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Sophie’s choices

03 March 2014

Gail Kelly With Young Leader 100 Women Of Influence Winner , Sophie Ryan , CEO Of Sony Foundation Australia

Sophie Ryan (pictured with Westpac CEO Gail Kelly at left) has been the CEO at the SONY Foundation for a little more than three years. In 2013 she was an Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awardee.

Sophie’s description of herself as a “capable child” has gone on to inform her confidence levels. She embraces being faced with new challenges and her choices have given her plenty of unusual experiences to work through.

Sophie's career took an interesting turn early on. Studying Law at the Australian National University in Canberra, she had always been interested in world issues and wrote a paper on torture. It was published just as the debate in Australia and the world exploded over the very vexed question of whether torture ever constituted a legitimate means of extracting information. Sophie's paper was picked up by the UN Rapporteur for Torture’s unit. The Rapporteur, Manfred Novak, invited Sophie to Vienna to join his unit on the strength of it.

Sophie’s role with Novak’s unit included researching reported incidences of torture and conducting fact-finding missions, but after some time working with him, she found the sadness and incredibe brutality she confronted taking its toll on her.

“I’d worked in development and seen the devastation caused by famine, disease and natural disaster, but this pain and suffering was caused by humans inflicting the horror and pain on our most vulnerable," Sophie explains.  

“In the end I knew I wasn’t cut out for the role, long term.”

Back in Sydney Sophie returned to her career in litigation, mergers and acquisitions with international commercial law firm Allens Linklaters.

When Sophie was approached to return to work at the UN to take up an international consultancy position based in Vienna in the Office of Drugs and Crime, she was fortunate to have the support of her employer, Allens, and took a leave of absence to accept the position.

Her work would be on a criminal law reform project (a field position in south Sudan) that would implement new laws in Sudan and work with the courts, as well as train up court liaison officers, to administer these effectively.

But Sudan had other ideas.

“I’d worked for some months in Vienna putting the project together. When I arrived in Sudan and went to the courts to meet my new colleagues, there were no judges sitting at the bench and the queue of people waiting to resolve issues was out the door. The court was derelict,” Sophie explains.

Finally, she located an official. He explained that as a judge he still didn’t have the requisite powers to administer the law because the criminal law he needed had been sitting with parliament for two years. He also hadn’t been paid for four months and was not about to open the courts until he was.

“I remember calling my boss in Vienna,” says Sophie, “to tell him I’m redundant here. He said, ‘so where are the people who need to be trialled?' That was when my criminal justice project became a prison reform project.”

Over the next 18 months, Sophie shuttled between Vienna and southern Sudan, spending much of her time in the African nation working on the project.

To further test Sophie’s skills in negotiation, communication, relationship building and ingenuity, a ‘perfect storm’ of global issues threw another obstacle in the path of her work.

“I was working with a Canadian and one of his countrymen had spoken out about the regime in Sudan and at that time, this sort of action would get you banned from the country,” Sophie explains.

The upshot of it was Sophie discovered she was the only person in the team allowed to enter the prison. The next hurdle were the guards, who had no interest in helping her.

In the end it became a test of will, says Sophie, who sat outside the prison under a tree for hours at a time waiting to be allowed in side.

“It’s what you do in southern Sudan. Sit outside under a tree and play the waiting game,” she explains with a wry smile.

Finally, the guards let her in. She thought they would accompany her, and was shocked when they closed the door behind her and 600 half-naked, emaciated, starving men and boys rushed toward her.

“I thought, I can’t just run out now,” says Sophie. “I’ll never get back in.”

Over the next few days, she set about understanding how the prisoners were to progress to being trialled in court, and perhaps released. Her other priorities included getting a handle on what the existing conditions and issues were within the prison.

“Essentially, the prison was a holding cell,” says Sophie, going on to explain that minimal records existed for the prisoners - no names, dates of entry, exit.  As for why the prisoners were there? That was often lost in the mist of time, or more shockingly, you were someone suffering a mental illness.

People with mental illnesses are imprisoned in Sudan and the women’s prison held inmates incarcerated for adultery.

“Once I got in to the prisons it was a relief to have a structure around me and the access to start the work.

"My first few days in the UN compound taught me lessons that have never left me. I struggled with the disparity that seemed to exist between the UN camp and the outside reality. How could this fully functioning village compound exist and yet across the wire it was chaos and death? I came to realise however, that the quick fix solution of taking your food out and handing it out to the people would never change the situation. I also learned not to judge.”

For Sophie, the process of stripping back preconceptions and value judgements to engage on all sides, rather than, for example, setting up the prison guards as an enemy, was eventually to lead her to better, more positive outcomes.  

