Jennifer Westacott, chief executive, Business Council of Australia
Mercure Hotel, Sydney
7:30pm, 1 February 2020
Thank you for that kind introduction Paul.
I would like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land we are meeting on today, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay respect to their elders past and present.
I also ask you to join with me in remembering the volunteers who tragically lost their lives fighting the bushfires and we send our thoughts to their families.
In our most testing times, Australians always pull together. The efforts of our fire fighters, emergency services and community volunteers has been overwhelming.
I am tremendously proud of the action we are taking at the Business Council of Australia to support the children of the nation’s fallen fire-fighting and other volunteer heroes with a permanent and ongoing trust to support them with an emphasis on their education.
And, through BizRebuild – the Community Rebuilding Initiative – we are assisting fire affected communities get back on their feet.
The initiative, led by Sir Peter Cosgrove, is supporting businesses to recover, economies to rebound, and communities to rebuild.
It is in that spirit of working together and lending a hand that I am truly honoured to be a patron of the Pinnacle Foundation and support its life-changing work.
So, welcome to all of you tonight – scholars, mentors, supporters, sponsors, donors, Paul and Andrew.
I really wanted to work with Pinnacle because I absolutely understand two huge forces in life.
I’ve lived them. I’ve seen them.
I understand the sense of being an outsider - of being isolated - of being different.
And, I understand how education holds the key to overcoming adversity.
For most of us in the room tonight, there comes a moment – a stark and confronting moment – when we realise the trajectory that everyone else around us is on is not a path we will tread.
For me, I knew I was not going to get a boyfriend. I was not going to get married, I was not going to have kids and that was everyone else’s expectation.
Times are different for you, but there will still be a sense that you are not going to lead the lives that people expect of you and society still sort of requires of you.
This realisation is a shockingly isolating thing to happen, especially for a young person.
It comes with a sense of separateness from your family, your friends, and societal norms.
When I worked out - in the same way you did – that I was not going to lead the life my parents, friends and siblings expected, it was lonely and isolating.
Having friends and people around you is not the same as a sense of belonging.
For a very large part of my life, I did not experience a sense of belonging.
I knew I would have a very tough road ahead.
Even though I was never out as a kid at school, I was profoundly different to my peers.
I was shy.
I was withdrawn.
I was very good academically and I wanted to learn and read.
I grew up in a housing commission estate, and had the double whammy of being poor and gay, even though at the time I didn’t know what that meant. I just knew something was different.
I was an absolute target for bullies, who I have developed a zero-tolerance approach for.
I was not interested in Dolly magazines.
I was not interested in boys.
I was not interested in make-up.
Instead, I was interested in going to church.
I was interested in being a nun, and notwithstanding I was a devout Christian, I suspect it was a form of escapism.
I was interested in going to university.
Many people are lucky enough to overcome isolation because their family wraps themselves around them.
I didn’t have that.
I had a very dysfunctional family, and I was being pulled in different directions.
I had a father who just wanted me to get a job and get out.
I had a mother who kind of wanted that but she also knew in her heart there was another way to be.
But I was fortunate to have a grandmother and an uncle who were absolutely determined that I was going to be the kid that went to university.
This was a huge tearing in my life.
Thankfully my father left, my mother gave up and my uncle and my grandmother prevailed.
And so, my education journey began.
I also didn't have that sense in a family of being able to talk to anybody, except my uncle.
He knew about tolerance and understanding.
He came home from World War Two - and society basically turned their back on a man who had spent three years in a prisoner of war camp in Changi.
He intuitively knew about my sexual preference even though I had never discussed it.
He did his best to create an environment of inclusion.
You need people in your life who make these profound impacts, and you’ve got to find those people in your life, whether it is the mentor you have been given or whether it is someone in your wider connection.
My uncle, notwithstanding he was from an older generation, he had no concept that a girl couldn’t do something.
He would take me rock fishing to places I now visit and think ‘that was a very dangerous place’.
He would make me go fishing on rock platforms. He had no concept that girls couldn’t dothat.
He would never say to me, ‘even though you are a girl, you’re really good at fishing’.
