Leading By Example
31 March 2014 at 10:24 am
With achievements such as tripling a Not for Profit’s annual revenue and doubling its growth, indigenous leader Rachelle Towart has the proof to back up why she’s an award-winning Chief Executive Officer. Towart is this week’s Changemaker.
A proud Wonnarura woman, Towart started out as Business Manager at the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre (AILC) in 2005 before taking up the top job of CEO.
Under Towart’s leadership, Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre has tripled its annual revenue, more than doubled its enrolment growth and developed new courses including Australia’s most advanced Indigenous leadership qualification, the Advanced Diploma of Indigenous leadership, and new courses in governance, Indigenous mentoring and cultural awareness.
She also led her team to achieve course completion rates for students that average more than 95 per cent and developed partnerships with government departments that secured multi-year funding for AILC for the first time, among many other achievements.
Her work with AILC has resulted in accolades including Emerging Leader of the Year in the Not-for-profit Sector's – 2014 NAB Women’s Agenda Leadership Award, Australia’s Top Community CEO – 2013 Westpac Community Leaders Awards, and Towart was named one of Australia’s 100 most influential women – 2013 AFR Women of Influence Awards.
She says some of her favourite things are: “Staying home on the weekends!; rugby league – especially the Canberra Raiders; gardening; and, going to the movies – as long as they are not scary ones!”
What are you currently working on in your organisation?
Hundreds of our graduates have told us that our courses have transformed their lives and we are working on ways to let others know.
The biggest challenge we have is attracting more partners and supporters so we can achieve our goal of providing at least 1000 course places per year.
Australians clearly want to help Close the Gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people but it’s a bit hard for them to support us unless they have heard our story.
What drew you to the Not for Profit sector?
I think it was by accident – a friend of mine was on the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre's board and said that I would be perfect in the role.
So I made the decision to give it a try for 12 months – that has turned into eight years!
How long have you been working in the Not for Profit sector?
Eight – nine years – I would find it very hard to go back to the public sector.
What was your first job in the Not for Profit sector?
Business Manager at the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre – I did everything from policy development to paying wages and even cleaning the loo!
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
No-one seeks a career in the Not for Profit sector for the pay! Of course the most rewarding part of the job is the stories of the Indigenous leaders that we meet through our courses.
Their stories of persistence and passion before they come and the stories of transformation and opportunity in the months and years after they graduate. It’s an absolute privilege to be able to serve as many of these people as we can.
What has been the most challenging part of your work?
Closing the Gap. It’s simultaneously an awesome privilege and a huge responsibility to deliver education opportunities that genuinely contribute to Closing the Gap by giving Indigenous people skills, knowledge and opportunities to realise their full potential.
Sometimes the scale of the challenge is so huge it’s overwhelming. You just have to keep your eye on what you can do in the next week, the next month, and not lose sight of the goal.
What do you like best about working in your current organisation?
I get the opportunity to give adults their first ever educational qualification – I see their confidence grow from strength to strength over the matter of days. It is empowering!
I consider my greatest achievement to be …
Keeping the organisation growing – funding is hard to come by.
Favourite saying …
It’s all too often that we have to turn away talented people, telling them we can’t afford to provide a course for them because of a shortage of funds.
When I get to say yes, come join the AILC experience, our family – that’s a great feeling.
To build a critical mass of leaders that delivers sustainable change through Indigenous communities across Australia, we need to find funds so that we can say “yes” a lot more often.
I’m always being asked …
What Indigenous leadership is all about. We teach communication, conflict resolution, strategy development, analysis and a whole lot of other skills that help people to understand they have great potential and to make a plan to work towards it.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether you are a stay-at-home mum or a senior manager in a huge corporation; if you can get the skills, knowledge and motivation required to be a better leader, you will contribute more – and then all of Australia benefits.
What are you reading/watching/listening to at the moment?
Who has time to read! But my favourite saying is "today a reader, tomorrow a leader".
So my book that I am slowly getting through is – My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor. Sonia is the first Hispanic and third women appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Inspirational!
Through your work, what is your ultimate dream?
It’s pretty simple. Within five years, we want to offer accredited Indigenous leadership and governance courses to 1000 people per year by 2020.
KPMG found that on average our graduates earn almost $14,000 per year more after finishing one of our courses and around four in five contribute more to their work and their communities after graduation. We know our courses work – but we need to spend the next six years telling the story and building support, so that we can achieve our goal.
My greatest challenge is …
We do great work at the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre. I need to get out there and let people know that we are part of the solution.
School taught me …
Reading, writing and so on, but my greatest life lessons have come from relationships; the uncompromising love shown by Aunties and Uncles and the inspiring journeys of our AILC graduates.
What (or who) inspires you?
Nelson Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Leaders like Mandela are extraordinary examples, but sometimes their example seems alien from our more mundane experience. I am also equally inspired by the quiet leaders – a mother or a brother who is quietly holding their family together through extraordinary adversity; people who feel like a new door has been unlocked to their future after they finish a leadership course. It’s almost like they are given permission to live for themselves as well as for others, and in that new freedom, they can go forward and achieve new things.
Where do you feel your passion for good came from?
My passion for this work came from two special people. My Aunty and my Uncle. They believed in me from the beginning and continue to do so today. My mother taught me resilience.
AILC graduates ring me or send me messages daily – to let me know that they have completed university or got a promotion or they are trying something new.
I think education is the key to change.