Food & Culture

Sam Mostyn: "We have been wasting the resources of women"

In her monthly GT column, chef Kylie Kwong celebrates the individuals helping to grow a stronger community. This month, we speak to trailblazing business leader Sam Mostyn AO.

"One of my colleagues often says, 'here are enhancers and then there are detractors' in life. And I completely agree. My dear friend and mentor of more than 10 years, Sam Mostyn, is definitely an enhancer! During these past few months I was able to connect with Sam regularly during our volunteer shifts at the Addi Road Community Organisation and just being around her amazing energy and wisdom lifted spirits immensely." – Kylie Kwong
Trying to cram Sam Mostyn's extensive CV onto a single page is impossible; there are simply too many important roles and achievements to list. Earlier this year, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for her services to business and sustainability, to the community and to women.
All you really need to know is that Mostyn is a highly successful businesswoman – and champion for change. She is someone who believes in kindness and putting community at the centre of corporate and economic policy.
So just how did an "army brat," who bounced between the United States, Canada, Adelaide and Melbourne as a child, before moving to Canberra, come to be one of the brightest brains in corporate Australia?
Growing up in an army family, she says, meant growing up with the idea of service. "As kids, we were always that family that volunteered and had a very strong sense of service," she recalls.
"My guiding light around what you do was always around contribution; making good choices and never wasting or squandering privilege and ability. That's the starting story."
After studying law, one of Mostyn's first roles was working for Michael Kirby, when he was President of the NSW Court of Appeal.
"From Michael, I learnt that you can always have a true north and a purpose, and believe in human rights and being a good person. You can be kind and do that in your professional life."
A stint working for Paul Keating when he was Prime Minister exposed her to policy-making and the importance of believing in "big ideas".
In between, she tried and failed (her words) to be a solicitor, hamstrung by her fundamental belief in kindness. After several years working in policy advising and working with government ministers, she landed back in the business world, still carrying those core beliefs, along with an innate understanding of the system and how to work it.
Mostyn doesn't like to say it – but will reluctantly agree – that she was one of the first business leaders to put climate change and sustainability on the corporate agenda. Working for the insurance company IAG between 2001 and 2008, Mostyn and her team used the concept of risk to push the importance of climate action and community.
"We had the perfect product to be able to look and say, 'actually, the shareholder is not the only person we care about, we are going to look at societal stakeholders. And we think we have a responsibility as a really big corporate with a big history to say some of these things and try to bring others with us,'" she says.
In 2005, IAG joined forces with other big business to create a round table on climate change, calling for a cost on carbon.
"We were carving out a space that hadn't been thought of at the time. It was revolutionary but, for us, it was all about thinking naturally about 'Where does this company sit within a community and a society?'"
Disappointingly, many of their recommendations were not followed and, 16 years later, Mostyn says it's frustrating to know what could have been. But she remains positive the tide is finally turning.
"Did we waste 15, 20 years? Absolutely. But I've just got to say, 'we were ahead of our time and everything we said back then has panned out.' Now the country is ready and the pressure will be back up."
Today, the leading cause on Mostyn's agenda is social inequality and women; and how we can reset the post-pandemic economy to value women more.
"There is a silver lining to COVID and that is, for the first time, it gave us the data on where there is fragility in our system. And we discovered it was sitting with women. Women in various parts of our economy that we relied on heavily to get us through COVID," she explains.
"If you're going to have a post-pandemic society where you've got almost no migrant intake and very low fertility, you can't waste any resource in your society. We have been wasting the resources of women. Today there are 150,000 women, at a minimum, who want to work, are highly educated and want to be back in the workforce. But they can't do that because they can't find adequate and affordable childcare."
She is also passionate about reconciliation and walking alongside First Nations people in responding to the call for constitutional reform in the Ulur–u Statement from the Heart.
They are big conversations – again, ones that can't be crammed onto a single page. At a practical level, Mostyn says the most important thing any of us can do is hold our leaders to higher standards and be more active citizens.
"Every time we're told about economies, let's talk about communities and society… We have to stop being a lucky country and be a really purposeful, determined country to stop wasting and squandering our best assets, which are our people and our environment. We can do that. But it is a different way of thinking about leadership and community."
Introduction by Kylie Kwong, words by Joanna Hunkin.