For International Women’s Day I had the pleasure of interviewing Yooralla’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Dr Sherene Devanesen. For me, talking to the CEO of a big organisation like Yooralla is a bit intimidating. To carry the responsibility of 2000 employees and more than 7000 customers is a huge job. To know about all of our services and to ensure they run smoothly must take a lot of brain power, passion and dedication.
These are things I strive to espouse on a daily basis but could never imagine harnessing these attributes to run a big organisation like Yooralla. So when I asked to do this interview I felt nervous because I wanted to impress our leader but how could I impress a woman with such a wealth of knowledge and experience?
On the other hand, I was also excited about the fact that I would be able to profile our CEO on International Women’s Day. I am a big advocate for women supporting women. That’s why I believe it is important to celebrate International Women’s Day and why we must acknowledge our female leaders in the workforce and learn from them.
So in short, I was nervous. Very nervous.
When I finally met with Sherene for our interview I was surprised to find out that she was equally as nervous! Sherene told me that she doesn’t like talking about herself at all. She would rather acknowledge great female leaders who have inspired her. She mentioned the great work of Mother Teresa and her dedication of working with the poor. She also cited that Sri Lanka was the first country to have a female Prime Minister, closely followed by India.
Sherene told me a story about a woman called Dr. Ida Scudder, who was dedicated to helping other women. She said this story was an inspiration to her.
This is the story she told. In the 1940s there was an American missionary who worked in India. One day when his daughter, Ida, visited him, she became aware of the fact that women were dying after child birth. The reason behind it was simple; women refused to be treated by male doctors and at that time, female doctors were very rare.
The daughter knew something had to change and she went about creating that change. Sherene told me how this woman studied to become a doctor in America and instead of practicing on her own in India she decided to start up a medical school in India that was only for women. By doing this women would be able to see a doctor and feel comfortable and safe.
Sherene studied at this same medical school in India and she hoped that she too could, one day, facilitate change.
Sherene started her medical career in an Indian village at a hospital set up by an Australian missionary. “In one afternoon I would see 300 patients who had leprosy”, she told me and they would pay her in eggs or potatoes. “This experience made me realise that it is alright to give one-to-one care but that there must be another way to make the system better and easier for people to access services” she said.
Sherene is passionate about creating change.
One way Sherene knew she could create that change was by changing from being a clinician to becoming an administrator. As she sees it, “leadership is about changing the system.” That is the core reason why Sherene decided to take on the challenge of becoming the CEO of Yooralla.
To Sherene, leadership isn’t about putting yourself first, but about working with your colleagues, customers and family members. “To me, it’s about entering life-long relationships with people and listening to them”. What is important is learning what the customers want and making sure that we respond and make a difference.
When we finished the interview, Sherene could see that I was struggling getting my walking frame ready with all my bits and pieces. She waited a minute and then offered to help me out.
Me, being the stubborn person that I am, kindly refused her offer. Some people would have persisted in helping out, but she flashed a smile and headed back to the office. It made me realise something about leadership… sometimes it’s about giving people the space they need to make their own choices and decisions, which is why I think Sherene will be a great fit for Yooralla.