The Women of Achievement events connect North Queensland’s leading experts and researchers, female founders, entrepreneurial visionaries, truth-tellers, innovators, thought leaders and dynamic women in business who inspire and elevate each other.
This year’s Women of Achievement luncheon presented a commanding collective of women who shared honest, inspirational and raw stories which we share for you here.
COLLECTIVE HUB’S FOUNDER, CEO & EDITOR-IN-CHIEF AND BEST-SELLING AUTHOR LISA MESSENGER BELIEVES IN CHANGE – EVEN IF IT MEANS BREAKING SOMETHING THAT, FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES, WAS WORKING PERFECTLY WELL.
“In life nothing stays the same – and who would want it to?” Lisa said.
“We pivot, we evolve, we grow, we learn. This is truly the magic of entrepreneurship.
“The truth? We’ve all got some brave decisions to make in the future, fellow disruptors.”
An authority in the start-up scene, Lisa’s road to success hasn’t been entirely smooth – but you get the impression she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Beginning her career in sponsorship and events, Lisa brokered international deals with the likes of Barry Humphries (Dame Edna), Cirque de Soleil and The Wiggles.
In March 2013 she began Collective Hub with a team of three, all under the age of 25. Having never worked in media or for a magazine or publishing house, Lisa and her team started wanting to share the grit, the hardships and the successes along the startup and entrepreneurial journey.
When they launched, many told Lisa that nobody wanted to read good news.
“We proved them wrong!” she smiles.
“There’s so much bad news out there, every single day. We consciously and purposely chose to shine a light on the extraordinary people doing amazing things. We broke every rule.”
Collective Hub went on to global success, with the print magazine being distributed in 37 countries within 18 months. With the goal of challenging, inspiring and disrupting the natural order, the Collective grew into an international multimedia powerhouse across print, digital and events, with a following of almost 2.5 million across their platforms.
So why, then, did Lisa close the print platform in April this year?
“I remember when I had a small team of three, I was embarrassed,” she said.
“I always thought that having a small team meant that you weren’t successful. The massive lesson is, bigger is not always better.
“Having had a business with a staff of three and low overheads for 11 years and then scaling to a full-time staff of 32 with massive overheads within a short space of time, I can definitely vouch for keeping a low fixed cost base.
“Using specialists on a freelance or consultancy project-by-project basis is a great idea. Now I have a whole tribe of amazing decentralized freelancers (many of them in rural and remote areas) that I call on depending on the project. It’s working like a dream, and providing work for people where geography may have previously been seen as prohibitive.
“Change is inevitable. We just have to set ourselves up to be able to move quickly with it. Being fluid and in flow is everything. It’s very easy to sink yourself if you’re not nimble. I know – I nearly went there. I had a very big fixed base of salaries and overheads and it very nearly sunk me. Skillsets and market needs change so quickly these days; you’ve got to be able to pivot on a dime.
“It is difficult to start something. It’s equally as hard getting out of something, and takes more courage. However big and however difficult it may seem, be courageous. Keep evolving, keep challenging yourself, keep learning, keep moving forward. Don’t stagnate.
“As long as you know your ‘why’, and that is central to everything – the delivery mechanism becomes largely irrelevant. This keeps you focused but also keeps business exciting and fun.”
Lisa admits that she fails ‘all day, every day’ but she has learnt to ‘fail fast.’
“With social media it’s easy to get a real time feedback loop,” she said.
“Put an idea for a product or service out to your community, test the reaction and appetite for purchase. If it’s not there, hit in on the head quickly and move on before you’ve invested all the time and money into it. Test. Iterate. Test. Launch.”
In Townsville last month as special guest for the Women of Achievement event, Lisa said she was ‘blown away’ by the strength and depth of Townsville’s community of businesswomen.
“There are so many extraordinary, talented, inspirational women in Townsville,” she said.
“I really was so incredibly impressed by the hive of innovation and entrepreneurship. It’s definitely left a strong imprint on my heart and soul and I feel a genuine love for this community. I’ll be back again and again to keep immersing in it.”
GROWING UP IN NORTH QUEENSLAND, WE ARE WARNED FROM AN EARLY AGE ABOUT THE PERILS OF IGNORING SUN SAFETY. FOR MARA SWIM AUSTRALIA FOUNDER NAOMI COLLINS, IT WAS A SKIN CANCER SCARE THAT SPARKED HER ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT.
