Monash University Law School Alumni Address 25 May 2017

Monash

Good morning. What a special honour to be here with you today to celebrate your achievements.  Twenty-five years ago, I was sitting exactly where you are, and believe me it feels like only yesterday. So much has happened since then, but 25 years ago, I could never have imagined the adventures I would have, that I am still having! One thing I do know however is that in many ways, the opportunities I have been able to take advantage of since my days at Monash have all stemmed from this moment, from this place, from this point in time. 

No matter how you got here, whatever advantages you did or didn’t have up to this point, make no mistake: you are now in a position of privilege.  The key question before you today, is ‘how will I use that privilege and the opportunities that it will present?’   In order to spark some thinking as you contemplate that question, I would like to share with you some of my story, and to suggest to you that whatever you are currently thinking, what happens from here is unlikely to go to any plan that you might have in your head today!  If, however, you are open to opportunity, and to how you can use your privilege to improve the lives of others through how you work and live, you may end up having have knock-on impacts that you never even dreamed of. 

As a fresh-faced graduate from Horsham High School in the mid 80’s, I came to Monash hoping to find a cauldron of radicalism and protest. I was keen to break away from the roots of a very conservative small-town environment.  I had come to Melbourne as a feminist, growing up in Horsham in the 70’s made sure of that.  While I was blessed with an amazing family, I found a lot of the attitudes I grew up with, particularly those regarding gender roles, quite suffocating and indeed, unjust.  Initially, I thought a law degree would be my path to satisfy a thirst for justice, to right the many wrongs I saw arising from an unfair world.  My education at Monash allowed me to understand how the legitimacy of the system of laws could be used to enslave or to liberate: to reinforce the positions of elites, or create a more equal society.  I grew up in the time of apartheid, of land rights, of the stolen generation, of the continuing fight for gender equality.  This may be hard for many of you to imagine, but up until the year I was born, a woman in the Australian public service would have to resign upon getting married:  it was illegal for a married woman to work for the Commonwealth. 

So while I was at Monash, I spent some of my time focused on women’s issues, particularly as a member of the Victorian Women’s Electoral Lobby.  I learned an incredible amount from those women about organizing, lobbying, influencing, and how to think about social change, and I have used these skills in my business life ever since.  But in practice, I will have to confess that my life at student at Monash was nowhere near as radical or revolutionary as I had imagined in my high school days.  By the time I studied and worked several jobs to support myself, I ended up with a lot less time for radicalism than originally intended.   When I ultimately secured my law degree, I followed a corporate path rather than a community one.  My pursuit of justice became a bit more of a sideline than a first priority. 

I joined Telstra as a lawyer in the early 90s and progressed up the ranks.  It was a particularly dynamic time, as competition was being introduced into the telecommunications sector for the first time, so lawyers played a critical role in working out what this new environment would look like.  

Perhaps to salve my conscience a little, with my first Telstra paycheck I decided that I would start making regular contributions to a charity, because I wanted to make sure that I continued to focus on what difference I could make.  To be clear, I did always feel that at Telstra we were doing exciting things, connecting a disparate nation through the power of communications, but I always wanted to do more.  I chose the International Women’s Development Agency as my charity, a fabulous Melbourne based NGO that works with women’s groups in country across the Pacific to help communities develop by improving the position of women.  And there was some activism mixed in with corporate life:  I become involved with the Young Lawyers Section of the Law Institute, and was the founding Convenor of the Women Lawyers Association in 1996.  I found that my lobbying skills could be used within the context of our profession as we fought law firms to improve their approach to flexible work practices, to increase their pro bono contributions, to consider issues of discrimination against people with HIV.  Perhaps one of the earliest lessons I learned as a lawyer was that sometimes it is better to be an agent of change from within, to learn the language of those with the power and use that to effect change rather than try and keep knocking on doors from the outside. 

After a few years, I took 12 months leave to move to the UK to study for my Masters in Commercial Law at the University of London.  It was the time of Tony Blair’s New Labor, of the UK’s integration with the EU, of the growing sophistication of Britain as an integral part of Europe….. oh well. 

Back to Melbourne, and then in 1999 I was asked to head to Telstra NZ to help grow Telstra’s business in NZ.   A planned 6-month stint becoming a 2-year adventure where I ended up in a very senior business role in a joint venture company called TelstraSaturn, with plans to spend one billion dollars rolling out broadband cable all over the country.  Our plans for global domination in New Zealand were incredibly exciting until the dotcom crash brought us back down to earth. 

And yet what looked to be the darkest of times turned out to be the greatest opportunity of all.  After two amazing years I left New Zealand with my future husband in tow, having bought him in a corporate deal that didn’t work out so well for TelstraSaturn but provided me with an unexpected bonus. 

We moved to Sydney and I started work with AUSTAR, the regional pay-tv company that had owned the other half of the joint venture.  AUSTAR had a few challenges at that point, including potential bankruptcy, but I figured nothing ventured….. TelstraSaturn offered pay-tv services and I had really loved the content side of the business which allowed me to pursue my passion for film and TV.   The opportunity to be more directly involved in the media and in turning the AUSTAR ship around was exciting to me.  Growing up in Horsham we only had 2 TV stations, BTV6 Ballarat and the ABC so I knew first hand just how transformational a service like AUSTAR could be for regional audiences.  Many of my lawyer friends at the time were horrified by my choice: AUSTAR was a business on the edge, and they felt that I was taking a step back in my career.

