Amanda Whitley, founder and director of the HerCanberra website, 15 May 2015
FRANCES BALDWIN: Good morning everyone and welcome on this lovely sunny day. Hopefully the cold is not going to come back again - but I am sure it will - to our fourth Landmark Women talk for the year with our special guest Amanda Whiteley.
As usual, before I introduce Amanda, if you could switch your mobile phones and electronic stuff to silent. As the session is going to be recorded, if you could wait for the microphone and speak clearly so that we can get your questions and it will be transcribed onto the website. Please join us as usual in the Friends Lounge on the ground floor near the cloakroom following this at about 11 o’clock.
Now to introduce our speaker today: In 2011 Amanda launched HerCanberra or www.HerCanberra.com.au, a website for local women reaching an audience of over 70,000 readers per month. The website provides a resource which tells the city’s stories, highlights things to do, fashion and encourages people to engage with their capital as a great place to live. I am sure you will all agree with that premise.
Amanda has also brought some magazines along for you all today, which will be down in the Friends Lounge for you to read. Thank you, Amanda. She was named the UN women’s 100 years 100 great women list in 2013 for making a significant difference to Canberra in the centenary year and has won numerous awards in her career as a public servant.
Prior to her starting HerCanberra, Amanda worked in communications in the Public Service and also ran her own public relations consultancy. She now employs three full-time staff and two part-time staff – she’s got a couple more because it’s expanding as we would expect - and in her spare time she teaches zumba and chases after two lovely little girls. Please join me in welcoming Amanda.
AMANDA WHITLEY: Hello and thank you for having me today. That was our little brand video which I guess tries to encapsulate a bit about HerCanberra, if you don’t know it, and the function it serves. I always think that, because HerCanberra has now got to a point where a lot of people know about it and we have quite a large social media audience, a lot of what people see is the shiny, happy, glamorous stuff that goes with, I guess, having a successful business. But what they don’t see is everything that’s gone before that. So today I wanted to talk a bit about my story, from almost when I was a young girl up to where we are today, and a bit about the website and where it’s going.
I grew up in a little town called Tarcutta. I don’t know how many of you know it. Anyone who has driven to Melbourne via the Hume Highway probably knows it. It was a town of 300 people. I grew up in a Housing Commission house there. My Dad was a farm boy but he’d moved into a job with the Department of Main Roads, which is now the Roads and Traffic Authority, after he returned from three years serving in the Vietnam War.
My Mum did everything from working part time in the local corner store to driving the school bus after she gave up a career as a fashion buyer to marry Dad, which I’m not sure if he was worth that really. I reckon a career as fashion buyers were pretty few and far between back then.
I remember it as an idyllic childhood. Although we had very little money, we had the run of the town. My memories were of riding my bike around the streets, picking wild flowers near our house, pink lemonade at the local pub and scavenging at the tip with our Auntie Joan, who wasn’t really our auntie but was very close to us growing up. She had the coolest house because she had duckie daddles and all sorts of great stuff in her back yard.
My sister and I were born 15 months apart and we were each other’s playmates. We built grass houses in our back yard and we massacred Barbie’s hair and we were far more interested in toy cars, I think. I was and still am very close to my Mum and to my sister. Dad was very old-fashioned and because we were girls he saw raising us as Mum’s responsibility, so he was never really an active part of our lives even though we lived in the same house. Looking back, I now suspect that Dad’s inability to form close personal relationships was a result of the post-traumatic stress disorder that he suffered from after serving as an army ambulance officer at just 21 in Vietnam. It took a long him for him to actually be diagnosed with that - a good 25 years to be exact, which I will talk about a bit later. But apparently his behaviour is textbook PTSD, including the tendencies of veterans to build walls between them and their loved ones.
Mum and Dad’s marriage wasn’t a particularly happy one, and we walked on eggshells around Dad most of our childhood. He was never violent, and I still do love him very much, but he was very controlling. So I guess the three girls in the house tend to stick very close together. Mum tells of Dad’s vivid nightmares, having night sweats, his need for a radio next to him to keep him from falling into a deep sleep and regular panic attacks. I have mixed feelings on Anzac Day, because for me the Vietnam War had four victims in our family - I think that’s a common story of veterans’ families.
But, for that, there was also really good stuff. I was always in love with words so I was a voracious reader from early on and I loved to create stories and imaginary worlds. I published my first magazine called Wombat in years 6, which had a print run of one and a readership of 12, which was the number of people in my year 6 class. I tell my kids now that my primary school had 42 children. She’s like ‘What? That’s like two classes.’ But it was brilliant. I would never wish for another childhood. Growing up in a small town and having a small school was just fantastic. I see a lot of the people that I grew up with, and they have gone on to do great things. Growing up in a small town certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t go on to have amazing careers.
