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CEO to Chatelaine

For the inaugural episode, we interviewed Marisa herself. Whether you are already familiar with Marisa or you've just stumbled across us today, this is a great opportunity to get to know her a bit better and perhaps even learn something new and surprising. Marisa Vecchio is an accomplished Australian businesswoman and philanthropist who's held various leadership roles in the medical accreditation industry and has been recognised for her contributions to our community.

Her exceptional leadership, unwavering dedication and commitment to excellence have garnered her countless accolades, including being appointed a member of the Order of Australia, winning the Queensland Telstra Businesswoman of the Year Award and receiving an honorary doctorate from QUT. Currently, Marisa has shifted her focus towards entrepreneurship and philanthropy taking on the role of chatelaine at Hanworth House.

Jaimi Welcome to your podcast, Marisa. How does it feel?

Marisa I've never had a podcast before. I'm a bit excited

Jaimi To start off today. We've got our bubbles and what is your favourite bubbles that you bought along

Marisa I'm sure there's gonna be so many people that are just so surprised by the fact. Of course, it's champagne, which I actually didn't drink till I was in my forties. I actually didn't even know the existence of it. I was a girl that grew up on Asti Ricadonna because that's what my mum used to drink. It was quite a like world revealing moment when I had my first glass of champagne. So of course I would have to say my favourite champagne for a whole lot of reasons is Veuve Cliquot and it just happens to be, of course, the champagne of Haworth House, but I just happened to have a bottle I prepared earlier, here a beautiful glittery bottle, which actually our daughter gave me for the 155th anniversary of Hanworth a few years ago. It's actually still not open. So I think we should do something about that very soon.

Jaimi Absolutely. It'll be a good celebration for the 160th birthday.

Marisa That's true. Think, I think if it lasts that long, another few months and hopefully,

Jaimi Hopefully Bella will be able to be here with us to open it.

Marisa Well that would be great. But, it's always actually on my shelf in this beautiful office of mine and always reminds me that there's all those little small milestone celebrations. So I think yes, Veuve Cliquot, which I think we have poured ourselves a glass off to toast the start of the podcast, so cheers. Cheers. Let's hope this is a start of a wonderful journey.

Jaimi Before we go into Hanworth house, I want to go back a little bit and talk about how your journey first started and you were a CEO for quite some time. What motivated you to pursue that career in Medical accreditation?

Marisa Well, I guess, if I go back even further than that, I was a girl who graduated high school and I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do. I think everybody sort of expected me to land into law or medicine and because I was pretty dedicated at school, I didn't like to fail. You know, I kind of was a really hard worker and so when I chose to go into the arts music area, I think a lot of people were very surprised. In fact, it was probably a terrible decision now that I look back because I actually learned that even though I thought I was a really good pianist, I actually wasn't. And compared to everyone else around me, I was not good enough to perform and definitely not good enough to teach and not patient enough to teach, I guess is probably, more appropriate.

So I kind of found myself graduated from university without a job, which a lot of arts graduates often find themselves in. And, it was by default that I ended up getting a job which basically projected me onto a pathway towards business, which was working for the Pella Group in Brisbane, an organisation that was building hotel, it was kind of when expo was starting. I landed into a really interesting career, kind of getting into hotel management and then I realised that perhaps the world of business was more inclined with where I was at in my life, which was great for me because I could actually use my artistic streaks and my creativity. And in fact that was something that I really explored a lot when I did work with the College of GPs and with AGPAL, which was the organisation I became the CEO of, which was a national organisation that was setting about doing a very challenging thing, which was setting standards in general practice. Imagine trying to convince a doctor that they needed to have standards when they were already doctors. So I kind of loved the challenge of that and I thrived on it and I think we built a really successful business in conjunction with the medical profession and we ended up accrediting actually if you go to your local gp you'll probably find a logo on their door, which was the organisation that I was very proud to have been a part of starting. So, that's really how it happened in terms of the business world. And I did kind of travel through a myriad of different medical hurdles that got me to a CEO position somehow. If I look back, I don't even know how that happened, it was a great journey and one that I wouldn't have changed for the world.

Jaimi What made you make the jump from hospitality to medical accreditation?

Marisa I think I was just asked, I think you make a lot of decisions based on circumstances and sometimes and sometimes luck. I mean, I actually went overseas, to live in Cambridge because my husband was studying there and it was there that I first got introduced to medicine because I happened to live at the hospital and the first day actually was a funny story and that the temping agency I put my name down to, I said, there's a job that we've got for you at Adam Brooks Hospital. I went, oh fantastic. I live at Adam Brooks Hospital and I sort say there wasn't this traveling issue I would just, I put on my suit, I fronted up to the office at Adam Brooks Hospital and little did I know it was actually the catering office at Adam Brooks Hospital. I said, I'm here to do the job and they said, oh, you are very well dressed <laugh>. And little did I know that everything very well dressed well <laugh> on this particular day. The universe had me scraping plates in the cafeteria. That was the job for the day. And I had to don this like plastic gown and you know, those kind of scrunchy headband type of things, the head net sort of thing. And all I was terrified about was the fact that my husband was gonna come and eat in the cafeteria and see me scraping the plates. And in fact, the guy who was in charge of me that day said, I'll just give you a training session now. I said, I don't think I need a training session in scraping plates. He says, oh no, we do it a certain way here. So he gave me like this 10 minute training session on scraping these plates need us to say I did my job very well and I was asked to come back the next day and they had given me a two day posting and I thought it would be deplorable of me to actually ring the agency up and said, I don't really wanna do this.