To be sure, there were a few hairy moments, such as the memorable day where I had to relay to the CEO that our banking lawyers thought we were insolvent.  His response: get new lawyers.   Thank goodness we did because we emerged from that crisis stronger and more determined to succeed.  We restructured the industry, restructured the business, fixed our customer service problems and massively expanded the product.  We brought in investment from a private equity firm who later sold out for 10 times their investment, and the business was ultimately sold to FOXTEL in 2012 for $2.5bn.

After 10 fascinating years at AUSTAR, the sale created an opportunity for me to try some new things.  Being involved in corporate life was exhilarating, but I was now lucky enough to have some capital to put to work, and I thought it was time to change how I applied my ‘time’, my ‘talent’ and my ‘treasure’.  I was intrigued by the rapidly changing nature of the media industry and the different sorts of media companies that were springing up.  The internet, social media and the rise of streaming services were all fundamentally changing the nature of the media landscape, how we consume media and amount of choice available.  Media is no longer a one-way street, it is much more democratic: audiences are no longer interested in being talked at or told when and how they can consumer their media of choice, increasingly they want to be part of the conversation. 

This has massive implications for civil society, for how we make and experience entertainment, and for the traditional business models across the media sector. 

So, in 2012 I switched gears, and mixed my life up. I cast aside being a lawyer once and for all and entered my entrepreneurial phase.  My training as a Lawyer was a brilliant background for the days ahead, having taught me to think analytically, to consider connections, how to set up relationships and just as importantly how to deconstruct them.  I invested in several media related business and worked closely with the management of each company to help them grow. 

My husband and I also set up the WeirAnderson Foundation, a philanthropic foundation to support projects that promote gender equality and benefit women and girls.   And finally, I continued to combine my business skills and philanthropic interests by serving on a number of boards in the arts and philanthropic sectors. 

Through this re-jigging, I was really able to focus on the joy of combining corporate and community, and finding ways to ensure that business benefits would also mean community benefits.   

Through the WeirAnderson Foundation, I have learned a lot about philanthropy and ways to support social change.  Australians are some of the most generous people in the world, we have very high levels of volunteerism and we are fantastic in a crisis.  What we do less well at is providing regular support to the ‘day to day’ work of organisations that play critical roles in supporting people within our communities.

But any of us can do this: you don’t need a foundation or to be wealthy to be a philanthropist, you just need to have a focus: pick an area that you are interested in, learn about an organization that is doing some good work and then decide how much of your monthly budget you could contribute to help that organization performs its work.  It might $10, it might be more: but make it something, become an Everyday Philanthropist, be part of a community that is bigger than you and your everyday life.

Through our work at the Foundation, I have had the chance to become involved with a number of fascinating organisations and meet with incredible people who are committed to building a better world.  This includes The Grata Fund, a people powered fund for justice that is helping to support important public interest litigation:  perhaps once a lawyer always a lawyer??  But while the law and the pursuit of justice are critical to building strong communities, so too is the role of business. As committed as I am to the economic success of my business ventures, one of the greatest lessons I have learned is that we live in a Society, not an Economy.   As active participants in our society, our job is to actively engage in a passionate debate about the sort of society and community we want to live in.  My belief is that an inclusive society, that encourages all people to participate and contribute, regardless of their differing abilities, will be stronger.  And, I believe that businesses that promote and facilitate inclusion will help to build stronger communities.  I am very lucky to be involved with a business that does just that. 

Ai-Media is for profit business that is also a social venture: we want to make money while helping to make the world a better place. Ai-Media started life as a provider of closed captions television channels, and our vision was simple:  while it is great to allow access to TV for people with a hearing impairment, or for whom English is a second language, wouldn’t it be great to use that technology to give them access to real life situations as well?

So, we took the technology behind our TV captioning product into the classroom.  Our initial plan was to allow deaf and hearing impaired kids access to what their teacher was saying by having us listen to the what the teacher was saying over a phone line, and then use our technology to send a live transcript back to the student sitting in the classroom via their iPad or tablet. It then turned out that this product was also helpful for kids with all sorts of learning challenges, including autism. 

Another unexpected consequence of this work was when we realised that the availability of the transcript has lead to teachers improving their own teaching practice, simply by reading the transcript at the end of class.  We have developed this further in partnership with the University of Melbourne, creating our Visible Classroom product which provides transcripts of what the teacher says across a number of classes which are then analysed to provide insights into what is happening it that classroom and what the teacher can do to improve.

We now provide captions for Seven, Nine and Foxtel as well as high quality ‘speech to text’ services for many education and corporate clients. We now also have operations in the UK, the US and Canada.   We have built a global technology platform that will allow us to serve clients from anywhere in the world, using captioners from anywhere in the world: a global workforce that can help us with our goal of making every piece of video and audio content possible accessible to anyone with a disability.

I am also following my dream of investing in film and television as Chairman of Hoodlum, an Australian and US based production company. Our first feature film, Australia Day, will premiere in June at the Sydney Film Festival, and last week Netflix announced that they had commissioned Hoodlum to make Tidelands its first Australian commission for a global audience.

But it appears my corporate life isn’t finished yet, 12 months ago I returned to a full-time corporate role to help Foxtel transform itself in an ever-changing media landscape.

I am really not sure how all of this happened, but I know that none of it would have transpired if it wasn’t for all of the supporters, mentors and leaders that I have had the privilege to work with, and the life I lived at Monash.  The privilege of being encouraged to challenge yourself, to challenge others, to imagine more: these are privileges for which I am truly grateful. I could never have imagined this future, but I left this place 25 years ago believing anything was possible.  I believe that the same is true for each and every one of you: this is the privilege that we share, and the opportunity in front of all of you.  May you grasp it with both hands, and may it bring you every happiness and success.