But I guess that early magazine was an early sign of my ambitions in that area. We moved to Narrandera, which is about two hours away from Tarcutta, in the Riverina when I was 12. Going from a town of 300 to a town of 5000 was actually a bit of a shock, even though it’s still quite a small town when I look at it now. But it did take time for me to adjust to going to a high school that was bigger than the town I’d come from. It was tricky and coming into a new school in year 7 when there were existing friendships formed can be hard. But I eventually overcame some self-esteem issues to become school captain and excelled in English, which is probably not surprising. My three unit English teacher is actually one of HerCanberra’s most devoted readers and has actually written some book reviews for us, which I find really special.
I first moved to Canberra in 1991 to study communications at the University of Canberra. I had actually wanted to do journalism because I guess that’s what I associated with a career with words and writing but I didn’t get the very high marks that were required to do that. After a few months I actually discovered that public relations was a thing that you could actually do and get paid. I realised all these things I had spent the last few years of high school doing: organising fundraising events, writing speeches, public speaking and writing media releases, which I didn’t know that was such a thing, at that point for the local newspaper - I could actually do for a career. So that’s where I decided to focus. That’s a decision I have never regretted because, while I love to write, I love the variety that that whole spectrum of communications offers. My PR experience has actually been really important in the growth of HerCanberra, plus it suits my really short attention span.
University was great but discovering beer wasn’t so great for my body, and by the end of the first year I had put on 10 kilos. I had some pretty severe self-esteem issues and I developed a pretty bad eating disorder. I also lacked self-respect so I wasn’t very kind to myself for a few years. That was a pretty hard time. Eating disorders - when you look at the literature about it, they are most common for people who are high achievers and who are control freaks, for lack of a better word. I think for me, it was not having that control over my weight that prompted that, because it was one way to try to get some control over something that I wasn’t able to. That probably went on for about three years, and bulimics are very good at hiding things from people.
But eventually things became better in my personal life, so I eventually clawed my way out from that. However, it’s not one of those things that you just put in a little box and leave there. Even today, I need to be very careful with not being obsessed with my weight. Today I am probably heavier than I have been in five years but I am focussing more on putting good stuff in my body, being active and also being a good role model for my daughters, because I don’t want them to grow up with the same body issues that I had.
On a side tangent, my girls both do samba - they are six and eight, which is very cute - which is Latin dance and Latin dance is all about the booty. My oldest daughter is built like me, so she’s always going to be curvy. She’ll say to me, ‘Mum, you’ve got a great big bum.’ I say, ‘Thanks babe.’ ‘You’ve just got the best booty.’ For me I’m like ‘Great I’m doing my job if she can see that having a curvaceous bottom is a good thing at eight.’ It might change but, hey, start early.
Back to university days, early in 1994 after I had just finished my degree, I moved to Sydney to pursue my career. I had these visions of the glamour of the city. I’d spent the last couple of years of university travelling down quite regularly to do work experience with Australian Consolidated Press who published Cleo, Cosmo, Dolly and all of those magazines. I worked in the publicity department with them and I absolutely loved it. As a 19-20-year-old country girl going to the Dolly cover girl awards and writing media releases for Australian Gourmet Traveller best restaurant awards were a dream come true. But I soon found out that the glamour wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.
I moved to Sydney to take a job with a company called Publicity Partners, which was a small consultancy that handled PR for companies like Yardley, l’Oreal and RayBan, and it sounded far more glamorous than it really was. It was pretty much - this is the days before even email, which sounds crazy - all phones, letters, mail-outs and all of that sort of thing. But I guess that job taught me a lot about the superficiality of that industry, that I didn’t fit in the right box for that industry and that it probably wasn’t a good place for a country girl who couldn’t pronounce Versace. It was also the first taste of a boss who wasn’t supportive and who was very hard to work with. That I guess was the first lesson in resilience that I learnt.
I was at home in Narranderra on holidays late in my last year of uni and I noticed that my Dad was having problems with his legs, falling on several occasions. I said, ‘What’s wrong with your knee?’ He said, ‘It’s nothing.’ He was an old farmer and didn’t go to doctors. I can’t actually even remember him going to a doctor ever before that. He ignored the signs for months until he finally saw a GP and they said to him, ‘You’ve either got a brain tumour, cancer of the spine or MS.’ I don’t have to tell you none of those are particularly attractive options. I was dispatched to drive him to Wagga for tests. This big, burly 6’2” man broke down, and it was the first time I had ever seen him show any emotion. I guess that was kind of a turning point in our relationship because I saw the vulnerability within him and the fact that he was really scared.
It took several years of tests to diagnose his disease as MS, and I decided to move back closer to home to be there to support the family. He hasn’t had an easy run for the past 15 years. His MS is very severe. He was forced into a nursing home in his early 50s alongside mostly patients with dementia. He’s now had both legs amputated. These days he’s a far simpler version of himself, which in a lot of ways is actually a blessing because it’s not an environment that still a relatively young man would really want to be in. Even though Mum and Dad separated several years before his admissions, she still goes and visits him several times a week, which I think says a lot about her compassion and generosity.