I think my skills are better suited to answering the telephone, for instance. But I thought, no, you know, I'd made a commitment and I think sometimes you have to do what you say you're gonna do. And by the end of day two, in fact I was so impressed by me that they actually offered me a full-time job, which I graciously declined. And then I said to the agency, do you think you've got something better suited to my skills? And then I ended up working in an office for an IT company that was involved in medical practice and that's kind of how the journey started.

Jaimi So just a couple of different circumstances that led you to becoming a CEO

Marisa I think that's life itself. I mean, had I not then graciously turned them down in terms of the catering department at the hospital and then gone on to work for this IT company that did medical, stuff I possibly might have never become the CEO of AGP at the end of the day. And I'm a firm believer that sometimes it's the smallest of decisions that you make that have the biggest impact on, on your life.

Jaimi Absolutely. Being a CEO would come with a huge range of challenges, but being a female CEO would have even more so. So as a woman in a high profile role, how do you approach these difficulties and move on with those challenges?

Marisa You know, it's a really good question, but I never really felt confined by being the only woman around a board table. I had 10 directors, all of the men I in that, this was a while ago. Now we're talking about, you know, late sort of two, around 2010. So it's, it's 25 years ago now, isn't it really? Well actually missing that and that's not very good today, but you know what I mean, A few years ago, so 2000, it was two in the two thousands, so it was 25 years ago or so nearly. And I actually just never thought about it. And when I did go into the Telstra Business Women Awards and ended up being fortunate enough to win the Queensland Award, that's when people started asking me the question. And it was never a question I'd asked myself. I just got on and did my job and I never had anything but respect from the people around the table.

And maybe they might have had more questions about it than I did, but it was never posed, it was never overt. It was just part, I was always a girl. It was just told to go to work and do my best. And I always did that. And in fact, I think in retrospect, maybe it was an advantage rather than a disadvantage. I never thought my gender stopped me from behaving or making the decisions that I made. And I, I think even had I had a balanced sport, I was definitely a girl that didn't believe in glass ceilings. I really never saw a limitation on my decision making capacity as a result of being a woman. So I didn't really ever regard my gender as being an obstruction to achieving what I wanted to achieve. And maybe I was just naive, but I never really even thought about answering that question until the questions were posed.

Then I realised that winning an award like that did give me a voice. And so I did start advocating for the fact that there should be more women in leadership positions, but I was never a believer in quotas. I don't think artificially imposing, uh, or mandating a selection process based around gender is a clever one. And I still believe that. I believe that really there is as much opportunity for women as men to go for different opportunities in life when the time is right. One of the limitations women have is that they're perhaps not present to be able to take advantage of those opportunities cuz they might be off doing equally amazingly valuable things like having children, uh, or taking time off to be with aging parents. All of which are equally, equally promotable about being a career path as being a CEO. I think we take ourselves out of the options to be chosen because we simply have more choice in terms of our everyday lives. So I think that quotas don't work and and I can see the reasons that some big organisations impose them because they need to perhaps evidence the fact that they're meeting KPIs based around gender equity. But I was never a girl. Perhaps as I said, it was a naive view, but I was never a girl that really believed in something artificial on something that should be organic for

Jaimi Someone who's starting out their career. I know from what you've said a lot of things kind of just happened the way they did because of the opportunities that were there. But what qualities do you think you had that helped you in those roles and uh, what advice would you give to people starting out that may have aspirations to become a CEO one day?

Marisa I think in retrospect my creative background was an advantage. I mean we were selling, getting accredited and standards which are never, quality assurance is not a sexy field, right? But we actually used marketing that made it kind of sexy like we used to. I mean one of our publications was Bridget Jones groans the age of accreditation. Like it was like, and cause everyone just says, oh my God, we have to meet these standards. You know, our vaccine fridge has to be this temperature. Our waiting room has to accommodate this many people. I mean, who's gonna find that sexy? Certainly not a practice manager and by certainly no means a gp. So we would actually have a bit of a go at ourselves. We had conferences based around Bridget Jones and you know, all that jazz and music and made it kind of interesting. so I think my musical creativity background, I think I'm a frustrated marketer as you would understand, Jamie, you've worked with me for long enough that sometimes you have to say to me, you're not the director of marketing at Hanworth, you're actually get back in your box Marisa.

You're actually belonging over there. You need to organise, you know, the finances for next month. <laugh>, just get out of your box. Needless to say, I prefer marketing to finances. You've seen that most people do. I think <laugh>, although not you, you are actually equally good at both. but I was always, I think so I do think the creativity factor was, was good and being able to laugh about things that were fairly serious. But I think that brought more people along the road with us, both our staff and also the people that we were selling this very bland message to bland but important. Nevertheless, it was important to get standards in general practice and we tried to do that in a creative interesting way. So I think that was possibly one of the things that I didn't recognise at the time. But I think musicians are quite mathematical and I think there is a huge link between maths and music and I think that finding different ways to sell a message can be done in an artistic pursuit kind of way.

