culture of help-seeking has developed among communities that have heard of our service which has led to a rise in demand.

  • Looking at the rest of 2020 and beyond, what do you see as the biggest challenges for Big Group Hug?

We don’t get any government funding. We’re also a fully volunteer-run organisation; we don’t have the resources to pay any staff. Basically, we’re reliant on the kindness and generosity of everyday people in our community to keep the lights on and the material aid going out.

That includes the mums who donate their pre-loved baby and children’s items. The grandparents who volunteer in the warehouse. The Foundations and businesses who give us small grants. The companies who donate goods in kind. Everybody gives what they can, and in the end it’s just enough to keep us going.

It would be nice to have more reliable and robust income streams, especially to cover our major expenses such as rent for the warehouse, but we’re grateful we’re able to do as much as we do and we know the families we help are too.

Another COVID-related challenge is that economic pressure on families and businesses post lockdown may result in a decrease in economic support from mums and dads who have traditionally supported us.

  • How are you planning to overcome these challenges?

Relationships. Human connections are more important than ever, and we plan to reach out to as many families as possible to ensure no child goes without. Expanding our work is the best way to rebuild. An empty warehouse means a full cupboard and a safe, warm and comfortable child, so we hope to spread our work as far and wide as possible, building and growing relationships.

There is a way for everyone to contribute to our work – an individual who wishes to volunteer, donate, spread the word; a business who wishes to donate, participate in corporate volunteering; a community organisation wishing to partner with us to build community support for families.

One unexpected thing that came out of the pandemic for us was the Working for Victoria program. Our local council managed to secure funding for several employees who are employed by the council but have been made available to us to help out in various capacities. We only have them for six months, but we’re hoping we can use that time and their various talents to make more corporate connections and identify funding opportunities that will set us up to be more stable and secure in the long term. We’ve got this far on love and grit and generosity – some substantial financial resources would be phenomenal.

About the expert

Angela Wood is the Founder of Big Group Hug and an original board member. As a teacher and mother of three, she’s always held a strong belief that all children have the universal right to be safe, nurtured and well fed with access to essential items, housing and education.

Two things planted the seed for what was to become Big Group Hug. Firstly, Angela read an article describing a mum-to-be, 7 months pregnant and seeking asylum, with none of the essentials she needed to provide care for her baby. Secondly, she came across a perfectly good pram disposed of on the footpath. This motivated Angela to redistribute many of the pre-loved items she had used for her own children to families in her local area who were visibly struggling.

When Big Group Hug was founded in 2014, Angela would store donated items at her house and distribute them to vulnerable families herself. Now, Big Group Hug operates out of a warehouse and donations and requests for material aid are sorted and processed by a team of close to 200 volunteers.

Despite recently returning to teaching full-time, Angela remains a Co-Director of Big Group Hug and is still heavily involved in the management of the organisation.

Image description: Photo of Angela smiling at the camera in a white blouse and grey vest in the middle of a warehouse with lots of stacked boxes of clothes.

ADVICE: Be a risk taker – Marie Mortimer shares her nine years of trial and error

Only 25% of the mortgage industry is female, and in 2018 fewer than 30% of the employees in tech’s biggest companies and 20% of faculty in university computer science departments were women, despite research consistenyl highlighting the value and importance of diversity in the workplace.

Marie Mortimer, founder of, shares her experiences as a woman in both finance and technology, her advice to others, and her experiences starting and growing her business over nine years.

  • What was the most challenging aspect of starting back in 2011? 

When I started in 2011 it was just a concept and a very different business model to our core business at Firstmac. Firstmac is our parent organisation and Australia’s largest non-bank lender and wholesale funder, who primarily distributes loans via third party networks such as mortgage brokers. was launched as a direct to retail model and a lot of people internally and externally to our business were very negative about this direction. Also, at the time nobody was really offering a full home loan application online to retail customers, so it was very different changing the customer mindset that they could jump online and do it all themselves to save thousands of dollars.

So, as well as being challenged by our industry peers, we were also challenged by customers as we had to change their mindset and help them understand that switching home loans is easy and, in their control, not their banks’.

  • What have been the biggest challenges in sustaining and growing the business since then?

Everybody thinks being an online lender is as simple as having a cool website with a great rate. It takes a lot of work to plug that website into an entire backend system that makes the loan decision process simple for everyday Australians. It also takes a lot of work to get people to visit  your website and apply, because it’s not like a shop front where you have face to face contact and it’s easy to talk to a customer and get your message across.

