Everything, Everyone, All At Once

Everything, Everyone, All At Once | Laini Bennett

Despite life’s curveballs—single motherhood, financial struggles, and a legal battle—Chiou See Anderson’s unwavering drive propelled her to success. Now President of the National Council of Women of Australia, she champions policies that empower others to achieve their dreams.

It’s Wednesday lunchtime, and National Council of Women of Australia (NCWA) President Chiou See Anderson is worn out. Surprisingly, it’s not because she owns and runs two large retirement villages, sits on three boards, contributes to government panels, and simultaneously holds state, national and international women’s council positions.

No, this is the exhaustion from her favourite ‘job’ as grandma, babysitting her granddaughter 2.5 days a week with her husband, Brendan.

Everything, Everyone, All At Once | Laini Bennett
Anderson with granddaughter Leni at the UN Women Australia International Women’s Day event

The house looks like a whirlwind hit it, and there are little fingerprints everywhere, but Anderson wouldn’t have it any other way. She wants the same close relationship with her grandchildren that she had with her grandmother, who raised the Singaporean-born mother of three while her parents worked.

Anderson could run a masterclass on juggling work and life, but it wasn’t always that way. For many years, she was a single mother, working full-time, studying part-time, and fighting fires that she overcame through indomitable self-belief and a can-do attitude. She draws on this experience to advocate passionately for women’s economic inclusion and empowerment as NCWA President. 

As the keynote speaker at the UN Women Australia 2024 International Women’s Day celebration, Anderson told the audience that women can have it all—a career and a family—but they need to plan, strategise, and play the long game. 

Career Tip:

Anderson has never experienced imposter syndrome and says it is not something she encountered growing up in Singapore. She encourages women to focus on their strengths, intelligence, and resilience and be unapologetic about daring to dream.

Everything, everywhere, all at once

When Anderson was 20, she moved to Brisbane, Australia, to study accountancy with her mother’s blessing. She dreamed of being a partner in a major accounting firm by age 30.

However, by the time she was 21, she had scandalised her traditional parents by moving in with her boyfriend and falling pregnant six weeks before getting married. They were also unhappy that she was studying accountancy part-time while working full-time for her father-in-law’s car dealership. 

Around the same time, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Overnight, petrol prices skyrocketed, car sales slumped, and her in-laws’ extensive business interests took a tremendous hit. Anderson, juggling a baby, studies and work, says she developed PTSD trying to find enough money for payroll each week. Bankers also sat in her office, hoovering up any car sales revenue to reclaim their losses. Traumatised and stressed, she stopped working, but within six months, the young family was down to $10 a day for food after paying their bills. Something had to change.

Climbing life’s ladders

Despite the rocky start, Anderson was confident she could turn things around. She knew she was intelligent and capable and was determined to support her family. Over the next few years, she worked her way into increasingly senior roles while she finished her degree, studied for her CPA, and took every opportunity to learn new skills, including as the marketing manager for a law firm. 

Career Tip:

Anderson believes in continued learning, which allowed her to move into more senior roles with increased pay and opened her eyes to business opportunities. 

However, she says it is also essential to gain practical experience. “You can’t spend your whole life learning through books and never get out there to test the theories,” she says.

Like all mothers, juggling work and family was challenging. She recalls that at 26, soon after giving birth to her second child, she began working with a national retailer where she was only one of two women in the management team in a company with 2000 employees. 

“Every meeting was full of men,” she says. “I didn’t want to tell people I was breastfeeding and be discriminated against as a young mother.” Worried about leaky breasts, she kept a spare suit in her car and expressed milk in the toilets in between managing a team of 26 accountants.

Wanting more family-friendly working conditions, Anderson took a role with the independently wealthy Barclay family. She laughingly recalls finding herself in a meeting with Barclay Senior, who refused to speak directly to her, instead instructing the office manager, “Tell the lass to do this” or “Ask the lass to do that”. 

Angered by the misogynistic treatment, she walked out of the meeting. When the office manager later confronted her, she told him: “I don’t care how rich he is; nobody talks to me like that!” It proved to be an icebreaker, and Barclay Senior loved her bold attitude. It was the beginning of a friendship with the family that saw Barclay’s son become her biggest supporter and, later, her financial partner.

Career Tip:

While discrimination and bullying are illegal in Australia, it still happens. Be willing to speak up and defend yourself. 

