Woman Schwartz, Carol

Businesswoman and Philanthropist

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Carol Schwartz is a Melbourne business woman who has been a leading figure in the Victorian not-for-profit and corporate sectors for roughly twenty-five years. She holds one of the country's most diverse portfolios of board appointments, currently having high-level involvement in Qualitas Property Partners, Yarra Capital Partners, Melbourne Business School, The Australian Innovation Research Centre, the Enterprise Melbourne Advisory Board, Our Community and Stockland. Past leadership roles include: Business (Industry Superannuation Property Trust, Property Council of Australia, Highpoint Property Group, Anstat, OPSM), Government (VicHealth, Docklands Authority, Future Melbourne Reference Group), the Arts (Comedy Festival, Australian Ballet School, National Gallery of Australia, Melbourne International Arts Festival), Health (Mental Health Research Institute, Baker Institute) and Community (Australian Bush Heritage Fund, Western Chances, Social Ventures Australia). She is a founder of the social investment body, Trawalla, and helped to establish the Australian Women Donors Network. In 2007, she was awarded an Order of Australia for her contribution to business, community and the arts, and in 2011 was named one of the nation's 'True Leaders' by Boss magazine. In 2012 she was nominated as one of Westpac's 100 Most Influential Women. Her reputation as 'one of the best-connected people in the Australian business world' is well earned (Family Matters).

Born in Melbourne in 1955 to Marc and Eva Besen, founders of the Sussan retail fashion chain and noted philanthropists, Schwartz's began her education at a small Jewish school in Elwood run on Steiner education principles before moving to Mt Scopus College in Burwood. She then studied law/arts at Monash University. The 'Jewishness' of her education had a profound impact on her sense of self, not so much for the theological dimensions, but for the culture of family and the sense of connectedness to the broader community that it fostered. Like her parents and the rest of her extended family, Schwartz works hard, loves business, has achieved financial success but believes it counts for little unless it is connected to family and a commitment to community responsibility.

Schwartz claims that she 'never grew up feeling ... wealthy... because I never had anything different from what my friends had' (Family Matters). Because they were in business, and business is inherently risky, she says that the family always worked hard and never took anything for granted. They took their summer holidays in Frankston, didn't live extravagantly, but neither were they ashamed of their money. There was a strong commitment to reinvesting in community extending back to when her grandparents welcomed Jewish refugees at the Port Melbourne docks.

As a young woman, Schwartz had no connection with the feminist movement, and never experienced gender discrimination. She read Germaine Greer, 'but only because it was cool' (Interview). However, she was a grateful beneficiary of the second wave of feminism, growing up surrounded by women who ran their own businesses and philanthropic foundations and leading their own lives. Empowered by their example, she imagined herself becoming a 'high-powered business woman who married at forty and never had children' (Interview). Instead she got married as a 21-year old to Alan, a fellow student and had four children.

Having seen how hard it was for competent women to rebuild a career after time taken out for mothering, Schwarz decided to do an MBA, so that the gaps in her CV could be more readily explained. However, she was appalled by the inflexibility of the University of Melbourne, which would not allow her to study part time; effectively excluding any women with parenting responsibilities from the opportunity to participate. She went instead to Monash which did offer part time enrolments enabling her add an intellectual understanding to her passion for business.

On graduating she was asked by her father to join the property arm of the family business and started work in a part time capacity in 1989, taking a leading role in many large shopping centre projects, including the building and redevelopment of Whitehorse Plaza in Box Hill, the Moonee Ponds Market and Chatswood in Sydney. One of the most significant and challenging projects she led was the redevelopment of Highpoint Shopping Centre in Maribyrnong. An early example of public/private partnership involving business, state and local governments, the redevelopment sought to recreate the western suburbs shopping centre as a community hub, a recreational space and a successful business opportunity. She was excited by collaborating with government in the development of new social infrastructure in Melbourne's western suburbs and seized the opportunity to put into practice her belief that property development, sensitively undertaken in consultation with local communities, 'could create social and cultural change for the better' (Interview).

The experience drew attention to what Schwartz called 'the complicated relationship between making money and creating social good' (Interview). She makes no apology for making money, and stresses the importance of profit for reinvestment and creating prosperous communities. She had no intention of entering into the Highpoint development if it wasn't good for business, but she had no doubt that what was good for business was also good for the local community. 'A business can only be successful if you know the community you operate in and work to make that community prosperous' (Interview). There were several stakeholders, however, who thought that what was good for business was a form of exploitation. In partnership with Maribyrnong council CEO Kay Rundle, Schwartz was able to negotiate pathways which overcame this opposition.

Schwartz's success led to her being invited onto the Property Council of Victoria, one of very few female members. In 1993 she became the first woman on the board and then, in 1994, the council's first woman president. She took the opportunity of making incremental changes that made it easier for women to be involved. Lunches, which were increasingly used to promote women and their achievements, were no longer held at the male-only Athenaeum club, and other meetings were scheduled at more family-friendly times, initiatives which were reversed when she resigned from the position. Such backsliding, she argues, is an indication that the struggle for gender equity has not been won. 'We are making very incremental changes that are basically allowing people and organisations to pat themselves on the back without there being any sort of fundamental or meaningful change or progress … the pressure has to stay on,' she concludes (Family Matters). Without campaigns that continually highlight the public achievements of women in leadership roles, then structural systems that continue to discriminate against women in the workplace will persist. Quotas, she believes, are needed to force the current corporate leadership to embrace and facilitate change.

Schwartz takes a particular interest in gender discrimination on boards in the community and the philanthropic sector. Although women are well represented in leadership roles, they seem to disappear as income increases. 'The bigger the revenues, the fewer women in control' (Interview). Schwartz and the other founders of the Women's Donor Network hope to readjust the view that women can only handle small-scale organisations. Apart from raising the profile of women in philanthropic leadership in Australia, the network also plans to regard philanthropic effort through a gender lens, by directing funds to causes that assist women (Women Donor's Network Website). Gender discrimination, Schwartz believes, is bad business. Diversity of thought and talent is the key to community sector innovation. Staff and clients need to feel empowered to run themselves. Innovation and empowerment were the driving forces behind the evolution in the early 2000s of 'Our Community', an approach to community group organisation that Schwartz worked on in its formative days with Dennis Moriarty, to reposition community groups in the online world and link them to philanthropic organizations. Schwartz's own Trawalla Foundation being a example of such groups (Interview).

Schwartz sees her networks and associated ability to 'surround myself with good people' as the keys to her effectiveness as a leader. Women need to assume positional leadership if culture is to change. But positional leadership doesn't automatically involve a 'leading-from-the front' style. Leaders need to be able to 'empower others to take the front position; they also need to be able to recognise when they are not the best person to do it' (Interview). They need to be able to make tough decisions when required, it is not authority, but facilitation, that is the key characteristic of Schwarz's leadership style. Nothing makes her happier than 'basking in the reflected glory' of the success of someone she has talent spotted and empowered to lead (Interview).

Carol Schwartz is a woman of many talents. She has 'a great thirst for ideas and a great sense of social responsibility'. She has an entrepreneurial spirit, is one of Victoria's 'great innovators' and has the capacity to influence change. But, most importantly, 'Her greatest skill is in leading … If you want someone as a chairman, ask Carol' (Family Matters).

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Carol Schwartz interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 11 May 2011 - 13 September 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/2; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources

See also

Digital Resources

Carol Schwartz interviewed for The Zone
Audio Visual
8 November 2010
Fairfax Digital Media