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Award-winning entrepreneur and Women in Business CEO Karen Phillips on leadership and impact

Karen Phillips at Gold Coast graduation

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Words
Jessica Nelson
Published
26 April 2023

Leadership is not just about ourselves. In fact, it's always about creating opportunities for others.

These are the words Karen Phillips has lived by for more than three decades of public life.

As an entrepreneur, women's advocate, author and media commentator, Karen has enjoyed a colourful international career, working with some of the world's most prestigious brand identities and heads of state.

But it’s “lifting others up” that has shaped the philosophy of her work, from her bestselling books to being CEO of Women in Business Australia.

“I aim to live my life by this simple philosophy, a moral compass that has steered me well in good times, in challenging chapters, in heartache and in splendour,” she says.

Looking out across the rows of Southern Cross University graduates at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre in April, Karen used her Occasional Address to remind them about the beauty of authenticity.

Chancellor Sandra McPhee AM introduction:

It's now my very great pleasure to introduce Ms. Karen Phillips to deliver the occasional address. Karen is an entrepreneur, women's advocate, bestselling author, media commentator. She's also worked with some of the world's most prestigious brand identities and heads of state. I'm already getting nervous.

A passionate Queensland identity, Karen has assisted in raising over 5 million dollars for local charities during the past three decades. She was honoured as a Gold Coast Citizen of the Year in 2018 for her dedicated service to the city and women's advocacy. At just 14 years of age, she received the Young Australian of the Year Award for services to youth and community.

Karen is author of the bestselling book, 'Women's Words of Wisdom, Power, and Passion', which was officially launched by the Governor General, at Government House to commemorate International's Women's Day in the centenary. Karen serves on several boards and committees, including Griffith University Institute of Glycomics Board of Advice, Queensland Government Women's Strategy Advisory Group, Placemakers Gold Coast, Gold Coast Community Fund, and is a founding ambassador of Vinnies CEO Sleepout.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think you will agree that we have every reason to be nervous with such a great person in the room. And I think that you'll agree, we have a very distinguished person to join us today. I have much pleasure in inviting Ms. Karen Phillips to give the occasional address.

 

Karen Phillips Occasional Address:

Yes, I am an actual Karen. I know, I know. Please be assured I'm not the Bunnings Karen, and I'm not the, 'Can I speak to the manager' Karen? It in fact, as my mother will attest to, was a very popular name back in 1965. I'm here representing today all the Karens of kindness.

I'd like to acknowledge the custodians of the land in which we meet today, the Yugambeh language people, the custodians of course, in which we celebrate here today, and look at you all - smiles, excited.

Chancellor, Deputy Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, and most importantly, our graduates. I'm proud to be a witness to this celebration of accomplishment, academic achievement, the realisation of your goal and a marked moment in your life when you and those around you share in a collective moment of true triumph.

The palpating beat of hopefulness radiates across the rows. A feeling of pride. And so there should be, you've arrived here successful in your quest. Your time has come, and your future chapter now awaits. There's no greater feeling than accomplishment, and yet as I look across the sea of robes, I know there'll be great challenges that lie ahead for each of you.

And the vigilant navigation required to determine the outcome of future quests. I guarantee that there'll be times when you falter and fall, just as I too have stumbled. But it's what you do after the fall that truly defines you. Don't discount the mistakes, they build character. You've received one of the greatest gifts in life - the power of education. Your Southern Cross University education serves as a keystone of your future for along with your qualifications, it equips you with resilience, fortitude, and a flexible mindset that will assist and ultimately empower your pathway to success.

There's no doubt we are more connected now than ever before in human history. And yet we're also not as connected as we once were, with technology and white noise now mainstays in our daily lives. Today the world population sits at 8,265,000,393 souls. The world population today is on average, 215,000 people larger than it was yesterday, and it'll grow by a similar size tomorrow.

And so my question for all of you here today, all you graduates, how do you plan to make a purposeful contribution in this vastly changing and challenging world? How will you dare to make a difference and in doing so fulfil your true potential? So Richard Branson built his empire on, based on the belief that the way a company brands itself is everything. And it will ultimately decide if a company actually survives.

With brands, we talk about brand traits, values authenticity now, but so too, as you map out your career path, you need to be evaluating and studying your core traits, your values, and your vision. They become the pure bedrocks of developing your very own personal brand. And as the world surges forth at a galactic pace, an authentic and principled personal brand will stand you apart.

During my career I've had the privilege of interviewing a thousand, over a thousand celebrities, business icons, heads of state, and even royalty, on stage, and also for my books, each with a very distinctive personal brand. People often ask who was my favourite? What remarkable advice did they give? In fact, it was almost 17 years ago to this very day that I stood on this stage right here at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre with the world-famous Jane Fonda, and I asked her to share her words of wisdom to a sold-out audience of over 1300 guests. You know, she said it had taken her almost 70 years of age to realise the true importance of her choices, and that in her last chapter, she hoped to live a life worth living.

You know, that comment made me consider: if it took such a famous actor and a producer, philanthropist and women and animal advocate until she was 70 to work it out, what hope did the rest of us mere mortals have? And here's where the value of an advanced education comes in. We all now have the same opportunity at our fingertips of researching, of learning, and of heeding sage advice on how to live our best life. Or you can just ask Oprah.

Over the years I've gathered my top 10 go-tos for the best advice to keep me on purpose and on track. And I'd like to share those with you on the off chance that one or two might just resonate with you to carry with you on your travels. And this is not just for the graduates, I think it's for all of us here today in celebration.