To backtrack a bit, I left the glamour of this Sydney fashion and beauty industry to come to Griffith to be near the family and took a job as the marketing assistant with an organisation called Riverina Citrus Marketing in Griffith. Basically that was an organisation that was funded through grower levies under the Marketing of Primary Products Act. What it aimed at was to get better money for growers and to promote the citrus industry.
After about six months in that role, the CEO left the organisation rather suddenly and, at the age of 22, they said, ‘Do you want to do this for a while?’ I went: ‘All right. Sure I’ll give it a go.’ I look at 22 year olds now and go ‘Oh my God, what was I thinking?’ I look at photos and I honestly do look like I’m in a school uniform some of the time in some of the things I was wearing. But there I was this young thing barely out of university responsible for the management of a range of communication activities, policy making, industry representation and lobbying, media liaison and I suddenly had four staff. I answered daily to a community of 450 male citrus growers, which was a whole lot of fun. Griffith is a region where 60 to 70 per cent of people are Italian. These were very traditional men as well. I had to really fight to be respected.
But, by the end of that five years, I had lobbied and met with the Deputy Prime Minister, who was then John Anderson. I could stand up in front of a crowd of hostile citrus growers. I could do a TV interview. I could do a whole lot of things that I never would’ve done if I had stayed in the Sydney beauty industry. I worked 60-hour weeks for not very much money at all, and it was really tough work. I couldn’t go down the main street of Griffith without being hauled up for: ‘What are you going to do about my citrus prices?’ But it taught me so much and it gave me so much backbone.
But after about five years I decided I needed a change so I did my own thing for about a year. What I had discovered through the time working with Riverina Citrus Marketing was that I was really passionate about food and wine. If you haven’t ever been to Griffith, can I commend it as an amazing place – it’s just a four-hour road trip – to spend a weekend. It has some 20 wineries now and great restaurants. All the producers there are really passionate. They all have a story behind what they do.
One of the things I’m most proud of is being one of the people who created the Taste of the Riverina Food and Wine Weekend back in the late 1990s. That was one of those things that a friend and I who were in our mid-20s were given free rein to do this thing. We had no money at usual but we put this thing together. It still exists today in one form or another. All of a sudden we had Tourism New South Wales throwing money at us to make this whole thing – okay, we’ll make it up as we go along. But that was great because I got to show celebrity chefs around the region and Vogue food and wine editors. For me, it showed me how much I loved that food and wine area.
If I hadn’t run out of career options, I probably would still be in Griffith because I love it. It’s a great town. My parents and my sister and her family are still there. We love going back for a lot of reasons. But in 1999 I decided that I probably needed to move if I wanted to keep developing. Dad was settled into the nursing home; my sister was married; and I guess I felt the itch to come back to Canberra. So I applied for a public affairs role with the former Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations or DEEWR. It was here that I met the man who would become my husband, Drew Baker, who I was just telling Frances was the product of a rather drunk Christmas party kind of thing. But hey, 15 years later, he’s now the CEO of the institute - how can you say this in one mouthful? - Institute of Public Administration Australia (ACT) and a rather lovely fellow.
Not being from Canberra, the Public Service had never really been on my radar as a career prospect. I remember in uni people talking about the Public Service exam and I didn’t really know what they were talking about and never pursued it. But I actually really enjoyed my time in the Public Service. I was there for probably ten years with the same department in its various guises. But I think the key was that I probably did a different job every two years and they were all interesting jobs. I did everything from large-scale event management, to video production, to strategic communications, to working with Indigenous employment and I worked really hard, which is why I often get upset with public servant bashing, because some of the hardest working people I know are public servants. I worked hard and I worked long hours and I felt like I was contributing something worth while.
In December 2003, Drew and I were engaged on the beach in Noosa, and a few months later we discovered that we were pregnant with our first child. Unfortunately, when I had blood tests after we had done about five pregnancy tests and went to the doctor and said, ‘I think I’m pregnant,’ she said, ‘Have you done a test?’ We said, ‘We’ve done five.’ She said, ‘Well, you’re probably pregnant.’ But she did blood tests just to be sure or just to look at what there was in there and she found an alarmingly high level of parathyroid hormone in my blood. Now I had had kidney stones a few years before and they had done all sorts of tests on me and never found out what they were from. It turns out this is why. The parathyroid, for those of you who don’t know, is this little thing that sits in your neck and it basically regulates flow of calcium. It’s like your heating cooling systems where you set it to a certain temperature and, once it gets to that temperature, it stops. That’s what the parathyroid does. Basically, once your body has enough calcium, it stops producing it. The tumour meant that my body had no signals to stop producing calcium so it was just pumping lots of calcium into my body. I had very stiff joints and was generally feeling pretty bad.
