Former Saint Mary’s student Elizabeth Proust to speak in Wollongong

Welcome home: Former St Mary's student Elizabeth Proust is the chair of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Nestle Australia and the Bank of Melbourne and a non-executive director for Lendlease.
Welcome home: Former St Mary's student Elizabeth Proust is the chair of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Nestle Australia and the Bank of Melbourne and a non-executive director for Lendlease.

Anyone who has lived in Wollongong for a while and hears the name Proust will probably think of an optical store at Figtree.

The late Ray Proust ran several optical stores in the 80’s and the Figtree store is still run by one of his nine children.

Mr Proust was also heavily involved with St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral and coached high school rugby league.

His daughter Miriam Proust is similarly well known in Wollongong but often when she is seen in the company of another woman many don’t recognise.

But her sister Elizabeth Proust is very well known in board rooms around the nation. She returns once a month to visit her mother Mary Proust, 93, at the Links Seaside. And in February attended a 50th school reunion for the Class of 68.

But next month Elizabeth Proust is coming back to the town she loves in her official capacity as chair of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

Ray and Mary Proust in the 1980's.

Ray and Mary Proust in the 1980's.

Ms Proust was not born in Wollongong but spent her teenage years as a student at Saint Mary’s Star of the Sea college where he has previously spoken. But her next visit will be to address a dinner for local company directors and local members.

In addition to AICD Ms Proust is chair of Nestle Australia, the Bank of Melbourne and is a non-executive director for Lendlease. She is a member of the ASIC Directors’ Advisory Panel, the Victoria Police Corporate Advisory Group and the Stone & Chalk Melbourne Advisory Board. She is also the chair of the Monash Commission enquiry into the future of high education.

Ms Proust left Wollongong after completing Year 12 to spend a gap year in Melbourne in 1969.

“I had been in the Catholic Students Movement at school and I was asked to work for that organisation in Melbourne,” she said.

Ms Proust then moved to Sydney to start an Arts Degree in Political Science and Sociology. She completed it at La Trobe in Melbourne after moving back to get married. She later did a Law degree in Melbourne and has also lived in London. But Wollongong has always held special place in her heart.

“My family moved here in 1963. Dad was an optometrist and he moved that year to Whitehouse Optical. Subsequently he established Proust Optical which my sister still runs at Figtree. I was 12 when we moved and I spent six years living in Wollongong and did all of my high school at St Mary’s.”

Ms Proust said she was fortunate to receive quality education. Almost all of her teachers were traditonally dressed nuns. She showed her leadership and speaking skills early and became school captain and a member of the debating team.

“It was a very traditional education in the 60’s. Latin was one of the subjects I studied”.

Ms Proust is one of nine children. Six members of her family still live Wollongong, including four brothers.

“I still have quite an attachment to Wollongong. It was a great place to grow up and the fact that most of my family still live there tells you it is still a great place to live and bring up children.”

Ms Proust has always kept an interested eye on how the city and university precinct have changed. She recalls how the steelworks was such a dominent employer in the 60’s. And she is aware of the growing diversity of Wollongong and has been interested in the arrival of new industries such as cruise ships. Now a new role has her more directly involved in the city again.

 “I am a director of Lendlease and I know we have a big project at Fairy Meadow that will start soon”.

“There is a lot of activity because Wollongong is such an important hub in its own right and the source of a significant commuting population to Sydney,” she said.

Until 2005 much of Ms Proust’s career involved executive roles in government or the private sector.

“It was not unusual to have whatever my full-time job was at the time as well as a role on a board. But it wasn’t really until I left my last executive role, which was with the ANZ Bank, that I started to develop what they now call a portfolio career where I was a director on government listed not-for-profit boards. Then over the last eight or so years I have taken on the chair roles at Nestle and the Bank of Melboure and more recently at the AICD. In February this year I joined the Lend Lease board.”

The topic she is speaking on at the next AICD directors briefing at City Beach Function Centre on May 29 is Future Proofing Your Board”.

“I am going to make it relavant to private companies, not-for-profits and a range of boards that people are on. I will talk about what are the things directors need to pay attention to in the future. And that are the big issues that are looming for directors.”

Cyber security and the impacts of robotics and artificial intelligence are among those. As is the greater scrutiny of all boards.

In innovative regions such as the Illawarra with such a big focus on start-ups one of the challenges for the AICD is to make sure its education courses and events are relavant to people in relatively small organisations that need an advisory board.

“We are very focused on how we can assist in that space,” Ms Proust said.

She is aware of the growing number of women’s business networks in the Illawarra and the annual IWIB awards coming up soon. And encouraged women to follow their dreams.

“I think this is now a great time to be a woman in business,” she said.

“We (the AICD) has just put out a media statement that shows for the first time in the last three months more women were appointed to ASX boards than men. So there are lots of opportunities for women to start their own business, for women to come through in large organisations and for women to join boards. My shorthand advice is that women need good networks, they need somebody to mentor and assist them and they need to take some calculated risks to step out of their comfort zone and perhaps do things differently.”

A few years ago Ms Proust was asked to talk to students at Saint Mary’s about her journey from school. She recalled being asked by one student “can we do what you did”?

Her answer was “absolutely you can”.

“When I left school we probably had a more narrow vision of what was possible. I think today with ambition, with good education and a little bit of luck the young girls and Saint Mary’s and everywhere else can do anything they set their heart on.”

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