Turi Alumna rules in the corporate jungle

Her very proper English accent contrasts somewhat with the devilish grins and chuckles that punctuate her account of life as a pre-teen in a boarding school in Kenya in the 1960s.

“I narrowly avoided the most feared punishment that St Andrew’s School administered” reveals Jane Hemstritch. Her entire class had discovered, as all children eventually do, that soaked tissue paper pressed into a ball and tossed upwards will adhere to the ceiling in a neat conical pyramid. The joy of new discovery honed into thrill by virtue of it being so naughty was stilled instantly when the teacher walked in. Those caught in the act of creating or launching the soggy missiles were frog-marched to the Headmistress’s office for a good shaking. Jane was not among them.
One of the most powerful people in the Australian corporate world Today
Hemstritch is one of the most powerful people in the Australian corporate world. She sits on the Boards of Directors of Telstra, Lend Lease, Tabcorp, Herbert Smith Freehills, Victorian Opera and the Walter and Eliza Hall Medical Institute. She recently retired from the Boards of Commonwealth Bank and Santos. Prior to this, Hemstritch had a stellar career at global consulting firm, Accenture. She was Managing Partner of the Change Management practice in Asia Pacific, Managing Partner of the Communications and High Tech unit in Asia Pacific and ultimately Managing Director of the entire business in Asia Pacific and member of the global executive of the 120,000-strong firm when she retired in 2007.
Hemstritch is back in Kenya for the first time since she left the country with her parents as a teenager. We chat in the idyllic surrounds of the Mount Kenya Safari Club. The resort is every bit the inspirational destination that it was in Hemstritch’s childhood. Earlier, we had visited “Sudan” the last remaining male Northern White Rhino in the world at the nearby Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Hemstritch was born in Nairobi where her father was the Managing Director of the Kenyan operations of a tea and toffee company.
There are no boundaries
Years earlier, her mother was one of the “Bletchley Wrens” who operated the enormous machine (Colossus) built by Alan Turing, that eventually cracked the German Enigma code, a critical turning point in the Second World War. At eight years old Hemstritch was sent to St Andrew’s School in Turi, a three hour drive from Nairobi. The school was run by Scottish couple, Mr and Mrs Lavers, known universally in the school community as Ma and Pa. Hemstritch is clearly grateful for the grounding that Ma and Pa’s co-educational school gave her. “I was particularly good at ‘wide games’, a type of hide and seek played in the vast surrounds of the outdoors-oriented school.” In a sense, this game was a metaphor for the world as Ma taught it: boys and girls are equals.
You must invent your own strategies; use your imagination; adapt; focus on what’s important; sometimes you fall and persistence is rewarded. All of these lessons would prove to be valuable to her many times over. When she graduated from St Andrew’s at age 12, Hemstritch went to a girls boarding school in England and what a huge culture shock! From an outdoors-oriented school that encouraged equality, experimentation and imagination, she was parachuted into a foreign world that exhorted lady-like values such as the importance of eating a banana with a knife and fork, never with your hands. Hemstritch was mortified but here she had another important epiphany: “They can’t read your mind.”  She would do and say what was required of her at the time but they would never know what she thought of them or their rules. Again, these learnings have proven valuable many times over.
Hemstritch goes on to describe candidly but without names some of the ignoble behaviours she has had to endure from her male colleagues in the past. Her strength of character has also helped Hemstritch endure personal tragedy. After her husband, Phil died of pancreatic cancer in 2010, she established The Philip Hemstritch Pancreatic Cancer Research Program at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. Boys and girls are equals; there are no boundaries; you must invent your own strategies; use your imagination; adapt; focus on what’s important; sometimes you fall, persistence is rewarded and they can’t read your mind. Strategies from children’s games played in a liberal school in an exotic land helped shape the character of one of the most impressive business people in Australia