Lifelong bullying led one woman launch a world class leadership program

Lifelong bullying led Paula Stevens-Dunn to start a world class leadership program

leadership program
Paula Stevens-Dunn believes cultivating a leadership mindset is essential for young girls and sets them up for everything they do in life.

Her leadership program for teenage girls, The Limited Edition Leadership Academy, was recently singled out at the largest gathering of female entrepreneurs and leaders in the world, the Women Economic Forum. The 10-week initiative is designed to assist Year 10 girls thrive in their senior schooling years and beyond, by helping them develop the confidence to help conquer life. Paula was recognised with the Exceptional Women of Excellence Award.

“If you had said to me 3 years ago that I would quit my job, start a business to make an impact in the world and win awards for it, I would have huffed in your face,” Stevens- Dunn told Women’s Agenda recently.

The Limited Edition Leadership Academy  promises to uncover each girl’s unique code, capture its essence and help her release it across all aspects of her professional and personal life.”

Below, Paula tells Women’s Agenda about the leadership program for teenage girls and how workplace bullying pushed her to take the leap to establish her own business, No Limits Consulting.

Can you tell us a little about the 10-week leadership program for Year 10 girls you created?

The Limited Edition Leadership Academy is all about assisting teenage girls create confidence to conquer life. We do this because we believe that cultivating a leadership mindset in teenage girls will set them up for success in everything they do.

Having worked in STEM for over 20 years within academic, clinical and pharmaceutical spaces and now in business, I’ve noticed that there are 5 common trends that impact women in the workplace today: a lack of self-confidence, dealing with unconscious bias, reduced capacity for promotion opportunities, juggling multiple roles (career vs motherhood) and lack of support from other women.

The leadership program utilises the 5Cs (confidence, conscious inclusion, cultivation, congruence and collaboration) to engage and ignite our emerging leaders. What I’ve found in my experience and research over 20 years, that there are 5 key areas of focus to creating a limited-edition leader which is what we need in organisations of tomorrow.

The Limited Edition Leadership Program promises to uncover each girl’s unique code, capture its essence and help her release it across all aspects of her professional and personal life.  This helps to restore confidence, instill courage and embrace uncertainty with optimism to succeed at the HSC and beyond.

Does the program have potential to be implemented into school curriculum? If so, how?

Yes, the program has been designed to fit within the 10-week school term.  I’m currently in negotiations with some private religious schools in Wollongong about partnerships.  At this stage the program can be part of the School’s Co-Curricular activities. The program is not about changing the school curriculum but rather enhancing what is already there.  The optional program gives the girls the freedom to decide whether developing leadership skills is a value add.  For best results the girls must opt in to participate in the program rather than being forced as part of the school curriculum.

10 Classes (15 -20 hours)

Frequency: 1.5-2hours duration, weekly

Delivery Method: Face to Face

Location: School Grounds or No Limits Consulting Private Rooms (Barangaroo and Wollongong)

First Cohort Intake: Term 1, 2020.  (Seeking 2 Schools per term to take on the program)

Private Training (No Limits Consulting – Rooms): Barangaroo (Sat 1 Feb 2020; 1-3pm); Wollongong (Tues 4 Feb 2020; 5-7pm)

Have personal experiences played a role in your determination to make a difference for young girls dealing with challenging issues like bullying?

Absolutely! I was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate and have had issues with bullying and self-confidence. Doctors use to tell my parents “kids like these don’t last long” so expectations of me thriving and have a good quality of life was already pre-determined by the medical profession.

I never considered myself a special needs kid or as someone who was disabled, I was just me.  I just wanted to be liked, and all I knew about being liked was to be “as normal as possible”.  What did that mean? Well, I never liked being told what I couldn’t do.  Each time I had limits placed on me, I went about to prove them wrong.  My inner voice of “I’m not good enough” motivated to prove my worth so that I could be considered as an equal. As a result of this motivation, I pushed myself hard.

