How does someone who never went to university become a CEO of one of the largest real estate brands of Australia? Meet Sadhana Smiles, the star in the corporate landscape.
She is clearly one of Australia’s high profile women. Sadhana Smiles, an Indian origin from Fiji, came to Australia at a young age to study but she would go on to set an example of creating that small category of superwomen who makes others look up and take notice. Today, she is one of two female CEO’s in the real estate sector in Australia. What makes Sadhana’s story compelling is the fact that it has all the ingredients of failure and success, mediocrity and excellence to reach where she has today.
The year was 1982. Sixteen-year old Sadhana arrived in Australia to study coerced by ambitious parents invested in her education. In many ways, the young girl loved the new sense of freedom that her new environment provided and assimilated well while still grappling with the culture shocks of not speaking the language and so on. However when high school came to and end, she did not cut marks high enough to enter university to study law or medicine like other Indian students. Instead she ended up with a Tafe course in Hotel Management. “I had bad marks because I spent too much time mucking around,” she candidly admits.
Sadhana’s rebellious streak also came out early on. Eighteen months into her hotel management course and Sadhana realised her student visa was running out. “In those days, unless you were a university student they wouldn’t renew your visa,” she recalls. She was clear about one thing though: she was not going back to Fiji. So her best option then was to get married to the guy she was dating. “That’s how I got married to my now ex-husband and that was my way of staying in the country. I always tell people I am the pioneer of marriage visas,” she laughs. Sadhana was just 19 then.
If she had to return back home, it meant going back to a cultural environment that she was not prepared to go back to. She abhorred arranged marriages and in-laws dictating terms, the dos and don’ts or a husband telling her how to live her life or even her own parents having that much influence on her. Sadhana avers that one of the choices she has in her life is to be as unique as her finger prints. And that meant she couldn’t go back home into that culture at any cost.
So, how does someone who never went to university become a CEO of one of the largest real estate brands of Australia, win awards, build a profile, become well recognised in her field and in an industry that is male dominated?
It is an interesting career trajectory and one that has been challenging. Sadhana began by working in hotels, lived in the UK for a while and when she got back to Australia decided she did not want to engage in the hotel industry anymore. Thus began her tryst with real estate companies beginning as a receptionist. But she proved to be a ‘terrible’ receptionist and thank God for her director who chose to move her to a different role instead of sacking her. So she had an admin role and from there literally learnt to run the back office of a business at a time when there was no internet or computers and when typewriters were the order of the day. “It was like cutting my teeth on the back end of a business on a very old traditional model. You learn so much,” she reflects. From there, Sadhana went on to another business and just had the advantage of doing different roles in real estate under the guidance of good managing directors who “were willing to put their time, effort and training into their employees”.
However, soon she found herself at a spot in life where she got bored and felt she was average – being a wife, a mother, a worker. She wanted more. So when her marriage unfortunately fell apart after 22 years, that became a significant time in her life when she had to make critical and hard decisions that impacted her life, children, family and friends. “I needed to do it to become a different person.”
With divorce came the looming threat of debt and poverty. “The threat of living in poverty really drove excellence in me. Because at the end of the day you have a choice – you can be average and live in poverty or you can actually work your ass off and do something with your life.”
True enough, Sadhana focussed on what training or support systems she needed or how well she needed to do her job knowing that she wanted to be a CEO. She moved to Sydney in the role of a General Manager (GM) with a company called McGrath, where she stayed on for about two years. “My relation fell apart and because I was in partnership with the guy who owned the business, I had to find another job.”
Perfect timing as the role for the CEO in New South Wales came for Harcourts, a leading real estate brand. She had initially said no to the opportunity. However once her relationship ended and unable to continue working with her ex-partner, Sadhana was looking for opportunities. She had resigned to the fact that she may not be hired in senior management going by previous experiences. “Invariably, it always came down to a bloke and me, and businesses chose the bloke because they thought a woman couldn’t do the job. It was the time I realised that this industry of mine is very sexist, it was very frustrating.” But this time, before she realised it, Harcourts offered her the job. After six months in Sydney, Sadhana moved to Melbourne as its CEO. This October, she will complete seven years with the company.