That wasn’t so bad for me. However, for a baby, for me being pregnant that was quite dangerous because it meant that my body was taking all the calcium. There were real health concerns for a baby to not have enough. So we were looking at having to have surgery on that in my second trimester. Unfortunately I miscarried at eight weeks, making surgery less dangerous, but it was still obviously very traumatising. But I guess we sort of figured, ‘Well, you know, we got pregnant pretty easily the first time. Surely we can just do it again.’ But we were very wrong. It took us another two years to actually fall pregnant.
While my career went from strength to strength, I couldn’t achieve that one thing I desperately wanted. So we eventually turned to assisted conception and we were very lucky because it only took the second round for us to fall pregnant with Olivia. But even though that method of conception was very sterile, I actually remember it really fondly because I know the exact day that our beautiful Olivia’s life began. I remember because straight after the procedure we took off on a day trip to Wollongong and Berry with two of our closest couple friends. I have this warm memory of us enjoying lunch at the coast and strolling around the shops. It’s something really special to be able to go: ‘Do you know, I remember what I was doing on the day that you were created.’ It’s such a happy memory because I know what came after that.
When Liv was born in July 2006 - she doesn’t like me calling her Olivia any more apparently - it’s Liv or Livy. When she was born I threw myself into motherhood. I became the local playgroup coordinator. I got into scrap-booking. I read every book there was to read on motherhood. She was a wonderful, happy, easy baby. I guess her placid nature continues today.
I went back to work part-time when she was ten months old, which was actually earlier than I had planned, but I guess at about ten months old she needed me a little bit less. I was lured back by the promise of an exciting project. I have done the part-time Public Service thing and part-time mother thing, and it’s hard - the dropping off at child care, going and doing your work, trying to get through everything that you would normally in five days in three days or whatever it is, going and picking your child up, and getting them dinner and getting them to bed - people who do it full-time, I don’t know how they do it.
For me, I loved work. I loved being able to juggle or balance being a Mum and I guess being able to exercise my brain and have some social contact. I was working in an area about internal communication and culture, which I guess is the basis of the same sort of principles behind what we do with HerCanberra. I love working in that area. After our experience trying to conceive Olivia, I wasn’t even really keen to have another child, even though it had always been the plan to have two. I was thinking ‘I’ve got this perfect one. I don’t want to do that again. That was too hard.’ But Drew really wanted another. I went: ‘Fine. I’ll try but, if it’s going to be hard again, I’m not interested.’ He said ‘okay’. Then I was one of those really annoying people that literally fell pregnant the instant I stopped using the pill.
But it was a strange pregnancy. I didn’t know I was pregnant until I was eight weeks. I actually had a moment at work where I was sitting there going ‘God I feel sick,’ and then I went ‘Ooh, last time I felt like this was morning sickness.’ I remember going to the doctor when I was apparently seven weeks and I had this stomach. I was going, ‘It’s either more than one in there or there’s something wrong with these dates’ kind of thing. I remember sitting with the doctor and going, ‘I came to see you because I’m supposed to be seven weeks pregnant but this’ – and she said ‘Ooh’. They shipped me off for an ultrasound and it turned out that I was actually 12 weeks almost. Then at 14 weeks I had a scare and I thought that that was all over red rover. But she was determined.
I had planned to work right up to 38 weeks, but life had other things in store for me. At 25 weeks pregnant I felt unwell so I had a day off. Then around 2 a.m. the morning after, I woke up and I was bleeding. I didn’t know what to do. I rang my obstetrician and said ‘What do I do?’ She said go to the hospital. I was driving in the middle of the night while Drew stayed with Olivia and was obviously really scared until they strapped on the monitor to find a strong heartbeat.
Denial is a wonderful thing. I was sitting there texting work going: ‘I probably won’t be in tomorrow but I’m sure I’ll be in in a couple of days.’ Their horrified text back ‘are you crazy, woman’. I was basically told: ‘You’re here for another two days.’ As it was I ended up being in there for six weeks on bed rest, because they didn’t know what was causing the bleeding. Even though I was five minutes drive from the hospital door to door, they didn’t know what was going on and didn’t want to take the chance. So I needed to stay on the ward which, with a little girl who wasn’t quite two, it was so hard. When they’re not quite two, their attention span is quite small. So I would literally see her for half an hour a day and we’d ply her with Dora the Explorer videos so that I could just cuddle for a bit longer.
I thought that was the hardest thing, but then there was worse to come. In hindsight I would have stayed there another year if I could have saved the trauma that was ahead. I went into labour at 30 weeks and three days, and Sophia was born weighing 1.43 kilos or 3 pound 3 by the old scale. She had to be intubated. She had various health concerns. She was on oxygen for nine weeks, couldn’t get her off it. She had two blood transfusions, and there were days that I honestly thought she would never come home.