It has taken 9 years of trial and error and constant improvement to get customers to switch to and stay. The competitive landscape is always changing, so we stay true to our business model and our customers, which means we have a very loyal following. We now have over $6billion in settlements, which makes us bigger than some smaller banks and credit unions.

  • How did you overcome these challenges? 

I’ve overcome these challenges by breaking them down and being methodical about my approach. Sometimes it can be disheartening and exhausting when you have a setback, however there is always a way. Sometimes you must get creative and think outside the box, sometimes you’ve just got to roll up your sleeves and get on with it. I think with experience, I’ve learnt where to fix something and where to move on. Don’t look back, look forward.

  • As a woman in finance and tech, a minority on both counts, what is your advice to others considering launching into either of these industries, or graduating this year from those fields of study?

Take the risk and back yourself. As a female in a very male dominated profession, being the minority is the norm. But the good news is that there has been more focus on this in recent years and there are a lot of places to get help. It might sound cliche, but more women need to have confidence in themselves, and take the risk, ignore the noise around you. It’s easier said than done, but if you have a vision or a dream, you’ve got to go for it. Be a risk taker, that’s what we need all women to do, in order to challenge the status quo.

I also think that so much focus has been put on diversity at the top executive level of organisations, and that has done great things towards achieving parity, however I believe that we need to focus on the earlier stages of the career. Young women shouldn’t shy away from male dominated industries when they are choosing what to study. We need more women in finance and technology because diversity brings a different point of view and innovation. You may think you will be the minority, and you probably will be, but what you will be able to bring is something unique. Don’t underestimate yourself!

About the expert

Marie launched in 2011 and has since grown it into a business with $6 billion worth of home loans under management. Marie has been instrumental in changing the way Australians apply for home loans by moving them online and away from traditional bricks and mortar banks. Marie is passionate about developing the FinTech industry in Australia, particularly in the consumer space. When she isn’t at work, Marie loves to spend time with her husband and two young children.

Image description: Headshot of Marie in front of a white background. She has short black hair and is wearing a black blazer over a black and white patterned blouse.

PEOPLE: Why Julie Cini founded SMA Australia

Biogen, in collaboration with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Australia and Paralympian Dylan Alcott OAM, have recently launched the inaugural ‘Trailblazer Challenge’, aimed at bringing much needed support and solutions to the everyday challenges faced by adults living with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). In this interview, Julie Cini, CEO of Spinal Muscular Atrophy Australia, outlines why she started SMA Australia and the impact the Trailblazer Challenge will have on the SMA community.

  • Can you tell me a little about yourself and how SMA Australia was created?

I started SMA Australia 6 weeks after the death of my first daughter Montanna to SMA type 1. There was no one to talk to when I went through her diagnosis and I didn’t want other parents to experience the same feeling of helplessness. Subsequently my partner was killed in a car accident when I was 13 weeks pregnant, and as SMA is genetic my 2nd daughter Zarlee was also born with Type 1 SMA and died 12 months later on Christmas Day 2007.

I lost the whole three of them in 2.5 years. I want people to see what I have done out if it though and the last 15 years has been spent supporting families through diagnosis, improving access to treatment and advocating for SMA to be added to the Newborn screening bloodspot panel to name a few.

I am passionate about what I do and love to help others. I’m a mentor now not only to those living with SMA but those supporting others with a rare condition. I’m lucky that my reach is now global and I’m excited about the SMA landscape and new generation SMA.

  • What is Spinal Muscular Atrophy?

Spinal muscular atrophy is an inherited condition that is caused when nerve cells that service the muscles don’t work properly, causing muscle weakness and wasting. In its most severe forms, SMA can cause paralysis and difficulty with the most basic functions of life such as eating, getting dressed and mobility. There is no known cure for SMA and many adults with SMA live with the fear of functional decline and further loss of independence.

  • Is it a common disease?

SMA is a rare genetic condition  that effects one in 10,000 babies. SMA is also carried in 1 in 40 people – these people carry a copy of the altered gene that causes the condition although they don’t have the condition themselves. The faulty gene is passed on from both  parents and each time they have a pregnancy they have a 1 in 4 chance of having a child with SMA.

  • What is the Trailblazer Challenge?

The trailblazer Challenge is a first of its kind initiative with Biogen, SMA Australia and Paralympian Dylan Alcott OAM – designed to identify what day to day challenges face our SMA community and how we can solve these challenges for them.

