State Schools’ Relief CEO Sue Karzis believes that passion for what you do drives innovation and success. Certainly, her passion for helping disadvantaged youth has helped change lives. Here, she shares her leadership journey and lessons learned.
It was an email from a school principal during the COVID-19 pandemic that started the ball rolling. They were asking State Schools’ Relief (SSR) CEO Sue Karzis if she had any laptops they could donate to disadvantaged students. “We’ve got five kids in one family trying to learn off a mobile with a broken screen,” the principal lamented.
It was 2020, and the state of Victoria, Australia, was gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic – and the world’s most prolonged lockdown. Panic buying and supply issues meant food and home office necessities were scarce. In addition, children from disadvantaged families were trapped at home, unable to join online classes because their parents couldn’t afford laptops, even if they could find one.
As more emails arrived in her inbox, Karzis was determined to help these kids. Ordinarily, her not-for-profit provided free school uniforms to underprivileged Victorian students. But what use were uniforms during a lockdown? So instead, she sought and received permission from the government to redirect the uniform funds toward computers.
Launching into action
Working from her Melbourne home with a renewed sense of purpose, Karzis and her team hunted down laptops and soon had them reaching senior high school students from disadvantaged homes. Galvanised by their success and based on further feedback from principals, they added internet sim cards, stationary packs, desks and chairs, and noise-blocking headphones to the mix.
They prioritised children with the greatest need, such as those living in out-of-home care and caravans. Within months, SSR supplied 5,000 laptops. The impact was tremendous. “I could not have imagined the positive and profound impact this gift meant for these children,” Karzis says.
She reads out loud a moving email from one principal, who called each child into his office one by one to give them their laptop. He relates stories of shock, disbelief and happy tears. “Those children are standing ten feet tall now,” she says. And just as importantly, they avoided falling behind on their education, increasing their chances in life.
As the daughter of Greek immigrants who survived World War II, Karzis’ parents had drummed into her that education was the key to a more secure future. Her mother had wanted to study teaching but never had the opportunity to learn. They had arrived in Australia with next to nothing, working factory jobs until they could buy a laundromat, above which they raised their two daughters in a small apartment.
Karzis’ parents scrimped and saved to send their daughters to a private girls’ school to give them a better chance in life. There, she felt different from the other students as her family couldn’t afford a new car or to go on holiday. But she was passionate, driven and motivated to succeed, and her mother was thrilled when she later graduated from the prestigious University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Arts and a Diploma in Teaching.
Karzis wanted nothing more than to help the next generation gain their education. But after finishing university, she couldn’t find a job. The state had been consolidating and closing schools, impacting the number of teaching roles available. So instead, Karzis worked in retail until fortune knocked in the form of the Red Cross, which was seeking someone with a teaching degree and sales experience to launch a new youth program. It ticked all her boxes.
Women in leadership roles usually experience challenges and roadblocks on their journey to success. As a result, it’s not a straight path to the top.
“It’s essential if you’re a leader to let young women know this,” Karzis says. “For me, there was never a plan. I didn’t have it all sorted out. It was all a bit accidental.”
Learning to innovate
Brimming with enthusiasm, Karzis jumped headlong into her role as Youth Donor Coordinator, touring schools in Victoria and educating high school students on how donating blood helps others, especially children with cancer. Then, motivated by the positive response from students, Karzis launched a state-wide program called Young Bloods.
She encouraged students to volunteer as Young Bloods Ambassadors and armed them with marketing material. The students drove the program, resulting in busloads of kids visiting Red Cross donation centres. It was Karzis’ first real experience with innovation, and it was such a success the program expanded nationally.
Innovation comes from seeing an opportunity to improve and acting on it.
“Innovation also comes from passion,” says Karzis. “When you’re passionate about something, you find a way of making it work.”
After several years at the Red Cross, Karzis began a Masters in Youth Health and Education Management. She was working full-time and attending classes on weekends, juggling her work and studies with marriage and two young sons.
Ready for a change, Karzis began working for Trinity College as Director of their Young Leaders Program, a short-term residential program for overseas high school students. Her job was to attract students to the program, which offered them a pathway to study at the University of Melbourne.
The program was losing money, and Karzis was tasked with ensuring the next course attracted at least 12 students and broke even. Achieving this meant travelling overseas annually to find new candidates and living on campus as director during the program. Between her studies, her boys and her work, Karzis had her hands full. Then her marriage broke down.
Facing life’s challenges
With the situation challenging at home, Karzis took her boys, aged 2 and 9 months, and moved in with her mother until she could get back on her feet. It was not where she expected to be at this stage in her life. “It was like stepping back in time. I felt like I was 16 again, and not in a good way,” Karzis recalls.
Her mother was her rock, helping her with the boys on the weekends and when she was away for work. “I had no financial support, so I became more driven. I thought, ‘if I can’t support the kids, we’re going to be in big trouble’,” she says. There were days when she’d look at a bill and burst into tears, wondering how to make ends meet.
The marriage breakdown also impacted her self-confidence. However, studying for her Masters at least helped validate her intellectual capability. “You have to pick yourself up and put yourself back together again,” she says.
It also helped to have a strong female mentor in the form of her manager. “She really championed me; I was blown away,” Karzis says. “She’d constantly tell other people how great I was, and I was like, ‘Is she talking about me?’ She made me believe in myself.”
If you’re in a position to do so, help other women move forward with their careers.
“If you’re a leader, the most important thing you can do is give back to other women and give them the same kind of advice, support and empowerment I’ve received,” Karzis says.
Karzis pushed on, immersing herself in her work at Trinity. As always, her passion and enthusiasm drove her forward. Within a few years, the program was making a profit and was attracting 300 students from 10 countries. But, as ever, she wanted to help those in need, so she fundraised to extend the program to include indigenous and underprivileged students.
Karzis’ great work resulted in her being head-hunted in 2018 for the CEO role at SSR. She was immediately drawn to the job, mainly because it meant helping disadvantaged youth.
As the organisation’s first female CEO since its establishment in 1930 and as a first-time CEO, Karzis says her most significant learning was communicating with her Board. Her heartfelt and direct communication style contrasted strongly with the previous CEOs, who had all been male school principals.
“I tend to wear my emotions so you can see what I’m feeling, and that’s not always a good thing. So I had to learn to rein myself in and convey things differently,” Karzis says. Learning what not to say was just as important, she quips.
Asked what skills women need to succeed as leaders, Karzis recommends the following:
Remember: you deserve to be in the room.
Motivated by success
Today, the success stories and words of thanks from principals and students motivate Karzis to go further, day in and day out. In addition to the laptops, she has also funded 200 iPads for non-verbal students whose parents couldn’t afford the technology that allowed them to communicate.
Under Karzis’ leadership, SSR has assisted over 72,000 children and young people in need in the past financial year and distributed over 325,000 items valued at $6.7 million. Next year, she will try to do even more.
“It’s a real privilege being able to help people,” she says. “Seeing the benefit and impact is really fantastic and so rewarding.”
Sue Karzis’ Leadership Lessons Learned
© Laini Bennett, MBA