Sarina Russo, Founder and Managing Director of the Sarina Russo Group is an intrepid, entirely self-made and highly successful entrepreneur. The Sarina Russo Group, founded in 1979 in very humble circumstances now employs over 1000 staff. It’s a global leader in education, employment and training.
Sarina’s book ‘Meet Me at the Top’ was the first book I read this year. I was inspired by Sarina’s personal story. Struck by the clarity and resonance of her professional and personal development advice, even though the book was published 15 years ago. This is testament to Sarina’s belief in life-long learning and reflects a continuous (and considerable) investment in her own ongoing education. There are core lessons in life that are immutable. Sarina knows them, and passionately shares them.
Sarina emigrated from Siciliy, Italy to Brisbane, Australia at age 5. She was mentored by her father. Assuming significant responsibility for aspects of the family’s finances and business at an early age. In her book, she reflects on how this personal accountability, and her father’s trust in her innate capability forged her own self belief and confidence. An inveterate problem solver, world traveller and connector, Sarina has built a global network. She is skilled at identifying opportunity in situations of adversity. Sarina has tenaciously built her portfolio of companies to withstand the vagaries of prevailing economic headwinds.
How has your membership to the World Presidents’ Association enhanced your career?
One of the great advantages of being a member of the World President’s Association is that you associate with successful people. You see the difference between them and the not-so-successful. They are more expansive in their thinking; and see wider, further and deeper. They’re not afraid to honestly express their judgement of anything that is sub-standard and they have vision. What you are exposed to in these people is leadership as opposed to management.
You are a member of the Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World. How has your network with a leading global community influenced your decisions domestically?
As a member of the Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World I was invited to participate in Harvard University’s global program which included the Women’s Leadership Board. It was suggested I do the Owner President Management Course at Harvard, which is like an MBA. The cost was huge!!! I was undecided so I confided with a woman, who was the CEO of a New York company many times bigger than mine. She said to me: “Sarina, do it. Once you graduate out of this course, you will take your company to another level.”
Her prediction turned out to be true. I would come back from Harvard each year with fresh energy and greater determination to keep growing. I was opening up even greater opportunities, including buying my first CBD building at 82 Ann Street, Brisbane. Then I went on to tender and win an employment services contract when the Government privatised the Commonwealth Employment Service.
How did you develop a relationship with Clinton’s Global Initiative prior to 2008, and what is the most important program you’ve been involved with under this initiative?
In 2001, The Sarina Russo Group bid for the naming rights to host Bill Clinton in Brisbane. Besides being a fantastic publicity opportunity, it gave me the opportunity to sit next to and engage with the 42nd president of the United States of America. Outside the ballroom before he was introduced to the crowd he said ‘Sarina, walk beside me’. I was overwhelmed. That night President Clinton didn’t follow protocol and actually dined with our table. After that I engaged with President Clinton on many occasions. I jumped at the opportunity when invited to become a member for the Clinton Global Initiative. One of the projects we are most proud of is when we sponsored future leaders from Nepal to come to Brisbane and undertake Business Management Studies.
For 37 years you have been the leader of Sarina Russo and its companies. You have diversified your portfolio considerably during that time. Your latest venture is the Women Leading Business (WLB) Series. What compelled you to start this series and what would you like it to achieve?
Throughout my life and professional journey, I have learnt many important lessons in business, interpersonal relations and personal development. Some of the principles that now fundamentally guide my strategic decisions took failure after failure for me to realise. At this point in my career, I believe I can pass on this knowledge to help other women pursuing their own ambitions.
By carefully planning masterclasses with other reputable experts, I hope to inspire confidence and clarity of mind amongst Brisbane’s professional women community. Not only will these women gain the same practical skills which have enabled me to succeed in business, but these learnings will be emotionally reinforced over the course of an inspirational masterclass.
What’s been your greatest challenge?
In 2009, my leadership qualities were put to the test when Sarina Russo Job Access lost Government contracts for 11 out of our 19 Queensland offices putting at risk the jobs of over 200 staff. Instead of ‘closing down’ I decided to ‘rev-up’ and make no one redundant and reinvent the offices into training centres. We then set about winning employment services business in the UK. Six years later we fought back to become Australia’s largest employment and apprenticeship provider with over 200 sites globally across Australia, the United Kingdom, India, Vietnam and China.
What are you most proud of?
The 650,000+ lives we’ve changed through education, training, employment and job creation since 1979.
What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?
Today it’s about bold change. One of the boldest things you can do is to look at yourself, assess your skill set, assess your strengths, assess your weaknesses and disrupt yourself. The other thing is to have the courage to go out there and GO FOR MORE!!! and achieve MORE by recognising your talents, believing in your ability and constantly learning . If it is to be it is up to me!!!
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