(8 minute read)
Dr Susan Alberti AC, HonLLD, HonDUniv, FAICD
Passionate, driven and ambitious, Susan Alberti AC has forged paths in areas traditionally dominated by men. As co-founder and Managing Director of a large building company, the Chairman of her own medical research foundation, and the Ambassador for the National Women’s Football League, Susan has had both great success professionally and personally. Pioneering through tragic personal circumstances, Susan’s work has assisted in raising millions of dollars for diabetes research and her passion has resulted in her being recognised internationally for her effort. A trailblazer in women’s football, Susan has been instrumental in the formation of a national women’s football league as well as the success of the Western Bulldogs Football Club.
How you would define courage?
I go back to the early 1960s when I got involved in the building industry. I was very much on my own and I was thrust into a position of leadership in a male dominated world. I really had to step up and learn all about working with men. That was courageous because you didn’t do that back in the 60s. Women were seen and not heard; women were seen as being married and staying at home to raise families. We were not really encouraged to join the workforce, unless it was as a secretary or a nurse. We weren’t encouraged to go to university. But I was in the building industry and that was male-dominated. That was the last bastion of male domination as far as I’m concerned. So that took incredible courage – I had to deal with male unionists that were quite nasty. I was introduced to courage in so many ways because I was in a position I’d never been trained to be in, and coming from the environment of the woman stays at home, I was very much on my own.
What was it about you that enabled you to step into this role and to embrace it?
I guess the reason I did it is because it had to be done and there was no one else to do it. There was no one I could lean on. There was no one I could ask to do it for me, because there was no one around doing it at the time. So I had to learn very quickly about how things were done in that world. So there was just no one around and it had to be done. And if I didn’t do it, it wasn’t going to get done. Simple!
What sustained you during this time?
Success. I didn’t want to be a failure. I’ve always been known to step up, to do things as well as I can. I have had failures; if I said I haven’t, I’d be lying to you. But I think it’s success – that I’d done a good job; knowing that the people who were employed by me were satisfied and happy in the environment. I looked after them well; I can say at the end of the day it was going to be we’re both winningin this situation. That’s really what sustained me to be successful. Achieving success was about doing a great project and at the end of the day everybody was happy with the project.
Does courage look different today, and if yes, how does it look different?
It looks very different; women now are encouraged to have a go at almost anything if that’s what they want to do, which I really love. I was speaking at a forum recently where there were all young women undertaking building apprenticeships. Two weeks prior, I was at a forum for female engineers – women who are engineers on oil rigs – that was never heard of in my time. Women are undertaking these tasks and these jobs. So for young women today the world is inviting them to go and do things that would have never been thought of by young women in my era. It’s just wonderful for women now.
Now women are much more confident about who they are, what they’d like to aspire to, and what they want to do with their lives. I can see that there are opportunities everywhere for them which never existed as I was growing up. So I think it’s just wonderful for women today, whether its sports or whether in business. The opportunity is there if they want to take the opportunity. I don’t want to hear that, “I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t able to do it.” I don’t believe that’s the case any more; women can do almost anything if they set their mind to it and that makes me very happy.
I love seeing young women aspiring to be the best whether it be business or whether it be in sport.
Sport, of course, I love very much. I love seeing women aspire to be champions and so many are now. I can see there are career paths for them. It makes me very happy to know that maybe I forged a path for them.
Your involvement in business and sport is boundless. What are you proudest of?
I am most proud of seeing young women today being given opportunities that I never had. As I said, if I’ve forged a path, I’m incredibly proud of that. I’ve been reasonably successful in business which has enabled me to give back to the community so that gives me much satisfaction. I know that I’ve forged paths for young women involved in medical research; particularly women who have children. It’s very difficult for them to leave their research projects, go off and have their babies; so I’ve set up a bursary scholarship fund for them, so they know that their jobs are still there for them when they come back. Additionally, there are child care facilities at the institute; women know they have good childcare facilities for their children, and if they wish to breastfeed they can still do that and come back to work in the laboratory.
For women in business, the world is theirs right now; they can do anything. I encourage women to speak up if something is not right, whereas many years ago women wouldn’t do that. I mentor a few young professionals and encourage them to speak to their manager if something’s not right. Don’t ever be afraid to speak out.
In sport, I had always aspired to play at an elite level but I wasn’t able to because of the time. I’ve now been able to help establish something really special in the AFLW. I might be considered the catalyst, but I’m not the only woman who has been involved. I’m happy and very proud; when I see all of these young women I just think they are the most remarkable young women. I say this because these women are doing things that ordinarily people wouldn’t be able to do. They work, they study, they have families, they train 21 hours a week, they are remarkable women. I admire them so much. I know they’ll be able to become professional athletes soon. For me it’s just like watching your children grow up and see them be great people. I am so proud of these young women and the little girls at Auskick, who are looking up to their female role models and heroes, and wearing their numbers on their backs.