I do think that was possibly one of the things that I brought to the table to make it a bit more entertaining. I liked to think it was entertaining, yes, whether or not it was remains to be seen. so that was probably pretty important. I was also a hard worker. I think, you know, I was brought up in a family. My mother came to Australia as a migrant from Italy at the end of World War II was displaced. You know, imagine what that must feel like to leave everything that you know and love and simply go to the unknown. So I always was mindful of the fact that my grandmother and my mother found an incredible opportunity in Australia and never found the disadvantages, perhaps their lack of language, their lack of education as being anything but a small obstacle that they had to overcome.

I was really brought up in a family with a grandmother who lived on near 103 who worked and rode a bike till she was nearly 100 and just put a meal on the table. But also felt very grateful to being given an environment that she could thrive in and survive in. Cause they came here to survive. But in fact as a result of that they thrived. So I think those two things, perhaps the artistic pursuits and maybe the ethic and hard work was possibly two things that stood me in good stead. Can't be sure but maybe,

Jaimi Talking about your mum, she was quite successful here. She won a couple of competitions that you've told me about, which that was very interesting. Do you wanna tell us about that a bit more?

Marisa My mother was like a lot of mothers pretty exceptional and you know, probably a pretty basic education. But again, she was stood out from the crowd I guess. And she, let's talk about 1966 when I was born and she was doing interesting things like entering competitions, you know, the woman's weekly would run competitions like the Bakeoff competition, which many people would recognise when you would submit recipes and you know, the recipe winner would win the equivalent of probably the lottery these days. You know, a car, a sewing machine, a fridge, all these things were pretty expensive and she always relays it to me like it was the equivalent of winning, winning an AEL home these days. That's the kind of amazing, it was. National competition. She got picked up by Channel 10. She submitted a recipe that was really avant garde for the time. Would you like to hear what it was?

Jaimi Yes, absolutely.

Marisa <laugh>. It was like beef stuffed with prunes. Like no one stops beef with prunes, perhaps perhaps an Italian life. And my mother, my grandmother was not a good cook. She was actually a terrible cook. So I don't know how my mother got to be a good cook, but she was artistic, she was an artist. She was taught by Margaret Ollie when she went to St. Stephen's school and Margaret Ollie really wanted to mentor her, but my grandmother couldn't afford the lessons. So my mother didn't get mentored by Margaret Ollie. So my mother was artistic, I'm not artistic, I can't paint to save my life. Uh, I can't sing to save my life. But my mother could do all of those things. She could sew, I can't sew to save my life either. But she was very creative and quite unique and I think, so this prune stuffed beef then wait for it. We like, we encrusted it in a pastry. Like everyone knows we buy these things at Peter Augustus Meats these days they're already in pastries and you bake them in the oven. But this was like, oh my goodness. Where did you get that idea from?

Jaimi Is that like a prune stuffed beef Wellington?

Marisa Yes, probably. But yet my mother wouldn't have known what beef Wellington was. She just thought it was a good idea. Anyway, lo and behold it got her the National Bake Off Champion. She toured the country, she had her hair up in a beautiful beehive and attended these amazing events and she was offered a television show like that was part of the prize. So she was like two or three episodes in, I think I have pictures of her, we'll have to share a picture of her on Channel 10 and and displaying her culinary pros and then was pregnant with me so she had to leave so she knew what a glass ceiling was because you couldn't have a pregnant woman on television. So she actually left and I believe the Bernard King show, which you wouldn't know Jamie, but I'm sure your mother would remember, started as a result of Bernard taking over from my mother in tho in that day and became hugely successful. So I think, you know, she was, and she went on to obviously have a couple of children and worked all her life and made decisions based on gut instinct, not really an incredibly, hugely scoped educational background and was always very inspirational. So we, I had a very working class family and my dad was a policeman. My mother was a secretary in a legal office and then a secretary at a school. but she always did more.

Jaimi Sounds like a wonderful woman

Marisa Yes. And so, you know, it was a almost inevitable, I guess she was gonna be a large part of my career choices, but she never, she never told me, you know, at the end of grade 12, I don't think music's a really good idea. She always just supported my choices. I came to my own realisation that perhaps art was not the best choice, but at the end, again, I wouldn't have been doing what I do now if it wasn't for having had an arts background to start with.

Jaimi That background gives you a good or kind of different approach to problem solving sometimes as well, which can help quite a lot in business.

Marisa Agree, agree.

Jaimi So talking about the glass ceiling, which impacted your mum but you didn't really feel it even so you've been a champion for women empowerment. What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that face women at the moment?

Marisa Oh, I'm not sure I might need a glass of champagne before I actually answer this question. <laugh>. I actually think the biggest challenges now are not that different to challenges that have existed for years. I think women tend to be not as confident in their own abilities. I don't think women are as good at taking risks, calculated risks. I think we tend to step back from risk taking rather than embrace it. Certainly as I've got older, I'm less concerned about what might go wrong than the bigger picture of what might go right. And I think that's probably a fundamental of the gender abate in a broader sense. I think we are given as many opportunities, even though it sometimes doesn't seem like it, I just don't think we're quite as confident and prepared to go out and seek and take them. And it might be a, again, a naive view.

