Shirley Chowdhary has never been part of the majority. She’s lived all over the world, and grew up speaking multiple languages as child. Wherever she went, she never found herself belonging to the mainstream.
As an adult, she’s worked as a lawyer in banking and finance in the US, Japan and in Australia, and its these overseas experiences, as well as her upbringing, that she credits for her vision as leader today.
“When you live overseas and you’re not part of the majority, it teaches you a resilience and a strength that is really beneficial,” she tells Kate Mills in the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons, a Women’s Agenda podcast series support Salesforce. “It also teaches you to look at things through different eyes.”
“It’s everything from being open to those sounds and experiences, and the breadth of experience you get. That feeds into how you think about problems…how you relate to other people.”
An accomplished lawyer with significant experience in local and international banking, finance, and asset management, Shirley is currently the CEO of the GO Foundation, an organisation founded by former AFL stars Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin.
GO provides educational scholarships to young Indigenous people of all ages, from primary school through to university. As well as a cash component to help even the playing field for their students, GO offers cultural and aspirational mentoring, and works with their corporate partners to open doors for their young people.
As CEO, Shirley considers herself a caretaker for Adam and Michael’s brand and legacy. She sees the organisation having immense, long term impacts on young Indigenous lives, and as she shares in the podcast, it’s work that really feeds her soul.
“Our kids leave our mentoring and I see it every time, they are standing a few inches taller and their chests are puffed out a little bit more,” Shirley says.
“We see families’ perceptions changing. You know, if Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin are betting on your child, then that’s a really great story. And we see the parents’ pride in what their kids are doing.”
Since Shirley joined the organisation in 2016, she’s overseen its development from a small start up, to an organisation that she considers to be much more mature now.
All the skills she is equipped with as a lawyer have come into play in her role as CEO, and she’s also seen her leadership style evolve to reflect a more inclusive and thoughtful approach.
“Now, it’s about them [her colleagues], it’s not about me…When I was 30, it was about me,” she explains. “Now I think one of the most important things I can do is help the people I work with everyday get ready for the next role and stretch and grow and develop, and constantly think about what’s next.”
“One day when I’m not here anymore and people talk about what kind of leader I was, I’d like the word empathy to be used. I’d like fair to be used, principles are really important to me and I’d like someone to say I was values led.”
Other than that, Shirley says she still makes mistakes and spends every day working it out.
“I still get off a phone call sometimes and think ‘I could have done that a lot better’,” she says. “A good leader is one who understands they are always learning, always growing and making mistakes, and that’s how you get better.”
In light of the pandemic, Shirley fears the opportunities for young Indigenous people are shrinking due to the state of the economy, and says urgent action is needed to ensure the headway that has been made over the past decade is not lost.
“The Indigenous children that are finishing Year 12 this year may lose the economic choice to be able to enter into further education,” she says.
“We’re going to have a generation of Indigenous kids, potentially, who want to go out and get the education, they want to go out there and learn, they want to enter corporate Australia, they want to take advantage of those opportunities, but because of what COVID has done to our economy and where we are choosing to money as a country in the budget and in other programs, they won’t have the choice to do that.”
All hope is not lost though, with the pandemic also giving us an opportunity to turn the dial, if we chose to take it.
“This an opportunity for us to reset and course correct on environment, on disadvantage, on equity, on Indigenous engagement and reconciliation,” she says.
In her role as CEO of the GO Foundation, Shirley has found herself surrounded by ground-breaking, strong Indigenous leaders. It’s been an invaluable learning experience, and has made her aware of just how much there is to gain from understanding Indigenous culture.
Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin, as well as GO Foundation Chair Sonja Stewart, have been central figures in this learning curve.
“I’ve probably learnt the biggest lessons from those two [Adam and Michael] because they are the most humble and generous leaders I’ve ever worked with,” Shirley shares.
“They taught me, inadvertently – I don’t think they ever set out to do this – that leadership comes in so many different guises. We have so much to learn from Indigenous leadership. The way that Adam, Michael and Sonja and the other leaders we work with, think about inclusivity, collaboration and working together to get the end result.
“It’s so easy to think that we understand that perspective, and I think we all have so much learning to do in that area.”
The Leadership Lessons podcast series, hosted by Kate Mills, is a set of interviews with brilliant female leaders across industries, sharing their perspective on the critical decade ahead.
The Leadership Lessons is supported by Salesforce.