“I remember asking the chief guard what the priorities were for funding. He said new ropes for hanging. I thought how am I going to work with you… until it was explained to me that hanging is part of the capital punishment system in Sudan and when the rope keeps breaking and it takes five, six or seven attempts to kill someone then you have a humanitarian issue.”

Two of Sophie’s wins in Sudan were the simple acts of getting reading material into the prisons and uncovering teachers among the prisoners who could teach the inmates to read and write, and stimulate many of the younger men and boys who were able to read.

This then led the UN to set up an educational literacy program for the guards, many of whom it was discovered could not read or write.

In the women’s prison, many of them were pregnant. They all had to work. This work was usually cooking around one big open fire to provide food for the male prison. Sheer exhaustion caused many of the women to miscarry. Sophie was able to get treadle sewing machines in to the prison, and pregnant women could be employed in another capacity. There was a noticeable improvement in the female inmates' health.

It was developments such as these that got Sophie through the harder times.

Committed as she was, her position at Allens meant she had to return to Sydney.

Back home and wanting to make use of some of the skills she’d developed through her UN work, Sophie sought Allens' support to set up a dental project for Indigenous communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

“My father is a dentist so I knew about volunteer dental programs and I’d worked for Pat Dodson [former Chairman of the “Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation”] as a graduate, so I understood the need for oral healthcare in remote indigenous communities.

“There are many dentists who want to do volunteer work and help with Indigenous Australian health but didn't have access to the opportunity to do so. Working with the Charlie Perkins Trust we set up Tooth Mob, to provide dentists with the opportunity to work in remote Indigenous communities to provide dental care free of charge ,” explains Sophie, who was coming to realise that the law might not be able to answer all her needs in a career.

“I finally decided to leave Allens and was considering returning to the UN to work in corruption or human trafficking when I was approached about the CEO position at the SONY Foundation,” Sophie says.

“At first, my priority was to return to work overseas… then I met the board,” says Sophie, who was also beginning to realise what it might be like to work in development projects without the challenge of dealing with large scale corruption.

The Foundation was also expanding some exciting new programs and projects and the opportunity to continue that work was of undeniable interest to Sophie. The power of the Foundation to be able to leverage the reach of all the Sony companies, their media partners as well as access to Sony Music artists, was also appealing. The position was the perfect fit, enabling Sophie to utilise her corporate experience in the philanthropic arena.

The SONY Foundation began in 1999. It was triggered by a piece on Channel Nine’s Today Show, featuring a holiday camp held at St Ignatius College Riverview for children with special needs which was fast running out of funding. One of Sony's director saw the program and the Foundation was born to provide funds to keep the camp going. The Foundation now funds 25 of these holiday camps.

In recent years, the Foundation has also initiated and developed its own projects and programs, including its You Can, youth cancer centres, and Sophie, with her small, disciplined staff, spends a great deal of time shepherding those projects through to fruition. The Foundation also runs corporate social responsibility programs for corporate partners, fundraising and grant giving, as well as matching charities to corporate members “to get the best out of each other for the people who matter, the people those charities’ programs and projects support”.

Sophie has also overseen the consolidation and growth - in what have been called difficult financial times - of the Foundation’s corporate partnership program. It’s something of which she is very proud.

However, the big take-out on a personal level for Sophie has been “learning how to manage different people differently”.

Having come from a legal background where everything is structured, the reporting lines clear, to working in areas where no such lines existed (Sudan being an example), Sophie learned the importance of listening and communicating and remaining open to ideas.

“It doesn’t work to be too sure that the way you do things is the right way to do things. From my experience there are many different ways to reach a solution,” says Sophie.

“I think being a leader is about getting others to do extraordinary things. Fostering talent in a team is so important and I’m proud of the way that has evolved at the Foundation. I’ve benefitted from being given opportunities to develop and it is what I hope I do now for others,” finishes Sophie.


Executive Director Of Sir Charles Gairdner Group Robyn Lawrence , Sony Foundation CEO Sophie Ryan And Former Federal Minister

Sophie Ryan (pictured above at the opening of the Perth youth cancer centre with Robyn Lawrence, left, and Tanya Plibersek, right) is a Westpac Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence awardee for 2013 and won the Young Leader category. The development and building of the SONY Foundation Youth Cancer centres has been a major part of her work as CEO.Launched in 2010, ‘You Can’ is a joint initiative of SONY Foundation and CanTeen to support 16-25 year olds with cancer. The longer term aim of ‘You Can’ has been to fund the establishment of youth cancer centres throughout the country. The first centre opened in Perth recently with thanks to a $1.8 million donation from Sony Foundation. Sophie is now working to build similar You Can Centres in Sydney and Melbourne.



  • Qinnie Wang

    Qinnie Wang 7 years ago

    Sophie you are a great leader and inspiration to young women. Well done!