I was the first in my family to get accepted into the University of Wollongong and studied Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences (Hons) and then proceeded to complete a Master of Science (Hons). I’ve always had high expectations of myself, I had to because others didn’t. But obtaining all these degrees still didn’t make me whole.

I still lacked self-belief in my abilities and suffered from severe impostor syndrome.

It wasn’t until I moved into the Pharmaceutical Corporate world and discovered my natural leadership talents that I started to thrive and flourish. Leadership provided me the outlet I was looking for all my life to spread my wings and fly.  No amount of degrees ever gave me that sense of pride, freedom and accomplishment than having the skills and mindset of a leader.

What motivated you to start your business No Limits Consulting?

I never intentionally had desires to start a business, my dream was to become a leader in corporate and make a difference.

In 2016, I was a Senior Manager in Clinical Operations.  I was being recognised for my innovation and creativity to bring through changes to an organisation.  I was only working with that organisation for 3 months.  Unfortunately, there was another Senior Manager who was at that company for 5 years and didn’t like the fact that I was being noticed so soon.  I noticed her behaviour immediately and escalated to our boss to ensure that we defuse the situation ASAP and to ensure that whatever it was we can resolve it.  Unfortunately, the other manager didn’t see it that way and denied her behaviour.

So the next 7 months she started changing her behaviour towards me, little things like talking to others around me and not including me in the conversations, hiding work related information from me so it made it more difficult for me to do my job, making sarcastic remarks and double sided meanings, not passing on deadlines until the last minute, and holding onto requests until I was on leave and demanded that I deliver information to her by end of business that day.

Then one day it rolled over to “verbal screaming assault”.  I left it a few days and she acted like nothing had happened.  I escalated to HR director and our APAC Regional Director and basically it was her word against mine.  During the “investigation” that manager approached me again and this time was more confident in her abuse towards me.  When I told her she was reported she laughed in my face saying “Did ya now?”  The outcome of the investigation was chalked up to a “differing of management styles”.  Disappointing to say the least.

In the end, I resigned from my job due to corporate bullying and not making the impact I was hoping for as a leader.  I wrote a 3 page resignation letter thanking my boss for the opportunity to work at their company, I felt that our values were misaligned and that hopefully by my resignation the company puts adequate contingencies in place to assist employees to feel safe to escalate concerns in the future.  With that I took my power back, left with dignity and decided to start my business.

I felt that if I couldn’t influence culture from the inside out I’ll influence culture from the outside in.

Congratulations for being awarded with the Exceptional Women of Excellence Global Award at the Women Economic Forum! What does the recognition mean to you?

Winning that award on an international stage such as the Women Economic Forum was a real honour and privilege.  If you had said to me 3 years ago that I would quit my job, start a business to make an impact in the world and winning awards I would have huffed in your face.

Paula Stevens-Dunn with her Women Economic Forum award


My main drivers of my business are love/connection and contribution.  The fact that what I’m doing to improve our future leaders and equip them with success is through those filters.  As a result,  I feel fulfilled, complete and on my life’s purpose.  Which means that if I’m on purpose then everything I do is for the enhancement of those teenage girls. Winning this award has been more rewarding than all my degrees received to date. It’s funny to say but that’s how I feel.

If you could go back to your high school days, what advice would you give to your younger self?

For starters I’d be giving myself my Leadership Program and embed those 5Cs that make me a Limited-Edition Leader.  Knowing that I have the power within to make my life how I see fit regardless of what others say or try to predict success through grades, is true freedom and liberation.

I’ve created this program because this is exactly what I would have loved to have had at 16 and not 40.  Seeing the bullying, mental health issues, stress and anxiety in the world today and it’s only going to get worse.  Creating a solid internal compass is what we need more than ever to minimise the external chaos.

I never considered myself a leader when I was a teenager, I never thought I had it in me, no one ever saw that for me and I never saw that for myself.  I just wanted to belong, fit in and remain invisible.  If I had a program such as this, perhaps I would have learned to look at myself differently, give me more scope to DREAM BIG.  This is something I would like to help our young girls capture for themselves.  I’m all about creating the future and making dreams a reality.

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