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Carol Schwartz Director Trawalla Foundation; Chair Our Community

07 March 2011

\"I feel I've been banging my head against a brick wall. I've been talking about the same thing for more than 25 years now: the need for diversity and for business models to get with the times. Today's business models are about as relevant as living in the 1950s.\"

Galloping nowhere

It's a cool grey summer's day under the glazing in the lobby of Sydney's Westin Hotel. Melbourne businesswomen, arts and philanthropic pillar, Carol Schwartz, is drinking peppermint tea into which she teaspoons ice cubes every so often. (She tells me later in the interview in the context of my question on what her three passions might be: that she does not drink alcohol or eat chocolate.)

Carol is in Sydney on a yoga retreat, and between practices, business and family commitments, we meet to talk about her favourite topic, her \"hobby horse\", progressing women into senior management positions and into senior roles on corporate boards.

But in Carol's mind the stark reality is that she has failed to make any change... that she is still writing the same \"letter-to-the-editor\" about diversity and business needing to reflect the society it serves as she did more than a quarter of a century ago.

\"A few years ago, I actually climbed down off my hobby horse for a minute, because I was worried it was defining who I was too much and that could be both harmful to my effectiveness and to the message. But I've climbed back up.\"

Carol is dressed casually: jeans and jacket. Her characteristic curly hair, clear green eyes and quietly spoken personality make an immediate impression. This is no ranting harpy but a woman of conviction with a mission.

\"It's absolutely crucial that when my daughters get to my age they will have a different set of opportunities. I don't want them talking like me, bemoaning the fact that in 25 years nothing's changed.\"

Getting somewhere

All in all, Carol's assessment of where we are when it comes to diversity in senior management and on boards – nowhere – is scarily true. But her criticism of herself is a little too pessimistic. There have been changes in our workplaces and society for which she can take a great deal of credit, and the groundswell for top management change in which she still plays an intricate part is on the way to being irreversible.

University statistics reveal that female professional graduates now outnumber men. And the amount of women graduates with economic and accounting degrees and MBAs, \"who can read a P&L and who have often run their own businesses\", make up a very tidy talent pool. What annoys Carol is that those pools are not being accessed and women still suffer under the vast generalization – put about by both sexes – that they are no good at budgets, can't account and have no idea about business.

The need for quotas

\"Our businesses are set up along old models. The idea that there is one person working, the man, and he has a wife and children at home, is straight out of the 1950s. It's totally unreflective of what is actually going on.

\"What disappoints me is that the young men coming out into the workforce do not have this as their modeling but, because business is still run by old-man ideas, it is easier to conform to the old paradigm than be the lone questioning voice. That is not the path to success, who wants to rock the boat and risk losing a job to broaden the talent pool.\"

Companies that have embraced diversity on many levels are showing improved financial performance, according to Carol. And yet even with such tangible economic benefits available to them, many corporates remain unchanged. One would have to admit this is more than missed opportunities. It looks like bad business.

\"The argument that quotas will negate getting the right people for the job is ridiculous. What is fair or meritorious about some guy saying to a friend in a bar I am on this board and we need another member. Quotas will force corporations to look at a diverse group of meritorious people.\"

Carol, who is keen to set up a database of qualified women for the media and journalists to use when they want financial commentary and expert opinions, has always practiced affirmative action when it comes to promoting women in business.

\"I once heard that outside of Israel, Melbourne had the most holocaust survivors of anywhere in the world. I think the family businesses that grew up in Melbourne, and which were set up by wives and their husbands together (and it was in that culture that I grew up) has left me with a great legacy.\"

My experiences

A self-confessed serial entrepreneur, Carol's first venture into business was in the very early 1980s. She had studied and finished law and decided to travel. While in the US, she became involved in the Jane Fonda workout craze. Coming back to Melbourne, Carol decided to open her own aerobics and dance club, which a year later – and having just had her first child – she then sold. Four years later, and with her third child, she finished an MBA, had been involved in some successful property developments and with her older sister Naomi had begun her involvement in the family shopping centre and retail fashion business.

\"I love business. I think I always have. Even as a child I remember playing at business, the money coming in and going out, all the cookie tins lined up ready. But no-one can be the full bottle. To be a success in business you need to have your own expertise and to draw on the expertise of others – as many others and as different to yourself as possible – because then you can reach well-researched outcomes and make good choices.

\"I'm on a number of boards and arts boards and I know the importance of diversity not just in gender but in age, cultural and societal experience.

\"A bunch of 50 and 60 year olds talking about the benefits of Twitter and Facebook is just nonsense. To get the best out of a business or an arts project or group you need to tap into as much different experience as possible.

\"Once you have a level of experience your confidence grows and that is important. You learn from mistakes and successes and that only comes with opportunity.\"

Past and Present

Carol is a founding investor and current Chair of Our Community – Australia's first major social enterprise established not solely on the criterion of profit but to enhance the social good. Our Community provides capacity building tools, training and resources for the Australian community sector. During December Our Community and Westpac will launch Giving Week and the new website. The site is designed to provide a range of free resources and innovative giving tools — it's a commission-free website listing thousands of good causes and creative ways to give (including a special category for women's groups), a personalised donations tracking service, and a free giving newsletter.

She is also involved in organisations as diverse as the Heat Group, the Sydney Institute, Qualitas Property Partners, and Melbourne Business School. Past roles have spanned business (Industry Superannuation Property Trust, Property Council of Australia, Sussan, Anstat, OPSM); government (VicHealth, Docklands Authority, Future Melbourne Reference Group); the Arts (Comedy Festival, Australian Ballet School, National Gallery of Australia, Melbourne International Arts Festival) and community (Mental Health Research Institute, Baker Institute, Australian Bush Heritage Fund, Western Chances).

Key Achievements

I actually have four, and they are my children

Personal Passions

Investing in and promoting women


Arts culture


Useful links