Colleen Callander & Family Celebrate International Women’s Day
In Part Two of our International Woman's Day special, we speak with Colleen Callander, former CEO of Sussan / Sportsgirl Group, and Founder of Mentor Me Women. She’s joined by her mum, Rhonda and her daughter, Macey.
Founder of Mentor Me Women & Former CEO of Sussan / Sportsgirl Group
“I was very fortunate with the family I grew up in because I have incredible parents. My mother and father are very different, but I believe I got the best traits of both of them. My father left Italy for Australia when he was just four years old, with his parents, a couple of suitcases and little money. They went in search of a better life and my father worked very hard all his life. My mum’s life was very different – she’ll tell her story. She was one of 12 children and lost her own mother when she was just 21. I always call her the ‘Mother Teresa of the world’ because she’s this beautiful nurturer.”
I was very fortunate to have both of these remarkable people in my life. However, I came from this very traditional Italian family, where the men ruled the family, so to speak, and that was my father and my brother. So, I suppose, I spent most of my life trying to prove myself to be better, or at least as good as, my brother – and especially to my father. I think that’s stayed with me my whole life and it actually still is with me – it’s given me the drive to be where I am today.
Looking back though, when I started out, the fashion industry was very male-dominated. All of the senior positions in the companies were male – they had the offices and car spaces, and their lunches delivered. There was very much a hierarchy and that was men first. However, I was lucky when I joined the Suzanne/Sportsgirl group, because it was mostly women. I knew it was my opportunity to create an environment where women wanted to come to work; where there was a culture of empowerment and inspiration; a place that really allowed women to bring their most authentic self to work.
“My purpose is to give women a voice, to help them take risks, to build their confidence, to believe in themselves, to change the rules, and to have the confidence to ask for a seat at the table.”
And as the CEO, my number one objective, priority and purpose was to ensure that when women came to work, they used their voice, shared their message, felt empowered and were experts in their field. And that’s what I’m doing now with Mentor Me Women. My purpose hasn’t changed since going from CEO to Founder. We actually don’t get to change our purpose – it’s why we’re here, what puts a fire in our belly, and why we get up every day. I’m just doing it broader, wider and deeper than ever before. My purpose is to give women a voice, to help them take risks, to build their confidence, to believe in themselves, to change the rules, and to have the confidence to ask for a seat at the table. You know, all of us have to be conduits for change – we have to be circuit breakers for the next generation. My daughter is sitting here today on this call, and I want to be the conduit for her change, and for her children. But I can’t do it alone ¬– we have to do that collectively as women.
I believe women are stronger together. There’s enough room in this world for everyone to have success. The days of women battling against each other just shouldn't exist because there is enough space for everyone. I always think someone else’s success should drive your behaviour. We have to get to a place where we are encouraging each other and creating opportunities for each other.
“International Women’s Day is not just about celebrating women and how far we’ve come, because we have such a long way still to go.”
International Women’s Day is not just about celebrating women and how far we’ve come, because we have such a long way still to go. We’ve got so much space to fill, and it really concerns me that women aren’t confident to do that. So, we really need to start with building women’s confidence so they can ask for that pay rise, feel confident, put their hand up for that promotion, walk into that boardroom and kill it with confidence. I believe all roads lead back to confidence so we need to start building it for ourselves and the next generation.
The good news is the girls of today are not going to sit back and take it or just accept things the way they are – my daughter Macey is very strong-willed and very strong in her opinions, which is great. I think that they are going to challenge the status quo and, because of it, we will see the biggest jump in change with this generation. Much more than we can affect change – this next generation will be the ones who have the voice.”
Photography by Tahnee Jade Photography.
“Growing up, I was one of 12 children. We lived in the country and we would walk three miles to school every day. We were quite a poor family, but we were a very happy family. We didn’t have a lot of things, at Christmas we got one present and that was it, but we loved that present – we thought it was wonderful. We had a lot of fun, not a lot of toys, but we had a swing that was an old car tyre tied to the bend of a tree. We’d go ferreting for rabbits for mum to cook for dinner. Of course, we didn’t have computers or iPhones or anything like that, but we were happy.”
I was kind of average at school, but I left very early to go to work so I could help my family financially. I worked at a milk bar and I used to get £7 a week. I gave £2 to my mum for board. I didn’t have the opportunities to continue to get the education we were then able to give to our children. But I held no grudges for that – it was how we were. I had a beautiful mum growing up, and my dad drank too much, but then I lost mum when I was about 21, which was very, very hard.
