Global change agents return to Southern Cross for inspiring alumni panel

Published 21 September 2018
Finalist Vavine Nadesalingam Finalist Vavine Nadesalingam from PNG

Five powerful female leaders from across the globe, all with personal stories of triumph in the face of adversity, will join an inaugural alumni panel at Southern Cross University, sharing wisdom and insights from their professional and personal lives.

The star-studded Southern Cross University Alumni panel features world champion sailor turned wellness entrepreneur Bella Zanesco, sitting New Zealand Member of Parliament Poto Williams, founder of PNG-based not-for-profit Village Foundation Vavine Nadesalingam, award-winning youth advocate and celebrity chef Jules Allen, and the Tasmanian convenor for Australian Lawyers for Human Rights Johanna Byrne.

The group of five, who are meeting for the first time, will discuss the empowerment of women globally, as part of the ‘Conversations That Matter’ inaugural Southern Cross University Alumni panel. The event will be held at 1pm on Friday September 28 at the Lismore campus, is free and open to the public and will also be live-streamed on Southern Cross University’s Facebook page.

Later that evening, Southern Cross hosts its highly-anticipated 2018 Alumni of the Year Awards dinner ceremony and presentation. Vavine Nadesalingam, Poto Williams, Bella Zanesco and Johanna Byrne are all finalists.

Event convener Triona Maddick, Southern Cross University’s Alumni & Giving Manager, said while there has been progress in recent decades in the international women’s rights movement, half of the world’s talent base still face inequalities just because they are women.

“Southern Cross University is thrilled to welcome home some of our top alumni to discuss their roles as female leaders in society and in the workplace as they trailblaze change in the world,” Ms Maddick said.

Media opportunity: Panel members available on Friday, 28 September from 11.30am at Southern Cross University Lismore campus ahead of the 1pm alumni panel. Interviews and high-resolution images available on request.


Alumni panel short biographies

Jules Allen, Melbourne, studied at Southern Cross University Lismore campus

Southern Cross University’s 2017 Outstanding Alumnus of the Year Award winner Jules Allen, who graduated with a Bachelor of Social Science in 2009, said she was thrilled to be welcomed back and excited to meet the panel of women who are all finalists in this year’s hotly contested Alumni of the Year awards.

The straight-talking Jules is an award-winning youth advocate and 2013 MasterChef Australia contestant who, having experienced childhood sexual abuse and trauma and the breakdown of her family, has used her experiences as a springboard for positive change through fostering more than 30 kids and working in child protection while raising her own family as a single mum. She is the face of Australian charities such as Adopt Change and Foster Care Australia.

Since winning last year’s Alumni Award, Jules has spent several months abroad working with anti-human trafficking organisations in Cambodia to help combat the sex slave trade, while also writing a book about turning adversity into an asset.

“I have a fascination with the human condition and helping people understand their stories, even difficult stories with shame attached, because if you can help people air their story it really does help eliminate shame and can help spark positive change,” she said.


Bella Zanesco, Sydney, studied at Southern Cross University Coffs Harbour campus

Wellbeing and career strategy entrepreneur, business alumnus Bella Zanesco will return to Australia from the UK, where she has been launching her new book, to join the alumni panel. ‘Smart Girls Screw up Too - The no-nonsense guide to creating the life you want’, a holistic guide to creating a sustainably high performing and fulfilling career and life, outsold titles from Richard Branson and Sheryl Sandberg upon debut in Australia.

After ‘screwing up royally’ professionally, Bella reignited her passion for sailing after a seven-year hiatus as a tool to recover from burnout and depression, and took out the world sailing champion title at age 38, a feat she had missed out on in her 20s due to ‘self-sabotage’.

“After recovering from burnout, I surveyed 4,500 executives to discover that 70 per cent are suffering an energy crisis and this was impacting their mental health and performance and a similar number feel that their work environment or career isn’t right for them anymore. I started Wellboard to support organisations like Google and AMP to ensure their teams have the tools to stay sustainable and high performing.  I also work with at-risk of burnout executives to re-vision their lives and careers to find fulfilment, health and happiness.”

Bella has delivered $5billion in new revenues to forward-thinking companies, was labelled ‘the best high-performance coach we’ve engaged’ by Google and donates 10 per cent of her time to support young girls to find their upside in Kenya's Kibera slum.


