Thank you for agreeing to talk to Kenja Voice, Alison. It seems we've connected with you at a very exciting time: You were recently acknowledged as a finalist in the Victorian section of the 2005 Telstra Business Women's Awards. How did this come about?

AB: It came as bit of a surprise really, a colleague was considering the awards and women she admired and nominated me! In turn, I had to write about 15 pages about myself, demonstrating how women can be successful in business and have a balanced life as well. It was actually a really interesting exercise– through the questions, I had to explore my own feelings and look at the contribution I am making – both the unplanned and the purposeful ones!

After submitting that, I got a call to say I'd been short-listed to one of six, and I attended an interview with a panel of business leaders. Then at a lunch in early October, every finalist was invited onto the stage for an acknowledgement and certificate. It was fantastic to be in a room full of women whose actions were all individually so remarkable. The event highlighted women's contribution to the business arena as complementary to men's contribution – we each had our own great strengths and qualities.

Tell us about your background.

AB: I was born in Ireland, grew up in Canada and now call Australia home. Even in High School I remember being very interested in the world around me. I began searching for what I wanted to do in my life. Every few months I'd change my plan! I pursued science because it addressed real, practical problems – but then I wanted to see results a bit more tangible than looking through a microscope so I decided to study applied science and did chemical engineering. Even so, I questioned my choice every year – but couldn't figure out what else to do, so I kept going. When I graduated I wanted to work with people, not just pipes and equipment so I took a technical sales job and ended up in Western Canada.

Later I decided to go back to school, seeking a practical science that kept me out in the world amongst people – and I ended up doing my Masters in environmental engineering. At that time I was also playing a lot of sport. Eventually, I got to a point where I was selected as a Canadian representative in Race Walking and I competed in the World Championships in 1987 and Commonwealth Games in 1990.  This gave me an opportunity to explore another side of my character and find out how to perfect a physical skill to be able to compete against the best in the field. Competitive race walking took me around the world and to many high level international competitions. I made many friends, interacting with and understanding countless cultures,  I loved it.  It opened my eyes to many experiences and helped me to understand that no matter where we came from or what language we speak we can be friends and share the same dreams.  It was a special time in my life.

I thought the lifestyle of the academic playing sport worked very well for me. I also taught courses and enjoyed interacting with young people, ultimately staying on to do my PhD. During this time, I met a fellow sportsperson who'd later become my husband, and I ended up in Australia!

After doing some community-based work upon arrival here, I realised I had skills working with industries and could help take responsibility for environmental issues. I took a job in Canberra working in the field of environmental management with companies. This lead to an opportunity in Melbourne working in the international development area meaning I got to work in developing countries. Today I am Manager of the International Development Assistance group at GHD.

What helped make you a candidate for the Awards?

AB: Probably the range of things I've explored in life, not just one thing. I've always strived for personal excellence in the things I do – a commitment to finding how to make positive things happen in the world around me. That is the driving force in all that I do. I knew I wanted to make some kind of contribution that linked science, engineering and communication with other people.

The other thing for me has been balance. Whether it was academia, sport, work, friends or time out to learn ballroom dancing, play the bassoon or sing in a choir – I just know how important it is to try lots of different things. So often I've seen people get really good at one thing and become completely absorbed in just that. Which is fine but it does limit your options.

How do you define success?

AB: Setting out to do what you want to do, achieving it and making sure you're happy with the result. Having a spiritual purpose or reason for living outside your own life is also very important as it keeps you heading in the right direction while you are setting your goals and going through the ups and downs. Hard work is great and if you get the reason for doing it right, the hard work always leads to a sense of accomplishment.

You also do Kenja training. In practical terms, how does Energy Conversion meditation fit into your life?

AB: I use Energy Conversion to develop practical skills that help me be more effective at anything I am doing. It also helps me to continually improve my interaction with the environment – how my manner and communication causes different effects – and how the energy within different environments impacts me. We have a lot more influence and control of what happens around is than we might think and with the right communication skills and ethics, we can help create the environment we want.

In simplest terms, if you walk around with a long face you probably won't have happy people around you – but an optimistic outlook gets a different result. When you create a positive influence, people are more likely to support what you're trying to do; they go out of their way to help. I can in turn help others achieve what they want to do. I try to create these positive influences by example.

I think there is enough negativity in the environment already, a bit of positivity goes a long way and the meditation work in Kenja really does help me sustain a more positive life.

You also have this  background in professional sport. What drives a person to pursue excellence in a field of endeavour?

AB:  On some level I've always sought to do things as best I could. Even in High School I was focused on doing things well. Of course like everyone, I also hit lows and thought "I don't want to do this any more". That's natural, but if you persist and keep applying intelligence and commitment, you will always come through in the end. Really, I am just happy if I've done a good job. Acknowledgement comes as a bonus.

My family too were very supportive – so I grew up in an environment that encouraged me to pursue what I wanted. I was oriented towards finding out what I was good at and going after it.

Do you apply the same level of determinism to business as you did to sport?

AB: Definitely yes. A lot of lessons you learn through sport, apply directly to business. Such as having the big picture then breaking it down into little steps and viewing the overall game through time. You have to if you're training for an Olympics or Commonwealth Games. You organise your life to achieve a goal through time. It's about persistence and managing highs and lows – the same in sport, business and life.

The other key learning relates to staying one step ahead of competitors. The only way to do this and stay happy is to be the best you can be yourself, rather than being competitive externally. You go for personal bests because they most accurately measure your growth, your change.

If you were advising young adults, what's the most important lesson you’ve learned to date?

AB: Leaving the family environment and heading out – trust your instincts. Your knowing. And follow through with that. If you've got a dream go after it. There’s a lot of pressure when you are young to define future plans. Don't worry too much - if you're enjoying yourself and growing from your experiences you'll be happy. People thought I was crazy going back to school but I knew I was doing the right thing for me.

Be decisive as well, rather than waver. People can waste a lot of time being indecisive. Something I have learned through the Kenja training is "When you make a  decision and remain flexible, you can always change it. Then you never fear making decision, because you will make it the right one."

What do you feel most passionate about right now?

AB: Giving young people a positive outlook on the future. From that perspective, they can decide what they want to do  and they don't have to abide by the limitations or expectations of their environment. It’s important that young people feel they can live their lives as they choose.

Also, because I am constantly travelling overseas and interacting with different cultures, I see myself as an ambassador of sorts. What’s going on globally right now – the negativity, and fear – has the potential to take hold.  So I’ve taken on a kind of diplomatic role where I focus on the similarities between many cultures, and acknowledge and respect the differences. Underneath it all, all people want a loving environment – we are all the same really. People just want to be happy and get on with their lives.

I really do feel I can make a difference in a time on our planet where there is so much division and a lack of understanding. If individually we all unite, disharmony cannot take hold.

Alison, you’ve just found out – as  this article is going to publication – that a project you managed in China won the Australian Consulting Engineers of Australia (ACEA) Project of the Year!

AB: Yes! It was very exciting and a great example of teamwork.  One of the judges came over to us afterwards and indicated that they really loved the project because it represented a great example of Australian expertise going overseas to assist industry and communities as well as the strong environmental and community focus on it.
It really has been quite a year.

Alison, thank you for your time and this insight into your exciting life.

AB: Thank you.

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