Founder of charity SisterWorks - a not-for-profit that exists to help women migrants, asylum seekers and refugees become financially independent and happily settled in Australia.
Can't start the day without: Coffee
Best read for personal growth: The book that I read and re-read many times is called 'One Hundred Years of Solitude', by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love it because it’s essentially about not losing your roots in life.
Favourite quote: “Better done than perfect.”
Top music track for motivation:I’m Here to Offer My Heart, by Marina Rossell
Most afraid of: Many things. Carrying the responsibility for so many women through SisterWorks and how to ensure its future beyond me. Balancing my own personal passions with my passion for SisterWorks - that is my current fear.
Go-to to let your hair down or have fun: Spending time with my husband at our caravan near Bendigo. It's really remote and we can really switch off there. The Victoria countryside is just magic and so relaxing.
Thrivher Survivor Moves
Today, you’re fulfilling a vision and a mission with SisterWorks. Looking back, when did this first become an idea and what elements of your life have helped you get where you are today?
I have always been a people person and to begin with I was a GP. At the time, I felt a strong desire to reach more people and I didn't enjoy being a doctor, although I knew I wanted to work in the health sector. I wanted to be doing projects and making decisions, so at 25 I became a manager of a hospital in Colombia. However, I grew tired of things being more about money than people, so I decided I had to leave the health sector.
It took a lot of courage to leave the security of my job without really knowing exactly what I wanted to do or how to do it. I started by studying business administration and ended up embarking upon my first business enterprise with my teacher. Alongside that I began teaching marketing and business strategies.
I developed my own consulting business and became a successful Strategic and Marketing Advisor for large companies in Colombia. In ten years I had completely changed profession, although helping people was still my driving force.
Why did you relocate to Australia from Colombia and how did this influence your career path?
The past is painful to talk about, because I came to Australia as a political asylum seeker. I was working for a left-wing political party under a right-wing government. We stood for equality for everyone, but that was in direct opposition to the privileged group of educated, wealthy people who have always been in power and want to remain so. I had to flee the country, so together with my husband and daughter, we packed a suitcase of our most valued belongings and travelled to the first country to grant us a visa - Australia.
I had to lose who I was in order to survive and it's painful to remember. I am established in Australia now, this is where my life is, but my roots will always remain in Colombia. It was during this transition to Australia that I conceived the idea for SisterWorks. I met many migrant women taking English classes, who were struggling to pay their bills because they did not have the tools. As well as the language barrier, they were also unaware of how to navigate the employment sector within a Western society. I realised there was an opportunity for me to help these women, by using my tools to empower them.
What were the first practical steps you took to develop this concept?
First of all, I began doing market research. I started putting myself in the shoes of these women. I tried to understand what organisations were supporting migrants. I felt that the most important thing was to be able to speak English and to make a network. It developed very organically. I had the knowledge, but I needed to believe I had the courage.
You don't need books to tell you the first steps of business - you just need to believe in yourself and understand the market. This is how I started, by learning English, making connections and trying to understand what was going on with migrants and refugees in Australia. I learned that the current system placed all non-English speaking migrants into level 1 English classes, without appreciating the differing needs of a previously educated person and a person who was illiterate in their own language. Everyone was also taught how write a CV and handle an interview - but what good is that when a person cannot read or write?
You don't need books to tell you the first steps of business - you just need to believe in yourself and understand the market.
Money was also invested in community centers to enable migrant women to connect through crafts or cooking - and whilst that is enjoyable and therapeutic to an extent, it doesn't address the deeper problems of confidence, identity, worth and integration. These were the problems I wanted to address through SisterWorks.
What an incredible insight you discovered, and what an amazing leader you are to decide to become the voice for change for so many who are disempowered for a variety of reasons that a lot of us don’t fully comprehend. How did things evolve from there?
I started SisterWorks to develop something that I could show to Australians, to prove that I was a useful human being. I too was looking to find my identity and my role within my new society. I wanted to help others, but in order to help others you have to first help yourself. SisterWorks was my opportunity to become independent and to provide for myself and my family, through helping others. Initially it was difficult to find someone willing to take a chance on me. People didn’t want to take the risk of employing me - a strong woman but with no great communication skills or knowledge of the sector.
I wanted to help others, but in order to help others you have to first help yourself.
There was no security, I was an unemployable person, trying to convince people of my idea. So I decided to take matters into my own hands and I rewrote my business plan and invited professional Australian women, whom I already knew, to invest in me. In 2013, I invited ten women to a launch at my home - they became the ten women that founded SisterWorks! I told them my idea and they become my first board. Many of them I had met through the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and I now consider to be my good friends.
What have been your biggest challenges that have taught you the most and helped push you forwards?
I am a very emotional person and this is both my biggest strength and my biggest weakness at the same time. I wear my emotions on my sleeve and sometimes in the way I communicate but it is something I am working to improve. I need to get better at making rational decisions rather than emotional ones, but I see this weakness as an opportunity for me to learn and improve.
Since SisterWorks began, what have been your top “pinch me now” moments?
It's difficult to choose because everyday is amazing! But to give you an example, one day a design lab coordinator, who used to be a dentist in her country, came here because her husband had a work opportunity, said that SisterWorks was her space. Before, she had only ever had her husband's friends and connections and she felt very alone because she had nothing for herself. SisterWorks changed that for her and gave her the opportunity to make her own connections and friends. Similarly, my new general manager is a software engineer from Indonesia and she was offered a great job opportunity to return to her profession, but she turned it down. Her salary here is nothing in comparison to what this new job was offering but she chose to stay because life is more than just money. These are the things that make me proud and this is why I am here.
Thriving and Kicking:
Is there a piece of life advice that you know now, that you wish you’d known in your 20's?
Yes. Life is in the present and we are here to be happy. Sometimes we put all our hopes and dreams in the future, but life is right here, in the present and the relationships we create with those around us are what really matters.
Sometimes we put all our hopes and dreams in the future, but life is right here, in the present
For women who want to make a positive change in their life but don’t know where to start, what advice would you give them?
Connect with other women. Start to dream with other women. Believe in each other. Believe in those dreams and just do it, now is the time! If you have a dream, make it happen!
Is there anything else you would like to share with the Thrivhers community?
The only way that we are going to support each other is by creating networking and business opportunities. Take a look at our website and our online store, where you can buy gifts or make donations to support us and our work!