Business woman of the year changing lives through social enterprise

21 December 2017

Violet Roumeliotis

Photo: Violet Roumeliotis.

UTS alumna Violet Roumeliotis, Chief Executive of the not-for-profit Settlement Services International – an organisation devoted to helping refugees settle in Australia – has been awarded Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year for 2017.

The award recognises women who are transforming business through their vision, creativity and leadership. Roumeliotis was selected ahead of 45 finalists from an original pool of 4000 entrants. She also received the purpose and social enterprise award for 2017.

“I’m incredibly grateful for this recognition and for the opportunity this gives me to amplify the voices of refugees, and highlight the issues faced by newly arrived communities,” says Roumeliotis.

“In Australia, there is a pressing need to change the narrative around refugees and people seeking asylum — to move away from language that focuses on ‘boatpeople’ and illegals, and instead to focus on our shared humanity.

“The mantle of that responsibility falls on all of our shoulders. As the events of recent years have shown us, we can’t leave it to others to step in; we can’t just rely on activists to speak for us in the hope that it will create the change we desire,” she says.

Roumeliotis studied the Master of Management at UTS Business School, with a focus on community and not-for-profit organisations, and she is currently a member of the UTS MBA Industry Review Committee.

“UTS is a pioneer in recognising that leaders in the community and not-for-profit sector require the same business approach to management as taught to MBA students,” Roumeliotis says.

“The course provided very useful tools and skills to help develop Settlement Services International, introduced me to invaluable networks, and has had a tremendous impact on my career,” she says.

UTS Business School has a close research relationship with Settlement Services International (SSI), partnering on a number of projects to better understand and support those in need.

“There is paucity of research in the area of refugee entrepreneurship and the impact of settlement of new arrivals,” Roumeliotis says.

“UTS is a very well regarded research institute and it has been invaluable to get evidence-based research and support in co-designing models. Well-founded research also is a great support for grant applications.”

Professor Jock Collins is currently working with SSI as part of a global study to track the experiences of Syrian refugees as they rebuild their lives in Australia and six other countries.

Roumeliotis says the study of Syrian refugee experiences here, and the comparison with international models, will be invaluable in helping SSI ensure its clients experience a smooth settlement journey.

“Our services help refugees find meaningful work, access education, gain skills and recognition of their qualifications, improve their English and, ultimately, grow in confidence and independence,” she says.

SSI is also working with Professor Simon Darcy on a research project exploring how people with a disability can take control of their lives and create their own jobs by becoming entrepreneurs. The project involves a pilot program to help people with a disability start their own enterprises.

Roumeliotis has been CEO of Settlement Services International since 2012. In that time the organisation has grown its revenue from $9 million to $110 million and helped more than 1185 people gain work in the past 18 months.

"It's just this phenomenal story," Joe Pollard, group executive media and chief marketing officer at Telstra, told the SMH. "It's not only a worthy social enterprise but her business acumen is amazing."

Roumeliotis sits on the NSW Government’s Justice Multicultural Advisory Committee, the Federal Government’s Settlement Services Advisory Council, and Co-chairs the NSW Joint Partnership Working Group coordinating the NSW role in the intake of 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq.

“Within all of us is the ability to shift our country’s attitude towards refugees. All we have to do is find the drive and compassion to fuel that change,” Roumeliotis says.

Find out more about the UTS Master of Not-For-Profit and Social Enterprise Management.

Byline by Leilah Schubert