Playing on a remote island.

Serendipity, Play & The Women Who Have Inspired Me on My Journey

March 8th is International Women’s Day. It’s also the one year anniversary of my landing in Australia, replacing my boots and jeans with flip flops and funky pants and taking the helm of Telstra’s startup accelerator muru-D. It’s been an incredible ride to date. And while around the world there were plenty of IWD blogs, events, and images touting ways we should progress gender parity and think, act, and be gender inclusive, I’m going to take a pause and recognise the women who have been inspirations in my life — examples of breaking the rules, leadership, boldness and play — and who helped me get to where I am today.

This blog has been in my head for some time now, slowly being written every time I stop to appreciate the many women who’s subtle lessons have taught me so much. I’ll share four themes that emerge from my reflection. Thanks to these lessons and women, I’ve been able to authentically reinvent myself in this new country, new company and new role — and hopefully inspire others to live their life with purpose, bravery and gusto.

1. Break the rules: It’s ok to colour outside the lines (aka, The Two Vickis)

Me with second-grade teacher, Vicki Ehrens in 2018

Did you ever have that primary school teacher who always handed out boring worksheets and generic patterns and told you to work on them in silence and cut, colour, and paste them to look like everyone else’s? Did it stand out? Did it scream innovation? No! Well, Vicki Ehrens, my second-grade teacher, did everything in her power to ensure we were unique and innovative at a very young age. She provided us with paper, scissors, crayons, egg cartons, toilet paper rolls and glue and said GO! As I reflect back, this laid the groundwork for me to embrace simple innovation using the resources we were given. After creating our one-of-a-kind masterpieces, Mrs.Ehrens would sit with us, one on one, and say “tell me about your picture”. It was in this time and space we were free to share our unique thinking and why we drew, cut, or pasted what we did. The impact of those open-ended questions and working in an environment where everything we created (inside the lines or not) was of value, and equally loved by her. It had meaning. It was as safe space. And, most importantly, we were all awesome in our creativity. My experience in her classroom as a second grader was a big inspiration to why I became a teacher myself, and now get to work with entrepreneurs in Australia who colour outside the lines.

Fast forward a few decades, and the second Vicki in my life demonstrates why it’s not only important to colour outside the lines, it is, in fact, encouraged. Vicki Saunders is the founder of SheEO, a fund that celebrates, supports, and funds female entrepreneurs. For the last two years I’ve had the honour to know and work with the infectious energy and drive of Vicki and the hundreds of women who are eager to create this new economic model. I’ve seen the impact of 500 women (Activators) contribute $1100 (yes, a half-million dollar fund) that gets loaned out to five female entrepreneurs selected by the Activators. Having successfully helped bring the model to the US, I’m eager to bring it to Australia. We’ve got some great momentum.

Vicki Saunders in the muru-D playroom as part of the Visiting Entrepreneur Program from the City of Sydney #VEPSyd

This visionary model is emerging as a leading global innovation that is totally unique. SheEO pushed the reset button on how to support women on their own terms. They focus on bringing out the best of women by being radically generous to one another. Rather than trying to fit women into the existing models and systems and level the playing field, we are creating an entirely new field. Another way of colouring outside the lines.

(Any interest in getting involved or learning more about SheEO in Australia, register your interest here — tell ’em I sent you.)

2. Play: Play early and play often (aka, the principles of improv are therapeutic)

Remember your younger days spent in the playground or in the sandbox making sandcastles or mud pies, or creating forts in your backyard? Those times were fun and carefree where you played without judgment. When the sandcastle fell down, the mud wouldn’t stick quite right or your little brother decided to run through your fort, you quickly let it go and moved on to play more, recreate (dare I say, pivot?). It was only when I accepted this huge role and moved to Australia that I was finally able to articulate the power and possibility of play. Improv is play.

Having had the opportunity and privilege of working with three exceptional female improvisers in San Francisco, Rebecca Stockley, Zoe Galvez, and Betsy Crouch I’ve had the confidence and ability to bring both the principles of improv and play into my current work. First, play with the mindset of saying ‘yes and’. This principle entails being supportive and open. It moves things forward: Ideas, conversations, projects, and relationships. The ‘and’ part of ‘yes and’ is additive (and addictive). Accepting what is being offered and building on it in order to create flow. This is play.

Betsy Crouch, me, Zoe Galvez of ImprovHQ

Most of my favourite improv games results in being silly and messing up — in a safe non-judgemental way. Accepting failure moving on and embracing the unexpected is one key to letting go. I’ve brought these games not only to the cohorts of founders, but to the CTO senior leadership team at Telstra, my colleagues. At first hesitant when told they would be doing improv (it’s a little confronting to think you have to ‘be funny’ on demand) the results after playing were transformational. I was able to create a safe place for failure, encouraging everyone to lift their arms up and say ‘woo hoo’ whenever they made a mistake while we were playing. While it’s counter-intuitive to celebrate and open up your body when things go wrong, altering our physiological response to failure can lead to transparency, availability, flexibility and even happiness.