It's a very operational view from my perspective. But if I look back, I was probably faced with a whole lot more opportunities that I could have taken and didn't because I was worried about the consequence of failing. I think there's a lot of bravado in men and I think it's, it's intrinsic in upbringing and the way you bring up boys as opposed to girls. I don't have a son so I can't speak with any degree of absolute, absolute comprehensive understanding, but there is a very different sense in what's girly and what's boy and, and I think that is manifest in how children are brought up and what they choose to do. And so I don't think essentially the challenges that face women these days are that different. In fact, I think some of them are a little bit softer than perhaps my mother or my grandmother faced. And I think when you're talking about making a decision based on survival, which is my grandmother, you know, leaving a country to be able to survive and seek a better existence is really that, that that's a, that's a much bigger decision than my decision about whether or not to jump ship from the music career because I might find it a greener pasture. They're very different decisions. But essentially the decision making process that you go through is pretty similar. You know, how much will I risk by going in this direction than by staying right where I am? So I, I'm a firm believer that it's not that different these days, it's just the content might be different, but the process by which you would make a decision to go one way other or down one road as opposed to another is not that different. One of the biggest decisions, for instance, I faced was the decision to leave the CEO job because I was actually advised by an incredible mentor of mine who always said to me, you should always leave a job when you don't think it can get any better.

You know, people leave a job when it's actually going downhill. I think that is a, a fault a lot of us make. I think it we stay too long. Yep. And same could be even set of marriages, you know, big life events. Sometimes you stay too long doing the one thing because it's comfortable and it is, you know, when your financial security is, is is tied up in what you do when your sense of identity is tied up in what you do. You know, how many times do you get asked Jamie, what do you do? Not, you know, what's very hard important to you <laugh>? I dunno what I do these days, but we do, we do fall into the trap of it being comfortable to not leave. Yeah, absolutely. And I fell into, oh I, well no, I was always, I always had that feeling in the back of my mind that when Ag Powell had its 10th birthday and we had this amazing creative conference in Melbourne and we had more people attend than ever before.

I can't remember who we had singing, but we probably had the choir of hard knocks or something like that. It was so musical, it was so creative. It was amazing when all these people from the choir of hard knocks, which was an incredible organisation, walked through the ground hard in Melbourne and they were actually showing them the door. And I said, no, no, no, they're our stage, they're our stage act, they're our plenary session. They've gotta come in that they, no, no, no, no, we have to keep, we have to keep these people out. I said, no, they're invited in. They're in fact they're being paid to be here. So let them come in the doors. Because we had in, we had got them to talk about how music in medicine was really important and how music in life and in recovery and in peace of mind and in mental health was really important. That's why they were there. And doctors often suffer from mental health issues. So that's why we got the choir in. But anyway, that was the conference that I said my job cannot get any better. This is the peak of my career. It's time to leave. Yeah.

Jaimi Going back just a little bit, do you think really the biggest challenge is a mindset one in women that they're not, they don't have that self-confidence to say that they can do those roles and that the risk is too high if they fail?

Marisa That's a really hard question. No, I don't think it's just mindset. I think opportunity's got a lot to do with it. I think luck has a lot to do with it. I think there's a lot of people who prefer to only say yes if they feel really comfortable and really confident. So I guess if you're talking about lack of self-confidence, I would say it's the, it's it's the lack of the confidence to say yes when you're so consumed about what could go wrong if you did for me, I, I'm speaking from personal experience, yeah. I would've chosen to not go down that road cause I think there was a much bigger chance of me failing than taking that road that was easier. And I think we all have a bit of that in us. Yes, I think men probably have that kind of same decision in them, but they don't seem to think that deeply.

They, they seem to think less deeply about it than women I think. So yeah, it's, it's a hard, it's a hard one for me to answer. For a lot of women, I think it must be different circumstances, the family environment, the financial incentives and the financial risk. If you fail culturally cultural, you know, challenges, there are a lot of cultures in which women wouldn't pursue one thing over another because culturally it's, it's not comfortable for you. so I think all of those things play a role and I think those things play a role at different times in your life. I don't think it's, it, it's organic. I think you do faced with reasons to say no differently at different times in your life. I'm not sure if that answers the question very well.

Jaimi No, absolutely. And like if an opportunity were to come in a different part time in your life, then you may react differently to, it just depends on what you're placing importance on and

Marisa Yeah, like if someone said to me, how about buying an old house and doing it up 10 years before I was ready to do it, I would've said no, I have a very comfortable career as CEO. Why would I risk that to do something ridiculous like that? Yeah, look, fast forward 10 years later when I had made the decision to leave AAL and I was without a job for a year. And I can honestly say to you that it was one of the most difficult periods of my life. My daughter was in grade 11 or so and that's why I made the decision to step down so I could spend a bit more time with her because I was always, it was great to be based in Brisbane but it was a head office and I was forever flying elsewhere to do my work. I was often away toward three days.

Sometimes my husband and I didn't even tell each other where we were going and we found ourselves in the same city one night without even knowing we were there. No, that's my favourite story. I know that's a hilarious story <laugh> and and we didn't even get together that night because I said, oh no, I'm reading board papers. And he says, yeah actually I'm going to bed too <laugh>. And we're like in hotels on the different side of the road. That's when I knew my life was out of control. But I didn't even, we didn't even ask the question where we were going, just see you Friday. Yeah, yeah. But when I made that decision to leave and everyone used to say, what are you doing now? And I didn't have an answer and I felt quite characterless. Like I couldn't say, oh I'm going to restore a house, I'm going to work casually.