  • Why is this challenge so important for people living with SMA?

This challenge is so important because we need to provide better support for people living with SMA – their quality of life can be very poor and so this campaign is seeking to raise awareness about what those challenges are and then importantly, take the next steps in a virtual hackathon to solve those challenges and deliver meaningful solutions for people living with SMA.

  • What challenges do they face on a daily basis?

The challenges facing our SMA community are so diverse and far reaching – showering, getting in and out of the car, getting something off a high shelf, going to the supermarket. All of these actions we take for granted, are extremely difficult and near impossible for someone living with SMA.

  • What are you asking people to do?

If you are living with SMA, or have a family member of friend living with SMA – send us your challenge! Simply record the challenge you are facing on video and email it through to

  • Where can people go for more information?

I encourage everyone to jump on our website or Facebook page to learn more about the challenge. Visit or search “SMA Australia” on Facebook.

About the expert

Julie Cini, founded Spinal Muscular Atrophy Association of Australia after losing both of children to SMA in 2005 and 2007. In her life, Julie has faced incredible heartbreak including the tragic loss of her partner who was hit by a car in 2006, and her strength and determination has been channelled into ensuring those with SMA have the support, and resources they need to live their best possible lives.

Julie strongly believes in creating a future that encourages empowerment, resilience and compassions and by sharing her experiences, she hopes to encourage others to make that difference. Julie continues to leave legacies and in 2018 she successfully campaigned with the SMA community to have new treatments and a pre-genetic screening program made available for patients. Most recently in 2019, she successfully advocating for a new born screening heel test to be available for all babies at risk.

Image description: Headshot of Julie with short, brown and wavy hair, wearing a patterned blouse and necklace.

VIEW: The role of social workers during the COVID-19 pandemic

The following is a guest post from the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) National President, Christine Craik.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on the lives of many people in Australia and globally. Social workers, along with other health professionals, are deeply concerned about the effects of the virus, and the economic fallout from this, on individuals, groups, families and the broader community. 

Social workers play a vital role in society, especially in times of public health crises and national emergencies. The social work profession is over 100 years old and during this long history we have been there to support the response to and recovery from world wars, pandemics, global and regional crises and recessions. 

Through it all, social workers have worked side-by-side with people affected, driven by a deep commitment to social justice and human rights.  Every day, social workers are on the frontline of the pandemic response, connecting clients with a wide range of health and social supports and services to address the devastating impacts of COVID-19.

We are in a unique position to promote disease prevention efforts, including disseminating accurate information from trusted sources, and to help address anxiety and other concerns that are arising as a result of this public health crisis. Social workers can also play an important role in supporting the community to promote mental health and in assisting people to maintain social connections. 

Our work is vital in ensuring that people receive the economic and social supports available to them. We know that the impact of this pandemic has been amplified for the most marginalised in our community.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has been a dual challenge for the community sector in which many social workers work. As the economic effects of the social restrictions have taken effect, there has been an increase in demand experienced by community sector organisations. The most stark have been the demand for emergency relief, including ensuring food security, housing security and income security, for those excluded from income support schemes. It is no exaggeration that these services have been life-saving measures for some people.

Social workers report that all the services they work in, are facing increased demand: most notably mental health, housing and family violence services. All areas of the community sector are experiencing added pressure through this increase in demand for services, in costs incurred for delivering those services and in working through the restrictions as they perform their work. For example, many organisations have had to suspend group-based services and close community ‘drop-in’ facilities, finding innovative ways to deliver these functions. Similarly, organisations who supplement their income through social enterprises such as culturally specific catering services, have been forced to close or reduce the enterprise through a combination of social restrictions and cancellation of orders.

The Australian Association of Social Workers has been advocating for social workers and the people we work with on multiple fronts to ensure access to services, including the expansion of telehealth and government supports.

In the context of increasing uncertainty and heightened stress, social workers’ fundamental commitment to human rights and protecting the most vulnerable will continue to be of critical importance throughout this period.

Social workers have an appreciation for the inherent value and worth of every human being and the importance of social connectedness and human relationships. This is what makes us unique as a professional community.

We are guided by the core values of service to community. Social workers have much to contribute to how we collectively deal with COVID-19, with particular consideration for how the experience may amplify issues such as family violence, mental health and homelessness. 

