Although I do not blame my immediate family, I do think they held me back in the most creative and developmental part of my life. Back in the early 90’s, this was not spoken about, and it was often very much the trend to listen to your family and not speak out. But I did speak out, and that became a weapon for them to say NO all the time. I rebelled against this, because I knew how motivated and how progressive I was as a student, and also understood what I did not do so well at.
I excelled at learning French and was offered a position to go to France on an exchange with another student for one year. I really wanted to do this, as I love to learn language, but my parents turned the offer down and said I was too young. I remember our first high school camp with an all boys school (I went to an all girls private school) and I was also told I could not attend. A huge knock to my self-confidence, when I already struggled with low self esteem at school.
When I was completing high school, I knew I wanted to work in the Natural Resource Management industry, as there were limited jobs available in the zoo industry and it was very difficult to get into the industry without knowing the right people. So I took steps towards positioning myself for a job in the environmental sector. I never wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, which was what the family originally had aspired for me to become, but what I did know was that I want to work with wildlife.
I was very young when, at the age of 12, I started my professional career at a small private zoo, Ballarat Wildlife Park. I pretended to be the next Jane Goodall and aspired to work with gorillas like Diana Fossey, only it was impossible from Australia unless I worked in a government zoo. Never the less, these conservation champions became my role models and formed a huge part of my professional career.
Eventually I reached my personal goal of working at Melbourne Zoo. I remember it was the happiest day of my life getting the call to say I had the chance to interview. And then a few days later, ‘you have the job!’. For the two years prior, I had been applying for a position every three months; sending in my resume and hoping just to get an interview. Maybe I just became really annoying and someone felt sorry for me, but it worked. Ha! I started to work with elephants, which scared the crap out of me! And of course it was an all male team. I remembered to not be afraid, but confident, and also worked really hard to show and prove I was good at what I did. My Curator was excellent, and also helped train me to be better than I had ever dreamed I could be. I loved the chance to learn; to show I could excel and be the only female at the time; that women can be great elephant keepers. I really was extremely lucky to have this opportunity and very grateful to have such a great mentor to push me beyond my personal limitations.
As my contract position finished and the girl who took my job entered, I was then sent to other areas of the zoo and continued to show my skills working with wildlife. Finally, I worked with primates and that changed my life!
A few years later, I ended up becoming the Supervisor of Primates and I was in this position for a further four years. I protected my position, showed strength and a bit of arrogance so other Supervisors could not pull me down. I was often asked ‘why I would work with my team and not lead’, but my method of leading was very different than the traditional methods. It gave me one of the best performing teams in the zoo and we received great feedback from management in how we delivered. The jealous behaviour from other male supervisors is what drove me to be better than any other team at the zoo. I quickly learned from their behaviour, and became stronger, independent and strategic in everything I did.
After 5 years working in the zoo industry, I started to get anxiety again. Was this a sign I needed to re-evaluate my position? I started to have aspirations to work in the conservation sector and become a Director of a project overseas. Little did I know, three years later I was the first Australian, and the youngest, to receive a Fellowship Award from the Pratt Foundation.
I remember clearly sitting in the foyer waiting for my interview with the Board, and being the only female. I was surrounded by men in suits, and I had made up my mind I would never even have a chance. So why the hell not just go for it and be confident and slightly ego driven in front of the Board? I had already given up before I had the interview! I had already been convinced by my inner voice that I was not getting this award, so who cares? I decided to just give it my all regardless.
Driving home that afternoon, I just laughed at myself thinking, “who am I?” A 26 year old girl sitting in a room full of 30 + year old men in suits, aspiring to be the best Australian in in-situ conservation. Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang and I was awarded the Fellowship. Apparently I was the youngest they had ever given the chance to interview, and they were so impressed by my passion, confidence and determination to learn more. This prestigious Fellowship ended up shaping my career to become a conservationist and led me to the position I am in today.
If I had doubted myself on the day of the interview. and let the gut-wrenching fear of sitting in a room full of men overwhelm me, I would have failed myself miserably.
After spending this time in the conservation field, I came back to Australia and decided to set up a travel agency. I wanted to sell programs to other people who loved adventure and who had the desire to give back. I was so inspired by the people I met in North Sumatra and I desperately wanted to make a difference.
I undertook the basic requirements to become registered as a travel agent and in 2010 Raw Wildlife Encounters was born. Today, it is the best ethical and eco-travel agency in Australia, and I would never have imagined that it could have achieved so much. Maybe I was a visionary at the time, but it was my way to give back to the people who had shaped my journey through some of the most confronting personal times, which I will write about in future blog posts!
