Using lived experience to empower other women
23 June 2023 at 10:06 am
This week’s changemaker is Karen Iles is a Dharug woman as well as the Founder and Principal Solicitor of Violet Co Legal & Consulting – a woman-led, Indigenous-led, social enterprise.
Violet Co works with businesses and for-purpose organisations to assist them to leverage their core business to positively impact the lives of women and Indigenous peoples. Violet Co specialises in supporting businesses, organisations and individuals with issues of sexual harassment, sexual assault, discrimination, employment law and governance.
As a victim/survivor of sexual assault herself, Karen is an advocate and speaks about her own lived experience.
Prior to establishing Violet Co, Karen held roles specialising in Corporate Social Responsibility, in-house practice and management consulting for Coffey International Development, Colin Biggers & Paisley Lawyers, Tata Consultancy Services and KPMG Australia. Before ‘going corporate’ Karen spent 10 years working in the for-purpose sector on human rights for organisations such as Amnesty International.
Read on for our interview with Karen, it’s a great one.
Describe your career trajectory and how you got to your current position.
My first “activist” job was in high school at the Australian Geographic shop. We were the local “hub” running the Jabiluka campaign in solidarity with traditional Aboriginal owners. It taught me how to use corporations for good.
At university I was elected as the University Women’s Officer two years running. It was AWESOME. I then skipped off to work in the Trade Union movement, a stint with Aid/Watch and Amnesty International Australia. After a decade in the advocacy space I changed tact and went and worked in the corporate sector – leading pro bono and corporate responsibility functions. It was great to see what you can get done (and can’t!) when you have the full backing of the business.
At the end of 2018 I had the opportunity to take a leap and set up my own business Violet Co Legal & Consulting. I wanted to do law and consulting differently. I wanted to focus on the two big things that matter most to me; women’s rights and first nations people’s rights.
What does this role mean to you?
Empowerment. Working for yourself is the ultimate empowerment.
Take us through a typical day of work for you.
Breakfast is 100% non-negotiable for me! I spent time writing an opinion piece for the Illawarra Mercury that was going to print the next day while munching away on some granola. The article was about reforming the justice system to better support victim/survivors of sexual assault.
After that, I got ready to meet with an event organiser from a panel I spoke on the previous night for With You We Can – again about reforms to the justice system and the campaign I’m running on that.
Then off to a Barrister’s chambers to participate in a conciliation conference in the QLD Human Rights Commission. Our client is an Aboriginal woman who has experienced really shocking, but unfortunately very common, racism and sexual harassment while working on a remote mine site for a large multinational. Then back to the office and lunch with another Aboriginal woman who also runs her own consulting practice. Italian over the road from my office – YUM!
In the afternoon I met with a client and then participated in negotiating a funding contract.
After that I met with a new client who needed a hand understanding how to navigate the justice system – she is a victim of sexual assault.
I finished my work day running payroll for the team and headed home for the weekend!
My days are pretty varied and I try to balance out the sexual assault content with other work to hedge against vicarious trauma.
What has working with Violet Co taught you?
I founded Violet Co Legal & Consulting almost five years ago. I love working for myself.
It has given me the time and space to connect much more with my Aboriginal culture, histories and Country. This stuff takes time. The flexibility to choose what your work, and workday, looks like allows space to spend the time. It has allowed me to step into that part of myself.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in your career, and how did you overcome it?
Balancing my own trauma (sexual assault) with working in a high-trauma occupation. It has been a challenge my whole working life. I think that people have a lot of misconceptions, and fall into the “myths” around sexual assault that blame victims, look down on victims and judge. By choosing to speak out publicly, it is a challenge each day, the negative judgement is very real!
If you could go back in time, what piece of advice would you give yourself as you first embarked on your career?
Lighten up. Yes you are working on really serious, often traumatic, issues. You don’t have to be so earnest to get results.
Only work with good people on great projects – life is too short.
I should have really stepped into my culture, class and my lived experience earlier. Trying to fit into another person’s idea of a box doesn’t work.
How do you stay motivated to work in this field?
For me I see work as a social change campaign. It’s important for me to have a clear picture of the end, what success looks like. If the win isn’t clear, or the impact isn’t spot on, or the people aren’t great, I’ll bounce off it.
I also eat a LOT of licorice allsorts. They are fab and get me through!
How do you unwind after work?
I enjoy walks around our local park. Going out for dinner or to a film or some theatre, music etc are also my go-to’s whenever I get the chance. I also love watching trashy rom-coms.
What was the last thing you: watched, Read, & Listened to?
In a nerdy way I keep a list of each book I read each year so I can remember them. Reading fiction is really important to me!
I’ve just finished reading Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013). Earlier in the year I read Invisible Child. Poverty, survival and hope in New York City, Andrea Elliott (2022) which I have to say is just brilliant. I’m recommending it to everyone right now.
I’ve loved the Succession series – my tip is that Greg will rise to the top in true “the meek shall inherit the earth” vibe. And I’m cheering on Gina in Alone Australia. (By the time this prints we will know!) My favourite fun listen is the ABC podcast Bang On – just love it.