Across every field, social workers maintain a dual focus on improving human wellbeing and identifying and addressing any external issues (known as systemic or structural issues) that detract from wellbeing, such as inequality, injustice and discrimination. Social work takes a strong value position on systemic discrimination.  

Social workers recognise that while COVID-19 affects all members of society, as we have seen domestically and internationally, the impacts are far worse for people from marginalised and disadvantaged groups.

Indeed, the responses to COVID-19 has demonstrated the extent of the inequality underlying many societies. In the Australian context, the initial period of crisis was characterised by a fear, anxiety and general sense of panic about the coming events.

The uncertainty as to the severity of the pandemic manifested itself in many ways, most notably the mass buying and hoarding events that best reflect the collective sense of fear that gripped Australia. This event highlighted the unequal nature of crisis response given so many Australians did not have the means to buy food and key resources weeks in advance. Social workers recognise that COVID-19 is inherently not just a health problem but also a social one.

Social workers question, challenge and fight to ensure that those most vulnerable around us are well supported. We learn from history, and the fears and misinformation of previous pandemics to challenge stigma and discrimination.

We also recognise that the pandemic also provides an opportunity to review what kind of society we want to be, and as a crisis it is a pivotal opportunity to create long-term and sustainable change.

The AASW has advocated for long-term policy actions, including the creation of a social safety net that supports people to move out of poverty, instead of entrenching it, mental health reform that is person centred and human-rights based, and action on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals.

About the expert

Christine has worked as a social worker in family support, housing, community health and hospitals with a focus on domestic violence, sexual abuse and refugees for almost three decades. Christine holds a Master’s Degree in Social Policy and Management and is currently completing her PhD in the area of domestic and family violence. Christine was National Vice President of the AASW from 2011- 2017. She has chaired many Committees, including the Governance review of 2015-16. Christine currently lectures full time in the undergraduate and post graduate Social Work Degrees at RMIT University, is an active member of many community groups, including Chair of Project Respect, working with women trafficked into the sex industry. Christine was elected National President in November 2017.

Image description: Headshot of Christina smiling and looking at the camera. She has white wavy hair with a blue streak, wears glasses, a black blazer and a red blouse with a pendant necklace.

PEOPLE: How Yemi Penn bent her own reality

As well as being an engineer, gym owner and author, Yemi Penn is a business coach and is passionate about helping others become their authentic self.

In this interview, she shares why she is passionate about empowering and supporting others who are focusing on what they ‘should’ do, and how she is setting out to change the stat that one in three people are unhappy with where they are in life. She also shares her views on diversity and inclusion, and how her experiences as a woman of colour have impacted her approach to business today.

  • As well as your engineering business, Penny Consulting, and your F45 gym in London, you also launched W Squared Coaching, a life coaching firm. What compelled you to launch this business? 

Funny story this! Well not really….it was 2017. I was having some sort of personal crisis as I was trying to understand why I couldn’t hold a relationship down. I attended a UPW (Unleash the Power Within) event hosted by Tony Robbins and we were asked the question, “What happens if you do not step into who you really are?”

Out of nowhere, I started crying (might have been the cool aid!). I got really emotional as I started to think about the work Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks did. This completely shifted my perspective as I had been having ‘imposter syndrome’ around being a coach. I truly felt that since I was failing in life according to the standards of life/memo, that there was no way I could guide others as a coach. It turned out this in itself would be the uniqueness in me as a coach as I keep things 100% real.

Having bent my own reality by starting my businesses despite being a single mother, I am dedicated to helping others especially the seeming underdog empower themselves and create a reality they want and deserve.

  • What are the biggest challenges you see your life coaching clients facing in 2020? Why do you think this is the case? 

Identity and purpose – 2020 has pretty much ripped the rug from underneath us and we could be forgiven for thinking we are being punk’d. Especially here in Australia where the fires have raged, the air quality has effected us, COVID19 did its thing and now major Civil unrest around the tragic death of George Floyd and the resurrection of the #blacklivesmatter movement. It’s been and continues to be intense.

Considering we tie our identities to roles we play in our personal and professional lives, a lot of us will be trying to establish new routines, find new jobs, question our relationships and much more. This is likely to open up raw emotions and wounds as we find our governments unable to answer the questions we thought they had.

This is an opportunity to dig deep, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, empowering ourselves as you create a new version of reality.

  • How has being a woman of colour impacted your approach to business and your experiences as an engineering and business consultant?