I'm going to contract, I'm going to consult. I didn't have an answer. My mother was soon to be quite ill. And so in a way it was a blessing in disguise that I left when I did. But the reality is I didn't have something to define myself with. And that was a really challenging, I felt a bit worthless that year I must admit. And when I look back at it, I think I kind of left ag power without thinking what I was going to do next. Just that I knew I had to leave it cuz it was the best it was and it will never be that good again. So I left with a leap of faith that something else would find me or I would find something else. But for the first few months I didn't find anything. I did my real estate license to just buy the time and I did have a property that I tinkered with and uh, started to do some renovations on with a team, which was again a whole new corporate work for me.

It was, I loved the laborers, I loved the project management, I loved the budgeting, I loved figures at that point in my time I didn't like reporting to a board anymore. I was reporting to myself. And uh, so I did set up on a new road that was some one that I never thought would actually be one for me. But I did find that. So what led you to the purchase of Hanworth? Well I spent a couple of years just doing smaller projects and renovating smaller houses and really loved it cause it was very fulfilling. I mean you could see the change in where, I mean I quite loved the concept of housing people and and I loved the, I learned that there was a lot of corporate people traveling, not necessarily just students, which I love student houses at the time because I had a daughter who was coming outta school.

I thought I'd like to create a house that people that are coming to Brisbane for the first time I like to live in. And so that's was my kind of my brain power was looking at student accommodation. And originally, but then I stumbled on, it was a very big era for, for Brisbane, particularly when there was a lot of fly-in fly out workers on the mines. It was mining was booming and people were going out there for a couple of weeks and coming back for a week or so and needing to find accommodation locally and work remotely. And so it was again, quite an opportunity. It just kind of flung into my lap. And so I did one house and then I did another one and did another one. And I said, you know, I think I need a big house <laugh>. And during those few months whilst I was really enjoying that my mother had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and that was a very brutal and awful disease that claimed her life not, but 14 months later.

So in a way it was a blessing that I was doing what I was doing because I was very flexible. I could leave the workers on the job and I could go to the Gold Coast where she lived and I could be with her. And I don't think I was with her enough in retrospect. I wish I had spent a lot more time at that point in my life with her. I guess I always thought that it wouldn't be the end. I always thought she would bounce back and she never really shared, I think her fears and it's one thing I really regret not being able to speak more openly with her about that journey was I guess it was, I mean I've been through a journey myself, but I think I also didn't wanna talk about it. So I think we are kind of optimists in intern or maybe externally optimist, but maybe internally quite pessimistic.

And I think my mom was probably quite the same. So I was able to do that. So at the time that she passed away, I was looking for a bigger project and she passed away in May of, of of 2012. And I stumbled upon Hanworth. I always say when my heart was aching for the loss of my mother and I live across the road from Hanworth and I had never seen this incredible house. It was for those of you that know it, that you'll know that it's perched up above the road so you don't really see it. It's kind of hidden in the trees. I used to liken it to the Thomasina movie on Disney when I was a kid growing up. There used to be these amazing stories about Thomasina the cash and there was this kind of house that had all these bushes around it and people would go through these bushes to find the house and that was what Hanoi was like.

I never knew it existed until there was a for sale sign or a tender sign placed on the house. And then I explored it. I looked at another couple of properties at the time and then I saw this house and there was something about this house that just said, this is it. My husband thought I was completely like, I dropped off the edge of the earth. Like I was completely insane. He thought the only, he said, look at the roof, you'll have to replace the roof. Well I knew full well that the roof was the only good feature about the house. The rest of it was completely falling down, but I knew the roof was pretty good. and he thought that was the only thing that needed to be done to it was that was completely the opposite. We are completely mentally opposite. He came to the house and said the roof needs to be replaced.

I came to the house thinking the roof's okay, everything else needs to go <laugh>. But that is kind of, that's kind of the story of my life in many respects. but Hanworth uh, became ours in November of that year. And so I always say it was my, it became my distraction from the death of my mother and my salvation at the same time. And I'll very much stand by that. And I decided I would dedicate the restoration of the house to my mother and that became a really fulfilling journey in terms of I made decisions based on what would my mother do. Yeah.

Jaimi And that was a really interesting decision to make. Cause it wasn't until later after the rest or during the restoration, you found out that that had previously been done with Hanworth before when it had been purchased and named in honour of their mother.

Marisa Correct. So that was, I think all of us who work here share this incredible sense that there's something about this house and it's something bigger than us. So I found out during the course I of the restoration that Mary we hold had bought the house in memory of her mother exactly a hundred years to the year that I bought the house in memory of mine. And that was the first link to at least I would say a hundred links since about things that resonated about what I was doing here with what she was doing. She was philanthropic. You know, I turned to philanthropy as another guide to actually line this house with some sense of depth and goodness because she raised money for the RSPCA. Well we don't allow pets here, but nevertheless <laugh> we benefit other causes. She used Fs to actually raise money. She housed women.