But, after ten weeks in the ICU and seven days after her due date, she came home and we realised that was actually only the start of her journey. I remember a nurse saying to me, ‘If this is your first child I’d be really worried about you because there’s going to be some tough times ahead. But you’ll be all right.’ So, because I had had an infection in the placenta, which turns out why I was bleeding, usually the treatment for that is to deliver the baby because it’s obviously not a great environment for a baby to be if you have an infection. The fact that she hung in there for five weeks and was able to have steroids to help her lungs grow and all that sort of thing is probably the difference between her being alive today and her not having survived. She’s an amazing little fighter. That feistiness stood her in good stead for the next two years. We spent a lot of time in hospital due to her chronic lung disease. Essentially what was a cold for another kid would mean a hospital admission and oxygen for her. Let me tell you: it’s a special kind of hell being in a four berth room with four kids under two for two weeks. I can pretty much do anything now.
It was during this time I was pretty much at home for two years. She wasn’t able to go to child care because she would get sick. It took me a long time to get my head around this. I was like: can we get a nanny? I can’t just stay home for two years. It took me a long time to get my head around that. But when I did, when I relaxed into it and realised there were more important things than strapping on the corporate armour and going into work and proving yourself that way, that’s kind of when things turned around for me.
It was during that time that I discovered the Internet as a source of connection and community because I was lonely. We couldn’t go out much during winter. I had gone from this busy part-time role surrounded by people to pretty much just being housebound with me and two little ones. Although I adored them, I was really quite lonely and in need of that intellectual stimulation. But then I discovered this amazing community that was right in front of me - or through my computer screen, to be precise.
I discovered Mamamia http://www.mamamia.com.au/, which is one of the most popular women’s websites in Australia back when it was just a tiny little website with about 30 commenters. I think they now have something like a million readers a week or something. It’s ridiculous. It was about the same time that Twitter or social media exploded. I found myself having made a group of online friends and I guess a lot of them were in the same boat - they were stay at home mums and they were looking for that connection as well. Somehow I became friends with Mia Friedman who runs Mamamia herself on Twitter, as you do. We struck up this friendship, and within a few months she had asked myself along with another couple of women, Kerri Sackville, who is now a well-known blogger and author and Lana Hirschowitz, who went on to become managing editor of Mamamia and IVillage, to become voluntary editorial staff.
My primary role was that of moderator, which was basically to calm the conversations when they got out of hand, which they often did, and to keep out the trolls, as they call them. But after about a year, I’d had enough because a job that I didn’t get any money from was taking over my life. The negativity from the comments was so personal and causing me so much anxiety - if I was out I am thinking ‘Oh my God, what’s happening in the comments. I really should get back there,’ so that I wasn’t actually having a life at all. I decided to step back because who would have thought that a group of women could be so judgmental and downright nasty – about everything from birth choices: ‘Oh you had a caesarean, well, you didn’t really give birth’ to kids parties to child care and even parents with prams parking spots. It was ridiculous. I thought I just need to leave the drama behind for a while and get back into real life. So I decided to get fit and healthy and rediscover Canberra or my home.
At about the same time Sophia had started to get much better, so I started to try to find things to do with the kids - places to eat, kid friendly places to take them. I guess the way that I found information had changed. I was now very much web enabled. I was googling ‘kid friendly places to eat in Canberra’ and I couldn’t find anything. I was like: perhaps I should make something. I had met quite a few Canberra women through Mamamia so why wasn’t I actually meeting them in Canberra?
I sat on this idea for a few months because, as I mentioned earlier, I have a very short attention span. I am impetuous; I get excited by ideas; I throw all my energy into that; and then I get bored and move onto the next one. I guess I wanted to make sure that this one had legs. But the idea actually burnt brighter the longer I left it. So I wrote out a very half-arsed business plan, because that’s not the way I tend to roll. I took my husband out to dinner and I said ‘I have an idea,’ and I sat it in front of him. He’s the voice of reason in our relationship and he often shoots me down. So I knew that if it was a crap idea he’d tell me. But he didn’t. He said, ‘I think it’s great. I think you should do it.’ I went ‘Oh, all right then.’ So I did.
I found local experts and I cajoled friends into writing for me. I guess I always saw this as a multi-contributor site. It wasn’t ever designed to just be about me. It was always designed to feature voices from Canberra women, because I’m not a nutritional expert. I like fashion but I don’t particularly know a lot about it. I’m not a fitness qualified fitness instructor either. I wanted to pull in people who actually did know what they were talking about in these areas. At the core my vision was to provide a virtual community for local women, but I wanted also to extend that into real life. I wanted to share local knowledge and encourage readers to do the same. There are so many great things happening in Canberra, but we’re not great at telling people about them.
Even now I like to think that we’re pretty much across a lot of the stuff that’s going on but we still miss things. We still see something come up in social media that’s been on on the weekend and go ‘why didn’t we know about that?’ I guess what we have tried to do is to bring all that together in one place that people know they can go here and they can find things out.