“I knew I couldn’t do anything else – I didn’t have a good education and I didn’t do Year 11 or 12. I didn’t have the skills to be anything special.”
I knew I couldn’t do anything else – I didn’t have a good education and I didn’t do Year 11 or 12. I didn’t have the skills to be anything special. But I’ve loved being a mum, and I looked after my grandmother for about four years when we had our first baby. My uncle also lived in the same house with my husband and I, and at the time I had two children. My grandmother was mostly bedridden, but I loved everything I did for her. So I’ve enjoyed my life with other things.
I met my husband at a Sunday afternoon disco for 15 to 18-year-olds. I used to go with my sister and we’d all dance in a group. He said to my sister, ‘I’m going to marry your sister someday.’ She said, ‘Oh no, you’re not!’ I was about 16 at the time, but two years later, we were married and we’ve been together ever since. I’ll be married 53 years this year – a good innings.
“But back then, when I think about it, there weren’t many opportunities for women.”
But back then, when I think about it, there weren’t many opportunities for women. There weren’t many jobs and women were treated differently – they couldn’t do the work that men could do, which was totally wrong, in my opinion. I had a sister who was a truck driver, a semi-trailer driver and a bus driver, but this was only in the past 20 years because back then things like that didn’t happen. We were expected to stay at home and look after the family and children. You’d get your housekeeping money given to you at the end of the week – the men took control of the finances and things like that.
It took us a while, but we saved very hard and built our own house. We paid for it as we went along each stage, until we got to the carpet and we didn’t have enough money for it! So my husband borrowed it off his mother and he didn’t sleep a wink until he paid it all back.
I think Colleen got her work ethic from her father. I think she’s amazing and she’s doing a great job. I hear about the wonderful ways she treated her staff at Sportsgirl – she was amazing, always very kind and helpful to them. She wanted them to be happy in their job, to help them advance and get better, and to celebrate them.
“And that’s what International Women’s Day means to me: it’s about celebrating the wonderful women of the world.”
And that’s what International Women’s Day means to me: it’s about celebrating the wonderful women of the world. There are a lot of women out there who need celebrating.”
Photography by Tahnee Jade Photography.
“I feel like this is quite a challenging time to grow up in, purely because of social media and societal standards. My brothers and I have been super privileged, and it’s great having a mum like mine who can teach my brothers all these things about equality and respect. I see how my brothers act compared to some of the boys I know, and it’s so different. We all learned these things from a young age, so I feel we’re very lucky.”
But it can be super challenging for girls. I’m at boarding school and I live in a house with 60 girls, so I’d see and hear these challenges all the time. Everyone is constantly comparing themselves to other people on social media, all these Photoshopped photos. It’s crazy how much girls can be affected by all that stuff and how it affects their confidence. It’s really a terrible thing. And it’s relentless – there’s no escape from it. Things like eating disorders are so common these days. It’s such a sad thing that girls feel the need to do that stuff purely just to validate themselves in the eyes of others. It’s terrible.
“That’s what’s great about our generation – we’ve started telling people it’s time for change.”
I definitely think girls are still at a disadvantage to boys – 100% – but I also think things are changing. And that’s what’s great about our generation – we’ve started telling people it’s time for change. For example, recently it was announced that consent education will become mandatory in Australian schools next year, which is a massive thing. I think girls now feel a lot more comfortable to speak up, whereas a couple of years ago, they wouldn’t. They’re improving very, very slowly but they are changing.
Even here at school there are still so many rules around what girls can and can’t wear, compared to boys. In the dining hall, girls aren’t allowed to wear singlets because it’s showing our shoulders, but boys can. The other day we agreed it was ridiculous, so my friend wore a singlet into the dining hall and got kicked out. And then one of the boys walked in wearing a singlet and he was fine. So, my friend pointed it out to one of the teachers and asked that he also be removed from the hall. So, there’s this massive change at the school which is so good. It’s the little things that make a big difference.
“To me, International Women’s Day means breaking the gender norms – just breaking them all down.”
To me, International Women’s Day means breaking the gender norms – just breaking them all down. I also think it’s a good time for girls to feel empowered and look up to the people who have made them feel like that. It’s a time for us to look up to our role models and appreciate them. It’s a day for girls to say, ‘we’re all equal’.”