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09 Apr 2019

Southbanker Image

An inspiring voice for women

By Sean Car

As society continues to make positive inroads in addressing gender inequity, it is due to fearless leaders like Karen Hayes who work tirelessly to make a difference.

While she is currently most well known for her work as the CEO of Guide Dogs Victoria, the Southbank resident of 12 years was honoured as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) on Australia Day for her long advocacy for gender equity and women in sport.

A co-founder of the Australian chapter of the International Women’s Forum (IWF), her work in advocating for women’s rights in a range of fields from business through to sport stems from her days as one of the founding members of Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA).

She has since gone on to build a reputation as an inspiring voice for women in Australia, from serving as the first female board director at the Melbourne Football Club to chairing Women of Melbourne to her work with the Women Chiefs of Enterprise International.

Having established a strong foundation for her advocacy on a long and successful career in business and technology both in Australia and overseas, she told Southbank Local News that she was proud to have used her professional profile for good.

“I do what I do because I love everything I do and because I really want to make a difference, particularly for young girls and women,” Karen said.

“I think if you do have the honour of having some level of profile in the community then you also have a responsibility to do good and make a difference and that’s what I choose to do.”

“I never dreamt in a million years that I’d ever receive anything like that [AM]. I don’t think anybody who is a recipient of this kind of recognition do what they do for that, so when it happens, it’s actually a real surprise.”

Born and raised in Kadina on the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia, Karen said strong family and community values that go with growing up in a small country town had taught her the importance of hard work and supporting others from a young age.

And growing up alongside a twin brother, she had learned early on that gender was no barrier to having her voice heard and getting what she wanted out of life. As far as the glass ceiling was concerned, she said she never looked for it.

While family and community influenced and supported her own pathway to leadership, she said that she had always felt obliged to create pathways for other women who were not as fortunate to have had the opportunities or the voice that she did.

One of those pathways has been her work for women in sport, namely football, where through her service at the Melbourne Football Club she played a leading advocacy role in the establishment of the AFLW competition.

“I’m just so proud of where women’s footy has gone and what that creates for young girls and women,” she said. “The fact that this now creates pathways for women, not just playing, but pathways as coaches, umpires, medical teams and a whole range of prospects across all elements of football is just fantastic.”

Locally, she is also president of the VU Western Spurs Women’s Football Club, which is based in Footscray. She said that since the introduction of the AFLW, the club had grown from 60 to over 200 players.

While her advocacy for women continues through a range a range of initiatives, including the recent establishment of Not in My Workplace – an organisation enabling businesses and individuals to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace – her efforts don’t stop there.

As well as serving on the boards of Multiple Sclerosis Australia, Vision 2020 Australia and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, it’s her role as CEO of Guide Dogs Victoria that sees her squeeze “28 hours into a 24-hour day!”

Having served as CEO since 2011, she has led the organisation through a huge period of transformation, reflected through the upcoming redevelopment of its campus at Kew into the world’s first sensory campus off the back of a $23 million fundraising campaign.

The facility, which is due to start construction this year, will include a vet clinic, a doggy day care centre, a dog-friendly cafe and an education auditorium that will all provide revenue-generating vehicles for the organisation.

Karen described the business model as a “game-changer” for the not-for-profit sector. With only 10 per cent of Guide Dogs’ funding coming from government, she said the high dependence on philanthropic funding was unsustainable for any charity.

“I think what I’ve brought to the organisation is a strong commercial business development, relationship management focus that is quite different in the not-for-profit sector, which has enabled us to look very differently at our business,” she said.

“The sensory campus introduces a whole commercial aspect to how we’re going to fund our services and it builds sustainability, predictability and diversity into our revenue streams. It’s a very different model for a not-for-profit but it’s a model that others need to look at.”

“It’s a complete transformation of the most trusted charity in Australia to ensure that we’re still going to be here 60 years from now.”

Alongside her own beloved pup Willow and the 180 staff and 650 volunteers that make up Guide Dogs Victoria, she said the organisation was in good shape for the future thanks to its wonderful team.

Overall, she said that she had been blessed over her journey to be influenced, inspired and supported by good people in all aspects of life.

“People ask what are some of your real lessons in life. Number one would be surround yourself with amazing people,” she said. “I’ve really been fortunate enough to do that. Whether it’s been my family or the amazing leadership team at Guide Dogs and the Melbourne Footy Club. I was the only woman on the board back then but I had the utmost respect from all the other guys, as well as the coaches and players.”

“They all knew me and I felt completely respected and my view respected even though I didn’t know a lot about football, they really respected what I brought to the organisation and I really am thankful for that.”

As for her message to other women wanting to make a difference, she says to believe in yourself and have a go.

“It’s very Australian isn’t it? You just have a go,” she said. “Women are their own greatest critics. I don’t think I’ve ever accepted a role that I thought I could do. But you just say, I’m going to give this a go and see how it goes and, invariably, you’re great at it!”

“It’s quite different from guys who say ‘I’m going to be great at this’ whereas most women do have this confidence thing. But it’s about giving it a go and seeing where it leads you.”

“Just get out there and make a difference! It really is about having that attitude.”

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