“It started with my melanoma story,” Naomi explains.
“In 2014 a malignant melanoma was removed from my arm after my sister (and business partner, Kirsty Parnell) noticed the mole looking different and suggested that I see my doctor.
“Some months after that, we were shopping for sun safe swimwear and were very disappointed at what was on offer. We found boring ‘rashies’ and ill-fitting pieces with ugly prints from brands I didn’t identify with or relate to. I wanted sun protection, but that didn’t mean I had lost my personal style.”
Naomi and her sister decided to create a product that delivered everything the sun protection market was missing, bringing high-end luxury and style to sun safety.
Launching in March last year, MARA Swim Australia began modestly, with both women having babies in the months immediately following the launch.
“In the beginning the modest size of the operation suited our lifestyle,” Naomi said.
“We reached a stage where we were ready to take another step forward and grow the business to include wholesaling, and we knew we needed help with that. So, we brought in a wholesale coach that has worked with some big swim labels to assist us through the early stages and develop a refined wholesale strategy. This helped with brand positioning and understanding where we sit in the market, prior to communicating with stores.”
Naomi said growing the label had helped build their confidence in the brand’s longevity, and cites building a loyal following of women that love the brand and swimwear as one of their greatest achievements.
“Improving the body image of women has been a surprise follow on effect of the label,” she said.
“We love hearing from women that tell us they wear their swimwear around the house, that they are excited to be seen in their MARA Swim Australia pieces, go jet setting on holiday with their swimwear.
“It’s also great to have people like Australian pro surfer Sally Fitzgibbons enjoying MARA Swim Australia. This feedback is confirmation that we’re doing it right, achieving our goals and fulfilling our purpose that drove us at the beginning to start MARA Swim Australia.”
Since starting the brand, Naomi said she had learnt several valuable lessons, about herself and business.“Utilising our precious time in the best way possible is a must,” she said.
“Utilising our precious time in the best way possible is a must ”
“We do this by acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses and outsourcing those areas we’re not specialists in.
“I have learned that the number of people that care about Australian made products is growing, and so is the self-care movement – which is exciting for us.
“I have also learned that there are people and networks that genuinely want to see you succeed and will help! It’s important to find ‘your people’ whether it’s for your team or your suppliers. For us, joining with people that ‘get it’ and believe in what we are aiming to achieve is the most effective way to work. We will continue that ethos as we grow.”
IN 1894 THOMAS BRENTNALL, FOUNDER OF THE INCORPORATED INSTITUTE OF ACCOUNTANTS AND TRAILBLAZER IN ESTABLISHING ACCOUNTING AS A PROFESSION IN AUSTRALIA, WARNED OF “THE INVASION BY THE ADVANCED WOMAN”. AND ‘INVADE’ THEY DID.
Today, more than 50% of the Australian accounting workforce is made up of professional women.
One of these women leading the way in Townsville is Sonia Chalk, an Executive at PVW Partners accounting firm, who explains that her ‘obsession’ with numbers began at a young age.
“I loved numbers – despite it being a pretty nerdy obsession at that stage. When I was in grade 9, I started to do accounting at school, I remember telling my mum that I wanted to be an accountant,” Sonia said.
“I have followed that vision through, albeit with plenty of twists and turns along the way.”
With 20 years’ experience in tax, accounting and business advisory, Sonia thrives on being able to deliver financial solutions to local families and businesses.
“I don’t sell a product, I sell a solution,” she said.
Sonia is driven by the success of her clients and their businesses just as much as they are, “because while their business depends on it, so does ours.
“My purpose is to help my clients and their families reach their full potential in their business, allowing them to achieve their dreams,” she said.
“If you’re going to do something, do it damn well or not at all.”
“And even if I can play a very tiny part in helping someone achieve their dreams, that’s just the most amazing feeling.”
Sonia said her journey to her current role with PVW Partners had been full of highlights and unexpected lessons, including ones learnt whilst working for a billionaire in the UK.
“(That) was a truly amazing experience and has helped shape how I deliver my services to clients today,” she said.
“The experience allowed me to sit on the other side of the fence and garner a much better understanding of how to deliver the best client experience, advice and service.”