Sadhana’s hard work, leadership and other traits won her many accolades. In 2013 she won the Telstra Victoria Business Woman of the Year which opened newer doors for her. “It’s great that Telstra gives such awards and provides that level of prestige because it gives you a launching pad.”
She took the award to create another brand for herself. Having made the decision to never say ‘No’ to any opportunity, she accepted every speaking gig and connections which in turn opened a whole range of doors. It created a platform for her to have a voice and an influence around issues such as domestic violence, diversity and pay parity.
“For me, diversity isn’t about women on boards but about making sure that we have the colour of the community, which is just not culturally and linguistically diverse people but also people with different skill sets and ability being reflected in businesses. And the leadership in Australia needs to understand and embrace this,” she says.
Tied into the issue of diversity are issues of pay gap that has become one of her real sounding boards. “Women over 55 in this country are more likely to retire into poverty due to the pay gap and lack of superannuation. And our daughters deserve to go into workplaces that are going to pay them the equal as men.”
In 2016, Sadhana was among the AFR & Westpac 100 Women of Influence Awards in Australia. This, she says, is a real indication that in three years she made a real stand about these issues, something she hopes to continue doing.
One of the advices Sadhana gives women of coloured backgrounds for finding success is the fact that they have to work twice as hard as anybody else to get where they want. “You have to be 100 per cent clear about the direction that your career is taking. So you need to have high levels of self-awareness and work on the skill sets, etc.. If you really want to get to the top then you are going to have more hurdles than anybody else. If you are not prepared to face those hurdles then you shouldn’t do it. Are you knocking the right door and knocking hard enough? Because if somebody says no to you it is because you haven’t given them a good enough reason to say yes.”
Interestingly, Sadhana observes that Australians look at her and say, ‘Wow here is a really successful migrant, whereas the Indian community view her as someone who has become ‘white’. “All I have done is taken the best of both the cultures that I belong to. Migrants come here because they want a better life believing that this country is going to provide the opportunities. That means you have to take on the culture of that country, not all of it but the ones that work for you and blend it into who you are. That doesn’t mean you become one or the other. And I always say this to women, if you ever want to see someone who is the best blend of both cultures come and spend some time with me because I am an Indian and an Australian and I blend the two of them together.”
Someone as high performing as her has had to break a double glass ceiling – the home ceiling of choosing not to become a stay-at-home mother and the western glass ceiling of breaking into a male-dominated industry. So the advice she has for Indian women particularly is: “Success starts at home and your family needs to understand what you want to achieve in professionally and personally and support you. This, of course, means you need to share your goals with them.”
Asked what her view is on women and men working besides one another, Sadhana says, “This is where our Indian community have an opportunity to step up. We are not going to get parity, diversity if the men don’t stand side by side with their women. Women have ambitions and families need to support them. The days where the mother-in-law and the son drove family ambitions, have changed. If we truly want to become successful as couples, then both people must support each other’s career ambitions. It didn’t change much in my generation, it will certainly change the next generation because that’s not the way of the world anymore. Men and women have to work together side by side and equally to gain everything that they want. When you see people do that, you see successful couples, marriages, careers.”
When she is not bolstering her real estate company, Sadhana is a mother who juggles her role as a mother, and a CEO with ease. As a single mother, she made a pact with her children that she would never lie to them. “No matter how bad or good my day was, no matter how bad or awesome I was feeling, I would come home and never put a mask of ‘I am your mom and I have got to be this super hero’. My kids have always understood all the challenges, the difficulties and all the successes in my life and they have been with me every step of the way. And what that has done is created a unique bond and connection between the three of us. My children are strong and confident and they know what they want. They get their direction, value sets and confidence from me. I always say to women ‘you are role models’ of your children and if you want to create a generation of boys and girls who are different, who respect each other equally, who provide opportunities to each other, who hold on to the good part of their culture, you need to model it.”
Asked if there is anything she would do to change her journey, Sadhana says, “I am very happy so I wouldn’t change anything. If anything, I probably would have taken the risks much earlier as opposed to living a lot later in my life.”
Sadhana’s story represents in miniature what she is in real life — a maximally successful CEO in Australia’s corporate landscape!
By Indira Laisram