She and I, you know, I had the sense that I wanted to house people even before this. she worked with the Brisbane community to further her cause and I would like to think I do that these days as well. So really the restoration of Hanworth really has been, I would say the most pivotal moment in my life. Finding Hanworth and turning Hanworth into something bigger than me has probably been, I always say I think this is the reason I was put on earth. I mean I liked having a daughter Isabella as well. I believe that she was also a reason I was put on the earth. But she always calls Haworth the second child. Although sometimes Bella has been known to announce to the world that she is the second child. And in fact, Haworth is her first, is Marisa's first daughter. And I understand why she says that sometimes

Jaimi I think she, if I remember right, she says that in the heart of Hanworth documentary too that we just put up on YouTube. in that you mentioned Hanworth, being hidden away and it, having all its history and having such a huge impact in so many people's lives. And most people didn't even know it existed here. And I think even as we have people walk through here to look at, see if they wanna have private events, they say the same sort of thing that they drive past every single day. But they didn't even know the house is here until they see the tree with all the fairy lights. The Happy Tree. The Happy Tree. Was that a reason for putting that there? It was a happy

Marisa No, I, the Happy Tree just became the Happy Tree. It's a beautiful po siana that's on the front lawn of Haworth overlooking at Brisbane City. And I don't even remember why we lit it up. It was probably lit up before lighting up streets becomes a big thing in Brisbane. Whereas now, I mean, how much happiness does lighting up a street give, you know, the beautiful, beautiful main streets OFA or you know, Marre Park, there's all these absolutely gorgeous, gorgeous places that have trees. So it was my ambition to light up the Hanworth tree and I think that was a celebration moment. It was when we had lost Hanworth, you know, in the Fire A Fire which we can talk about maybe another day. I'm not quite sure that would take an entire podcast on its own to talk about. But, a few months after purchasing Hanworth and being ready to open an arsonist, lit Hanworth on fire and destroyed 85% of it overnight and just before it was due to open. So that took us back down to ground zero.

Were already correct suffering quite a lot. You know, we didn't need yet another kind of, another pivotal event in, in in our life after losing my mother almost a year before that. but we got it and you know, heaven help us. That's, that's what happened and kind of you pick yourself up, but it's very difficult to do that. Uh, and so lighting the tree was symbolic in that it was time to, to live again. And I can't even remember exactly when we put the lights on it, but we worked with Running Man. I had to mortgage my house to actually afford the lights for the tree because that, in that, in that instance, they were a, a pretty big investment. But it's never an investment I've regretted. We used to just light it on special occasions originally. Now we light it every night because we think every day is to be celebrated and uh, the possibilities that each day holds and the privilege it is to have enjoyed another day on Earth and with our community and our friends. So we, it comes on, its uncertain and it goes off, you know, sort of close to midnight. and I think it becomes, it's been one of those things, you know, people now say, oh the house with the lights. Yeah. And so it has always become the Happy Tree. Cause I think I always say I've actually had some of my saddest moments under the Happy Tree and it just got the name of the Happy Tree because it always makes me feel just slightly better after, after being underneath it.

Jaimi A huge part of Haworth has become your dedication to the community and your philanthropy. How did you make the decision about which charities you wanted to support? Cause I know women's legal service was probably the first one that was announced in the opening of the house. So moving forward, how do you make that decision on who to support?

Marisa So just taking one step back, I mean, I was not a girl that grew up in a family that was particularly philanthropic, but they always gave, so that I guess that makes them by default, a family that is philanthropic. It would be the dollar to the salvos. You know, the kind of the appeal, the hospital appeal salvos that come to the door every year, the door knock, the door knockers. probably doesn't even happen anymore, does it really? But, I always saw my mum and dad always give them something. So I would have typified myself as not growing up in a, a household that had a lot of disposable income, but they always gave the small amount that they could. And I think that's a really big lesson to give small is is for me the biggest give you can give. Mm-hmm <affirmative> doesn't have to be a big gift, just small gifts regularly is kind of what you need to do.

Jaimi Giving your time sometimes

Marisa Giving time, yes, just as impactful pro bono stuff is really equally as valuable as giving a coin. and then I joined Zonta International when I was a business woman. I had another wonderful mentor, Dr. Mary Mahoney who was an incredible woman. And first to do so many things in Brisbane and I was very lucky to work for her as her secretary actually. And that really propelled me into the medical industry in Brisbane. I was very lucky. and she got me to join Z many, many years ago. And that's a organisation that advances the status of women worldwide and they do incredibly valuable things. Have a local impact but also a global impact. So it's terrific from that perspective. So giving actually became part of my mantra even though I didn't really realise it. What really positioned Hanworth as a place to give was that when I lost most of Hanworth in the fire, the first people that came in were certainly not my bank financiers.

I mean Hanworth was totally mortgaged, but did I see a banker come to me and ask if they could help? Absolutely not. Did I see people that I thought could help or would help come know the people that most came with the people that could least afford the time? And that was my friends and the local community that came in and gave the firemen here, you know, breakfast or my neighbour who came and did my makeup cuz she thought that the TV cameras would be there all day. I mean as if I would've thought about the cameras. Like no way. I just looked be dragged and completely heartbroken or almost on adrenaline because I didn't have a chance to think about it till that afternoon when I just completely broke down. By that time the television cameras had gone, but it was like, you know, when you do anything on adrenaline, there's that very big comedown that yeah.

Takes you to lower than you ever imagined. So I just suddenly thought that when all the builders left site, because they couldn't come back for months because the insurers failed to act for many, many months after the fire, that I had to give back to the community. And in fact it had to be with the help of the community that we would rebuild Hanworth. So we started even a selling advertising space on this huge front wall that we've got. So the builders were the first to give the architect gave some of all house gave, you know, a small amount that made such a big difference. They got their name plastered on the outside to say we are helping to rebuild Hanworth. And people started to come in and say, how could we help? And a lot of it was just time, you know, sweeping and polishing furniture that could be saved.

