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On top of the world

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Sarina Russo is a force to be reckoned with. Having created an empire that spans property, recruitment, education and training, Russo likens her business drive to an automatic Porsche – “you turn on the engine in the morning, and you fine tune it and exercise it so that you can have that peak mental zone”. Russo has her place firmly entrenched in the Australian business landscape and has been in the game for 29 years. Her first foray into the industry was to establish her own business academy, which provided secretarial training and free student job placement – a service unparalleled at the time.

Since then, her contribution to business has been significant, but it has been a long and winding road for Russo. Born in Sicily, she migrated with her family to Brisbane at age five. Defying strict Sicilian tradition that dictates family union, Russo moved away from her parents in pursuit of a career and greater independence.

Despite this early rebellion, Russo says her parents have been instrumental in shaping the successful career woman she is today. “I think that family values and corporate values are intertwined and the way you perceive [your parents] in their work ethics is very influential.”

 Paving the way

After leaving the family home in inner Brisbane, Russo moved to the city to work as a legal secretary and typing teacher. Subsequent setbacks and dismissals proved the catalyst for Russo deciding to branch out on her own. The challenge was to successfully pitch the idea of a business academy – that provided specialist training in job skills – to a bank manager. She credits her enthusiasm and confidence as the defining reason for securing the loan, enabling her to open the business.

While acquiring students was an initial challenge, in true Russo style, she persevered, and was able to grow on the initial 10-student intake. She relied on various contacts from previous work experience to secure jobs for her students. Russo says it was a key objective to ensure each student left the academy with a high degree of motivation and self belief, which she still subscribes to today.

“Nothing is greater than touching peoples lives and giving them self belief to go out there and achieve not only in their own right, but to have options, freedom and acceptance of who they are today and pursuit of who they want to be tomorrow.”

One of Russo’s greatest challenges in those early days was government bureaucracy in seeking accreditation for her courses. Without the accreditation, Russo couldn’t get the formal recognition of the training college that she needed to have. It took several months and many meetings with government agencies until eventually the course was granted accreditation.

Strength to strength

Russo says she never anticipated the growth the business would achieve. “In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have been able to consider that I would reach the level of success that we enjoy today – so that was never in my vision or in my master plan. All I wanted to do when I first started my business was to pay my mortgage.”

The inherent risks involved in starting a new business can often lead to self doubt. While Russo concedes even she is not immune from these thoughts, it’s not something she dwells on. “It’s a discipline of every day focusing on the positive and seeing the opportunity that arises out of a challenge, rather than seeing a negative.”

The high calibre graduates from Russo’s academy were instrumental to its success and the domino effect reverberated in the business community. Russo was soon achieving a 98% success rate in securing them jobs.

As Russo’s reputation grew, so too did her business – enabling her to undertake other entrepreneurial ventures. Today, the Sarina Russo Group employs more than 800 people and incorporates an expansive network of education, recruitment and training programs, job access networks, higher education and apprenticeship services.

“In the last 29 years, we have encouraged tens of thousands of job seekers and domestic students to go out there and become more and be more.”

While Russo is a hurricane of energy, she says her leadership style is very nurturing. “I really believe that my style of leadership is all about caring about the individual, giving them self confidence and the courage to believe they can do more, or they can do better.”

Lead and achieve

Since 2003, Russo has been involved in the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard University, of which a primary focus is empowering women on education and learning. Russo says being involved with such a group of successful, like minded women is very rewarding. “It’s so synergised to my values about education and empowerment of self. [It’s] a global organisation that encourages and educates awareness that every woman has equal opportunity and every woman can go out there and be empowered to become more, whether it’s a political opportunity, women in business, or whether it’s a mother rearing children.”

Russo is inspired by the likes of US presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton, whose husband, the former president, Bill, she has met previously – along with many other high profile business and entertainment leaders over the years.

When asked if male intimidation in the workforce is something she has ever had to contend with, Russo is typically straight down the line. “I’m so over it that I really believe it’s an excuse for women who don’t succeed; I think that the 21st century is all about equality, capacity of skills, capacity of mind [and] capacity of attitude that helps you to drive forward and be successful.”

Rear view mirror

Russo credits continual self evolution as a critical factor in her success.

“It’s all about appreciation that your experiences of the past mould your future and as a result I strongly believe that with that self belief … you can change, you can improve and you can become an extraordinary entrepreneur and forge on that self believe.”

Russo is very clear on the leadership style she believes produces the best results. “I think it’s got to do with courage, not being conventional, thinking outside the square and taking on challenges that you never thought you’d be confronting with optimism and passion.”

She says it’s important for business owners to have a long-term vision, but to also review, reassess and strategise on a yearly basis.

“And also accept that change in business is constant, it’s the way you accept those changes and take your team with you and empower them to forge forward.”

Russo says her greatest achievement in business is to have a positive impact on people. “Nothing is greater in my 29 years and I want to keep doing it, it’s amazing, I’m as passionate today as I was in 1979.” 

Published on: Wednesday, June 24, 2009

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