Making a positive impact on the world: Q&A with SVA CEO Suzie Riddell March 2019
Its been four months since Suzie Riddell moved from leading Social Ventures Australia's strategy & advocacy team to leading the organisation as CEO. We ask about her goals in the new role, highlights from the past role, and about SVA's work in 'breaking down barriers'. We also discover a little about Suzie's formative years, her work with the board directors of tomorrow, and about a trip to Guatemala that proved transformational.
- What has been a highlight of your time leading SVA's Strategy & Advocacy team?
The highlight of the role was seeing the impact we could have, both internally and externally, through building a strategy and advocacy function within SVA. Having exposure to so much innovative and leading practice through our work at SVA, we felt that we’d be missing an opportunity if we weren’t helping to make that practice visible to others in the sector, and to government decision makers.
"This kind of change will impact millions of children by helping all teachers across Australia make evidence-based decisions about their teaching practice."
One standout example of our advocacy work has been the momentum that now exists for a national evidence body in education, which SVA piloted a model for through Evidence for Learning. This kind of change will impact millions of children by helping all teachers across Australia make evidence-based decisions about their teaching practice. We ran a targeted campaign involving direct government engagement, coalition building and driving public debate to help get this on the national agenda – and we are delighted to see it close to becoming a reality, with both major parties pledging their support for a national body. It’s an example of the kind of systemic change we are looking to drive more of as SVA moves forward.
Another huge focus for the team was making sure we were interrogating the impact of our work and learning from both successes and failures, which will help us ensure we are concentrating our efforts on the things that will make the most difference in people’s lives.
- What are your goals for the first 12 months in your new role as CEO?
My top three priorities are:
• A relentless focus on building a strong culture and supporting our outstanding team, who are without a doubt our greatest asset.
• Defining our strategy and business model for the next five years, including testing our hypothesis about ‘where to next’ for SVA so that we continue to push boundaries and find new ways to drive social change in Australia so that all people and communities can thrive.
• This includes thinking hard about how we drive more change at the systems level, which is where we see untapped potential to create lasting and widespread change.
- What have you learnt from your predecessor, Rob Koczkar?
I learned an incredible amount from Rob, who has a brilliant mind and a deep commitment to social impact. Rob always encouraged me to think big and challenge assumptions, and I saw first-hand the way in which a small group of people could affect very significant change. On a more practical level, he showed me that organisational transformation can happen (in stages) in just a few short years, and that good structures internally are really important.
- You've spoken about the 'barriers to participation and learning that exist throughout our social systems'. Can you elaborate on these and how SVA hopes to address them?
I have had incredible learning and growth opportunities in my life, starting with being born in to a family that encouraged my curiosity at every turn, and understood the power of a great education. From that strong base, I’ve had access to world-class education institutions, travel, varied career opportunities and fascinating, generous and talented people that have helped me continue to grow, learn and participate in things I’d never even imagined as a child.
"At SVA we aim to create more effective systems for a better society, so that all people and communities thrive.
For a lot of people though, the barriers to learning and participation are immense. Whether it be poverty, trauma, social exclusion, mental and physical health problems, stigma, shame, language, disability, or discrimination (or a combination of these factors); many people often become trapped in a cycle of vulnerability and disadvantage through no choice of their own. I don’t think that’s right, and I think we can work to create a society where everyone is supported to overcome the barriers they face.
This might be, for example, through ensuring all children have access to outstanding education that caters for the vulnerabilities they may bring to school with them, or through combatting the stigma and discrimination people with disability or health challenges face in the workplace.
At SVA we aim to create more effective systems for a better society, so that all people and communities thrive.
- What first drew you to SVA and this field of work?
After I finished my undergraduate degree I spent three months working as a volunteer English teacher at a girls’ primary school in Guatemala. It was a transformative experience. Friends and family kept telling me I was doing such a wonderful thing and I really had hoped to have a positive impact. But instead I think I had no impact or maybe even a negative impact on the girls’ lives. I realised that I hadn’t done my due diligence beforehand on the program, I wasn’t skilled in teaching, and I was only there for a short time.
I decided then that I definitely wanted to do work that had a positive impact on the world, but in a way that would utilise my specific skill set and really making a positive difference. I learned some important lessons about how to go about it, including doing my diligence on the organisation and people involved and assessing how aligned we were. I realised I was attracted to working in partnership, collaborating across sectors and thinking about the big picture.
"I realised that I hadn’t done my due diligence beforehand on the program, I wasn’t skilled in teaching, and I was only there for a short time.
After a few years at Bain & Co developing my consulting skills I started to look for opportunities to move into the social sector. SVA was the perfect fit because it had outstanding people and a great reputation, I was using my strategy skillset and building a good understanding of the sector. In many ways it was the antidote to the Guatemala experience - helping others (philanthropists, corporates and social sector organisations themselves) who were wondering ‘am I actually doing good here?’ – to make sure they were really having the impact they intended, and helping them to take that impact to the next level.
- Can you tell us a little about your work in NFP board leadership training with The Observership Program?
The Observership Program’s purpose is to create an active and engaged network of socially aware emerging leaders. It’s an opportunity for talented young professionals aged 25-40 to observe a not-for-profit board in action for a year. At the same time they get access to world-class training through the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
"I’ve loved being a not-for-profit director. I’ve learned so much about leadership, the relationship between the board and CEO, strategy, risk and more.
From my perspective this is a win-win. The not-for-profits get access to talented people who can help contribute to their mission and the observers build their skills and get a taste of what’s it’s like to be a director. I’ve loved being a not-for-profit director. I’ve learned so much about leadership, the relationship between the board and CEO, strategy, risk and more.
I’m very proud to be a director of the Observership Program and to give so many more people access to these opportunities. We now work with nearly 150 talented young professionals and not-for-profit boards each year in Sydney and Melbourne.
- Where did you grow up and what was it like?
I grew up in Sydney with my parents and brother. My parents were South African and both separately left South Africa as young adults because they didn’t agree with Apartheid. They bravely came to Australia to start over with no family here and no connections. They met here and were proud to become Australian citizens and bring up Aussie kids.
I had an amazing childhood with a loving family and lots of opportunity. Mum and Dad ran small businesses and worked hard. Mum was a CEO of a computer business and won one of the Telstra Businesswoman of the Year categories. She has been a huge role model for me. Dad has been an inventor, business owner, factory supervisor, pilot and more.
Like many immigrants, my parents valued education, and that was really foundational. I’ve always been driven by curiosity and learning and I loved school and uni.
- What was your very first job?
I came up with lots of business ideas as a kid but not many of them made much money. One business was re-formatting old floppy disks and selling them second-hand.
My first proper job was with Pizza Hut in a food court.
- Do you have a secret skill/hidden talent?
If you ask my Dad he’ll tell you that I’m an incredible rower. He boasts to people that I ‘rowed for Cambridge’ in the UK (which implies I was one of the Olympic-level athletes that represent the University). It’s a gross misrepresentation because I actually rowed at Cambridge, for my college, which really only requires some enthusiasm and a tolerance for very early mornings.