Violet Roumeliotis has spent 30 years in leadership positions at major not-for-profits, in a career that’s been focused on supporting at-risk communities throughout Australia.
Since 2012, Violet has been the CEO of Settlement Services International (SSI), a NSW-based not-for-profit organisation that provides support services to refugees by raising awareness of the economic value of migration and fostering entrepreneurship among refugee and migrant communities.
A child of Greek immigrant parents who arrived in Australia in the ‘50s with not much but a strong work ethic, Violet has set an ambitious course for SSI’s growth and development. In the past four years under her leadership, it has grown its revenue from $9 million to $110 million and staff from 60 to 600. SSI has invested heavily in three major social enterprise projects, one of which is The Staples Bag, a retail store and pop-up shop providing affordable groceries to approximately 750 families every week. Violet was named the 2017 National Telstra Business Woman of the Year out of 45 finalists and 4,000 nominations, and it’s not hard to see why. We sat down with her to talk about leadership, growth, and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
Your leadership saw SSI’s revenue grow from $9 million to $110 million and from 60 to 600 staff. What do you attribute to that growth?
I think it was a mix of things. Firstly, there was a group of us that had a very strong vision and mission and purpose. It was a view that we needed to diversify our funding. We knew that as an organisation we had a purpose, and we wanted to be able to provide a range of services that allowed refugees and newcomers, asylum seekers to lead lives that they wanted to lead with purpose and with dignity. Our vision meant that we needed to provide a range of services that saw them as integrated human beings and that meant partnering and developing a range of collaborations across sectors with the community, with government and with corporates.
For myself, it was being able to build great executive teams within the organisation and ensuring that they were high performing and had a purpose. It was also ensuring that our resources were targeted to the needs of our community and that it was as effective and efficient as possible. And working in a way that was sustainable, long-term and that was to our strategy and to our purpose. Not just short-term and just quick fix, but involving our clients and our communities in what we were doing and in the solutions.
You talk about strategic planning and thinking a lot. Do you think that’s a skill that can be learned or have you always been a strategic thinker?
I’ve had the benefit of being in the sector for over 30 years, and I’ve seen projects where people have embarked without thinking strategically in the long term where they want to go and what the purpose of that strategy is. So you have your long-term goal and aim, and then you start from the beginning, and you plan for it; your strategy and your goals and how you aim to get there. Plan out your resources, your timeline, your communication plan, your marketing plan, and then you ensure that you have the right people in the right jobs to get there – all of that strategy is critical to success.
Absolutely you can learn how to think strategically; probably the best learning is done through failure and making mistakes.
On the massive growth that you’ve seen in the past four years, what are some of the biggest challenges that you needed to overcome to scale?
Definitely change management. When you’re growing at such a pace, it is tough for people sometimes to be able to work and make decisions when there’s a lot of ambiguity and a lot of change. People can become very nervous or very anxious when you can’t have all the information or when things are shifting and changing very quickly. So being able to communicate and reassure people about the direction and the vision and that leadership is critical.
You mentioned before that the not-for-profit sector needs innovative solutions and entrepreneurial thinking, why is that important now more than ever?
The world is changing at an extraordinary pace, and quite often there is stereotypical thinking applied across the board. The corporate world thinks that the not-for-profit sector (again it’s a stereotype) is inefficient, volunteer-run, and not very entrepreneurial thinking and that’s a fallacy.
And on the other side, the not-for-profit sector thinks that the corporate sector is not values-driven or doesn’t have any aspirations in terms of social justice. It’s time for us in the nonprofit sector to step up and to really make the most of the skills and the extraordinary expertise that we have developed and really showcase it through innovative thinking.
We have many people from different backgrounds and sectors approach us and offer in-kind and pro-bono advice and opportunities. So collaborating with Google or Microsoft or other corporations can bring extraordinary opportunities that a few years ago we never would have thought possible. Before we used to think just within our sector and now through digital opportunities, through applications, you can do so much. So it really is up to us to make the most of innovative opportunities like that to support our clients and to look at partnerships, not only nationally but globally where we can showcase best practice.
How have you built a culture of innovation within your organisation?
