When Natasha Chadwick left school at the age of 15, she didn’t have big ambitions for a career. She started working in administration before becoming a young mum.
“At the ripe old age of 20 I had my first child,” she says. “Previously I thought all I wanted to do in life was to stay home with kids but then I held this baby girl and thought ‘Wow I have to care for her and show her how to be a woman in the world’.”
That provided the impetus for Chadwick to enrol at university in an organisational management degree that changed everything – despite the fact she didn’t ever graduate.
“I don’t regret it at all because it started the journey of life-long learning for me and it geared me towards reading and looking at things analytically and considering new ways of doing things,” she says.
After almost five years of juggling study, the business she’d started, and her young family, things became too much. “I was two subjects off [finishing] but the business took off and then I didn’t see the need to continue,” she says. “Having a degree is very important but when you start your own business you can create different options and pathways.”
In more than two decades working in aged care – as a consultant, operator, entrepreneur and innovator – Chadwick has forged a pretty extraordinary pathway.
She worked as the National Executive Officer for the National Association of Nursing Homes and Private Hospitals and played a pivotal role in reforming Federal Government policy, providing advice around the provision of quality aged care for 1997 legislation.
Starting Innovative Business Improvement Systems, IBIS, was Chadwick’s big leap into developing alternative models of aged care facilities and retirement villages.
In May this year, the founder and CEO of Queensland aged care facility, NewDirection Care Bellmere, was named the 2019 Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year.
On accepting the prize, she delivered a heartfelt plea for a radical rethink about aged care.
“The questions that the Australian community needs to ask itself are; do we still think it’s okay to segregate someone who is living with dementia from other people in a secure environment? To criminalise someone who is living with a brain injury or brain disease? If you had a loved one in this situation, it’s not what you would want for them.”
That desire to do things different is ultimately what drove Chadwick to create NewDirection Care.
“If I wanted to change something I had to change the way I thought about it.”
“It’s an absolute turn-around from traditional aged care and I do put that down, in part, to my ability to actually stop, rethink and relearn and that comes from those early days of realising that if I wanted to change something I had to change the way I thought about it.”
But doing things differently hasn’t been easy. “If I’d known how many hurdles I had to clear I might not have done it!” she laughs. “You have to be resilient – to get back up after the knocks. That’s why you really need that belief in what you’re doing.”
Back when Natasha started NewDirection and sought to provide truly respectful care, not institutional care where all a person’s choices were taken away, she faced resistance.
“Some people called it Natasha’s folly which was confronting at the time but amusing now.”
“Within the industry itself there were many people who thought I’d gone silly when I spoke about my vision for changing aged care,” she says. “Some people called it Natasha’s folly which was confronting at the time but amusing now.”
Being a woman certainly didn’t make any of the challenges easier. “There have been hurdles around being a female. Even though aged care itself is a female dominated industry – it’s not at the owner level. Being taken seriously and getting funding for example are things I had to work hard at.”
Seeing residents who are living with dementia, smiling and happy and getting on with living, is hugely rewarding, but she wants the conditions that facilitate that to be emulated by other operators widely.
“NewDirection is not just about creating my own business to provide individualised care, I want to change the industry.”
“NewDirection is not just about creating my own business to provide individualised care, I want to change the industry, and not just in Australia but worldwide, particularly around how we treat people with dementia,” she says.
Having a very supportive partner has been a significant enabler of everything Chadwick has been able to achieve. “We have a very equal partnership. We’ve both worked and looked after the kids and never really been into ‘male’ and female’ roles,” she says.
When she reflects on what she is most proud of Chadwick pauses before answering.
“Taking the leap to start a business is a big step. That was a huge milestone,” she says. “And it makes a big difference when you can see your vision come to reality. To know [we] can impact a whole industry – not just individual lives – is pretty amazing.”