With a rich history expanding 100 years in Townsville, PVW Partners has cemented its place as an industry leader in our region, and with talent such as Sonia amongst their ranks it’s easy to see why.
“We are a truly locally owned and operated firm, and the recent centenary celebration for the firm made me pause and reflect on just what an incredible milestone that is,” she said.
“That has definitely been a highlight.”
Although she has had many career milestones herself, Sonia admits that like many, one of the biggest challenges she faces is the elusive work-life blend, especially with a young family.
“I have a nine-year old and a four-year old,” she said.
“Some days I get that balance right, the next day I’m an absolute mess. Finding that balance with kids can be a struggle. It’s a continual challenge but it’s important to be kind to yourself and accept those things you can’t change.
“I am also an extremely organised person, so that helps to get me through – particularly on those rough days.”
As for Sonia’s motto, both in life and in business?
“If you’re going to do something, do it damn well or not at all.”
A SELF-TAUGHT MUSICIAN AND ACCOMPLISHED ARTS WORKER FROM OUTBACK QUEENSLAND, MEGAN SARMARDIN IS A PROUD INDIGENOUS WOMAN WITH A PASSION FOR THE HEALING POWER OF MUSIC.
Megan made her public performance debut at the age of five in 1989, singing Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat of Many Colours’ at Mount Isa’s Spinifex Country Music Club.
“I’ve had a love of music since I was a child, encouraged by my parents and extended family to pursue this passion,” she said.
“I completed all of my education in Mount Isa completing my tertiary studies via distance education learning, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts (Human Services) from James Cook University in 2015.
“Before I took part in undergraduate studies, I was also working in the health/welfare/community advocacy area and found that music was a great way to assist some of the people I used to work with.”
Megan met a group of musicians and arts workers visiting Mount Isa in 2003 as part of a community theatre production presented by the Queensland Music Festival. After auditioning for a part, she was awarded one of the lead roles.
“I kept in touch with these incredible people and I started heading to Brisbane to perform in shows such as Women in Voice, the Brisbane Cabaret Festival and creative development shows for other musicians,” Megan said.
“It was also during this time that I began to write a musical theatre piece about my family history and based it on the memories and stories of my great-grandmother, Flora Hoolihan.
“Granny Flora was a long-time resident of Townsville and passed away in March at the age of 102.”
In 2005 following a formal mentorship with John Rodgers funded by Youth Arts Queensland, Megan began to collaborate on the writing and production of Granny Flora’s story in ‘Little Birung’ (originally ‘Blackbird’) until its debut in Cairns in 2010.
“Granny Flora’s story and legacy is such an important part of my life,” Megan said.
“The child of an Aboriginal mother and Russian immigrant father, the fight her parents had to endure to stay together and to be eventually married is essentially what makes me, me. ‘Little Birung’ explored the stories of the women in my family, going back to my great-great-great grandmother Emily Clarke, great-great grandmother Kitty Clarke, great-grandmother Flora Hoolihan, Granny Margaret, my mother Dixie and me.
“Their stories and memories told us of a time in Australia’s history that is still swept under the carpet.”
Megan said narrative therapy saw her learn a lot about her family, as well as herself.
“It is your story and no one can take that away from you.”
“It has made me a better musician and better communicator to an audience,” she said.
“It’s important to listen to the stories the older people tell you. They are told to you for a good reason. It is important to have a connection to your family, country, culture, and lore. This is your overall wellbeing; it means good social, emotional and mental health. This is your heart. It is who you are as a person. It is your story and no one can take that away from you.”
GROWING UP IN THE COASTAL WILDS OF NHULUNBUY IN THE NORTHERN TERRITORY, DR CHERIE MOTTI DREAMED OF FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF RENOWNED NATURALIST AND BROADCASTER SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH.
Having always wanted to work with animals and the environment, particularly marine biology, Cherie has realised her passion; now spending her days working with one of the seven natural wonders of the world – albeit one that is facing extreme pressures – the Great Barrier Reef.
Heading to the University of New England in 1986, Cherie left with her Science Honours degree majoring in chemistry and a future husband in tow. She then took her love of the natural sciences to Griffith University, where she completed a PhD in marine natural products drug discovery, investigating the complex molecules produced by plants and animals that enable them to communicate with each other. “I study the language of chemical communication between marine organisms and their environment, and how this can be used to help the marine ecosystem deal with threats” Cherie explains.