It was also really important for me to give local women a place to connect and, if they wanted to, to extend that into real life friendships. From personal experience I know that Canberra can be a hard place to meet people and that sometimes our life circumstances can be isolating. For many of us moving here from somewhere else, or from the workforce a change in circumstances to being a stay at home Mum or work at home Mum, and being able to connect on that intellectual, social and emotional level online can make a huge difference.
I wanted HerCanberra to be as diverse as our Canberra women and I wanted to tap into the local talent we have here. We have women aged from 19 to 50 something - I haven’t asked Ros of her exact age because that would be rude - writing about everything from what’s on around town, to work life balance, to restaurants, to movies, to motherhood - the whole shebang.
I guess from the start I tried to treat this like a business. We have posted at least two stories every weekday for the last four and a half years. Even when I went to the UK for four weeks, I scheduled four weeks of content in the back end ready to push out. But that mindset and that consistency is what I think has grown the business to the point that we now have over 70,000 readers a month and a social network of over 35,000 people. That’s not to say it happened overnight. I worked two jobs for nearly three years so that I could build the site up while still paying the bills. I was really happy for a time. As long as I could pay my groceries and maybe a cleaner sometimes, I was happy to do that.
But in September 2013 I went full time on the business, which was really scary but was probably good timing, because only a couple of months later I had both my kids in public school so suddenly I had $800 a fortnight to not spend on child care or anything. And I think that was the tipping point. We’d reached that kind of groundswell that it all went a little bit crazy after that. We now employ three full-time and three part-time staff. We can now pay our freelance writers where budget allows, and we plan to be able to pay all of them for everything within the year.
We’re very lucky that we have a group of writers who are part of HerCanberra because they understand what we are trying to do and they want to be part of the community and they have motivations other than money. We have writers who write because they want to write and they don’t have any opportunity to do that other than writing their briefs in the Public Service. Let me tell you: it took me about three years to actually get my style back after being in the Public Service for ten years, because you just get so into that clunky brief writing sort of thing. They also get to go to cool shows and get free food occasionally and that sort of thing, because I am actually happier at home in my ugh boots. I never refer to HerCanberra as an ‘I’ - it’s a ‘we’ because I could not have done what I did without this amazing team of women. A really nice side effect is that I now have this amazing group of friends that I didn’t have before, because they’re all different and they’re all lovely. They are really dedicated to making the site something really special.
I guess it’s doing things new and differently that drives us. That’s partly because, once again, I get bored easily and it’s just fun. It’s more fun doing things differently. Why would you do things the same all the time? In March we launched Magazine which is a magazine. We kind of thought why don’t we just call it Magazine - couldn’t come up with a title. We have copies down in the Friends Lounge for you if you would like to take one. It’s the latest edition to our brand stable.
I have had a lot of people say to me, ‘Aren’t you doing things kind of back to front here? Why have you gone from online to magazine where everyone else is going magazine to online?’ I think for me it’s partly because I have always had a hankering for print. I love it. Partly because I think that, no matter how beautiful your website is, images just never look as good onscreen as they do on paper. I also believe that the more websites and blogs that appear and the more time we spend attached to our screens, whether that’s at work or our smartphones or whatever, the more special something that you can actually hold in your hand and is relaxation and downtime actually becomes. There is this kind of strange tension that comes almost when you have your smartphone. You’re always attached to something, whereas this is just taking you back to old school.
I guess for me it’s more than just words and pictures on paper. What’s in that magazine that you’ll see is that it represents a team of people or several teams of people collaborating on a project and sharing ideas and creating something together that celebrates our home town. I did a website pretty much as a sole operator for a number of years. This has been so fulfilling actually doing a project that involves a group of people coming together and creating something together. So for me it’s more than a website or a magazine - it’s a community.
We are always looking for ways to grow it. We partner with organisations around town to stage events that we think will appeal to our readers, because one of the things that was back in that business plan that I did four and a half - five years ago was that I wanted the site to be able to connect people in real life as well. These events actually give women a chance to come together and make new friends, which is really important to me. We’re actually going to be introducing later in the year what we’re calling speed friendship nights where people can get together, come along and make new friends. If they connect with someone, they can make their own plans afterwards. You hear so many people are saying, ‘I have moved here. I can’t make friends. Everyone is really clicky. Does anyone want to just meet up and be my friend?’ We want to facilitate that.
We’ave done things like car maintenance workshops, which I was like ‘I don’t know if this will work’, but we sold 25 tickets in two days, which was great. We have had interior evenings where we had Darren Palmer from The Block come and speak. We’ve had wine tasting tours which personally I would like to do more of those. We are going to be looking at more opportunities to do that kind of thing. We’re fiercely passionate advocates of Canberra and its people. We want to tell the stories of those who live here and we want to shine a light on all the things that make this such a great place to live. The key to HerCanberra’s success, I think, is that it has filled a gap. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s certainly been the case here.
