Meet the mentee on her way to becoming a mentor

Meet the mentee on her way to becoming a mentor

After testing out different industries and cities, this Wollongong mentee decided home was where her heart was.

Like most people who grow up in a regional area, Emma Kucelj went out in search of greener pastures once she’d graduated from her hometown university in Wollongong; the big smoke was calling her.

The next five years were spent expanding her social and professional network in Sydney. She held roles with UNSW and AFTRS, as well as making a start on her MBA.

Melbourne was next on Emma’s agenda, where she held a position with a bold, feminist not-for-profit organisation, the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA). She spent two years working as the agency’s brand and communications advisor before returning to Sydney to work in a completely different space – construction project management company. 

Having tried her hand at a few different industries and experienced living away from home, Emma felt that Wollongong was pulling her back in. She wanted to be back with her people.  Now that she’s home, she works for the University of Wollongong’s Global Challenges Program

“I love working with the Global Challenges team for so many reasons. It fits with my values, it’s a diverse role with a fantastic and supportive team and really impactful research projects,” says Emma.  “I love being back in Wollongong after living in busy cities for seven years.”

Finding the balance

Emma is at an important stage in her life and career. She’s getting married next year and starting to think about having children. She’s having to think about the challenges that many women face at her age: how can I balance my professional work with my personal/family life?

“I’ve had quite a diverse career background and I enjoy change. I have this idea in my mind that once I have a family, I need to find long-term security and permanence, meaning I’ll be in the same place and same job for a decade or more,” she says. “ I feel that career breaks prevent us from progressing and it forces us to try to find that stable role rather than the role that we find fulfilling or that’s going to expand and progress our career.”

While she already had fantastic mentorship from “a brilliant manager” within her organisation, she was still seeking some clarity around this elusive work/life balance from another experienced female professional, someone external from her working environment. That’s where Mentor Walks came in.

Emma’s mentor – Deb Hughes Organisational Development Manager at BlueScope – helped her think through the question.

 “My career is a huge part of my identity. I don’t want to have to compromise or give that up. By asking the work/life balance question, I wanted to hear reassurance from other women in established careers that as a woman I can maintain both a career and a family at the same time. I wanted to hear from someone who had done it and succeeded at both – and I did.” 

Deb helped Emma to realise that “women can in fact have it all. We can change careers, move around and upward while also having children, provided we have the active support from the systems and institutions that are there to protect us.”

Emma has seen first hand what it looks like when those protections aren’t in place.

In her time working with female academics who’ve taken time off to care for children, Emma noticed that research projects go on hold, publications were put off or they’d miss out on grant opportunities – all of those being incredibly important factors in the advancement of an academic’s career.

“I do believe this is starting to change, with more value being placed on research that is contributing to society and making real-world impact, and with programs like UOW Global Challenges that are actively working toward a more gender diverse cohort of research teams. Fifty per cent of our project teams this year are led by women.”

However, it takes more than just a desire to make it all work. Emma says organisations need to change parental leave policies to ensure men have adequate time off to take on part of this responsibility.

 “We need to change the mentality that men shouldn’t take time off for unpaid care responsibilities. That’s something I’m very passionate about.”

Emma says Deb also helped her to reframe her thinking around having held a variety of different roles in different industries.

“Deb explained she had multiple different roles and responsibilities during her career and worked in a variety of departments and developed her skills broadly over her career.”

“Some people see movement sideways, or changing roles often, as a step back down the career ladder. It’s not a weakness and this mentality needs to change. It means you’ve been exposed to different environments, workplace cultures, working styles and leadership styles. It’s valuable to have that diverse experience on teams,” says Emma.  

Taking the leap

On her walk Emma was paired with another mentee who was in a similar position to herself just seven years earlier. This mentee was deciding whether or not she should take the leap into a new city.

“At exactly the same time, Deb and I both just shouted, “Do it!” That was a moment of realisation that I had learnt so much about myself while in Melbourne that I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

“Another thing I’ve learnt from my experience both at IWDA and Global Challenges is that women are very, very good at initiating and driving change, and making real-world impact. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, time and time again.  Given the resources, women can do absolutely anything,” she says.

Mentee to mentor

As for what comes next, Emma’s sights are now set on pursuing mentoring opportunities herself.

“I would like to enhance my leadership and management skills. I’ve managed volunteers and interns in communications and marketing activities over the last five years and I would love to continue to mentor others.  

“While I was at IWDA, I ran a training session on strategic communications with a woman from Myanmar who had an interest in communications. She then decided to start a formal university degree in marketing and communications and is actually now using those skills in her work for a women’s organisation in Myanmar. This makes me so incredibly happy.”

 Would you like to bounce some ideas off a seasoned expert or acquire advice on a tricky business issue? Then book in for one of our upcoming walks. More details here.

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