‘The best leaders don’t need a title’: How Shirley Chowdhary’s is changing the Indigenous education game - Women's Agenda

‘The best leaders don’t need a title’: How Shirley Chowdhary’s is changing the Indigenous education game

Shirley Chowdhary admits she fails at least 10 times a day, on everything from a phone conversation she could have done better to a parenting mistake.

But then she’s also particularly busy — as a CEO, mum and advocate for Indigenous education — and mistakes come with making it all happen, everyday. The best advice she ever received was to take time to recover from big fails (the ones where things go really wrong) and learn how to bounce back.

Shirley’s a game-changer, and the latest to answer our Game-Changing Women Q&A.

A former Westpac lawyer, last year she was appointed CEO of The Go Foundation, an organisation founded by former Sydney Swans legends, Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin.

Below, she shares how and why she got involved with GO, as well as what she balances at home, why she’s so accepting of failure, and how she juggles her many competing demands.

She also shares why and how she calls everyone who leaves a number when donating to the foundation.  

GO Foundation Portraits 2017 at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Tuesday 24th January 2017. (Photo: Steve Christo)


What do you lead?  

I have the privilege of running the GO Foundation. We empower Indigenous youth by providing educational scholarships to high school and university.  Our scholarships provide access to an ecosystem of support including cultural mentoring, corporate mentoring and pathways to further education. Currently, we provide scholarships to a number of independent schools in Sydney, the University of NSW and the University of South Australia.  We now have 19 GO Scholars and 2 GO Alumni but this will grow next year when we hope to offer our first public school scholarships.  These scholarships will allow GO to provide support into the communities and schools where it is most needed.

How did you get here? 

I have had the benefit of extremely generous mentors (both men and women) who have helped me articulate clearly what I wanted to do.

After being a lawyer for so long, two of my mentors knew that I wanted to run something and encouraged me to move into the not-for-profit space.  I am incredibly grateful for their wisdom and insight. They encouraged me to think beyond the role I was in and to think of other ways I could use my skill set. I’m not sure that I would have put myself out there were it not for their guidance and support.

 What ‘game’ are you changing and why does it need a shift?

The lack of opportunity and access for Indigenous Australians. 

Australia is such an amazing country with incredible wealth and opportunity but as Stan Grant has famously said, it’s not a country of equal wealth and equal opportunity.

Whilst the Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap Report provides a snap shot of the disadvantage that is faced by Indigenous Australians today, the research shows that education is the game changer. It is the one thing that can create a brighter future for Indigenous Australians and actually close the Gap.  It’s why Adam and Michael chose to focus GO on creating opportunity through education.

The research is clear that the provision of financial assistance alone does not lead to long term change or even guarantee a student’s success.  We believe that the financial support has to come with cultural mentoring first, and then corporate mentoring and employment pathways.  The GO Foundation is working with other organisations who are doing amazing work with Indigenous students (like CareerTrackers and AIME) to provide our students with access to an “ecosystem” of support – one that provides financial assistance but more importantly looks to support the students as they learn to walk with confidence in two cultures. Providing this ecosystem for Indigenous students as they move through high school and hopefully into further education is vital to opening up opportunities and access for these students, their families and their communities, while providing them the support they need. We want our students to know that being a GO Scholar gives them access to a network of collaborative support.

Who or what inspired you to do this?

The opportunity to work with such amazing and inspirational people.  Adam and Michael give back to their communities and to all Australians in everything they do.  They live this ethos everyday in their work and in their families. The opportunity to work with them and with GO’s high calibre board and partners, all working to achieve real change was the reason I took the role.   

I always loved being a lawyer but I got to the point where I was enjoying my volunteer work more than I was enjoying being a lawyer.  I knew it was time for a shift!

What skills help you do this? 

The skills I learnt as a lawyer are crucial in this role – written and verbal communication, influencing, analysis, project management, critical thinking, collaboration and time management, for example. I also love taking a helicopter view of the landscape and working out what all the pieces are and how best to arrange them. These are all skills I developed as  lawyer yet have been able to transfer to this role. Interestingly,  I think lawyers often get pigeonholed and are told that they don’t have a transferrable skill set. It’s not until you use the same skills in a different capacity that you realise how wrong that actually is.  

Having said that,  I do not think that any of us are born with particular skills or talent. I also don’t think that any of us have a whole skill set that allows us to change anything by ourselves. It’s through sheer hard work and experience that we pick up skills, and it’s through collaboration and  cooperation that we affect change.  The skills I learnt as a lawyer and doing volunteer work are really helpful in this role but there is no way the GO Foundation could achieve anything with just my skillset or me.  It takes a village to raise a child and it will take a community to affect real change in Indigenous education and outcomes.  At the GO Foundation, I am fortunate to work with people who are passionate about what we do.  Everyone from our CFO and our GO team, to our founders, the board and corporate partners like the Sydney Swans who support us every day – they all bring a skillset and commitment for change that is vital in the work we do.

What does an average day look like for you? 