I wasn’t aware I was a person of colour till I came into my early teens having left Nigeria to the UK in the early 1990’s. Not knowing this would hold me in good stead as my focus was on being the best I could be.

Growing up in the UK would weaken this confident foundation I had as circumstances would make me feel ‘less than’. The imposter syndrome of not being ‘worthy’ or ‘enough’ would make me firstly, never dream big enough and when I did I had to constantly silence the voice that questioned me and my ability.

Within engineering, I have always been fortunate and blessed enough to have amazing allies in men and women, who always made me feel like I belonged or maybe I just didn’t care and my presence alone as a woman of colour made most people intrigued as I was and continue to be a stark minority.

Opening my fitness studio was a bit more difficult as I seemed to be one of many franchisees struggling to secure finances and therefore financed this 97% myself. Now, although my race didn’t come in as the reason why any bank wouldn’t finance me, however my circumstances did, which clearly ties to my financial background or lack thereof.

There is a show called black-ish, created by Kenya Barris, the show is very funny and extremely educational. It highlights the deep running impact of slavery, which has borne about systemic racism in institutions such as banks, schools, corporations, places of the law and many other establishments. As a result it is that much harder for a person – a woman of colour – to access things that would readily be available for a white person. Worldwide statistics show this clearly.

I have however avoided sitting in a sob story as I see myself as brilliant regardless of my race and gender. My hope is that one day, everyone will feel the same, this attitude has held me in good stead with my businesses.

  • In your view, what is the role of ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives in addressing racism in the corporate sphere? 

To hold the space for having uncomfortable conversations. One that discusses the following for instance, inviting a diverse group to develop and deliver initiatives around:
– White body privilege
– Bodies of culture

The corporate world has the ethical responsibility and position to show how a truly diverse workforce can excel at purpose and profits. It requires deep work from a professional and personal development perspective.

  • What are some simple actions business leaders can take to self-assess whether their business is both diverse and inclusive? 
  1. Examine their blindspots – Establish what they don’t know and what they don’t know they don’t know
  2. Invest and embed personal development & performance coaches in the business
  3. Create physical and virtual safe spaces for those uncomfortable yet necessary conversations
  4. Business Leaders to say yes to D&I initiatives unless they can prove a valid case for why it should be a no
  5. Model a business that has implemented D&I

About the expert

Born in the UK, early childhood in Nigeria, a stint in Okinawa Japan and now living in Sydney, Australia, Yemi can be described as a citizen of the world! She is an Engineer by profession, an Entrepreneur by Passion and a Transformation Mindset Coach by mission; Yemi Penn is dedicated to guiding others in unlocking their untapped potential. An introvert at heart having only recently found her ‘voice’, she is making up for lost time! Having authored her first book and podcast titled, ‘Did You Get the Memo?’ Yemi has featured in numerous publications in the U.K, Africa and Australia including, MI Business, Women’s Agenda, Smart Company and more; here she shares her stories offering tips on how to be the best, most serving version of oneself. Yemi run’s 3 businesses whilst parenting her two children in Sydney, Australia. One being her Engineering Management consultancy, an F45 Fitness studio in Brixton, London and her Transformation company under her brand of Yemi Penn. With qualifications ranging from project management to neurolinguistic programming, and methods taught to her personally by Jack Canfield and Tony Robbins, Yemi is dedicated to raising the vibration brought about by trauma and engineering powerful people; daring humanity to transmute its pain into power.

Image description: Yemi is sitting with her hands in her lap, turning slightly to face and smile at the camera. Her hair is tied up, she wears earrings and a stripped dress.

PEOPLE: Esha Oberoi’s climb from high school dropout to CEO

Today Esha Oberoi sits at the head of a 550+ staff, multi-million dollar business and has been recognised for her achievements as a Winner in the Indian Australian Community Business Award for Small Business and a Finalist in the Telstra Young Business Women of the Year Awards in 2014.

But her journey to success wasn’t without challenges.

Esha’s formative years were tough. Upon arriving in Australia as a young migrant at seven years of age she experienced ostracism and bullying from her peers, due to her inability to communicate. This  created a host of challenges including depression, anxiety, loneliness and isolation culminating in her dropping out of school in Year 11.

In this interview, Esha shares how she started and grew her passion for helping others, and built a successful enterprise by never settling for compromises.

  • After leaving school in Year 11, what decisions and steps did you take to kick off your career? 