I’ve seen the AFL women and men’s teams complementing each other at my own club. Our women have trained with our senior (men’s) team a couple of times; they are learning football skills from the men. Together, they are talking strategy and tactics. And, the men are learning how to handle the press and media from the women. It’s wonderful to see that culture in the club; we are one club.
What do you consider amongst your most courageous acts?
I’ve been told I was going to die. I have knocked on the door of death twice, and being told if I didn’t do something about my life and my health, I would die. I had been ignoring my health for a long time because I was worried about my daughter and about others, rather than myself. I let myself go and I had all sorts of excuses for putting on weight – I’m too busy, I haven’t got time.
It really took courage to turn my life around and it’s hard to explain. I had to change my diet, to exercise, and to lose half my body weight. I used to be 120 kilograms; now I’m only half that. At the time, the specialist didn’t give me an ultimatum but she spelled it out for me. Now that was courageous by that doctor to tell me the actual truth. Of the four specialists I had, it was a female specialist who told me the truth. She said, “Susan, you are going to die in six months. You will die if you don’t do …” A lot of people don’t know that took more courage than I have ever had in my whole life; I had to find the courage to change it all and I did. I am very happy and satisfied with what I’ve done; it’s helped others to see what can be done.
Where did you find the courage?
I guess it’s because I had so many people looking to me for leadership, and mouths to feed. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to continue working and doing the things that I loved doing – whether it be in medical research, or women in sport, or aged care – I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that anymore. I loved it too much; I loved what I was doing. It was going to be taken from me but I had an opportunity to change it if I wanted to. No one talked me into it, I talked myself into it. I’m a very tough person, and I thought I have to change if I want to live and to continue to do the things that I truly love. And now you can’t stop me; I’ve got more energy than I’ve ever had.
What’s another instance in which you have been courageous?
I was going to give my daughter my kidney; that was before I was diagnosed with cancer. I guess that was pretty courageous but you’d do that for your child. And mothers and fathers would do that for their children. I wouldn’t call that courageous, I just call that love.
Courageous? I don’t think I’ve been courageous, I’ve just got on with life. Things had to be done, there was no one else to do it.
I guess you could say I was courageous when my friend was murdered in 1966. She was my sporting mate and we did everything together; I never gave up sport in memory of her. Overcoming that was courageous because we were very, very close; it’s still with me. I just think I’m a fighter, I’m a tough individual; it’s hard to explain.
Susan, your strength of perseverance is obvious.
I persevered in getting my first deal after Angelo died; this was my first real estate deal in a cemetery. Angelo always wanted his plot to face north on the corner, but there were all these others plots to fill, so they didn’t want to sell me a north-facing plot. I said, “I am not moving from here until you give me what I want. I’ll sit here all day.” This was early in the morning and by the afternoon I had what I wanted. As I walked away I said, “Angelo you’ll be very proud of me. I got what you wanted, facing north on the corner.” I’m prouder of that deal than any other deal I’ve done.
If anyone tells me I can’t do something, that’s the worst thing. If someone says to me, “you can’t do it,” they also follow that up with “and I know you’re going to do it.” I do make sure I know what I’m doing. I’ll do my own research, so I’m never reckless.
Your passion for life is palpable.
I know when I get to the end of my life I haven’t wasted my life. I haven’t wasted a moment of my life. I’ve done everything that I can to be successful. I’ve worked as hard as I can and I’ve achieved most of the things that I wanted to achieve. I don’t have a cure for diabetes, but I’m still working on that – that’s been a 40-year issue of mine and a cure would be the ultimate. If that could be, then I can really die happy.
I’ve been very rewarded, not just financially, but personally. I’ve seen success for our women in sport, women in research and for men too. I’ve seen that I’ve made a difference. I’ve made a contribution, so I haven’t wasted my life.
Words that I would use to describe Susan are a hard worker, persevering, determined, generous, energetic, passionate and a little irreverent. In addition to finding a cure for diabetes, the legacy that Susan would like to leave is to have more children participating in sport, being active in body and mind.
And finally …
The book cover of “The Footy Lady:
The Trailblazing Story of Susan Alberti,”
by Stephanie Asher
Two weeks before she died Danielle said to Susan, “Mum are you writing that book yet?” Susan replied, “No I’m not.” And Danielle said, “Promise me, one day mummy you’ll write that book,” to which Susan replied,“Okay.”And of course, Susan fulfilled her daughter’s last wish in writing The Footy Lady. Of this, Susan said, “It was my daughter’s last wish, and I know she’d be very proud that I did what she asked me to do.”
You can learn more about Susan’s work here:
- Susan Alberti Medical Research Foundation
- Susan Alberti Medical Research Foundation on Facebook
- Twitter: @SusanAblberti1 and @SusanAlbertiMRF