Kristy Masella has spent the majority of her life advocating for and working within Aboriginal communities in Australia. Since 2014, this has led Kristy to step up as the CEO of Aboriginal Employment Strategy (AES), the largest and most successful Indigenous recruitment and group training company. Her impactful work has seen Kristy nominated for many awards including her recognition as one of Australia’s Top 100 Most Influential Women by the Australian Financial Review.
Today, she reflects on her goals for AES, and her hopes for the future of Aboriginal Australia.
What inspired you to get involved with AES? What have been the highlights so far?
Joining the AES was an easy choice. It’s a phenomenal group of big-hearted, passionate, grass roots people who work to empower Aboriginal people and local communities through employment. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?!.... my kind of people! I joined the AES as CEO after 20 years in the Public Service. I was ready for a new challenge. My self-worth and identity come from serving my community. It gives me purpose. It gives me energy. It grounds me. AES and its work provided me with a pretty special segway into a world of empowering people through providing the one thing that I have survived and thrived on…. Purpose. Each day, each week at the AES, hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are gaining a strong sense of purpose, of pride through employment and a career. So simple, and so powerful.
There are many highlights for me so far on my AES journey. Aboriginal women make up 60% of AES Management. We deliver 150 career placements every month. Our offices are staffed by local Aboriginal people fully invested in making a difference in their community. We invest in and build on communities’ strengths. What we build in communities stays in communities. This year, we are celebrating our 25th birthday. Twenty-five wonderful years of grit, impact and heart. 30,000 career placements for Aboriginal people. 3,000 traineeships and apprenticeships for young Aboriginal people. My heart is full.
A lot of your work with AES, the Yaama Ganu Centre and the Tranby National Indigenous Adult Education & Training services focuses on training and connecting Aboriginal Australians with opportunities to help their prospects in the job market. What makes this approach so successful?
The wonderful Aboriginal organisations that I am privileged to be a part of are focused on empowering people, whether that’s through education and training, or employment, or addressing systemic racism, creating self-determination through economic participation or through unpacking intergenerational trauma. What makes this a success is that our services and programs are designed and delivered by local Aboriginal people to address local needs. Cultural competency, trust, empathy and relationships are central to our success. So is resilience, belief in our communities, long term investment and a strong sense of community. That’s the secret recipe for success! I’m proud to lead an organisation like the AES that has self-determination embedded in our core.
Earlier this year, you were a contributing author to Women’s Agenda where you penned a great piece on the need for Indigenous women in more senior leadership roles. In your experience, what are some of the biggest challenges that Aboriginal women face when aspiring to climb the career ladder?
The good news is that Aboriginal women are climbing the career ladder and they have a long line of other Aboriginal women following. But yes, there are some challenges many of us are facing on that climb. Aboriginal women (including Aboriginal men) have strong values aligned with community service or ‘working for mob’. Our identity as Aboriginal women is very much connected to our family and community and often these values are in opposition to those values you see in the corporate world or do not align with the mainstream. There is a saying that we’ve had to learn how to ‘walk in two worlds’. That is very true, but it’s great to see that the ‘other’ world is also learning to walk in our world.
It’s sad to say that in 2021 racism and ignorance still exists, and Eurocentric views still dominate. Over 200 years of cultural and social destruction and genocide and the intergenerational trauma that follows, sits deep in our gut and is a heavy weight to carry. The ladder that others are climbing is a very different ladder to the one that Aboriginal women are climbing. It is higher, it has more rungs, it has a steeper grade, and the climber has a heavier impost. But we haven’t survived for 80,000 years by chance. We are designing and building our own structures to continue to rise. We are determining how and when we will scale it. We are experienced architects, builders and climbers. And we are of course ensuring ‘the climb’ is with community and for community.
Do you have any strong female role models or mentors who you look up to? How have they helped shape your career?
I have been so fortunate in my life to have many strong female role models to walk alongside of me, lead me, inspire me, pick me up, give me a wake up call … and challenge me. These role models all have one very special thing in common which I truly value … they are value-based leaders. My Mum was my first role model. She taught me compassion, finding the good in people, fighting for what is right, selflessness, and gave me the very precious gift of an unbreakable mother-daughter bond. I only had her in my life for 17 years, but she gave me a formidable foundation. I look up to people like Lyn Riley – she is so humble, wise, giving, light-hearted, sees the best in people and has a beautiful warmth that cannot be described. She reminds me a lot of my Mum. I admire the intellect of Megan Davis. I respect the creativity-with-purpose of Mayrah Sonter. I love the ‘grit’ of Belinda Russon Nayanar. I am humbled by the strength and courage of my daughters who boldly call out injustice, discrimination and disrespect. I am blessed.
What would be your advice to other young women looking to follow in your footsteps?
Do what you love. Find purpose, and make this purpose your work. Never stop learning. Don’t compromise on your values. Celebrate you and the uniqueness of you. Be yourself in every way – gloriously, unashamedly and boldly!. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Do ordinary things with extraordinary love.