Building a Global Community of Inspiring Leaders
10 April 2017 at 8:36 am
Alicia Curtis is an award-winning speaker, leadership facilitator, and the founder of Alyceum, an organisation which helps guide and inspire people to lead positive change within business or the community. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Curtis is driven by a desire to push leaders to transform the world for the better, whether that be in the workplace or broader community.
She graduated with a masters in business leadership and in 2001 established her own leadership development company.
In collaboration with Dr Nicky Howe, she launched the Engaging Young Leaders on Aged Care and Community Boards and the pair have since gone on to share their experience of the program in a book, Difference Makers, A Leader’s Guide to Championing Diversity on Boards.
Through her company Alyceum, Curtis has also just launched a #1000youngdirectors campaign to inspire, educate and support 1,000 new young directors to join a not-for-profit board. The initiative hopes to increase diversity, support succession planning and improve local communities “through better discussions, decisions and outcomes on boards”.
According to Curtis, when a variety of perspectives are included around the boardroom, “everyone wins”.
On Friday, Alyceum was named one of Westpac’s 200 Businesses of Tomorrow chosen from 2000 applicants.
Curtis is also the co-founder and inaugural board chair of a women’s giving circle called 100 Women which inspires “everyday people to become powerful philanthropists”.
She was named in the Westpac and Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence List across Australia.
In this week’s Changemaker, she talks about creating a “manual” to champion diversity in the boardroom, how philanthropy has been hijacked by the rich and famous and why leaders must be committed to improving themselves to improve the world around them.
You have said your leadership journey started when you were 12 years old and you attended the first International Children’s Conference organised by the United Nations. What attracted you to leadership?
It wasn’t leadership per se but it was just the opportunity to improve society that attracted me. I was involved in an environment club at my school and that’s what really led me to have the opportunity to attend the International Children’s Conference. That was such a huge catalyst in my life because I was surrounded by all of these people from many different countries around the world who had this intense passion and desire to make the world a better place. And so it really set me on this journey of putting community [first] and having a purpose bigger than yourself. It put me on this track to really sort of follow those things rather than other things, so it was wonderful.
Where has that journey taken you since then?
It has taken me all around the world. It has really given me the opportunity to meet and experience many different things, start my own business and most importantly be able to contribute to meaningful change in the world. So it was a very powerful catalyst and one that stays with me.
You established your own leadership development company in 2001. Why is good leadership important?
It is just integral to be able to get things done. It is important because we need to be building positive visions for the future about how we can always do things better. And I think part of that is about being able to empower others, and empower the unlikely leaders, to be able to see that everybody has a place in building a positive vision for the future and making it happen.
Why do we need to encourage more young leaders into the sector?
“Why not?” really is the question.
You’ve got all of these highly educated, worldly young leaders who want to contribute at a board level, so they want to contribute their skills and expertise and knowledge voluntarily, why wouldn’t you involve them?
But I mean that aside, the research shows us that our boards in particular are filled with only 10 per cent who are under 40 years old. So there is a huge imperative there from a succession planning perspective to share knowledge, and expertise and understanding between board directors from different generations. I think we can learn a lot from each other and I think we get richer results when we actually work together.
The research also undoubtedly tells us that diversity of perspective leads to better conversations and decisions and even an engagement of all stakeholders. So aside from succession planning, we get better results when we have diversity in the boardroom.
So there’s a couple of reasons why it’s amazing to encourage these young leaders who are just so passionate about learning more about the sector and learning more from sector leaders and engaging them in being able to gather their skills and expertise and experience for the betterment of the sector.
You have recently written Difference Makers, A Leader’s Guide to Championing Diversity on Boards with Dr Nicky Howe. What was your aim for the book?
The aim was really to share what we had learned from the program [Engaging Young Leaders on Aged Care and Community Boards] because it has been such a wonderful learning journey for all of us about what is leadership, what does it look like, what is diversity, how do we encourage it, what is collaboration in the sector and how do we foster more collaboration within the sector, because we all say that we want more collaboration but we tend not to know how to do it. Our organisations aren’t really set up for it and there are not many examples of really true collaborations that are done well.
So we really wanted to document everything we had learned. This is our fifth year in the program and we’ve just had so many fantastic community leaders support us along the way. So it was really about putting a line in the sand and really documenting everything that we had learned and sharing that with others.
But I think we also wanted to challenge people. Still there is a lot of resistance around diversity in the boardroom so we wanted to have a resource that we could share with others, which really shared the business case for diversity and challenged people to step up and be champions for diversity in the boardroom and this is sort of the manual to be able to do that.
You are the co-founder and inaugural board chair of 100 Women. What role do you think philanthropy has in the world today?
Philanthropy is an amazing opportunity to engage and connect and give back to the community. It really allows us to decide on the issues that need improvement and learn how we can direct funding for long-term change. I think a lot of people are on the other side of the grantmaking process, in that they are applying for grants, and 100 Women gives us an opportunity to look at: “Ok, we’re fundraising this amount of money, how do we collectively decide where it needs to go and how best to utilise that money for a change in our community?”
How has the idea of a giving circle changed philanthropy and opened it up?
As part of our mission we talk about inspiring everyday people to become philanthropists because philanthropy has been hijacked by the rich and famous. Really, when you come back to the root of the word philanthropy it means lover of humanity. And there are many people who are strongly contributing to humanity in different ways, not only just by giving money but by giving time and expertise and networks but allowing us to really understand how do we use the money that we’ve got when we collectively bring it together. We might not have hundreds of thousands of dollars to give ourselves but if we come together collectively we can all of a sudden grant these major projects and that’s really exciting because it shows that everyday people have the opportunity to interact in our community in that way, we don’t have to wait for government, we don’t have to wait for even traditional foundations to get started, we can come together and utilise our own money and direct it into the ways that we see fit in our world.
Why did you choose to focus on women?
It’s not a decision that we take on lightly. And as with everything there is an unconscious bias against women in funding and so we are told that actually funding women and girls is one of the best returns on investments to lift our communities out of poverty and yet there’s not many funding sources out there for women and girls projects.
So I was actually first inspired by the book Half the Sky [Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn] which is a very powerful book which displays the discrimination that still happens in our world, around the world, against women and girls. When I read that book I thought I can’t just sit back and not do anything to support other women who don’t have the same rights and opportunities as me. And there are plenty of wonderful organisations out there doing great things for women and girls and what they need is funding, so how can I pull together a collective of women and men who want to support women and girls being able to receive the same opportunities in our world.
You were named in the Westpac and Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence List in 2014. How does it feel to be recognised for the work you do?
So proud and absolutely grateful to be acknowledged alongside the amazing women in that list, both in WA and around Australia. They are women that I absolutely admire and I still feel like I’m at the start of my leadership journey and to get that recognition and support, I feel grateful just to be name along side those women.
Through your work what is your ultimate goal?
I’m absolutely driven by the purpose of my business Alyceum really to build a global community of inspiring leaders and changemakers who are committed to improving themselves to improve the world around them. Any leadership starts with ourselves and being able to improve and develop ourselves as leaders and then be able to take that and use it for the good of society, so how can we improve our own leadership so we can be better leaders to improve society and the world around us.
How do you make time for yourself?
I had to laugh at that question because there is not much time to myself at the moment. I’ve just had a baby, so he is five months old, then I’ve got a three-and-a-half-year-old too, so alongside them and the business, which has many different projects on the go, and my volunteering commitments, there’s not too much time for myself. But I do try. Time for myself at the moment is spending time with my family.