Six years on from the Fellowship, I became the Supervisor of Quarantine and pre-release at the prestigious Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP).
I worked directly with my boss, Dr Ian Singleton, and learnt more than I had over the last five years at the zoo. I worked in a team which was both culturally and emotionally completely different than what I was ever trained to do. I was in a male-driven environment, where ego was a part of the job: and discovered that if you could work with male egos, then you could do anything! I loved my job, but my goal was to improve the orangutan quarantine station staff training; standards and welfare of the animals; and to become the best reintroduction quarantine station in Indonesia, then train someone to take on my job. I accomplished this, and then went through the hardest time in my life in August 2016 I decided to leave after four years and take on a more personal journey.
I had seen the stress my boss was under; what he had to do every day, and it really did not appeal to me anymore. But I had already reached my ultimate job aspirations! I decided it was OK not to take the next step to become the next conservation Director, but to focus on my own fabulous programs and work with local community. I was already a Director of my own travel agency and also a newly formed Yayasan (Indonesian charity organization).
I call this the washing machine effect: it took me a long time to work out where I was going and what I really wanted to do. I even traveled to try and ‘find myself’, whatever that is supposed to mean! I became so depressed with myself that I just didn’t want to wake up in the morning and have to deal with my life. BUT I had to be strong for the team and the animals during the day. In the evenings I became a complete household wreck. I quickly became an alcoholic and dependent on sleeping pills. Being by yourself in North Sumatra, you must suppress these emotions and not show any signs of emotional distress, as you are a rare women leader and you will loose respect if you show any sign of weakness. It all became too much and got the better of me.
I eventually got my shit together, pulled myself out of this washing machine effect and allowed myself to love myself once again. Today, I am so blessed to be at this point in my life. My experiences did scar me, but I love having these scars. Why? I got the chance to re-evaluate my life and make some really good decisions. Not until you reach rock bottom, can you go back up! That is exactly what I did, allowing myself to grieve, to be depressed, to show my emotions in a completely different light. The orangutans that I was looking after and healing ended up becoming my healers. They gave me hope, perspective, and the inspiration to make some serious life changes.
Do I know what I am doing now? YES!
I developed Jungle Sistas, because I know how hard it is in the industry – both from a zoo and conservation-based perspective. I understand some of the challenges women have to face and equity is not even a word that is considered in some countries.
What I have learnt to date about my career is that it’s also personal. How can you divide personal and career? It is you; it is what you become, how you mature and face new lessons. To be a leader you must be strong, but your personal journey is just as important, as this is what gives you passion.
It is OK to question yourself and have the time to be scared and full of doubt.
It is OK to feel like you are lost and don’t know where you will be in two years time.
It is ok to tell yourself you are not a failure, lost or messed up (even though you may feel this), because it is NORMAL.
If you do not have these moments in your life where you have to question what you are doing and where you are going, then your next chapter cannot start. I also learnt the following:
Never go back to something less than what you have already done: no backward steps and never give up! You are meant to have these chapters to re-evaluate what you are doing.
I always live by this ethos: we are around the same people 9-10 hours a day in most job situations, which is more than your family and friends. We have to almost LIVE with our colleagues and employees, and we also have to be happy in what we do. As soon as we start to see the fractures, it’s time to start the next planning stage.
The fear of ‘not knowing if it’s the right path?’ or, ‘what to do?’ is the best chapter in anyone’s life. WHY do I think this? Because you have a choice to change it and only you can work out what you want to become. You have the freedom to make yourself happy professionally and no one should ever take less than happiness. When you are satisfied about going to work each day, your performance is maximized and the people who are looking up to you will become inspired and motivated. Then the wildlife you are responsible for, or the environment you have to protect, becomes so meaningful and a positive energy is formed where thing start to happen for the better.
The endless, confusing circles you are currently feeling if you are in this washing machine effect is normal, and the anxiety/fear is also normal. Just take a breath.
So if you feel like you are having similar feelings, where you are lost, scared about taking the next step and simply don’t know what makes you career driven anymore, then I suggest starting with the following questions:
Grab yourself a drink, diary and a pen. These questions may take one hour to answer or one week, but if you have started to consider them, then I suggest you are already on the journey to making some professional changes.
What makes you happy now? Personally and professionally.
What do you fear?
What keeps you up at night?
Do you stress and if so what about?
What does job satisfaction mean to you?
What are you good at in your current job?
What are you not good at in your current job?
What aggravates you at work? Personally?
What do you want to learn?
Why do you want to make a change?
What is important to you now in your life?
What would you sacrifice or live without if you had to make a change?