Vavine Nadesalingam, Port Moresby PNG, studied at Southern Cross University Coffs Harbour Campus and Institute of Business Studies in Port Moresby (University collaborator)

Papua New Guinean Vavine Nadesalingam is a social entrepreneur who founded the NGO Voices For Village Foundation Inc, helping villages in rural areas of PNG access education, health, sanitation, clean water and electricity and technology through a network of supporters and business partners. Vavine operates Organisation Emstret Holdings Limited, a local internet service provider in PNG focusing on giving access to rural schools and communities, advocates for youth empowerment and is the Ambassador for the China PNG Friendship Association.

Vavine is an elected Member on the Board of PNG Institute of Directors and Port Moresby Chamber of Commerce and was the first female representative in PNG to be selected to represent her country at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2016. At the New York summit she turned down offers from interest investors to help lead companies in the United States, so she could continue her work on the ground in PNG. She contested in the 2017 national elections and finished in the top 10.

“I have a wonderful supportive family and grew up between my parents and grandparents’ villages where we had no electricity or running water. I completed most of my high school days in a rural school and had to do homework at night using kerosene lamps. I started working at the Institute of Business Studies where I later became the first in my family to study, travelling overseas for the first time to complete my final year of business and accounting at partner institution Southern Cross University in Coffs Harbour. I am so grateful to both of these institutions for helping me achieve what I have in regional PNG communities.”

Vavine is excited to meet the other powerful women on the panel, and learn and share from their experiences, while also sharing her own story, and being able to inspire others who are facing challenges to impact their communities in positive ways.


Poto Williams, Christchurch New Zealand, studied with Southern Cross University online

MBA graduate Poto Williams is the first New Zealander of Cook Islander heritage to be elected as Member of Parliament, and the first of Pacific Islander heritage to become Speaker in the House of Representatives. As a survivor of domestic violence, an advocate for child safety and a representative for many ethnic minorities in her country, the proud NZ Labour Party member has a passion for helping the community and is excited to take a weekend out of her busy schedule to join the line-up of amazing women on Southern Cross University’s alumni panel.

While working at a community mental health organisation and at the age of 48, Poto studied an MBA online through Southern Cross University with an “amazing community of other students of all ages who have become dear friends” before being elected as a Member of Parliament five years ago. Poto has profound stories to tell from her own life, and from working so closely with other powerful females including her boss New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

“We definitely need more women in parliament, as we bring such a different way of working to these institutions which is desperately needed. If you remove Australia and New Zealand, the Pacific has the lowest rates of women in parliament in the world. We need to ensure women are represented and I am really passionate about ensuring women get into parliament and significant leadership roles,” she said.

“I want to use the panel platform to tell people they are able to overcome any issues of the past, and that they can find what they’re good at, passionate about and what they really want to do, because that’s when they will do it well.”


Johanna Byrne, Launceston Tasmania, studied with Southern Cross University online at Coffs Harbour

The multi-talented 2016 National Indigenous Law Student of the Year Johanna Byrne will return to Southern Cross University for the alumni panel to share her journey from achieving a graduate position in a top tier firm in Perth two years ago, then moving to Launceston to prepare to undertake a barrister's pupillage. Johanna was elected the Indigenous co-chair of the Australian lawyers for Human Rights National Committee and later the State Convenor for Tasmania. She still makes time to mentor scores of Southern Cross University law students and give guest lectures.

The former florist battled on in the face of tragedy when her husband passed away unexpectedly in 2014, leaving her a single mother of seven children in her first year of her law degree.

“As a mature age student who studied online I was told by many people I’d never find graduate employment or achieve my goals, but women in every profession need to know what they want and chase their dreams even if they’re knocked back and told they can’t do it, because at the end of the day they can. While it can be hard to juggle family and work, it’s not impossible if you have good time management and good mentors,” she said.

“I want to become a barrister as it’s the best way to advocate for Indigenous people, as a lot come in contact with the law and need more than legal aid for appeals, with barristers usually costing thousands of dollars per day. I also work on raising awareness and closing the gap in areas where people suffer inequality.”


Media contact: Jessica Nelson +61 (0)417 288 794 or