He would say ‘boy oh boy, you show all these useless blokes up because you do this better than anyone’.
My grandmother had no concept that you couldn’t self-educate because that is what she had done.
But what really changed my life is the same thing that will change your life.
The pathway out of poverty and the pathway to dignity, purpose and self-esteem is education.
And at Pinnacle, we offer you a sense of family.
I know that many of you have been in similar or worse situations than mine.
I suspect for many people, maybe even people in this room, there is nothing more crippling than having your own family turn its back on you.
I never gave my mother and father the opportunity to do that to me because I came out much, much later in life.
And, of course, there are many kids where their family doesn’t just turn away from them, they turn on them.
We are here to wrap around you, not to turn on you.
This is the importance of the Pinnacle Foundation.
And it is wonderful to see the number of scholars receiving a helping hand grow each year.
There are 22 new scholars in the program in this year.
From studying teaching, the arts, medicine, commerce and other disciplines, you all share a desire to be positive role models, to lead, and to give back to your community.
We applaud you for this.
And, of course the Pinnacle scholarships go further than much-needed financial assistance.
Importantly, you are matched with mentors who share the same academic and professional interests as you as well as gender identity, sexual orientation or sexual characteristics.
Mentors are Pinnacle’s front-line representatives and they are there for you.
Let’s give the mentors a round of applause for the critical role they play.
Mentors, teachers and people matter.
I had my uncle and I had my grandmother, who I shared a room with all my life.
Many people now say ‘wow, that was cool’.
Let me tell you as a young kid, it was not cool.
But the good thing was that my grandmother loved sitting up at night and reading for hours so I was able to sit up and read for hours.
Those two mentors stayed with me for as long as they lived.
Mentors are the anchors of your life.
Later, I had great mentors including Gabrielle Kibble, Andrew Cappie-Wood, Craig Knowles and every president of the Business Council.
So, please embrace your mentors.
The second thing I had was some great teachers.
My music teacher Mrs Williams took this chronically shy teenager and enabled her to find her voice by getting me up on stage to perform in The Mikado and Oliver.
She encouraged me to play hockey.
I was pretty good at hockey and I was cracking at squash.
Sport instilled in me the importance of teamwork, confidence and that wonderful sense of reward and effort.
My English teacher, Ralph Murray, gifted me an absolute passion for reading and encouraged me to develop an inquiring mind.
He taught me to appreciate Hamlet, rather than agonising over it. He introduced me to The Old Man and the Sea.
He got me on to Graham Greene. I still read Monsignor Quixote and The Power and the Glory.
Great teachers give you the foundations that stay with you all your life. They help develop your character.
University was the most confronting and rewarding thing that ever happened to me.
Like many of you here tonight, I was the first person in my family to go to university.
I was wracked with an overriding feeling that I didn’t deserve to be there.
I felt I did not belong and I was going to fail.
But I connected with amazing people who took an interest in me, and the same will happen for you.
The person who took the most interest in me was Donald Horne.
He became my thesis supervisor.
Here was this great Australian who penned one of the nation’s most important books, The Lucky Country, taking an interest in this little kid from the housing commission.
University became a massively enriching experience for me and simply life changing.
Now, to your education journey?
You have a world of opportunities before you, supported by these terrific scholarships and your mentors.
Education is the great equalizer.
Education is the glue that alchemises a sense of isolation and loneliness into a sense of inclusion and purpose.
Education helps transform people who lack confidence into people who can be supremely confident and successful.
Education is a quest for understanding.
Have an inquiring mind.
Have an optimistic mind.
Learning is about follow through.
It is about accepting that the first thing you hear or read is not necessarily the right answer.
It is about challenging orthodoxy.
A questioning mind is a powerful tool and it is the greatest single force behind discovery.
Be the person who loves to understand things at their deepest level.
And, values matter.
Education without values is only one side of the coin – it is simply information.
But when values and knowledge come together that is what makes successful and enduring people.
For me these are: ethics, integrity, honesty, courage, compassion, commitment, and humility – although that would be a contested space.
The people who are incredibly successful are motivated by a sense of mission and purpose.
