Rotary in Western Australia Podcast – Episode 3 – Rebecca Tolstoy
AMBER: Welcome to Rotary in Western Australia’s weekly podcast. Stay tuned to hear from people in Rotary who are making a difference in their communities and beyond. Rotary in WA has over 2 000 members of all ages, backgrounds and professions. Throughout this series, we’ll hear about their Rotary experience, the projects they are working on and what matters to them and their clubs.
Today I’m speaking with Rebecca Tolstoy?
AMBER: I did it, yay! You wouldn’t think it’s hard, but I’ve always been terrible with that surname. Rebecca, you are the CEO for TCS.
AMBER: And you are the founding chair of the Path of Hope Foundation and a member of Perth Rotary.
REBECCA: I am.
AMBER: How are you doing today?
REBECCA: I’m great. How are you doing Amber?
AMBER: I’m doing excellent. We’re going to get into everything about your Rotary experience in a second, but just a little bit of an icebreaker, what is your favourite way to spend a weekend?
REBECCA: Oh, well, I moved from Sweden to Australia because I wanted a pool in my backyard. Very cold in Sweden most of the year.
AMBER: I can imagine.
REBECCA: Yes. So, one of the things that I love is actually being by the pool. I think people would say, “Why don’t you go to the beach?” Western Australia, I mean, we have the best beaches in the world, but I love actually relaxing with friends, being at the pool, going to the gym, but also being in nature. One of the things that I fell in love with here in Western Australia is actually the nature. There is so much with the heritage, birds and different things.
AMBER: Coming from Sweden, very picturesque lovely views then WA nature.
REBECCA: Yeah, no, this is the thing about the difference that, for example, Sweden to Australia. Australia when I got here, I found it so desert-y, and then when one day when I drove my Kalgoorlie office to home and the sun went up, and I just saw the beauty and oh, my God I just went, “Wow.”
AMBER: It’s like especially night times because I’m from the bush and we’d have Japanese exchange students stay at our farm and the first night we’d get them to come out. Come out and one of them screamed. “I didn’t realise that’s what the night sky”—they panicked. It’s very bright. You can see, like, the Milky Way and it’s very lovely. It’s something you don’t think about—just can’t see stars or the sunrise and things like that.
AMBER: It’s something you take for granted.
REBECCA: Yes, absolutely. In Sweden we do see the stars, so that’s why I do love going to the country, because in Perth we don’t see it the same way, so I do love that.
REBECCA: All of Western Australia is beautiful.
AMBER: I’d love to visit Sweden one day.
REBECCA: I’ll make that happen!
AMBER: One day. I’m guessing your favourite way to spend the weekend would be by the pool, bit of nature?
REBECCA: So, one of the things is when you have a family—I mean, my son was five when my husband and I moved here, so you’re very busy. He’s 21 now, but in the early days, it was really him playing tennis, soccer, footy, so there was no —
REBECCA: Can I tell you, there was no spending your time at the pool. I put the pool in, and the kids had a great time. Me, not so much. So, I guess, to be honest, it’s been this summer that I’ve actually had a bit of time since Christmas to sit around the pool. So, I just told you what I’ve just done a few times the last few weeks that I’ve really enjoyed and my husband and I were talking about that and said, “Wouldn’t this be lovely to do?”
AMBER: I’m guessing not too many backyard pools in Sweden. Probably not quite the right weather for it.
REBECCA: There’s not and if you have one, most of them have them inside. And that’s very expensive.
AMBER: I can imagine. All righty. We might join on to a bit of Rotary talk, I guess, since this is a Rotary podcast. When and why did you join Rotary?
REBECCA: So, well, I moved here in 2003 from Sweden and my husband worked overseas, so one of the things I thought was: why don’t I go back to university? So, I did a double degree in professional accounting and human resources and back then they go why—they actually asked me, “Why are you doing this finance here and HR?” I said, “Two things I love doing is I love money and building business and I grew up doing that and I love people, so why not?” Anyway, so I got introduced through my boss later that I worked for in West Perth to John Garland and John goes, “We meet, Rotary, on Fridays at lunchtime, you’ve got to come.” I was like, “Okay.” I had no idea. I had no idea what Rotary was. It’s actually really embarrassing. I didn’t know it existed. I’d seen the plaques here and there, but had no idea.
So, yeah, so he invited me to come along and my eyes just—I couldn’t believe what I saw on how many good things Perth Rotary was doing and they had done and I just—wow. I was pedalling volunteering out in the community with a friend, because we’re both from Sweden and something I learnt—and I said to her, what I found really amazing in Australia is that people volunteer in their local community and people do things. And I felt in Sweden we were—we maybe did it—I had horses so at horse club or with the footy if someone played footy, but not just totally service above self. But it was something I learnt in Australia.
