From university bookworm to Wall Street to luxury jewellery, Fiona Tilley’s life and career have been rich and varied.
The Arts/Law alumna grew up as an Army brat, living in 13 different places in Australia and abroad across her first 11 years. She found stability in Canberra, attending Belconnen High School and then Hawker College, where she was one of the inaugural graduates.
“I loved every single day at school; playing hooky was never a temptation,” Fiona says.
Her studiousness persisted into her ANU days. Fiona describes herself as having been a “boring bookworm” who laboured long nights in the libraries. She also worked three jobs: “I tutored high school kids in maths, physics and grammar; I worked Thursday nights and Saturdays at a local ski shop; and I was a “hostess” in hot pink lame tights at Juliana’s nightclub at the Lakeside Hotel (now QT Hotel).”
She regrets not having had time to indulge in the fun side of university, but adds that she’s made up for it vigorously since then.
Fiona started at the ANU in 1977 at the age of 16, having received early entry into Law. Law was a pragmatic choice for her, but her passion was history. So in addition to Law, she did an Arts degree, majoring in international politics to shore up her chances of working in the diplomatic corps – then her ambition.
Those dreams gave way to a more traditional path, working as a solicitor in Sydney upon graduation. A few years later, Fiona was in New York, working at JP Morgan, where she rose to the position of Vice-President of their Corporate Finance department specializing in Private Equity.
“Given my defection to investment banking and to the US, there is no question that having a broader education provided a stronger basis for extending myself beyond law,” Fiona says.
After a successful 11 years at JP Morgan, she was head-hunted by SocGen Securities to set up their global Private Equity business.
“I am proud to have been one of the few female Managing Directors on Wall Street in the 90s.”
“Even today,” she adds, “there remain relatively few women at the C-suite level in business in the U.S. and Australia.”
Although Fiona didn’t study Visual Arts during her undergraduate degree, she did become a student and active supporter of the arts in moving to New York. Notably, she was a Board member of the Joyce Theatre Foundation, a leading dance venue, for 10 years and is now on the advisory board of emerging dance company Barkin/Selissen Project.
Her deepest passion, she says, is for handcrafted art forms and she has travelled the world collecting them. This passion led her to the love of her life, Turkish jeweller Gurhan Orhan, whose work she ‘discovered’ in a boutique in Turkey. Fiona admired it so deeply that she arranged to meet the man himself.
“I was instantly drawn to the unique handwrought quality of his work that echoed the techniques of ancient goldsmiths while appealing to the aesthetic sensibilities of the modern woman – that is, me,” Fiona says.
Her conviction in the quality of his work motivated Fiona to help Gurhan break into the US market, culminating in the founding and incorporation of their own company, named after its jeweller.
This year marks Gurhan New York Inc’s 20th anniversary. Across that time, Gurhan jewellery has been worn by public figures from Oprah to Hillary Clinton. Fiona has also remained the company’s CEO across the life of the business; a role she describes as a multi-faceted one.
“There are so many aspects to running a company I could never be bored,” she says.
“From understanding the macro-economic trends that govern consumer buying behaviour to finessing the next new product design; from managing a highly diversified staff of over 150 people on two continents to deciding on the right colour for a jewellery pouch; from assessing the desirability of hedging gold against market fluctuations to deciding what which charitable cause we will support with a donation of our jewellery … there is never a dull moment!
“Creating, owning and driving success in your own business entails challenges far beyond those I experienced in either of my former careers.”
Doing an Arts degree at the ANU gave Fiona a good grounding for being a successful CEO.
“I strongly believe that breadth of perspective and being a well-rounded person is key to successfully executing such a role,” she says.
“Being relatable and collaborative and, most importantly, being able to trust and rely on others who are invested in a shared outcome, does not come from studying business or earning an MBA.
“It comes from understanding the world context, learning from leadership – political, corporate or personal – examples, and having the confidence to create your own performance models.”
The three things Fiona attributes her academic and professional success to
- Churchill: “Never give up” has been my mantra all my life. Tenacity without obstinacy is what underlies my efforts in every endeavour. I firmly believe that there is always a way to achieve well-set goals and I never say die.
- Lemonade: “Find opportunity in adversity” – I am a natural optimist but more than that, I mindfully seek positive benefits out of any negative situation. Most people dwell on dark side of crises, problems and issues. I strongly believe that there are opportunities that lie in each of these circumstances and that they are available to those who are willing to see through a different lens and to create advantages out of such situations.
- My Why: It took me sometime to identify this as a driving factor in my life. It took launching my own company and learning the value of sharing my vision and passion with our customers and staff to really solidify how crucial it is to “know your why”. What gets you out of bed, what sees you through the tough times, what makes your heart sing – this is what it is all about. Wrap your why up in your core values and imbue this in every aspect of your and your company’s behaviour.
Fiona’s advice to female students wanting to go far in business or finance
Do it. Stand up, stand out, lean in. But do it as yourself -
- Don’t take on anyone else’s mantle as your own identity or try to be like what you imagine someone in such a role should be, otherwise you will forever be limiting yourself by someone else’s interpretation of what it is to be successful.
- Don’t force yourself to be a kickass woman because you don’t need to be; it is enough to be authentic to yourself.
- Don’t try to be like the guys, because you don’t need to be; as women, we have our own armouries of strength.
- Don’t succumb to the doubts that everyone knows more or is better than you. Trust me, they are floundering in the same pool of doubt; you just can’t see it.
- Don’t feel the need to be liked by everyone. Seeking approbation is a natural tendency for social animals but it is not a prerequisite to a full life. Set your own values and adhere to them and you will attract people who share those values and who will enhance your life instead of detract from it.