One of the things that I love about this role is that no two days are the same.   There are some constants though and I am a creature of habit:

  • After finally turning off the snooze button (a few times), I check my email and answer anything urgent while I’m still in bed.  I read a few newspapers on my phone  – scan the headlines to make sure nothing has happened overnight and read a few of the more interesting articles. 
  • Get ready and shower while listening to the news and a few political podcasts.  I’ve been trying to listen to the podcasts that provide an opposing political view, but I have to admit that it’s still a struggle.  It takes all my energy not to turn them off!
  • My husband makes all our lunches (he is so much better at it than me!) and after a few hallway “conversations” with my husband and family, 2 days a week I drop my youngest guy to school (often by 7:30am for band rehearsal) and then I’m off to my day of meetings and work.
  • On the way, I call those people who have donated to GO. We make a point of calling everyone who donates to the GO Foundation if they have provided a phone number.  Every donation is so important – whether it is for $5 or for $5,000 –we want our donors to know how the funds are being used and that the GO Foundation is grateful for every donation. I love hearing the stories of why people are supporting Adam and Michael. It’s one of the highlights of my day.
  • Our offices are situated in the Sydney Swans so I either try and spend some time there or am in the city running from meeting to meeting.  I also have days when I am driving between universities, schools and other organisations everywhere from Campbelltown to La Perouse and in between. I try and schedule one day a week to work at home (to try and catch up on emails and admin) and one day a fortnight to focus on strategy and forward-looking initiatives.
  • Twice a week I pick my youngest son up from sport and then it’s home to try and exercise a few times a week while listening to a TED Talk (I’m currently failing at this) and then my husband or I put dinner together.  It’s usually some combination of the 5 of us for dinner with everyone trying to meet their own commitments – work, music, sport and social – so we try and reserve Sunday nights for a family dinner.
  • After a quick tidy up, we tend to do family comps of sudoku, crosswords or ken-ken with whoever is around (with my husband and I being beaten by the children more often than not!) and then it’s another few hours of work for me in front of bad TV. This is interspersed with signing school notes, texts to girlfriends to catch up with their day and more catching up on the news and what’s gone on in the children’s and my husband’s days. I tend to go to bed too late and have trouble turning the computer and phone off – I’m a work in progress!
What key thing have helped drive your career to date?

My career was not planned at all. Place, time and circumstance drove many of the choices I made. Everything from getting married and moving overseas, to sick parents, young children and dysfunctional bosses – they all dictated the roles I took on (or gave up), the hours I was prepared to commit and the turns my career took.

I have tried to always put family first but I don’t know that I have always succeeded. I couldn’t have done any of the roles I’ve had without the support of my husband and encouragement of my children.  My husband has always been very flexible and accommodating, and has done a large amount of the cooking, grocery shopping and looking after the kids.  He even spent 8 years being the stay-at-home parent which made a massive difference to the energy I could devote to my career. I couldn’t do it without him. 

What are some of the best things you’ve learnt leadership? 

When I was younger, I mistakenly used to think that leadership resided in a title. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong.  I’ve learnt that the most outstanding leaders don’t need a title – they lead by being excellent role models, by leading by example, by being outward facing and by being present and listening.  Yet, we all still place so much importance on titles.  We need to look beyond titles to find true leaders.  Those men and women who are inspiring their families and communities through the work they do – they are the true leaders.

 And how do you look after your wellbeing?

I walk and run and try and fit in yoga where I can (again failing miserably at the moment). I also prioritise time with my girlfriends.  I need them as much as I need the exercise and my family!  Everything from book club to catching up with my network of close girlfriends who are working and coping with similar challenges to calling my closest friend every day.  They all keep me sane! I also talk to my father every day – something I have done since I left home.  It provides me with an anchor I can come back to. 

Can you share a time when you ‘failed’ and what you did next?

I fail at least ten times a day, every day!  Some fails are little, inconsequential fails and others are bigger.  There are always things every day that I think I could have done better – everything from phone conversations to parenting. The best advice I ever received was that it’s important to take time out to recover from those big fails, from those times where things go really wrong. Resilience is vital and we need to learn how to bounce back, but just as vital is taking time out to recognise the hurt and sadness that comes with those moments where things don’t go right, and to allow time for mental recovery. The last time things went really badly I did allow myself that down time. It was easier to stand up and fight again after the recovery.  

What are you juggling, and when has it fallen apart for you?

It’s the same juggle as everyone else – work and family.  In my case it’s two working parents, three children in three different directions every morning and afternoon, a house to run, a full full-time job, exercise and a volunteer board role.  It’s a fragile house of cards.  Some weeks it works really well and other weeks you wonder how you are going to get through and survive.  It only takes one thing to go wrong for the whole thing to come crashing down – a sick child, a school concert at the same time as a work function, a flooded bathroom or lots of tired people in one house.  Most of the time though it seems to work through a careful timetabling of pickups, drop-offs, dinner duty and grocery shopping.  It feels like every minute is timetabled!

What makes you angry?

1. The fact that we make it so hard for Indigenous Australians.  Everything from the lack of opportunity, the racism of low expectations and the lack of access – it needs to change. Quickly.

2. Homelessness.  There is no reason why so many people have to sleep rough every night in a country as wealthy as ours.  As a mother, the fact that 17% of homeless are children under the age of 12  really upsets me.

3.  Women who don’t support other women.  It is unacceptable.  I’m in the Madeleine Albright camp on this one.

4. Arrogance, racism, hatred and a lack of integrity. 

What are you reading?

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (for me), Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (for book club) and Collective Impact by John Kania and Mark Kramer (for GO) 

Favourite piece of tech and why?

My mobile phone!  I couldn’t do my role or run our home without it  – everything from calls, emails, the news, reading, posting on social media for GO, sending out website updates and messages to our students and partners, managing my calendar and chatting to the kids, my husband and my girlfriends during the day. I manage my life on my phone!

If you could have an extra hour to yourself every day, what would you do?

I would love to say that I would do an hour of exercise or meditation but I suspect that I would work!


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