So, I volunteered since 2008 with Salvation Army for women and children escaping family and domestic violence with Major Margaret McDonald, trying to support her raise funds. But here I’m sitting, so I just looked around, looked at the screens, listening to these men and women who had done amazing things, raised a lot of money and volunteered so much of their time and I’m thinking: I want to be part of this, absolutely. So, I asked John. He said, “Yeah, absolutely, you can be a member.” And I thought: if I’m going to be part of something, I want to know, you know, who’s in this club. So, I actually spent the first year just going to the lunch meetings and just, you know, who is everyone and their families and friends and more who they were as people. So, I did that. So that’s how I joined. I was asked by John Garland to come along to a meeting and then I wanted to be there.
AMBER: I’m the exact same. I didn’t know. Like I said, I got asked to host this podcast, like, 10 minutes before it happened and I didn’t know a thing about Rotary and finding out how much, like, each club does both nationally and internationally, I didn’t in my wildest dreams know that most of that happened, and that we have Rotary to thank for so much in the community. It’s crazy.
REBECCA: And we’ve almost eradicated polio.
AMBER: Yeah. A disease that even 50 years ago was absolutely rampant, you see all those people in iron lungs and that and it’s non-existent these days.
REBECCA: I know. So, this is why it’s really important, because there’s so many generations. So, Rotary has Rotarians from 30 and up, you can be younger, and they have Interactors that starts from 11 years old to 18 and then Rotaracters from 18 to 30. We can do different things at different levels and understand and not forget that we need to take care of our community, locally, nationally, internationally.
AMBER: That’s great. Another question that I always find interesting to ask is: What has your biggest leadership learning been in Rotary?
REBECCA: So, I grew up in a family where both my parents had their own business, so my dad—he’s an architect and he had a building company; my brother also had a building company later when he grew up, and my mum had hotels. But she bought them later. So, it is one thing when you grow up in a family and you own it and the responsibility of running a company, the responsibility for your employees and all those things. What I really learned about leadership in Rotary is leaders collaborating with other leaders and how much more you can do when leaders collaborate. I think that’s amazing and it is just like a family. It goes back to like a family, how mum and dad teaches the children. It really is. So the amazing impact you can have when leaders collaborate. So, I think that’s the learning and that takes a bit of time and patience and with yourself to just—yeah. I found that invaluable.
AMBER: It’s kind of like what I think Jess said in her one was learning that leaders speak last. They listen to everyone’s input and take it on board, rather than just going, “All right, you do this, this.” You wouldn’t think—like, obviously in Rotary it’s quite diverse so all leaders would have different perspectives and ideas on things. So, it’s not necessarily something you think about leading; normally you think about giving things. You don’t think about collaborating or listening for different perspectives and that.
REBECCA: I grew up in Sweden, so I have a little bit of a different perspective, because we’re very flat structure literally. So, for example, if we take my mum’s hotel, she fired one person during her whole career owning hotels, and the only reason she fired that person was—that woman was a receptionist and she really treated our cleaning staff badly. And my mum said, “We have different roles. We have different tasks. But everyone is instrumental.” And she said, “If we don’t clean rooms, we don’t have a hotel.”
AMBER: Everyone is instrumental.
REBECCA: Everyone is instrumental. So, for me, everyone is instrumental in every little thing that they do and their voice is very important and how they want things. So, for me, that was the thing. That’s how I grew up, but it also is when you are the leader, because someone has to be the leader, taking responsibility and doing all those things.
AMBER: That is their role.
REBECCA: Yep. And the appreciation you get when you get older—you know, my son is now as I said grown up, he’s 21, so the responsibility that leaders are caring, that did we very often don’t ever see how much they are caring. When they are silent and when they are trying to give everybody a space to grow and doing all those things. But there is something with leadership as well that I really love that Rotary did not for me but for our project; they allowed me on this journey. Because everything about Rotary is about our community. That’s what I love. It’s not about me. It’s not about Rotary. It is about our community. So, because I was volunteering at Salvation Army, I said, “Could we do like a joint venture, Perth Rotary and Salvation Army?” And they go, “Yeah.” And I went to Major Margaret and she was like, “Yeah.” That’s how it all started. I thought because why am I peddling away out here, because my friend went on to have more babies, so it was just me and I didn’t want to desert Major Margaret. I wanted to give her the millions she deserved finding them somehow. And I’m not a millionaire, so I couldn’t, but I had to raise them for her. So, they said, “Absolutely”. Out of my energy and the vision that we had—so it wasn’t just mine. It was John Garland, who is my mentor still, and Major Margaret, who’s still with us and doing this. She’s retired from the shelter, but she still works in this space. We just kept growing this and people coming along and learning, and people have different ideas and saying, “What about we do this?” And we go, “Absolutely. How are you going to do it?” So, yes, this is really about allowing other people to grow different legs to a project but also for a project—a club like Perth Rotary has so many big projects, but they still allowed me and said, “Yep, give us a good reason why we should do this and then we’ll back you.”
AMBER: They seem to be very open to any ideas. No-one is afraid to share ideas because they’re willing to listen to everyone, which is always good, because it’s one of the biggest killers of creativity is if people think they’re going to be immediately, “Oh, this is stupid, oh, this is not a good idea.” Probably to Rotary’s credit, a lot of the success is due to members going, “I’ve got this idea. How about we do this?”