Cherie’s PhD has enabled her to work in both national and international collaborations that have resulted in 88 publications to date, including two ground-breaking papers in the highly esteemed Nature journal – one on corals controlling their local climate, and one on the genome of the Crown-of-Thorns starfish.
Now a Senior Research Scientist heading up critical research at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) here in Townsville, Cherie’s science is being practically applied across a range of areas, from micro-plastics to monitoring coral health and controlling outbreaks of Crown-of-Thorns starfish, and underpins AIMS’ promise to protect the health and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef.
Cherie is currently leading research into rearing the rare Giant Triton snail which eats Crown-of-Thorns starfish. While getting the swimming planktonic babies to settle and metamorphose into baby snails has proven elusive so far, there is nothing elusive about the vital role they can play in reef management.
In all aspects of her life Cherie embraces the motto ‘say yes as often as possible.’
“Inspiration and opportunity come from the most unlikely sources, and we need to give ourselves permission to take advantage of these whenever they arise,” she said.
“Sometimes an opportunity presents itself and it’s easier to say no, whether out of fear of putting yourself out there or because it’s not going to directly elevate your business.
I’ve presented to national and international scientific conferences and participated in plenty of science outreach programs, but when I was asked to speak at the Women of Achievement luncheon my initial reaction was to say no. I doubted that a group of successful and high-flying businesswomen would find my story interesting.
“This deliberate self-deprecation can be stifling and all-consuming, but should be seen for what it actually is – it’s just not true. It is important to find that inner strength, remember the ‘what gets me out of bed’ drive – my passion to educate people about the threats facing the Great Barrier Reef – and just say yes!”
THEY SAY THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD. IN CAT PEGORARO’S CASE, IT HAS ALSO BEEN A THERAPEUTIC TOOL FOR HER OWN RECOVERY, AS WELL AS HELPING OTHERS IN SIMILAR SITUATIONS, AND GIVEN HER LIFE A WHOLE NEW DIRECTION.
26-year old Cat Pegarao is the creator of ‘This Glorious Madness’, a personal blog detailing some hard-hitting issues, particularly around mental health.
“I have chronic depression as well as generalised anxiety disorder, just a touch of OCD and I have survived a suicide attempt,” Cat explains.
“The idea for This Glorious Madness was always lurking in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t until my ex-husband encouraged me to put my thoughts and feelings out there that it came to life.
“I was always told that writing is good for mental health, I just don’t think I realised how much of an impact it would have on me and others going through similar situations.”
Some of Cat’s blogs have been picked up and re-posted by large online media companies Mamamia and The Mighty.
“Each and every time this has happened it has been a great boost of confidence and a reminder that words have an enormous amount of power, which is something that can so easily be taken for granted,” Cat said.
The Mamamia team was so impressed by Cat’s work, they encouraged her to apply for upcoming internships, apparently under the belief she was studying at university.
“At this time, that was not the case,” she said.
“I was working full time and casually writing on the side. Very long story short, I started a whole new chapter of my life this year, personally and professionally.
“I started studying a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Journalism at James Cook University in February, which alone has been a huge challenge but so far, the stress, tears and late nights have been worth it.”
Cat has also started speaking at schools and at local community events such as the Townsville Suicide Prevention Network corporate breakfast, the Selectability RUOK Day afternoon tea, and the Women of Achievement luncheon.
“I was always told that writing is good for mental health, i just don’t think i realised how much of an impact it would have on me and others going through similar situations.”
“It was an honour to be asked to be a part of the Women of Achievement luncheon last month, an experience I will never forget and be forever grateful for,” Cat said.
“While I was being interviewed by Kylie, she asked me what my plans were for the future. A question I have been trying to avoid for so long now. The truth is, I don’t have a plan set in stone, and I didn’t wake up one day and say to myself, ‘your goal is to be an influencer and entrepreneur.’
“I personally don’t think I am either of those things. I have spent the last year finding my passion and developing my skills. Ideally, I would love to continue to write, with the goal of writing a book one day. As well as continue to speak to high school students, workplaces and other community organisations about mental health, and possibly be a radio announcer one day.”