The University of Newcastle, Australia

The business of strengthening community

A Torres Strait Islander, and former Chief Executive Officer of Reconciliation Australia, Leah brings with her much expertise on a local to national level, in both a paid and voluntary capacity.

Leah is excited to be in the position to develop the University as a leader in Reconciliation.

“The reconciliation piece is important to me. It is about building better relationships and opportunities for Indigenous Australians across the University and within our spheres of influence.  It’s ambitious, but that’s what reconciliation is. It’s a big, ambitious, nation building approach and it’s not necessarily about an end point, it’s more the steps and processes we take to achieve it that are important.” Leah says.

Leah’s extensive work has not gone unnoticed.

In 2009, The Australian Financial Review Boss Magazine recognised her as a “True Leader” and in 2012 Leah was recognised in the inaugural 2012 Australian Financial Review/Westpac 100 Influential Women Awards.

Leah excels in collaborating with people to transform noble but vague goals and concepts into practical actions and has served on many the board of national organisations and government advisory boards.

Leah currently holds several Board positions including Managing Director, First Australians Capital, Board member of Foundations for Young Australians, member of CSIRO Indigenous Strategic Advisory Council, Environmental Markets Expert Advisory Group (Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment)  and member of Business Council of Australia’s Indigenous Taskforce.

Previous Board roles included Chairperson of Supply Nation, Chairperson of Aboriginal Housing Office NSW, member of Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, Director of Indigenous Business Australia Asset Management Company and Director of Career Trackers.

Business in her blood

Leah’s family heritage is connected to Boigu Island in the Torres Strait, although she has called Newcastle home for the past 30 odd years.

Her childhood was spent in Mackay, where her grandmother remarried.

Known to Leah simply as ‘Pop’, Ram Chandra OAM, an famous Indian snake charmer, was a tireless community advocate who helped develop the antivenin for the Australasian Taipan.

“Pop was a real entrepreneur, and a bit of a showman. My stepfather and the majority of my uncles all had their own businesses and were very hard workers too.”

“There was a very strong work ethic in my family, and a focus on building business.”

Community played an equally important role in her upbringing.

“My family were also involved with local Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal or Murri advancement groups like the Health Centres, Legal Aid, and Housing.”

“We were always a part of helping with organisation and governance, plus raising money and helping out where we could.”

Addressing the gap

Arriving in Newcastle in the late 80s, Leah began work with the Awabakal Co-Operative under then CEO, Jim Wright.

“As successful as the co-op was at providing essential safety nets and supports for local Aboriginal people, sustainability of employment and businesses was where I saw a gap.”

In collaboration with Wright, Leah set up Yarnteen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation, focused on employment, training, economic development, and business development.

So successful was this enterprise that within ten years, Yarnteen was able to reinvest back into cultural and educational ventures, bulk warehousing, a car wash, plus building company and property portfolios.

After nineteen years at the helm of Yarnteen, Leah moved to the position of CEO of Reconciliation Australia.

“Coming from a local body to a National focused one was a huge step.”

“And when your organisation is about reconciling national prejudices and attitudes, it's no small task,” Leah notes with a smile.

Presentations and research

Leah has participated in research, published articles, and made presentations nationally and internationally on Indigenous economic self-sufficiency and reconciliation.

Publications:

  • Reconciliation Action Plans – “Creating Shared Value”, Senate Occasional Address, Parliament House, ACT, 2016
  • Yarnteen- governing for sustained economic development in NSW, Research Collaborator, Indigenous Community Governance Project, Australian National University and CAEPR, 2005.
  • A Place of Indigenous Economic Self-sufficiency in a Reconciled Australia, published in the Journal Indigenous Policy Issue 4 (UTS 2004)

National conferences:

  • Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Tertiary Education Management Conference A&NZ, Melbourne, 2017)
  • Disrupting the disenfranchisement of First Australians by harnessing their economic potential (Social Good Summit, Sydney 2015)
  • Business Pathways to Reconciliation (IBEC WA Perth, 2014)
  • Whatever happened to reconciliation? Reflecting on the decade since the end of the formal Reconciliation process , Dialogue on Reconciliation National Conference (UNSW, 2011)
  • Indigenous Governance Conference: Building Indigenous Governance and Leadership, (Jabiru, NT 2003)

International conferences:

  • Indigenous Economic and Enterprise Development (Australia-Canada Economic Leadership Forum, Melbourne, 2020)
  • Reconciliation and Healing (McGill University, Montreal, Canada 2015)
  • The Reconciliation Journey – The Australian Experience  (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC),Ottawa, Canada 2014)
  • Civil Society responsibility for Reconciliation (McGill University, Montreal, Canada 2014)
  • Common Roots, Common Futures: An International Conversation on Indigenous Governance, convened at the Udall Centre for public Policy, University of Arizona, Tucson. USA 2012