Sue Karzis State Schools Relief Interview

Sue Karzis State Schools Relief Interview


Sue Karzis Who Is Disrupting the Not for Profit Sector

The not for profit, which supports the needs of financially disadvantaged school students by providing them with new school uniforms, footwear and educational resources during times of vulnerability, is the only one of its kind in Australia and recently appointed its first female CEO and single mother of two, Sue Karzis. Furthermore, 75% of the Board of Directors are women.

In 2018 alone, SSR assisted over 56,000 students by providing them with school uniforms, shoes and other educational resources such as graphing calculators, text books and glasses with the value of items distributed exceeding $5M.

Interview with Sue Karzis, CEO of State Schools Relief

Sue Karzis is the first female Chief Executive Officer of State Schools Relief, a Victorian based not for profit organisation that supports the needs of financially disadvantaged school students by providing them with new school uniforms, footwear and educational resources during times of vulnerability. Since her appointment, Sue has propelled the charity to record numbers of impact, assisting over 56,000 financially disadvantaged Victorian school children in 2018 alone and has set the goal of positively impacting 70,000 underprivileged Victorian school children in 2019.

Under her leadership the not-for-profit has distributed items exceeding $5M, widely promoted SSR's own independent uniform label, Students Choice, established the SSR Ambassador Program, worked with 180 schools who have donated approximately $124,000 through a range of school based fundraising activities during the 2017/18 financial year and collaborated with a range of corporate sponsors including Bank of Australia and Bank First, which has enabled SSR to impact 83% of all Victorian state schools during 2018.

Question: What is State Schools' Relief?

Sue Karzis: SSR was founded in 1930 during the Great Depression by a head teacher from Elsternwick State School. Since 1930, SSR has kept to its core values which are the provision of simple and practical support to some of the most disadvantaged students attending Victorian state schools. With education being the key pathway out of a future of poverty, our service of providing quality new footwear and clothing to vulnerable students remains a vital avenue of support for students to engage with education.

Every day, we hear from schools who have children attending, without the basic necessities. In the last year, we have assisted 79% of primary schools, 96% of secondary schools and 91% of P-12 schools in Victoria, receiving over 56,000 applications and distributing 177,691 items.


Question: Can you give us an indication of a typical day, for you, as the CEO of State Schools Relief?

Sue Karzis: No two days are the same in a not for profit like State Schools' Relief. In the morning, I like to touch base with staff to find out what is happening on the ground. It is vital to be accessible to staff in order to hear first-hand of any issues and offer support. I have at least 2-3 meetings in a day and then I try to carve out some time to focus on strategic initiatives. It is always a juggling act, and unexpected meetings and issues can take up a large part of my day. Mornings are my favourite part of the day, as I can eke out some time to reflect on the big picture and ensure we are on track with projects and our strategic objectives.


Question: As the first female CEO of State Schools Relief what message do you hope to spread to young females?

Sue Karzis: My message to young females is to dream large and visualise themselves as leaders. There are so many talented, smart women who are very capable of stepping into the next level of leadership but many are not putting themselves forward for these positions for a myriad of reasons, one of them being that women don't feel qualified. We need women in leadership roles to mentor the up and coming leaders to give them the experience and confidence to opt in for these roles. I didn't have a plan to be a CEO, in fact it was something that only started to form in my mind as a possibility in the last couple of years, so there are many other women who are capable of doing the same, but may not have considered it. What I know is that if you don't have leadership as a goal, it is difficult to attain it.


Question: How do you believe you are changing the not-for-profit sector?

Sue Karzis: I think that what I bring is a fresh perspective as I am passionate and I like to innovate. I don't like red tape and the exciting thing about leading a smaller organisation is that I have the freedom to trial new ideas and projects relatively quickly. A lot of people are not comfortable with change, but I love it. The most exciting part of my role is making changes and seeing results. As an example, the social enterprise arm of our organisation has grown exponentially in the last 12 months and that is really changing the nature of the way we do things and opening up new and exciting possibilities. The not for profit sector is not all that different to the for-profit sector, in that in needs to be at the forefront of innovation. With such a large number of NFPS there has never been more competition in this space, so innovation is key to long-term sustainability.


Question: Why do you think your lack of not for profit experience revolutionised State Schools Relief?

Sue Karzis: All of my experience in the past has centred on transforming programs or services so that they are efficient, profitable and innovative. I have brought this perspective to State Schools' Relief and implemented a transformation agenda. I have brought a creative approach to solving traditional issues that every NFP faces. For example, retailing our line of school shoes to increase fundraising has made a big difference over the last ten months. We had the stock on our premises to fulfil the charitable applications, but I soon realised that these shoes could be retailed to increase our revenue which we have done successfully.


Question: How can we implement an entrepreneurial approach in our own work life?

Sue Karzis: I think that being a lateral thinker helps. I look at the big picture, rather than focussing on the details. Once you have a vision of what you would like to achieve, you work backwards from there. I find people tell me all of the reasons why things can't be done, whereas I see what I would like to achieve and drive the vision until solutions are found.


Question: Can you share your top five tips on approaching a role with an attitude of 'intrapreneurship'?

Sue Karzis: Don't take no for an answer – if I had listened to all of the people who said we couldn't do certain things, the outcomes achieved in a relatively short space of time would not have been possible.

Be creative – think about different ways of doing things, try new approaches and be brave. The worst that can happen is that something won't work, but you will learn along the way.

Ensure that your values align with the values of the organisation by which you are employed. It is much easier to succeed when you feel like the organisation resonates with the ideas, values and outcomes that you are passionate about.

Step out of your comfort zone – I have a rule that I don't say no to any opportunity that comes my way, even if it is daunting. It is a great way to learn and grow professionally.

Be grateful and thank the people who have helped you along the way. I have received so much input and assistance from like-minded people and I always express my gratitude to them.


Question: What advice do you have for female millennials who aspire to have their own top job?

Sue Karzis: Be brave – leadership is not for the faint-hearted but it is within the reach of many.
Surround yourself with people who will support you – any leader is only as great as the team around them.
Put yourself forward for every opportunity that comes your way and have a mentor who will advise and support you along the way.
Develop areas which are not your strong point – leaders need to have a variety of skills, so hone up on the areas where you lack confidence.
Be authentic, show people how passionate you are and talk about what drives you. I don't have a work persona – I am myself and I am always enthusiastic about the projects I am involved with and I think that this resonates with people.


Question: How do you hope to achieve your 2019 goal of "positively impacting 70,000 underprivileged Victorian school children"?

Sue Karzis: By working closely with Victorian State Schools to provide support to any families who need it. This involves regular communication with schools and peak bodies, attending events and ensuring that those who need help are receiving it. Since 1930, SSR has kept to its core values which is the provision of simple and practical support to some of the most disadvantaged students attending Victorian state schools. With education being the key pathway out of a future of poverty, our service of providing quality new footwear and clothing to vulnerable students remains a vital avenue of support for students to engage with education.


Question: How can Australians support State Schools Relief?

Sue Karzis: To support SSR, please visit our website https://ssr.net.au/ and select the "Donate Now" button. Alternatively, our Student's Choice shoes are available for sale on website and a number of retail outlets across Victoria. Each pair of shoes sold helps to clothe another child or young person in need.


Interview by Brooke Hunter




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