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Stuart Ridley
Business and Technology Journalist

Stuart Ridley is the Smarter Business™ Print Editor and has covered trends in small business, tech and marketing for two decades

Stuart Ridley
Business and Technology Journalist

Stuart Ridley is the Smarter Business™ Print Editor and has covered trends in small business, tech and marketing for two decades

  • Coming to Australia with her family as a refugee, Violet Roumeliotis has focused her 30+ year career on supporting at-risk communities.
  • Violet became CEO of Settlement Services International (SSI) in 2012.
  • Nominations for the Nominations for the Telstra Business Women’s Awards can be made all year round.    

Violet Roumeliotis, Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year 2017, shares her experiences as a migrant and woman helping to improve people's lives. As told to Stuart Ridley.

Roumeliotis has held leadership roles within major not-for-profits for more than 30 years, including Civil Rehabilitation Committee (CEO), South West Sydney Legal Centre (Chair) and The Australian Federal Government Settlement Services Council (board member).

Violet Roumeliotis, 2017 Telstra Business Woman of the Year.
Violet Roumeliotis was the 2017 Telstra Business Woman of the Year.

She was recognised as Telstra Business Woman of the year 2017 for her considerable achievements as CEO of Settlement Services International.

Under Violet’s leadership SSI has:

  • Won funding for refugee entrepreneurs
  • Grown its staff from 65 to 650
  • Increased revenues from $9million to $110 million
  • Expanded its programs from one to 13
  • Helped 1,185 migrants gain work 
  • Distributed 500 tonnes of food to approximately 750 families in just 12 months
  • Secured a place at the UNHCR Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR) as one of only four other Australian delegates 

In the run up to International Women’s Day, Roumeliotis talked with me at length about her career, the impact of her organisation’s work, and why women need a stronger voice in business and the wider community.

“There needs to be recognition by a lot of women that (less visible) leadership isn’t valued enough.”

Role models and mentors matter

“My parents’ [migrant] experience was quite defining for me. 

They were very resilient and optimistic, teaching us the value of giving back to community; to always have a strong sense of yourself; and to remember there is always someone you can assist. 

I grew up in and still have the belief – a Greek belief – that every person should have the right to live their full potential. It inspired me to work in the area of social justice.

It started with my parents: they valued education, especially for women, and saw it as a safeguard for our future. 
When I was an undergraduate there were amazing ‘elders’ who built my confidence and encouraged me to ask questions – they never made me feel like a question was stupid. 

Now as a leader it’s very important to also give of myself back. A cup of coffee or a phone call can make a really big difference to someone’s capacity, wellbeing and aspirations.

Leaders need to allow other people to lead too and respect other views. I value the views of the real coalface staff – people working in the community, helping people with disabilities or case managing foster care – as much as what my senior leaders are advising. 

Over coffee we have conversations about how they work in this society, and the things they need help with. Those conversations can be daunting for the people at the coalface but they’re very important because we discover more of what needs doing.” 


Settlement Services International and values-driven work

“I’m very proud that, with a team, I took an organisation that had one prime area and one stream of revenue into 13 program areas and a very strong, diversified revenue stream. 

We’re no longer relying on a single funding source, which has also helped other organisations do what they do best, delivering services in their local communities.

We’re working in a very competitive environment, with a lot of concern about collaboration and partnership. What we’re able to do is bring diverse organisations together by looking at common goals and values to help vulnerable communities.

Collaboration and having a common purpose means we can achieve more together. We can really make an impact in developing great workplace practices, developing opportunities for people to move across organisations so that [wherever] someone goes they get a good standard of service. 

You can be competitive in this sector, you can be efficient, you can make a profit, but you don’t have to be predatory. We’re all working for a greater good. 

Collaboration gives our organisation some certainty; particularly as 90 per cent of people working in the sector are from culturally diverse communities and about a third have had refugee experiences. They’re working in a sector where they have specialised skills and they are recognised for that – something I am very excited about.”


Reporting to government on migrant and refugee issues

“In my 35 years in the sector, one of my personal challenges has been traversing the survivor guilt. 

Governments of all colour are moving more and more to codify what not-for-profit organisations shouldn’t do. I think politicians have lost touch with how ordinary Australians are living – and what they’re feeling.

When organisations are engaged with communities they can add extraordinary value. So I think we’re obligated to give honest feedback to the government about the impact of policy.

For example, we campaigned with communities about the rule in NSW that asylum seekers are not entitled to a travel card or any travel concessions. 