I dropped out in Year 11 and didn’t make it to the HSC. That decision and my own mental health challenges left me unemployed for many years until my father insisted and encouraged me to find work in a nursing home. I did exactly that. The decision to remain in the industry was initially because I felt an instant connection with the clients I was working with in aged care and disability services. My clients were often lonely, feeling isolated and vulnerable, which made our relatability factor very high.

  • What were the most challenging aspects of those earlier years in your career, and what’s your advice to others who may also be experiencing these challenges today? 

The most challenging aspects of my work in the sector came because of my age. I was 24 years old when I came into the sector and I feel that I had to work a lot harder to earn trust and credibility because I didn’t have experience as a credential.

In terms of advice, what I did to overcome this was deliver very high-quality service and make no compromises. So, I would go above and beyond in my delivery and we became known for our reliability and responsiveness very quickly as we earnt this reputation.

It is important to have strengths outshine any shortcomings that we have in our professional lives. I am not suggesting that age is a shortcoming. In my early days, my lack of experience was where there was a gap I needed to fill. 

  • How have your personal experiences as a woman of a migrant background without a university degree impacted how you were treated in the corporate world? 

I didn’t remain in employment long enough to experience the impact it could have had in my treatment. Having my own business and being in the community services industry I have never felt discounted due to my migrant background or not having formal education.

  • At any point, did you feel like giving up on your career goals? Why or why not?

The sector is challenging because sometimes you really want to be able to help someone and for multiple reasons, we are limited by what we can offer. There is enormous emotional pressure at times so there have been times where I felt like I needed a change of industry. Having said that, the joy that comes from helping people always outweighed the emotional stress in the role.

  • Today, as you lead a 550+ team and multi-million-dollar business, how have your personal experiences shaped how you hire, train and support your staff? 

When it comes to hiring, I am mindful not to place people in roles that don’t complement their inherent characteristics and skills. I am highly supportive of a person’s aspirations and I would work with them to develop a clear learning pathway so they can develop the skills required for the role or share any guidance so they can eventually reach that point.

I really believe in training and skills development. As I had no professional qualifications and experiences that could back my move into entrepreneurship, I started investing very early on in my own training around leadership.

About the expert

Esha Oberoi is the compassionate, inspiring and dynamic CEO and Founder of AFEA Care Services, Australia’s most successful private in-home aged and disability care service. She is also an award winning entrepreneur and self-love advocate who credits much of her success as a heart-centred leader and business owner to her transformative ideology that, ‘mental health begins in the heart’.

Image description: Headshot of a woman from the waist up wearing a colourful dress and holding her hands in front of her. She is looking at the camera, has brown eyes and brown hair, and her hair is tied in a high ponytail. She is standing in front of a rock wall.

VIEW: Having diverse educational backgrounds on leadership teams can drive innovation

It’s easy to assume that corporate success can only be achieved by people with university qualifications and strong academic performances. But Kelly Van Nelson, Managing Director of Adecco Australia, is proof that this isn’t true, and that resilience can play a much bigger and more effective role in generating career success.

Kelly believes that, while a commitment to continual upskilling and reskilling is critical to future-proofing your career, there are many different ways to obtain new skills, and businesses with an open mind to hiring and promoting people with different education backgrounds will reap rewards that directly impact their bottom line.

  • How has the role of traditional or non-traditional education impacted your career since leaving school at 16 years old? 

As a child raised in a low-income household on a council estate, academic opportunities were limited (My public high school has since closed due to poor performance). Despite achieving outstanding GCSE results in the UK, I left school aged sixteen to enter the workplace, contributing to rent and essential home living expenses. At the age of eighteen, I enrolled in night school and achieved a distinction in computer studies.

I am one of the few board level leaders in the Fortune 500 I work for without a degree education, although this is now shifting, with more leaders coming up through the ranks with non-traditional education backgrounds. I have never seen the absence of degree as a setback. Instead, I listened and learned from others, embraced confidence, leveraged other development opportunities that were available, and offset lack of youth education with professional certifications in Prince2, Change Management Practitioner, Six Sigma, and extensive leadership training gained at I3 in Switzerland.

Supplementing work relevant training with on the job experience has been a great pathway for me and gave me an inner steely resilience along the way, powering me to succeed. Willpower is my superpower and trumps education every time.

  • As an executive in a Fortune 500 company, how important do you think it is to include people of all different educational backgrounds at the leadership level? 