All the ash went over everything, all the water damaged everything. It was just so people were so good. You always realise the goodness in people when you most need it. And if you think about the pivotal events in Australia over the last few years, bushfires and floods, it brings out the best in people generally speaking. It actually brings out more good than harm. So I think the philanthropic interest of Haworth was organic. It just became part of the culture. And an answer to your question about how do we choose to support what we choose to support, it's pretty organic as well. Women's legal service happened to walk in one day when Haworth looked terrible and lonely and lost and wanted a photo shoot venue that would be able to articulate the important work they do regarding huge issue of domestic violence in our community, but wanted to depict women and their families as lonely and lost and not necessarily battered.

Which I think was a really big shift in depiction of domestic violence. And this was, you know, we're talking about sort of 2013 here, you know, it was quite a long time ago now when domestic violence is not in the media like it is now. And people are not talking openly and honestly, well not so honestly, but like more openly than they ever were. They're talking about it now. But this was an era when Women's Eagle Service were really progressive and said we need a venue to depict rural women and women who are lonely and lost and looking for shelter. And we think you can offer us all that in this like photo shoot place. And I just was completely in armoured by the work that they were doing. And so it was a natural progression that they became my first charity of choice. And we are here celebrating 10 years of working with the women's legal service and never for a day questioned that decision yet.

It was a decision that was made totally on what I saw. The way they handled each other handled women who they were actually working with and articulated their goal and their ambition for a world that's free of domestic violence, which is still, still basically their ambition now. And it kind of articulated wonderful future in terms of a charity of choice. And that that kind of the same process has dictated every, choice we've made since now we celebrate a, uh, a we, we support women's legal service in their domestic violence space. We support the Martyr Foundation for their work with ovarian and breast cancer. Ovarian tribute to my mother and the fact that I also have also, been unlucky enough to get breast cancer soon after my mother died. And and we also wonderfully almost back to my roots supporting the arts. and we wonderfully support huge supporters of the, uh, ballet International Gala and the Brisbane Festival. And that probably is a testament to my history in creativity and music and arts, which is where I started.

Jaimi In recognition to your service in corporate and philanthropic works, you were appointed a member of the Order of Australia in 2017. How did that feel?

Marisa <laugh>? I thought it was a joke, <laugh>, because I dunno if you know a lot about this, but apparently people nominate you and then there's all this big process about getting other people to agree with them. But I to this day have no idea who nominated me. It's all very like secret squirrel. So I got this letter at home that was very official, you know, sort of Governor General of Australia kind of letter. And I said, oh, this is a joke <laugh>, like someone's playing a joke on me. And my daughter got home from work that day and I said, Bella, some, some, I think there's this letter that is not like, I think it's a joke. She said, I think it's true. I said, do you think it is? And then I said, no, it can't be true and that you've gotta then accept the nomination. And, and so then I actually rang the office cuz I actually still didn't <laugh>.

I said, I got this letter in the mail. They said yes. Like they were thinking there's this lunatic on the phone asking if this letter's legit. And I said, can you just check that my name's on the list? And I said, yes, yes, Mrs. Vecchio, you know, your name is on the list. I went, oh, who nominated me? Oh no, no, we can't give out that information. Mm-hmm <affirmative>, you just have to be, you know, kind of satisfied with the fact that people thought you were worthy enough to nominate. And and it's, it's a real nomination and I can legitimise it and it's up to you to accept it or otherwise. And I said to Bella, should I accept it? She said, hell yeah, I wanna go to government house. She said, <laugh>. So it was, it was very lovely. It was ver oh it very, it was very humbling.

And I must admit one of the things about being philanthropic is that it actually has been quite an advantage. I think putting letters after your name actually legitimises you somehow. And so I don't feel so bad about asking people for money anymore. Maybe as Marissa Vecchio I might have felt a little bit less kind of confident. But Marisa Vecchio AM I think, you know, hell yeah, you look at the am because someone else has legitimised me and the governor general of Australia has legitimised me. I've accredited and philanthropy I know. So gimme your thousand dollars because I deserve it. <laugh> <laugh>. So it's become a little bit of a talking point that it kind of somehow Bella used to actually laugh about it and say, you know, that's Marisa Vecchio AM. Well I started to put it on my Qantas Club because I thought maybe they would upgrade me. But lemme tell you, it's never happened. It's caused more harm than good because when you're looking for your name, you have to look for Vecchio AM and I never look for Vecchio AM I look for Vecchio. And so I can never find my flight. They say no, that flight doesn't exist. And let me tell you, I've never ever been upgraded. So it doesn't work. <laugh>

Jaimi Since then, QUT gave you an honorary doctorate as well. So you're technically Dr. Marisa Vecchio AM has that ever got you any upgrades? Marisa No, that hasn't not I, I don't tend to use that. I, I honorary doctorates are very, I mean, again, I was very flattered and I did do my MBA at QUT and I loved the institution. I was the president of the alumni for many years and I was on the Council of QUT, for many years as well. And it's a wonderful organisation and I really, think it's a, a fantastic tertiary institution. And in fact my daughter ended up graduating from QUT as well. and again, humbled, I dunno how that happened. And it was one of those things that you get to wear those big floppy hats. And uh, and again, Isabella's always taking the mickey out of me because it was a terribly hot day that the graduation was. And I thought it was a really good excuse to buy a nice Zimmermann dress cause I'd never had a Zimmermann dress. So I kind of used it as an opportunity to go and buy a Zimmermann dress, which proceeded to not be shown at all because it was under this big, hugely heavy tunic. But I decided I would milk this tunic all day and you know how hard it is to get a table at Julius. And so after the ceremony, I was sweltering, I was dripping down because, you know, it was so hot, this huge hat, this huge kind of tunicy gown, which you get to keep, which is lovely. And we tricked across from Pac to Julius and Isabella said, my mother has just got a doctorate and be made a doctor and we really deserve a table <laugh>. And for once in my life it worked that day, if nothing else, to get that jolly tunic off. And my floppy hat was actually really good <laugh>. So it did open doors at Julius's restaurant for me that day.

