Shannon Willoughby, CEO of Study Gold Coast has a passion for regional economic development, forged during her time as a business journalist during the global financial crisis. Shannon reported on the tragic collapse of many local enterprises as a reporter for the Gold Coast Bulletin. This experience developed her interest in economically diversifying to reduce the Gold Coast’s reliance on the cyclical tourism and property industries.
Shannon has determinedly lead a significant expansion in the local Education and Training sector. She sees the upcoming 2018 Commonwealth Games as an ideal opportunity to showcase the region’s vibrant community.
How did your background as a senior journalist, and as Board Director for not for profits and Government, prepare you for your transition to CEO of Study Gold Coast?
Journalism is a great training ground for other roles. Working to deadlines and building valuable relationships were what helped me transition into this new role. I had built up some very good relationships in the city and country as a journalist, which I maintain in the CEO role. Being on boards meant I had a an understanding of how non-profits worked, which was helpful. Being a journalist for the local paper meant I had an in depth understanding on the local landscape, and what the city was doing comparatively on a national level.
It’s been three years since you became Study Gold Coast’s CEO. What has the organisation achieved under your leadership?
We have built a brand which is now recognised not just on the Gold Coast, but on a national and international scale in the International Education and Training space. We have developed a four year strategy clearly outlining how we plan to provide additional support to the sector to encourage growth, and successfully increased our funding by around 1000 per cent.
Our team has more than doubled as we work to roll out this long term plan, which will have sustainable growth impacts for the Gold Coast. Our education and training sector collaborates. We recognise that working together is a powerful way to transform the city’s reputation as a tourism hotspot, to one which has a genuinely world-class Education and Training Sector. The sector is worth $1.4 billion to our local economy, directly employs 25,000 people and has the power to fundamentally change lives.
You recently launched Australia’s largest city-wide employability program. Tell us about the program and what you hope to achieve.
It is a long-term program centred on creating a genuine and stronger link between the workforce and our student community. The opportunity for students to have a connection with the workforce is a major deciding factor for students choosing a study destination.
We want to see more students having more “touch points” with businesses, including mentorships, internships, apprenticeships, work placement and graduate employment. This helps students build the skills they need to make the transition into the workforce. It helps businesses get the right staff to grow their organisation and address the skills pipeline challenges that many small to medium businesses face. We want to be globally recognised as a city who cares about graduate outcomes.
If you had a magic wand, what would need to happen at a local government, state government and federal government level for Study Gold Coast to make the most of Australia’s third largest export, education (worth $20 billion)?
Greater collaboration between all three levels of government to promote brand Australia in the Education and Training space. Further recognition that this is a significant economic driver, one which will help address challenges the nation (and world) will face in the coming years as workforce disruption continues. Each student can contribute to Australia in so many different ways if we see them as an integrated part of economic and social development.
What’s been your greatest challenge?
Making the transition from a journalist to a CEO was an exciting challenge. I had a lot of good mentors and guidance around me. I did have to ask for help from time to time, and I still do! Being taken seriously as a young, female CEO was something I have had to work hard on.
Also, learning how to slow down and take stock of the amazing things my small team has been able to achieve. I can be very hard on myself. I am a sometimes single mum. Viv’s dad is very supportive and we share custody. Battling the work/mum life can be hard. Particularly when there’s a lot of travel involved in my job.
What are you most proud of?
Where I have come in such a short time. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. I am 34, I have an amazingly gorgeous six-year-old, Vivien Rose, who brings so much joy to my life. I have had some incredibly experiences as a CEO and a journalist. With the help of my team and board, and the support of stakeholders, I have transformed a brand. I gained significant funding for the sector. I have travelled the world experiencing once-in-a-life time opportunities creating connections and promoting the Gold Coast. Last week I was at Buckingham Palace and saw the Queen!
Through my leadership, our organisation has given and will continue to give students experiences and opportunities that change their lives.
What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?
Just keep going. Focus on the big picture and work backwards on how you can get there. Seek advice, both male and female. Stick to your guns, take it all in, learn and focus. Find other women around you who inspire you and seek guidance.
I don’t see the difference between a male leader, or a female leader. No woman, no matter whether they are a leader, or part of a team, should see themselves any differently to anyone else. There’s nothing women can’t do. We just need to be reminded of that from time to time. Rely on your resilience and keep pushing and striving!
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