Improv is also a way of life. It applies to all of us each day and includes expression across all artistic, scientific, physical, cognitive, academic, and non-academic disciplines.

The energy in your body will automatically shift. When I feel myself getting frustrated or tightening up because something didn’t go the way I hoped, (there’s a lot of that in the world of startups and managing a global team), I’ll raise my hands with a ‘woo hoo’. It helps me move on and not hold on to what went wrong. It’s like meditation with a laugh. Go ahead, try it yourself. Let me know how you go.

Where do you find ‘play’ in your everyday? Please share! Tweet me here @julietrell

3. Leadership: Choose to be the sun, not always the wind

It’s hard to write a blog about the women who inspired me without mentioning mom (or mum). I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without her support and encouragement.

Mom would always remain calm under pressure and rarely made a scene when things didn’t go her way. She was never the one yelling at the airline ticketing staff when flights got canceled or berating at the wait staff if her meal was cold or not quite right. It was with patience and gentleness she would endure these situations and usually get the desired result.

Mom, with poodles Tippy and Muffin and brother Jeff (circa 1977)

Mom has inspired me in many ways and one particular memory is from her time as a lollipop player (do you see a play theme here?). Lollipop players were a group of women who would go to schools, libraries, or camps and perform short stories for kids. All were teachable lessons. One story that has always stuck with me was “The Sun and the Wind”. The story tells of a competition between the North Wind and the Sun to decide which is the stronger of the two. The challenge was to make a passing traveler remove his cloak. However hard the North Wind blew, the traveler only wrapped his cloak tighter to keep warm, but when the Sun shone, the traveler was overcome with heat and soon took his cloak off. The moral it teaches is about the superiority of persuasion over force. In this role and as a female leader strength can be defined by resilience, composure, and building authentic relationships.

While “force” is often attributed as a male characteristic, there is no reason for women to mirror a masculine persona in order to succeed. Persuasion and kindness are, at times, even more valuable traits that are paramount in GSD [getting shit done]

4. Be Bold: Unleash your inner wonder woman. Wear a cape (and flip flops)

With Wonder Woman Annie Parker and her amazing dog Fred. (Trust me, she’s wearing flip flops)

After nearly 15 years in corporate roles, I spent a year as a consultant working

with companies helping them to integrate philanthropy into their business. That break from corporate and an opportunity to work solo gave me a chance to recognise that in any work I do from that day forward had to be with purpose driven companies, a place that values all humans, one of inclusion, and where making a positive impact was a big driver. It was a memorable ‘aha’ moment for me.

Then appeared a playful job description titled: “looking to fill my flip flops”. I knew I had to see what it was all about Without question, it was the most human-centric job description I’d ever read. And it was in Australia — a half a world away — with some skill sets that I wasn’t sure I had. In another time, I would have read it and moved on. However, this time, I decided to buck the statistic that states women only apply for a job if they feel they are 100% qualified. I spent that night imagining what life would be like in Australia. And it fit — in my dreams. I was determined to learn more about the requirements and more importantly, the opportunity to work with purpose driven companies and people.

Then, I received a call from Annie Parker, whose flip flops were about to be vacant. Since I had clearly articulated what was important to me, I was able to boldly share the values of what I needed in my next role and with whom I wanted to work. It resonated with both of us. Learning that Annie wore a cape — and flip flops — to her final meeting at the Telstra senior leadership sealed the deal for me. We both took the risk — she to offer me the role, and me to take it. The risk has been greatly mitigated as I’ve got Annie and her extensive network of incredible and respected humans to whom she’s introduced me. (And knowing Annie is only a text away at ANY hour of the day/night where we support each other, simply amplifies the boldness.)

So, here I am one year later, colouring outside the lines, playing, leading and being bold thanks to just a few of the wonderful woman who have shown up in my life.

The North Wind and The Sun

The North Wind boasted of great strength. The Sun argued that there was great power in gentleness.

“We shall have a contest,” said the Sun.

Far below, a man traveled a winding road. He was wearing a warm winter coat.

“As a test of strength,” said the Sun, “Let us see which of us can take the coat off of that man.”

“It will be quite simple for me to force him to remove his coat,” bragged the Wind.

The Wind blew so hard, the birds clung to the trees. The world was filled with dust and leaves. But the harder the wind blew down the road, the tighter the shivering man clung to his coat.

Then, the Sun came out from behind a cloud. Sun warmed the air and the frosty ground. The man on the road unbuttoned his coat.

The sun grew slowly brighter and brighter.

Soon the man felt so hot, he took off his coat and sat down in a shady spot.

“How did you do that?” said the Wind.

“It was easy,” said the Sun, “I lit the day. Through gentleness I got my way.”

Originally published on MARCH 12TH 2018 on the muru-D blog for International Women’s Day (which, in my book, is every day)

Philanthropy Inspirier, Enterprising Educator, Creative THNKr, Authentic Connector, Light Bulb Turner-On, Volunteer Energizer, Avid Explorer