By Claire Stuart, Australian Financial Review
A chance trip to help the Australian government deliver food aid to impoverished communities in Indonesia left an indelible mark on Monica Meldrum. So much so, she returned home and started not a charity, but a business.
The company, Whole Kids, manufactures and supplies organic, hypo-allergenic, additive-free snacks for children, and is Ms Meldrum’s attempt to rectify some of the wrongs she sees perpetrated by Big Food, and generate revenue to fund health and education programs for children nationally.
In recognition of her work, Meldrum has been named in this year’s The Australian Financial Review & Westpac 100 Women of Influence Awards, announced on Thursday.
Now in its fifth year, the awards have garnered interest from an increasingly broad cross-sector of entrants, some high profile, such as television personality Lisa Wilkinson, mining magnate Gina Rinehart and three-time Paralympic swimmer Ellie Cole, and others less well known but equally influential, such as Dementia Alliance International founder, Kate Swaffer.
Westpac director of women’s markets, diversity and inclusion, and judging co-chair, Ainslie van Onselen, said finding the hidden talent as well as the more visible leaders is what differentiates the awards.
“Women deserve to be recognised as intelligent, capable and equal and these awards not only highlight the incredible breadth of talented Australian women, they uncover those extraordinary women whose tireless commitment to creating change would have otherwise remained unrecognised.”
It’s a sentiment UN Women Australia president and one of this year’s 100 Women of Influence from Western Australia, Beth Shaw, echoes.
She said the most heartening change now is the willingness of more people to recognise that influence comes in different forms, and doesn’t necessarily rely on formal positions of authority to be wielded.
“It’s about recognising that people have different career paths and experiences, and that experiences we have discounted for not embodying what is traditionally seen as leadership, is actually just a different way of bringing people along, and no less valid,” Ms Shaw said.
Dancer and choreographer Eileen Kramer embodies that idea. At 102 years of age, she is still performing, and as ambassador for the Arts Health Institute uses her own crowd-funding projects to help fund and train artists to work in aged care.
Awards judge Paul Robertson said he was overwhelmed by the energy of the women.
“Often people tend to concentrate on the negative and all the problems we are facing, yet here is a bunch of women who are extremely optimistic and throwing themselves into a massive amount of work to really make a difference,” he said.
“It’s very encouraging and very refreshing. We all need a good dose of optimism in the country and here are the women who are going to do it.”
Mr Robertson, who is chair of Social Ventures and St Vincent’s Health Australia, said it has become apparent that influence is no longer constrained by the boundaries of a particular sector but is increasingly being exercised across a variety of platforms, be it economic, political or social.
“It’s definitely the changing face of leadership and will have a huge impact on Australia,” he said.
As with Ms Meldrum, Alison Green, who founded Pantera Press when she was 22, exemplifies the trend towards cross-pollination between business and social good.
Ms Green said rather than start a charity to help lift literacy rates, she realised the more effective way was to start a company that could fund the changes she wanted to make in society.
“The literacy piece had always come into it because as the core part of the business I thought it was really important to be investing in that next generation of Australians, writers and readers.
“So the business was about finding new authors, but then at the time we had started our Good Books Doing Good Things program, investing a percentage of the revenue into fixing the literacy gap.”
Ms Green said it’s a common theme among the younger generation to start businesses that have an ingrained social purpose from the outset. It’s what Ms Meldrum calls “profits with purpose” an idea awarded by global accreditation as a B-Corporation, which Whole Kids has.
For Melissa Abu-Gazaleh, the next step in creating social change is re-engaging men, and young men in particular. Ms Abu-Gazaleh, whose organisation Top Blokes Foundation works with around 1400 young men each year, says people used to laugh at the idea of a girl helping men.
“‘You’re a girl, you should be doing things with girls’, they said. “I thought yes that’s true but there’s something else to it too.
“It’s root cause analysis. What is the root cause of discrimination? It’s the embedded views of those in power, which is typically in most cases still men in some countries.”
If you want to change men’s behaviour, Ms Abu-Gazaleh says, there needs to be an ongoing conversation, particularly to ensure young men can engage with the broader social culture, and to change the embedded narrative.
“It can’t be a one-off conversation. If you want to change culture, it’s not about being the loudest voice, it’s about being the most consistent voice.”
Fairfax Media Australia