‘Thank you to all the bosses who fired me’: Sarina Russo’s massive training business Featured

With just nine students to work with, Sarina Russo started her own typing school in 1979.

She’d picked up the entrepreneurial bug as a young girl from her father, who entrusted her as his English interpreter to help manage the family business.

It developed further when she found it hard to stick with working for somebody else: they either fired her or failed to give her the opportunities she needed – and for that, given where she’s at today – she’s thankful

Almost 37 years later, Russo’s well and truly entrenched at the top of recruitment and training empire, Sarina Russo Job Access. It now operates across more than 200 sites in Australia and New Zealand, employs more than 1000 people and helped elevate Russo to the 12th spot on the BRW Women’s Rich List in 2015.

The empire looks set to get even bigger, after Russo was selected as one of five female Australian entrepreneurs to take part in the Asia Pacific Entrepreneurial Winning Women program.

Below Russo shares more on her path to entrepreneur, including how she got started, why she’s been successful, and the 6km run she takes before starting work in the morning.

Who or what inspired you to become an entrepreneur, is there a key turning point you can describe that put you on this path?

At the age of ten my father trusted me to be his English interpreter and mouthpiece.  He gave me the job of managing the family’s flats and farm.  I’d spruce the flats up, advertise them, meet the prospective tenants, set the rent, collect the rent, deal with complaints and if tenants didn’t pay I’d evict them.

On the weekends my father would take the family to our vineyard where we’d plant, prune, spray, weed, pick and pack and pack.  My father leaned on me for everything, negotiating prices for the table grapes, dealing with the produce market buyers and even his tax returns. I had to get all the figures together and put them in order for the accountant.

Although I didn’t realise it my father had honoured me by making me his apprentice and I know today that I have his influence to thank for my basic business skills.

Have you ever worked for anyone else, did you leave a corporate career behind?

I was a first class typist.  I never had a problem getting a job as a legal secretary.  However, I had a problem in keeping a job.  To all the bosses who fired me, or drove me out through lack of opportunity I say thank you. I may not have been where I am today had their actions not strengthened my resolve to find independence. That stage of my life was a huge learning curve. In retrospect I am grateful for what I learned in their businesses.

Where did the idea for your current business come from?

At the age of 26 I ‘ran away’ from home to gain my independence from the male dominated Sicilian culture. Twelve months after buying a unit, I was fired from my legal secretary day job and my typing teaching job at night. I still had a mortgage and turning to my father for help was not an option as he’d only help if I returned home.

I was in a real fix – but I was also in a rage. I turned that rage into a positive force. It was the rage that gave me the strength to change my life forever.

First, I was fired from my night job as a typing teacher.  I was popular teacher because I made the lessons fun. I had the class jumping out of their skins to music and laughing at my stories about my life. I had a motivational streak. I would tell them things like, `never let anyone else tell you that you can't do it – you can be whatever you want to be. Look at me. A dream job is waiting for you, too.'

I constantly challenge them to keep thinking about how they were going to get that job and give them tips on how to go about it.  Word spread, more students joined the class. But then I was fired. Why? Apparently my supervisor resented me.  Big mistake! The students were upset by my dismissal. They would not accept another teacher. They said they would stay away unless I was re-instated. So to my complete surprise I was asked to return. I did.  For the first time I realized I was really, really good at something.

Several weeks later, my legal boss fired me.  I was five minutes late returning from lunch. He had warned me the day before if I was late one more time I would be fired. But I had also worked many extra hours without overtime.

The bastardry had me absolutely incensed.  I was in real trouble. I wasn't earning enough at the night school to live on and pay off my mortgage. I had savings of $2600. I was crying as I went down the lift and out of the building to go home to my apartment.

When I entered the apartment I was hysterical. I cried and cried and screamed out in my loudest voice, `I'll do it, or die.'

But how? ... and do what?

There was a half-formed idea in my head. I had been dating a barrister whose ex-wife had established a commercial training school. He kept urging me to start up a school. I hadn't taken him seriously, but now I thought, why not?

Everyone I spoke to told me, `don't do it ...the economy, the government, the failure rate of small businesses.'

I was naive. The words `don't' and `can't' make me defiant so I went looking for a place to start a typing school.

Can you name three major contributing factors that have led to your businesses’ success so far?

1.      Cash Flow

2.      Lifelong learning

3.      Hiring the right people

What do you believe is the number one trait that makes a successful entrepreneur?

Self belief. The best advice I've ever been given is ‘you can do it’. The best advice I can give to anyone is ‘if it is to be, it is up to me’. Be passionate and believe in yourself—the rest will fall into place.

As well as your business, what other priorities do you juggle?

For 32 years, up until 4 March 2016, I cared for my mother Maria.  Her life ultra-marathon ended at 102 years, 4 months and 4 days.

My mother is my inspiration and my motivation.  My mother gave me the courage to break with the male dominated Sicilian tradition to just get married. She believed I could do more and went guarantor for my first bank loan. All behind the back of my strict, disciplinarian father. 

Mum's faith forged in me a determination not to fail in my business and empowered within me an incredible strength which has allowed our Group to change the lives of tens of thousands of people globally through education, training and recruitment.

Can you describe an ‘average day in the life’? When you wake up, first things you do in the morning, arrive at work, fit in any exercise etc, and how you finish up for the day and evening?

No one day is the same, however I do have one constant and that’s exercise.  To succeed at any level in business you must be fit in your body and balanced in your mind.

Neither physical fitness nor mind balance will come to you as natural gifts. Working at my fitness and on my mind balance are key aspects of my daily routine.

Nothing clears the mind and helps me strategies more than a 6 km run before I start work.

What books and online publications do you read to keep up with the news and advice relevant to what you do?

I’m a news junky. I can’t get enough. The available content on the worldwide web is Nirvana.  When I’m not engaging with the news of the day I turn to motivational speakers like Anthony Robbins to disrupt my thinking so I can be the very best I can be.

What (if anything) do you believe needs to change in Australia for us to see more successful female entrepreneurs in the future?

Women are the greatest workplace resource in the 21st century.

Forget about complaining about the glass ceiling. Maximise the greatest asset women have over men – emotional intelligence.

Armed with natural emotional intelligence, women can, and will, empower themselves and shift the paradigm in the business world.

While men possess emotional intelligence, women use it much more effectively. For women, emotional intelligence is like an extra sense to go with touch, smell, hearing, taste and sight.

Men have the capacity to further develop the skill, but it doesn’t come as naturally.

What opportunities are you hoping to gain from being selected for the EY program?

Personal growth.  When you associate with successful people you can tap into their expansive thinking.  Their thinking seems wider, further and deeper than the average person. They are not afraid to honestly express their opinions and vision for the future.  Being exposed to leaders in such an intimate environment is like undertaking a business course at Harvard.

What are your future ambitions for the business? How big can it go?

I want to be the global ‘Madonna’ of education, training and employment.

Which women inspire you?

Women from all walks of life inspire me. From Michelle the single mum of nine children who we have helped return to work after 256 weeks of the unemployment through to social entrepreneur Francine LeFrak and the wonderful work she and her business Same Sky are doing in creating jewellery entrepreneurs amongst HIV affected women in Rwanda to Hilary Clinton who is forging a path for women on the world’s political stage.

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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