Diversity in any organisation is critical to bringing new perspectives to business strategy, opportunities, and challenges. Diversity leadership has a purpose of creating broader understanding and engagement between people, whether they be internal colleagues or external customers, partners, or suppliers.

In an era of globalization, diversity in all business environments needs to span gender, race, ethnicity, religious and political beliefs, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientation, disabilities, and also education.

Diverse leaders with different educational backgrounds can positively contribute to fostering empathy across this full spectrum of people from all walks of life and can more deeply assist with driving transformation through innovation and uniquely creative thinking, thus contributing to a more inclusive society and increasing profitability of the business.

  • Is there value in business leaders assessing someone’s educational background when assessing their suitability for a role? Why or why not? 

The purpose of business leaders conducting thorough background checks is to bring as much confidence to a new hiring decision as possible. New employees are an important asset requiring a significant investment of time and money from any employer. Getting this decision wrong can be costly for the company.

Business leaders want to know an employee is trustworthy, reliable, brings discipline to whatever they are applying themselves to, and is willing to learn. Verifying and assessing educational background against the requirements of a role is one way of doing this and gives employers some assurance of the years an employee has spent dedicated to learning and development.

Ultimately though, assessing education credentials alone is not enough to guarantee a great hire. Employers are hiring for one specific purpose which is to accomplish a specific job. An employee has to bring the required competencies to the table, especially soft skills and the right culture to fit with the business. They need to demonstrate to an employer they are talent worth developing and investing in for the long term.

  • Looking ahead, what role do you believe formal and informal kinds of education will play in the workplace.

There has always been a need for employees to meet constantly changing workplace demands, but due to technological advancement and globalisation, the world is shifting in new directions faster than ever before. As a result, organisations proactively seek alternative ways to improve efficiencies, tackle growth markets, and drive differentiators, which means change is inevitable.

The key to career growth and future-proofing employability in these rapidly evolving environments remains in upskilling, and reskilling. This can be done through both formal education channels and informal training methods.

About the expert

Kelly Van Nelson is on the Adecco Group executive board and is Managing Director of Adecco Australia, the world’s largest provider of HR, staffing, and workforce management solutions. She is a Change Management Practitioner, Six Sigma Yellow Belt, and Prince2 Certified. Kelly is also an advocate for Women in Leadership, gender equity, and workplace inclusiveness initiatives, regularly appearing in the press, on radio and television. She was recently announced winner of the AusMumpreneur Big Idea Changing the World Award for her work as a prominent anti-bullying activist in schools, universities, and the workplace. She was awarded the Roar Success Gold Award for Most Powerful Influencer for the impact her literary work has made on raising social issue awareness. She is the number one bestselling author of Graffiti Lane, a contemporary poetry collection that won the Roar Success Best Book Award and was gifted to Oscar winners and multiple Hollywood A-list celebrities. Punch and Judy, her second poetry collection, puts the spotlight on domestic violence and she has had numerous short stories, poems, and non-fiction articles published internationally. Kelly is also mum of two. In short, she is a juggler.

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PEOPLE: How Pascale is tackling the problem with women and superannuation

Hundreds of thousands of Australians have been leaning on their superannuation funds earlier than planned, due to the financial pressures introduced by the coronavirus pandemic. While finances and superannuation are top of mind for many, it doesn’t necessarily make these things easier to manage.

Many Australians are still confused about how to best plan ahead for their superannuation, including basic decisions such as whether to have one fund or many. And the stats show that women are far worse off financially than men, when it comes to building their superannuation fund over time.

This, among many other factors, is why Pascale Helyar-Moray set out to launch Super-Rewards.

  • What was the original intention when you launched Super-Rewards? Have your goals and objectives for the business changed over time?

The goal for launching Super-Rewards was really to deliver a practical solution for women to contribute to their superannuation without having to fund it themselves.

In terms of what sparked the Super-Rewards idea, it was a combination of:

1. Education – my years in financial services saw me actually writing the brochures about compound interest and salary sacrifice – so I was educated enough to do salary sacrifice in my twenties and thirties. This compounded sufficiently to mean that, despite my years out of full-time work as a mother and entrepreneur, my super is still in reasonable shape.

2. Experience – previous experience saw me present to rooms filled with women who, when they learned about the super gap, would ask me the question – ‘But what do I do?’ That moment of panic and fear – as well as the realisation that they’re stuck financially (they can’t double their pay, get a second/third job, divest themselves of their caring responsibilities) – stayed with me.