It doesn't matter where you come from, it only matters where you're going.

Leadership is not just about ourselves. In fact, it's always about creating opportunities for others.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Stretching is where the greatest growth always happens.

Not only listen to, but value other points of view. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, their own opinion, and who knows - they just could be right.

Choose to treat everyone with dignity and equity.

Hold yourself to the highest principles, not just those around you.

Always be brave enough to try, to say 'yes', and very importantly, 'no'.

Choose your words with care, they hold great power.

Remember to send the elevator down always for others, and lift them, assist them to rise to great heights.

Being empathetic does not mean you are weak.

Lead with humanity and honour always first, as well as humility always, always as a leader.

Do work that supports the greater good of humanity.

Taking three deep breaths has the power to change everything.

Now, okay you're graduates, that was 13. But you'll find in life it's all about flexing, right? I aim to live my life by a simple philosophy, a moral compass that has steered me well in good times, in challenging chapters, in heartache and in splendour.

Five simple words that at time have been a very tall order to maintain, but I continuously and persistently pursue them to stay on my purpose: give more than you take. And I don't just mean sharing the ice cream, although I've also had to learn that's very important in my household. It doesn't mean about necessarily giving money, but it could do. It could actually be about giving of your time, your abilities, your guidance, your legacy to others. As the great Muhammad Ali once famously said, the service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.

I have learned that through service you can create the moments that make life truly worth living for both yourself and for others. Some of you in this room today will go on to achieve remarkable feats. Some will go on to live a happy life, some will be happy being unhappy. Some will fulfil their childhood dreams.

One thing I know for certain living an extraordinary life lies within us all. Take it from me standing here - a girl who started out working weekends at the Coolangatta pie shop, just 30 minutes down the highway - every journey starts with the beginning and everything in my life has led me right here to this very moment. To be standing with you, to be celebrating with you. It only takes one defining moment.

I wrote a poem as a 7-year-old: I want to be a writer, I'll write about the sea, I'll write about people, and I'll write about me.

Who perhaps could have imagined I'd go on to become a journalist, an author, a woman's empowerment advocate.

Everyone has the same gift, the ability to dream and to fulfil our very potential as human beings. Do what you love. Learn to never doubt your potential and take your time. Don't rush towards the future. You'll be looking back through the rear, rear vision mirror soon enough, I guarantee it.

Yes, there'll be challenges. There'll be sacrifices and triumphs, and at least a cup or maybe a bucket full of tears along the. But along the way, there'll also be joy wrapped in what some others may consider to be very small moments, and that is the incredible journey that we get to call our life. So go forth, shine your light for the world to see.

Don't hold back, give it everything you've got. After all, you only get one life. Thank you.

“There's no doubt we are more connected now than ever before in human history. And yet we're also not as connected as we once were, with technology and white noise now mainstays in our daily lives. Today the world population sits at 8,265,000,393 souls. The world population today is, on average, 215,000 people larger than it was yesterday, and it'll grow by a similar size tomorrow.

“And so, my question for others is: How do you plan to make a purposeful contribution in this vastly changing and challenging world? How will you dare to make a difference and in doing so fulfil your true potential?

“I have learned that through service you can create the moments that make life truly worth living for both yourself and for others.

“Five simple words that at times have been a very tall order to maintain, but I continuously and persistently pursue them to stay on my purpose: give more than you take.”

A palpating beat of hopefulness and a feeling of pride radiated across the arena as hundreds of graduates soaked up Karen’s words of wisdom on their momentous day.

 

“Five simple words that at times have been a very tall order to maintain, but I continuously and persistently pursue them to stay on my purpose: give more than you take.”

As a passionate Queensland identity, Karen has assisted in raising more than $5 million for local charities in the past 30 years; co-founded the Vinnies CEO sleepout; held a seat at the table of numerous boards and committees; and was honoured as a Gold Coast Citizen of the Year in 2018 for her dedicated service to the city and women's advocacy.

During her career, she has interviewed thousands of cultural icons on stage and for her books including the top-selling 'Women's Words of Wisdom, Power, and Passion'.

But when asked about her most memorable interview, Karen recounts a conversation with the world-famous American actress and activist Jane Fonda, in front of a sold-out crowd.

“I asked Jane to share her words of wisdom… and she said it had taken her almost 70 years of age to realise the true importance of her choices, and that in her last chapter, she hoped to live a life worth living.

“That comment made me consider: if it took such a famous actor and a producer, philanthropist and women and animal advocate until she was 70 to work it out, what hope did the rest of us mere mortals have? And here's where the value of an advanced education comes in. We all now have the same opportunity at our fingertips of researching, of learning, and of heeding sage advice on how to live our best life.”

And Karen’s sage advice for those transitioning from university study to making a meaningful impact in the world?

“One of the greatest gifts in life is the power of education. Your education serves as a keystone of your future for along with your qualifications. It equips you with resilience, fortitude, and a flexible mindset that will assist and ultimately empower your pathway to success.

“As you map out your career path, you need to be evaluating and studying your core traits, your values, and your vision. They become the pure bedrocks of developing your very own personal brand. And as the world surges forth at a galactic pace, an authentic and principled personal brand will stand you apart.

“One thing I know for certain: living an extraordinary life lies within us all. Don't hold back, give it everything you've got. After all, you only get one life.”


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