Jaimi There you go. If you can't get a table, you know what you need to do.

Marisa <laugh>, nowadays I just have to go to the back of line like everybody else. <laugh>, no amount of kind of throwing a doctorate under their noses will actually work. But the big floppy hat must have done it that day for me. So I'm still, waxing lyrical about it being a positive

Jaimi After achieving all of this so far. What do you wanna be when you grow up?

Marisa Isn't that funny? It's just, I think back at when we ask little kids, you know, what do you wanna do when you grow up? So I like the question about what do you wanna be rather than what do you want to do? Because, jobs, as I said before, really define us and sometimes they define us rather too much. I have the most incredible accolades for single women and single mothers because when I was a working mother, when I was at, when I was at home, when Isabella was a baby, was actually the hardest three months of my life before I went back to work. It was much easier to be in the office for a day than it was to be at home with a child. Small child. As you can attest to Jaimi having had the beautiful atlas and being through this sometimes just handing Isabella to my husband saying she's yours.

I'm going on a walk, was the best part of the day. Yeah, we all know that we love them to death. But going back to work was an easy decision for me because I loved it and I was challenged by my work and I was able to combine both very fortunately. So what you wanna be when you grow up, I think we would answer that question in so many different ways, different stages of our life. But I think I want to be remembered. I actually don't think I want to be something or someone. I think I want to be remembered, whether that's as a wife and mother and the contribution I made to family and providing for them, whether it's a good friend, I hope I'm a good friend. I try to be a good friend to a lot of people. Whether it's trying to do something to positively impact on someone's life, or I'm fortunate that I've turned Hanworth into a legacy project.

I want this house to continue to give. I want this house to somehow be gifted so that it continues to give for another a hundred years. I don't want it to be a drain on someone's purse. I want it to be sustainable. I think the model that we've created here for business about offering accommodation and the opportunity for people to experience Hanworth in events and other philanthropic endeavours is really good. It's working so far, but a house like this takes a lot to maintain. And a house like this can only ever get worse. It can never get better in terms of the maintenance. It's got to continually go into it to actually keep it up to standard. So I think what I want to be is remembered and that will mean different things to different people. So I think that's probably what I wanna be.

I wanna have made my mark. I love that everyone knows, my favourite quote in the world is you make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give. And I really turned my corporate role. I think about getting a job into making or evolving a job around giving. And the business at Hanworth is a business around giving. It's not a business around getting, cause we get accommodation and we give accommodation. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But I think getting to giving is the difference between saying, what do you wanna do when you grow up and what do you wanna be or what do you wanna be remembered? I think I wanna be remembered. Mm-hmm.

Jaimi That's beautiful. I love that. So I have one last question for you and that,

Marisa Do I need another sip of my champagne? Before I answer, answer this question <laugh>, I'll sip it slowly so I've got time to think about it.

Jaimi What brings you the most happiness in life?

Marisa The Happy tree brings a lot of happiness. Just as a kind of, you know, an aside, it's

Jaimi Aptly named <laugh>.

Marisa I think a sense of place brings me happiness. But by far, if I had to tell you what my happiest place was, it's on the beach. And I was thinking about why does the beach bring so much happiness? And I think if you're standing on a shore, which is rather like life itself, I think it's the one place that I can think of that consumes all my senses. So I obviously you, we all know the smell of sea air, there's nothing like it, right? Absolutely. We all know the taste of the salt in the sea and the touch between the sand between our toes or the water around us that engulfs us. But I think most prominently we have that sense of hearing, almost a sense of, you know, movement. Like you never hear nothing at the beach, you always hear something. It's either the wave splashing or the breeze or the sound of laughter and people enjoying themselves.

There's never a negative or sad moment at the beach. During Covid, there was, but then we weren't allowed to stay on the beach anyway. So even when you went to the beach, it was your excuse to go to exercise because you could, you are allowed to be at the beach. Yes. But it's the sight, for me that's the most overwhelming thing where on the shores of something that we don't quite know what lies beyond it. There's that sea that's constantly changing, constantly full of its own challenges, full of its own risks, can be quite a terrifyingly dangerous place. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And that's kind of like life itself. But unless we actually take a step out from that shore and explore and immerse ourselves in that which we don't know, we will never, ever be able to enjoy what it offers. So for me, walking the national park in Newa and sitting on Noosa Beach, which everyone knows is undoubtedly my favourite place on earth, I think I love it so much because of what it represents as a metaphor for life. I think it's perched on the edge of something great, but not quite knowing how great it can be unless we go there. That's what brings me happiness.

Jaimi I hope you've all learned something new today about Marisa, and if you have any questions, you can get in touch with us at to see what else we're doing. You can follow us at Hanworth House on Instagram and YouTube and subscribe to the podcast to get notified of future episodes. We will be back soon with another special guest. Cheers.

Marisa Cheers.

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