I guess what’s surprised me as we have grown is the nastiness that can come with competition. I prefer to concentrate on doing what we do as well as we can and not worrying what others do, because I reckon there are enough readers to go around and enough business. I don’t think that people decide ‘I’m only going to read this and I’m not going to read that.’ We consume bits of everything. I like it when it’s all sunshine and lollipops. Unfortunately, as we have become bigger and started to become a real player in the media market, not everyone shares my sentiments. I have had to put my big girl pants on a bit and realise that you can’t be friends with everyone.
Many people say to me, ‘You’ve achieved so much in such a short time,’ but it doesn’t feel like a short time to me, to be quite honest because I’ve worked my butt off for four years. As I said, we have published every single day for four and a half years, and I have had five days unplugged since 2011. Social media is a hungry beast. It demands to be fed at all hours of the day. It’s a slog but I reckon if you have a dream, the hard work is worth it. It’s true, you know, if you love what you do you will never work a day in your life.
Although I do work probably 12 hours every day, my job is flexible so I can pick my kids up from school. I can work from their swimming lessons. I can be present. I actually find the whole having to get your kids ready, get yourself ready, drop them to childcare, go to work, work, go home, and do it all over again far more stressful than doing things the way I do. My office is where my laptop is. My girls are used to being carted all over the countryside with me for my work. I think it’s actually teaching them valuable lessons about passion and dedication, and the fact it’s not always about them, which I think is really important. They need to know that Mum has important things that she does as well.
It also shows them how awesome our city is. I reckon they have to be two of the best educated Canberran kids around. They worked the Handmade Markets with me last month, I think it was, because my husband was off running some crazy 45 kilometre race somewhere, and one of the girls who was going to be working the stall with us couldn’t make it. So I said, ‘Right, girls. We’ve got to go to the markets.’ They said, ‘Is that like a shop?’ ‘It’s kind of like a shop.’ ‘What are we going to sell?’ ‘We’ve got the magazines.’ ‘Oh, that’s a bit boring. Can we take cupcakes?’ I went ‘No, HerCanberra doesn’t do cupcakes but we do magazines.’ She went ‘all right’. She went off to her computer and she decided to make some HerCanberra fliers with her own slogan, which was something about style, life and lots of surprises, and a reader survey which was ‘how much do you like HerCanberra’ with selections.
We had the six-year-old doing the reader survey for anyone who came up to the booth, and Olivia was running around the handmade markets with magazines giving them to everybody. They are already proud of HerCanberra and I guess what I do with it and they are already invested in it. I said to Liv the other day, ‘If HerCanberra is still going in ten years when you’re 18, you can take over.’ She said ‘Yeah, but I’ll probably add more animals and birds.’ Right, you can do whatever you like.
I don’t think ‘balance’ is the right word for what I do in terms of work and family because I don’t think there is any clear delineation between the two. The nature of the business is 24:7, but we make it work as a family. My husband also has a really demanding job. We consciously try to make sure we are both being looked after and our kids are as well. Although it’s demanding, it’s given me the opportunity to do something that is truly fulfilling. Although some of my life is glamorous, we did the red carpet at Fash Fest the other night and we get to eat at nice restaurants and that sort of thing, for me nothing that much has changed. I don’t get off on the whole fame thing because I still do the washing and nag my kids about their homework, pack lunches, cook dinners and all that unsexy stuff. None of that has changed. When it comes down to it, I’m actually a bit of a home body, which is good news for the contributors who get theatre tickets and all that sort of thing thrown their way.
I’m not super woman. I struggle to find time for everything. At the moment it’s my fitness that being neglected, and that really makes me sad because I love to be active. I wanted to be a dancer from the time I was a little girl, but Tarcutta didn’t really have any dance schools and my Dad refused to pay for lessons when we moved to a larger town. My sister and I would dance for hours every afternoon in our spare room. Does anyone remember Bony M Rasputin? I could show you some moves now.
After Sophia was born I started to look at life through a different lens. All those things I had been too afraid to do for fear of looking silly suddenly became really important things to cross off my bucket list. I’d always wanted to be a dancer and I thought if I don’t do this, I am going to regret this for the rest of my life. So I set myself a goal of learning to dance by the time I was 40. Latin music had always moved me. There was something in it that just made my heart sing. You know how you hear songs and there is something in you that you just respond to.
When I was asked if I wanted to join a kid friendly zumba class I said ‘Hell yes, I’m there.’ It took I reckon five minutes to go ‘Yes, this is it, I have found my thing.’ So I threw myself into that with a passion and became a zumba instructor at 38. By the time that 40-year-old milestone rolled around, I’d learnt to dance salsa, Reggaeton samba, dancehall, bachata. I’m now thinking Afro samba; I just need to find the time. But it’s my happy place; I love it. There is something so joyful about moving your body and forgetting about everything else for that moment while you are doing it.
I guess while balance is a continual challenge, I do what I do because I love Canberra; I love connecting people; and I am energised by always pushing the boundaries. As much as I loved my career in the Public Service, I love the agility that I can now have. I love that I can have an idea and there are people around me who’ll go ‘Awesome, let’s do it,’ because there’s nothing cooler than being surrounded by like-minded people who all believe in a common goal. For me, the sky is the limit, and we are constantly innovating. That’s what keeps me interested.
