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Mary Reibey building the brand

14 April 2014


20 dollar

Mary Reibey must have been one feisty woman.

I sometimes imagine what colonial Australia was like in 1792 when Mary Hollis/Haydock arrived at the age of 15. (Mary married Thomas Reibey, a free man in the Sydney colony, when she was 17 and went on to have seven children, as well as run the businesses they owned.)

When Mary arrived in Australia she was a convicted felon and dressed as a boy.

Dressing as a boy, it was thought, began as a prank. Growing up in country England Mary decided she wanted go for a ride on the local squire’s horse and to do that she dressed as a boy so as not to attract attention.

What happened to Mary because of that ride was life changing. She was accused of horse theft and eventually convicted and transported to Sydney. Her disguise, which she had the foresight to keep, I am thinking, certainly saved her “virtue”.

Australia, specifically Sydney, was a place of convicts, soldiers, a few free men, men and more men. This was a developing nation. A place with little or no infrastructure, in fact, there wasn’t even a bank until the Bank of NSW (later to become Westpac) began in 1817.

It was also an era in which women hardly figured outside of two classic roles: wife or prostitute.

Women certainly did not run businesses nor were they successful entrepreneurs - unless it was in the more nefarious roles of madam or tavern owner.

All this is what makes Mary Reibey’s life and considerable business success in the colonies so remarkable.

It’s no secret I’ve have been fascinated by Mary and her life for a few years now. It’s why I chose her to represent the work we do in Women’s Markets at Westpac around empowering women and growing their leadership skills, contributions at work and in our communities.

We have a suite of awards under the Mary Reibey brand, the newest of which is our Mary Reibey Mentor Program which was launched in 2014.

The Mary Reibey Mentor Program is run by Orijen Mentor and links our recipients from the not-for-profit area to female leaders in the business world as their mentors for a year.

The inaugural winners are Rosemary Bishop, CEO Mamre Plains Ltd; Leanne Townsend, CEO of the National Aboriginal Sporting Chance Academy (NASCA) in Redfern; Siena Balakrishnan, CEO/General Manager Milk Crate Theatre.

Our other Mary Reibey awards include the Mary Reibey Grant, which supports and encourages a “pioneering” woman entrepreneur, or women’s group, dedicated to improving community wellbeing in Australia, especially in relation to disadvantaged women and girls.

Our 2014 winners are the NPY Women’s Council social enterprise: Tjanpi Desert Weavers (some of the women are pictured below with me in Melbourne at an event in 2013). Tjanpi employs more than 400 indigenous women in culturally appropriate work, providing them and their communities with financial support.

Tjanpi the story of the 7 sisters

In all that we do there is always more than a “dollars” approach. We provide one-on-one guidance, workshops on planning and evaluation, and other resources to help ensure our women leaders realise their vision.

We also have our Mary Reibey scholarship, awarded in conjunction with AGSM Executive Programs to advance and grow women leaders in business. It was the first in our Mary Reibey suite of awards. We have awarded for the past five years now two scholarships to women customers – one in business and one in not-for-profits – to develop their leadership and business skills.

The 2014 scholarship nominations opens May 1 and closes May 30. It only requires entrants (who must be Westpac customers) to write 500 words as to why the course would benefit their business or NFP.

We invest where we see lasting social and business return on ideas and people for their communities. Success for us is to see an initiative or a person with far-reaching impact develop into the future. All of which brings me back to asking how a cross-dressing convict ended up on our $20 note? 

I reckon it was having the intelligence to stay quiet when it counted and exhibit courage and pluck when it was really called for.

Mary was a creative entrepreneurial thinker who worked within and outside the business and social systems and structures of the time – a true free spirit pioneering and taking the opportunities offered by a young Colony.

What is fascinating and mysterious is that in reading about her, even the secondary sources and opinions on her, her own letters and dealings in business and her subsequent attempts in the later Colonial literature to clean up her past, one never gets any impression of who she was as a person… what she felt, what made her tick, her inner landscape.

No doubt the rigours of her early life, the stress of providing for seven children (mostly on her own) and running the businesses, left her with very little time to think about or put any of her needs to the forefront. As for life in a Colony where safety from the elements, the corrupt dealings of those in charge and the lawless nature of many of the inhabitants were the norm, she can hardly have had the space and time free from insecurity to sit back and ponder. Perhaps that is also why there is just one existing likeness of her and that was done well into middle age.