“It’s like old schoolyard bullies,” says Anderson. “Don’t just cop it; you’ve got to fight. If you cop it, you’re setting a pattern that this is how they can treat you.”

Moving in a new direction

By her mid-thirties, Anderson’s life had changed drastically once again. She’d achieved her goal of being a general manager by 30, running a large aviation school. In addition, she’d had her third child, completed an MBA, left her husband, and, with the help of the Barclays, bought a vast tract of leafy suburban land on which she wanted to build a retirement village. 

Her MBA studies had opened her eyes to the growing economy generated by the aged, and she wanted to take the diverse skill sets she’d gained and funnel them into her own business to meet the needs of retirees. Anderson was also confounded by the negative Western attitudes towards seniors and wanted to introduce the Eastern values of respect and care. The land she’d bought is in beautiful bushland, and she envisaged people like her grandmother enjoying the tranquillity of the forest and discovering friendships within the community.

So, much to the dismay of her children, she sold the family home to pay the 5% deposit on the land that would dominate her life for the next 15 years.

For months, Anderson meticulously researched the ideal living conditions for her future residents. Following input from a local councillor, she spent almost a year door-knocking, with her children trailing behind her, to meet the council’s community consultation requirements. 

So, she was stunned when the council refused the development application because her land was in a koala habitat zone—not understanding at that time that a Council approval would set a precedent that would allow residential development for the surrounding 250 acres of pristine bushland. Determined to fight for her dream, Anderson prepared to go to court.

A nightmarish marathon

The lawyers quoted $300,000 in legal expenses, but as the court battle dragged out over the next 18 months, these blew out to $600,000. She juggled contract work and a PhD that came with a stipend trying to make ends meet. Amid the chaos, her beloved grandmother passed away. 

“It was a nightmare, like this marathon that never finished,” Anderson said. 

Nonetheless, Anderson hadn’t come this far to give up. Six years after buying the land, she finally began building the first tranche of 16 retirement homes, undertaking the marketing, legalities, and financials when she struggled to find new employees. “Why would they leave a comfortable job to work for a crazy single operator?” she says, referring to the fact she was new to the aged-care industry with no established credentials.

When she looks back on those days, she can’t fathom how she found five families who believed in her vision enough to sell their homes and wait for her to complete the first stage. She has dinner with them every month and affectionately calls them “her suckers”. 

“They bought a home from a random Asian woman standing on a big block of land, telling them, ‘This is my dream!’” she exclaims.

It wasn’t until she turned 50 that she finished building the last stage of the now fully occupied 123-home Elements Retirement Living village, a testament to her resilience and self-belief. 

Everything, Everyone, All At Once | Laini Bennett
Anderson with her Elements residents. On her right are two of her children, Christopher and Olivia.

Advocating for the future

Today, Anderson is happily married to her war crimes investigator husband, Brendan Rook. She draws on her experiences as an entrepreneur, career woman, mother and grandmother to advocate for other women through her volunteer role as NCWA President. She knows how hard it is to work and raise a family, especially for single mums. 

Anderson is passionate about workplace flexibility and making childcare more accessible so that women can return to work without guilt and be financially independent. “Gender equality means that women have the same responsibility to contribute to our overall economic well-being and lift productivity,” she says.

This passion for improving women’s economic equality saw her appointed by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Women Economic Equality Taskforce, allowing her to influence change at the highest level. The Government is listening, with landmark changes being announced, such as doubling paid parental leave from 13 weeks to 26 weeks.

While Anderson knows there is more to be done, she is also mindful of enjoying her life, including time with her children and grandchildren. “Everything I do is for their future,” she says.

“You only have one life. Live it well, and do good.” 

Chiou See Anderson’s Leadership Lessons:

  • When planning your future, think beyond the next 12 months to 10 years ahead.
  • Don’t be afraid to embrace your differences. Anderson says being an Asian woman helped her stand out in male-dominated industries.
  • Whether in a junior role or sitting on a board, ensure you prepare well before going into meetings; a lack of preparation can damage your reputation.
  • Learn how to build relationships. They will help you build allies and positively influence outcomes.
  • Present well; dress for the circumstances and your audience.
  • Surround yourself with people who will give you honest feedback about your performance.
  • Your health is as important as your business strategy. Don’t let things get away from you.

Image Credits: Supplied

© Laini Bennett, MBA

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