I’m usually so crazily paddling that I rarely emerge from the doing bubble and reflect on what’s come before. But when we launched Magazine in March, we had a shindig at the Hyatt for 150 people. I had this moment where I looked around and went ‘Holy crap, all these people are here for me, this thing that I’ve built,’ and I lost it. I had a shocker. I had my speech and blubbered through half of it, particularly when I thanked my husband for believing in me four years ago. I spent the night just floating on the positive energy of all the people who were there and who’d helped me along the way. As I said before, while I may be the figurehead of HerCanberra, it wouldn’t be anything without all the people that contribute to it, and its success belongs to all of us.
I guess even though I haven’t taken the direct route to my dreams and there have been a number of speed bumps along the way, I truly believe that those things are the things that shape the person you are and shape the direction that you take your life. Those childhood dreams that I had of being a magazine editor have now come true. I gave a speech the other day to a group of young professionals. A few lessons that I said to them were to learn from every experience, good and bad, because we should never stop seeking knowledge and we should always try to be better; leave your ego at the door. I hate ego. I just think you be prepared to do the crappy stuff as well as take the good stuff, because no matter how high you climb you need to remember where you started.
I truly believe in looking at your career as a winding path because, if I had never taken that job with Riverina Citrus Marketing, I never would have learnt all those valuable lessons there was no way I would’ve learnt in the beauty industry in Sydney. Looking sideways occasionally, you find these really interesting things that might actually take you where you need to be. For me it’s never being afraid to take that chance and to follow that passion. For a lot of public servants there’s that fear factor. I always say that Canberra probably has more moonlighters per capita than anywhere else. We’re public servants or we’re working in offices or we’re doing something else, and at night we are making hats or designing jewellery. There are so many Canberrans that have creative pursuits outside that, and sometimes it takes taking that leap for it all to happen.
The thing that I told these women and I tell my children is that the most important thing is to treat people well. You can trample all sorts of people as you climb the career ladder but, if you treat people well and be kind and be humble and appreciate opportunities and support others in their dreams, it’ll come back to you. The reason HerCanberra succeeded is because we have always placed a big importance on connecting with people and saying, ‘Hey, maybe you guys should get together and we’ll help you do this,’ because that’s the way that it works in this town.
These are the lessons that I teach my girls, who are now six and eight, and I’m pleased to say that they’re growing up beautifully. They are sweet, smart, kind and funny. At the end of the day, no matter how proud I am of HerCanberra, they’re the best things I ever made. So thank you for listening to me today. I’m happy to take questions. [applause]
FRANCES BALDWIN: Thanks Amanda, that was truly inspiring and very interesting. Does anybody have any questions for Amanda?
QUESTION: You seem to be a very humble, loyal and caring person. I was just wondering whether you’d crossed the line and in your future with HerCanberra explore the disadvantaged?
AMANDA WHITLEY: In what sense?
QUESTION: In developing and bettering their skills with workshops and all that.
AMANDA WHITLEY: Absolutely, we’d be happy to explore it. One of our workers Nip - and I always struggle to pronounce Nip’s last name so I won’t try - runs GG Flowers. Her sister Gayana has Downs syndrome and we support that business. We’re always open to opportunities. I’ll give you my card.
QUESTION: Good. Very open-minded. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Something wasn’t clear to me: do you have an age limit about who you are trying to approach? I didn’t feel it was towards older women; it was more younger and middle aged. Could you just clarify that?
AMANDA WHITLEY: We try to have content that is of interest to the whole range. We have writers who are in their early 20s; we have writers who are in their 50s. Not every piece of content is going to be interesting to everybody, but we hope there will be something on the website that will be of interest to someone. For example, I’m not interested in single women’s guide to Canberra because I’m not single, clearly. But our younger demographic might be interested in that. We have a lot of motherhood content, which our readers who aren’t mothers won’t be interested in. I guess what we try to do is we try to have something for everybody but we don’t pretend that everything that we publish is going to be of interest to everyone. Does that answer your question?
QUESTION: I interpret that there’s an age limit still. You’re not looking at some of us.
AMANDA WHITLEY: We don’t have an age limit. The core demographic, just from what we see our readers are, are 25 to 45. I’m nearly out of that demographic myself. I know there are women in their 60s and 70s who read it, because they are my Mum and my mother’s friends and all of that. We are always open to having more contributors in the mature space. Give me a call.
FRANCES BALDWIN: There are lots of restaurant guides and also attractions around Canberra for events like the lovely National Museum of Australia. The Magazine is down in the Friends Lounge and I would encourage you all to come down and pick up a copy and ask Amanda some questions down in the Friends Lounge. Could you thank Amanda again, please. [applause]
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Date published: 01 January 2018