3. Insight – working as Director of Comms with the Australian Gender Equality Council helped me understand that the headline problem of women retiring with 58% as much super as men persists because the problems that feed into it – gender pay gap, cost of childcare, inactivity on policy, and a culture that doesn’t value “women’s work” – don’t change. So it’s ridiculous to expect that the topline problem will change.

The goals haven’t changed – we only launched 6 months ago.

  • What have you specifically customised or changed about the product so that it appeals particularly to women? Can men benefit from these customisations as well?

Women make 80% of household shopping decisions, and have a huge amount of responsibility and burden in looking after others. The average woman who works fulltime also spends another 14 hours per week – 2 whole days! – on unpaid domestic work. So we have combined this decision making, plus the requirements to care for others, into a money-generating opportunity into their super.

40% of the Australian female population aged 18-64 is not in fulltime work. How do you contribute to your super when you don’t earn an income? Answer: you can’t.

There are 1.8 million women in Australia who are not in the workforce. They are raising the next generation, or caring for the elderly or their communities. But there’s also a huge number of men who are unpaid carers – 900,000, and we recognise that they too don’t earn any super. So Super-Rewards is designed for women but open to any gender.

  • Why did you decide to innovate in the superannuation space? Have you been tempted to tackle other sectors?

Superannuation has long been a topic close to my heart. I’m very fortunate that from the outset of my career, I did salary sacrifice and so my super is now at a reasonable level.

But I know – from seeing it with my friends, and my networks – that I am in a tiny minority.

I was also highly frustrated by the work that I was doing with the Australian Gender Equality Council. Let me clarify; the Council’s work was and remains really valuable – but the pace with which various touchpoints we dealt with was glacial. Whether it was government or corporates – even the everyday person. Did you know 1 in 5 people don’t think the gender pay gap exists? This was despite Equal Pay being legislated over 50 years ago!

So on one hand, I was seeing this firsthand data of our country not recognising the problem with women and superannuation. Or, what I did see, was just another report which effectively restated the same thing.

On the other hand, I was also seeing data where 40% of single women retire into poverty. And that the fastest growing group of homeless people in Australia is the 55 year old woman, who has spent a lifetime of service to others.

This frustration eventually led to the formation of Super-Rewards.

In terms of tackling other sectors – not yet. There’s so much work yet to be done in this one!

  • What have been the most challenging aspects of building Super-Rewards, including during COVID-19?

The most challenging part has been the lack of industry infrastructure around making payments into super funds, outside of the employment framework. It simply highlights yet again that when superannuation was conceived, no one considered how someone not in the workforce would be able to easily and regularly make payments into their fund.

Covid-19 is proving to be incredibly beneficial for Super-Rewards. The conditions have meant that everyone has been forced to be shopping online anyway – and that suits Super-Rewards perfectly! We have seen a bit of a slowdown in revenues as job prospects and concerns about the economy have slowed how much people spend online. However on the flipside, covid-19 has – as a result of the early super access – meant everyone is now talking about superannuation voluntarily. Which is nothing short of miraculous, and means we are well positioned to jump into the conversation about rebuilding super.

  • What other things can women be doing today to adequately prepare financially for their retirement and how critical is this preparation in your 20s vs your 30s, 40s and 50s?

Superannuation is a complex beast to understand. Retirement can be frightening to think about.

But the most effective thing anyone can do – no matter their age group – is just add as much as you can, as often as you can. Particularly if you’re a woman, because the super system was not designed with women in mind.

Thanks to the power of compound interest, all those little amounts add up and become a far more meaningful amount over time.

There are a raft of other superannuation basics women, and people can be doing – head on over to Super Guru for various tips and strategies.

About the expert

Pascale Helyar-Moray has over 20 years financial services marketing and brand-building experience. A seasoned entrepreneur and startup advisor, her latest venture is Super Rewards. Super Rewards is cash rewards for women for super, in a bid to help women close their super gap. Previously Pascale was the Head of Marketing for the Investment Trusts and WealthManager+ businesses of JPMorgan Asset Management in London, and has also held senior marketing roles at BT Financial Group and BNP Paribas. She is the Director of Communications for the Australian Gender Equality Council, an independent national organisation dedicated to achieving gender equality. Pascale holds a BA (Hons) and Master of Commerce, both from the University of Sydney.