Nourish the art of collaboration.
Nurture the colleagues and friends you make.
Trust me, you will find yourself reaching out to those people for expertise, guidance and friendship more often than you can imagine.
Be a team player.
A team player is a person who passes the ball.
A team player recognises when someone is stronger and lets them shine.
Be part of a champion team, not a team of champions.
Be the person that others come to for help and advice.
Be the person that others trust to confide in when something is wrong.
Have pride in your achievements.
And, importantly for all of you here tonight - think about what you want to influence and the change you want to bring about, not the position you want to occupy.
And in every walk of your life, persist.
Don’t let other people tell you what can and can’t be done.
Don’t let other people define what success looks like for you.
Never let others define what is possible.
Impossible is a word humans use all too often.
Success is about hard work, tenacity and perseverance.
Continue as you are – by always being true to yourself.
And finally, I also want to encourage you to give back and support other people.
I pride myself on this.
When people have been treated badly I will often be the first person on the phone to ask how I can help.
Be the person who is generous of spirit and generous of mind.
Embrace the concept of kindness into your life.
It is the kindness of others that saved my life, and it is the kindness of others that powers the Pinnacle Foundation.
I am so proud to be a patron of this organisation.
It is vital that we continue to find the resources to support more students like you.
Your journey, my journey, are sadly not isolated journeys.
They are far too common
In some cases, when you look at the abuse some young people are experiencing, from whatever background they are from, it is incomprehensible to me how those kids will ever get ahead.
But for you, you have a massive opportunity to make education a game-changer.
Grasp it with both hands.
Blend it with some of the values I have talked about, particularly humility.
And, I promise that you will make an enormous difference to your life and all those around you.
The purpose of these scholarships, the purpose of discrimination laws, and the purpose of many things that didn’t exist when I was growing up, is to make sure that sexual orientation is not a reason that people can’t get ahead.
In my case it was not an obstacle to getting ahead, obviously.
But that’s because I got very good at living a dual life and a secretive life, which was quite emotionally exhausting and intellectually exhausting.
I wonder sometimes what life would have been like if it had been a more open and tolerant society like it is, in many ways, today.
So, celebrate the fact that there are incredibly supportive organisations like Pinnacle here for you and that you live in a society that actually dares to say it is not okay to discriminate against you.
Going forward, we have to remember that, if I use the words of Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility’’ but with great opportunity comes even greater obligations and responsibility.
And, the reason I say that is we have to take collective action to fight continued and deeply ingrained homophobia and prejudice.
We may have marriage equality but I do not believe we have societal legitimacy.
Recently we saw two very prominent cricketers make homophobia slurs as part of the pointless sledging that happens in my favourite game, cricket.
Whilst the cricketers were deeply apologetic, it shows how these societal values and prejudices are ingrained in the wider community’s DNA.
And, I live and experience this time after time.
Sometimes when I am in a meeting with people, often some powerful people, I get a sense of deeply ingrained contempt.
It is different from the contempt that many people have for the job I do. I know that contempt because people are not silent about it, even though business employs 11 million Australians.
But you know the contempt I am talking about - the contempt that people show you for your so-called “lifestyle choice’’.
I can assure you I would have chosen my partner, Tess, a million times over but I would not have chosen this as a lifestyle because it was a tremendously isolating and lonely existence.
For example, in my extended family, Tess and I were banned from Christmas events for nearly 12 years which turned out to be a joyous thing.
This absolute lack of legitimacy about respecting your partner and asking how they are goes on today.
One of the things I love about the company I sit on the board of – Wesfarmers - is that no matter what function or occasion I am at, everybody always asks me ‘how’s Tess?’
But in other settings there is often a sense that you are a novelty, not a legitimacy – that is what we have to continue to fight against.
That is our collective duty.
Having now the privilege of education, the instilment of great values comes with the obligation of making society better.
And, to be complete person there is nothing more important than finding an enduring relationship - finding the great love of your life like I have had the privilege of doing for over 30 years.
It is one of the most strengthening and dignifying things that can happen in your existence and I encourage you to do it.