Young men that could have been my sons are on their own and very vulnerable, living on 89 per cent of a benefit. At times they are compelled to travel to the city from Western Sydney, where many of them are staying, to meet with immigration officers. It could cost them $10-12 on public transport, which is a third of their living allowance for the day. 

We developed a campaign with other like-minded organisations to show the NSW Government it wasn’t in its best interest to deny these people travel concessions and travel cards. These young men are living in the community and we didn’t want them to be encouraged to do anything untoward. We won a concession but we had to walk that line very carefully; the State Government was more sympathetic than the Federal Government in this area.”


Nourishing innovation

“When people arrive in Australia we have a dual responsibility: we’re case managing (so they can access services) and we’re offering our own services. 

We have multi-lingual case managers developing a plan for every member of the family, including health, housing, Medicare, getting the kids into school.

Once you do all those essentials, you ask them ‘What do you want to do here?’ You look at any qualifications and experience they have to see if you can get that recognised. 

When I joined SSI I went to the board with an idea to nourish innovation and entrepreneurship among refugees and recent migrants. 

In 2014, we introduced the Ignite program, a small business startup initiative for people who have been in the country less than 12 months. I think part of my inspiration was seeing a lot of entrepreneurialism among my parents’ migrant communities.

We had the program assessed by Professor Jock Collins, who said ‘By all accounts this program should have failed because it’s targeting newly arrived refugees who don’t have English language, don’t know the market, have no capital, have no networks… and yet it worked’. 

Since Ignite started, we’ve helped establish 85 new businesses with guidance from business mentors, our enterprise facilitators and volunteers from the local community. 

There are another 30 startups in the pipeline: there’s bridal couture, magicians, a driving school, photography, cafés – it’s just extraordinary. We are so proud of that. Nurturing your own little business, living a good life, employing other Australians – it’s typical of the Australian dream isn’t it?”


4 reasons to enter Telstra Business Women’s Awards 

Violet Roumeliotis explains the value of the Telstra Business Women’s Awards:

It’s as much for your team as you – “A couple of my colleagues, Katrina and Carmen, nominated me; they had the strategy and the idea to get out there and promote our achievements. The day after the Awards, it was such a high in our office. They were so proud and happy for me – and proud for themselves. They’re all people who do great work day in day out, not for the money but because they have a vision, philosophy and ideology that fits in and inspires them.”

You’ll take stock of how you’re going – “When we got the application form it was daunting. I thought, ‘This is going to make me reflect on my career journey and it’s really going to push me out of my comfort zone’. Sometimes we wait for others to tell us how we’re succeeding and to promote us. There is that humility because we know nobody gets into leadership positions by themselves. It’s a team effort: one might get the accolades, but many have contributed. Even if you don’t win, it’s such a wonderful and positive process, and you meet so many extraordinary women who are all giving it a go.”

You’ll help other women have a voice – “There needs to be recognition by a lot of women that (less visible) leadership isn’t valued enough. The woman in the playground at school who is hearing issues of the school community and taking those issues up to the principal and P&C, that’s leadership too. It goes to the heart of the way I think women operate, which is following their instincts and immersing themselves in something. They do it but they don’t actually say, ‘I am leading this, I am driving this, I’m making decisions, I’m giving outcomes here’.”

The alumni network is incredibly inspiring – “I hope to contribute to the network of businesswomen greatly, giving back, nurturing and supporting other women. 
I first met Captain Mona Shindy (a Navy leader and Telstra Business Woman of the Year 2015) at the inaugural National Multicultural Women's Conference in 2016. Mona is very inspirational: her story of being in a man’s world in the Navy, an engineer, a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, who had challenges from her own community. She blew me away; she’s a true pioneer.

Andrea Mason (CEO of Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjnatjara Women's Council and Telstra Business Woman of the Year 2016) is an extraordinary Aboriginal woman, proud and very inspiring. 
I’ve also been speaking with Anne Bryce (CEO of Achieve Australia and NSW Business Woman of the Year in the for-purpose and social enterprise category) about the alumni network and how we could contribute. We are hoping to have three or four women refugee entrepreneurs we might sponsor to be part of this process and say ‘Look, here are some potential Telstra businesswomen’.” 

*Originally published March 7th 2018. Updated June 27th 2018.

Nominations for the Telstra Business Awards are open year-round.
Find out moreNominations for the Telstra Business Awards are open year-round.
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