We’re not afraid to take risks. We’re not risk-averse. We pilot different things and just see how it goes, and we’ve been very lucky. We’ve actually piloted many different innovative programs that have worked. We’ve been able to license them and implement them and replicate them in different areas, and they’ve worked really well for our clients and for us.
It’s about being open to new ideas about putting resources and knowing that we’re taking a risk and we might lose some money or it might fail, but if these things aren’t working we just cut our losses and say that’s okay, what have we learned, move on and try something else.
Looking back, was there anything special about your upbringing that has helped shaped the leader you are today?
I think my parents being Greek immigrants and coming to Australia for a better life really probably motivated me in many ways. Seeing my parents not being able to pursue the education and the life that they wanted in Greece, and coming here and running small businesses and running them well. It was a hard life building their own businesses. They couldn’t speak English well, and I experienced a lot of racism as a young girl growing up in Western Sydney, but they were resilient, and they’re messages were always very positive.
So that’s motivated me, and my career has always been working with those that the system has left behind in some way. I guess I’m trying to provide opportunities for people to meet their full potential and lead lives they want to live.
How did it feel to win the 2017 Telstra Business Woman of the Year award?
Absolutely amazing, it was an absolute honour. I was thrilled and very honoured and very moved. I was very appreciative of my colleagues who nominated me, but I’m also mindful that it’s lovely to be personally acknowledged, but it really is the work of a lot of people that got me to where I am over the years both professionally and personally.
For a woman like myself who was born in Australia of immigrant parents and grew up in Western Sydney. I went to public schools. My undergraduate degree was in Humanities. I’ve always worked in the social justice area. I’ve got business skills, but I’m not a banker, and I don’t have a commerce degree. It was a wonderful thing to win a business women’s award because it says that you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it, and if you’re open to it and if you collaborate with others.
How important are women’s support networks?
They’re extraordinarily important. Extraordinarily. Networking is how men get to where they’re going. They open doors, they help you get jobs, or onto Boards. It’s all through networks. We need to support each other more. Make introductions. Create opportunities for each other, and be their champion if they don’t think they’ve got the confidence to do something.
You mentioned you’re 35 years into your career, and that you learn something new every day. Is that what gets you out of bed in the morning?
Yep, and I can tell you some days it’s a tough gig! Sometimes I think about the global political environment and despair, but you have to feel inside that at the end of the day you’re making a difference in someone’s life. I am very lucky that I’ve always worked in areas where I feel that when I go home, I think, I’ve made a difference today. If not directly, even just being in an organisation where we care about people and being values-driven is very important.
What’s been your most significant leadership lesson?
I think it’s recognising that we’re all leaders in our own way, it’s not something that is just for high powered people. It’s something that we all have within us, and it’s something that we do as part of the community and in collaboration and in partnership with others. You can’t be a leader on your own.
What advice would you give to females on their career aspirations? Or if they’re the only ones with a seat at the table?
Go for it and go speak to women in similar careers or positions and ask questions. Be curious. Ask them to mentor you, say, “Please support me. Please be my sponsor. Please introduce me to people.” Don’t be shy. Ask. Because nine out of 10 women will say “yes, I’m happy to support you and sponsor you.”
Do your homework and ask questions. That’s really important. And chase it. And get qualified. Any qualification you get will never go to waste. That’s yours to own. No one can ever take it from you. It gives you confidence, and it gives you that extra edge, it’s a resource for yourself.
And always develop meaningful relationships, professionally and personally, because they’ll nurture and nourish you and they’ll keep you honest. Build those relationships, and when you need them they’ll be there, and when they need you, you’ll be there for them.
And when you’re the only one around the table, keep your head up high and keep your courage and don’t let anyone ever silence your voice. Keep your voice and be proud of your voice.
The Telstra Business Women’s Awards exists to recognise and celebrate women who are redefining the way we do business and creating new benchmarks for success. Undoing traditional business practices, championing inclusion and innovation, and using their own unique approach to inspire others to do the same. If you know a woman who’s thriving by undoing business, nominate them now for the 2019 Telstra Business Women’s Awards here.