Three Minute Squiz With… Paula Benson

Paula is Chair of Ovarian Cancer Australia, a director of the Victorian Funds Management Corporation and a Trustee of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre Trust. Before that she was head of corporate affairs at National Australia Bank, and held senior roles with Alcoa and RMIT. That’s quite a career path for someone who started out in journalism. Paula helps us unpick all that in this week’s Three Minute Squiz.

Where and how do you Squiz?
In my pjs with my first cup of tea for the day about 6.05am. I’m usually the only one up and it’s a few minutes of quiet before the day begins.

What was the first concert you ever went to?
No judgement please as it was the 1980s… Madonna, Wembley Stadium in London, Who’s that Girl Tour.

Where were you born?
New York City.

Name four people – living or dead – you’d love to sit down to dinner with.
Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo, Malala Yousafzai, Michelle Obama. And I’d try and sneak my daughter Isabella onto my lap.

What skill or talent do you not have but wish you did?
To sing!

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I’d really like Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe but I hasten to add the similarity ends there!

The best piece of advice your mother or father gave you?
My mum once told me to quit a job I didn’t like saying “sometimes you just have to take a risk and step off the cliff”. I was shocked but followed her advice. Three months later I had my first job in TV, bought my first car and met the man I would subsequently marry.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Being ‘good’. Always better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission!

What is the greatest quality in a friend?

You were once a producer with Nine’s A Current Affair what skills did that gig equip you with which have served you well in your subsequent, illustrious career?
Once a producer always a producer! Working at ACA gave me the courage and confidence to speak to anyone at any level of any organisation. Working in that environment means you have to be curious, make decisions quickly, develop incredible research skills, be super organised and deliver to deadlines. But mostly importantly it helped hone my gut instinct about what the punters will think which is key to managing issues and pitching stories on the other side of the ledger in corporate affairs where I’ve spent most of my career.

What’s your go-to dinner party recipe when you’re trying to impress, but also trying to look super casual?
My mum put me onto Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Guinness Cake which is sooooo good.

You’re the chair of Ovarian Cancer Australia: tell us why you became involved?
When I was 34 I was unexpectedly diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had to have a radical hysterectomy. While the cancer was scary the loss of my fertility was much worse. Thanks to the love and friendship of two amazing women through the gift of egg donation and surrogacy I am mum to beautiful Isabella who turns 11 this week! I joined the board of Ovarian Cancer Australia in 2007 and in 2010 I was elected the Chair.

Apart from the warm & fuzzy of giving back, what has being involved with various philanthropic endeavours given you?
I’ve learned so much and met so many amazing people. Because you are often working with small budgets you get to roll up your sleeves and work on parts of the business that might be outside your professional experience.

What’s your advice to women who think they’d make a good board director?
Build your executive career first! You need to gather as much experience as you possibly can. Doing the Australian Institute of Company Directors course and getting involved in a not for profit board are great ways to dip your toes in the water and see if it’s for you but it’s important to note that neither of these are stepping stones to an ASX Board – see my first point!

What would you say is the most currently overlooked news story Australians should know about but don’t?
The fact that every year around 1,500 Australian women will be diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer and almost the same number will die from the disease. The survival rates are terrible, languishing around 44% post five years compared to breast and prostate cancer which now sit at around 90% due to the significant financial investment in both those cancers. It’s unlikely there will ever be a simple silver bullet early detection test as ovarian cancer is so complex and has a wide range of different subtypes. It has a high rate of recurrence and is resistant to treatment. What a bugger of a disease!

We’re determined to change that and have committed to reduce the incidence by 25% and improve survival rates by 25% by 2025. That’s why it’s so important that we raise awareness of the disease and its risk factors (if your family has a history of breast and or ovarian cancer or you know you have the BRCA1/2 gene mutation you are at higher risk) and symptoms (I know it’s breakfast time but here they are:unexplained abdominal bloating, unexplained abdominal pain, a change in urinary or bowel habits and feeling full after eating only a small amount. If you are experiencing these and they persist for more than two weeks see your GP and ask to be referred to a gynaecological oncologist).

It’s also why it’s so important to fund high impact research, advocate for access to new treatments and clinical trials and provide support to the women who are affected and achieve our vision to save lives and ensure no woman with ovarian cancer walks alone. If you’d like to help us you can donate here Thank you!

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