REBECCA: Absolutely. There is another thing with that. I think we need to grow resilience as well. I have had to grow a lot of resilience and I’m still learning, but not everyone can see your vision. So, not everybody will applaud you and not everybody will go “Great idea!” Because number one they can’t see it. And that has to be respected as well. If people who didn’t or haven’t and now they see it, that’s fine. It is okay. It was a big dream; the vision was huge. It became bigger because we then decided to go global. So, it’s really big. But everybody has a role and the only thing and as a leader and if you want to do things is saying, “Okay, can you share with me why you think this is not going to be successful?” And then sometimes you can get really good advice. “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.” So, even the naysayers, they are as responsible and I’m as grateful to them as I am to the people who support me in life as the people who say no, because I learnt equally as much.
AMBER: You get just as much constructive —
REBECCA: You do, you do.
AMBER: It’s good especially certain pitfalls and that you wouldn’t have thought of, they’ve thought of it and maybe they’ve got a solution to it or something like that.
REBECCA: Absolutely. So, this is the thing though when you come in and this is a big thing of mine, when you come in with something, come with a solution, don’t just point out—because you can stop people who are in the making. Sometimes we learn, we stumble and that’s kind of how projects go.
AMBER: Yeah, exactly. That’s great. And I kind of wanted to touch on—because you are the founding chair of Path of Hope Foundation. Do you want share what that is about, when it was created, what it does?
REBECCA: Yeah. It was really to make sure that we could raise funds to outreach workers for Salvation Army. That was originally with Major Margaret. As you know, things grow, so now at the shelter, they are creating a wellness centre as well. So, it has evolved to do more things that we do with the Salvation Army so volunteering, but the foundation itself, all we do is raise funds, and give to certain purposes for what the Salvation Army wants to do in this space of family and domestic violence, raising awareness, breaking the cycle and that’s the focus.
AMBER: Definitely. So, they’re kind of equal part Salvation Army and Rotary?
REBECCA: So, yes, Salvation Army run and operate and own the facilities. We don’t at all. So, Salvation Army is also a member of our club, so there is a committee in our Rotary Club and in that committee, everything is discussed. Because people come with ideas, right, and sometimes people from the outside come with great ideas. So, that’s the committee where ideas get put in and then Salvation Army and Rotarians and me from the foundation and the directors go, “We can do this” or “No, we can’t. We might need more time with that.” Because one thing is as well, great ideas, but we have a vision of what we are doing so we need to try to stick to that because you can get very side-tracked if you start doing too many things.
AMBER: Yeah. I’ve always had that pitfall. “Oh, I’ll do this, this, this” and then none of it gets done.
REBECCA: Absolutely. It’s great.
AMBER: And I’ve been saying this a lot. Basically, rather than rotating, I have my favourites of the questions. So, what has been your Rotary highlight so far? I’m guessing I’m sure it would be Path of Hope but has there been a certain program or a certain event that sticks out in your mind or even a meeting or anything?
REBECCA: This sounds crazy but there is just so many things. I’m serious because—I need to explain why I’m taking this journey and explain it to you. It started here. But then City of Perth gave me an award and gave me $10 000. I won to go to the states to a Rotary International conference and bring a conference back. I couldn’t bring that back because we would need—I think it’s 47 000 hotel rooms. I’m thinking I can do a version of it. I thought $10 000, I can do lots of meetings on that. So, I said, “Can I do more than one?” They go, “Yeah.” So that is pretty amazing.
REBECCA: That is pretty amazing because there is so much we do locally that is—I’ve been doing this for 12 years, loving all the things that we’ve done at the refuge and the volunteering and the mentoring and the Kid 2 Kid set up and all the things that we’ve done and renovated. But when I got to the States and there was, like, 47 000 Rotarians from 179 countries flying in and you go to this conference and everyone who’s a Rotarian—you stand in the elevator and they go, “Hey, I’m so-and-so from Utah” or “I’m so-and-so from Norway” or “I’m so-and-so from Romania”, and you just meet these people. I got introduced—so the former President Carter’s 2IC, Karin Ryan, she was on stage, and she was talking about legislation we have in Sweden. I was like: oh, my God. I’m going to go Sweden right after this to see my friends in Stockholm who actually put pushed this through, so I thought I’ve got to tell her. I love talking to people, but I’m not a big one to run up to speakers after they’re done. I usually sneak away. This time I thought: no, I will. I wanted to tell my friends that Karin Ryan’s talking about adopting this legislation in the US that they’re driving. She goes, “Oh, I’ll come down from stage”—they were done, but they came down and she introduced me to a fellow Rotarian called Dave McCleary. He was heading up trafficking, and I understand trafficking, but a lot of people think it’s just labour trafficking, and sex trafficking. A lot of people didn’t understand the connection between children from family and domestic violence being vulnerable when they become homeless and the sex trafficking and all that. So, that meeting was just wow. So, we have collaborated across the world and doing things in keeping family and domestic violence on the agenda in the States as well as here in Australia, to making sure that Rotarians locally, as well as raising that awareness, making sure that children are safe, women and men, who are subject to family and domestic violence are safe, that it is unacceptable. That’s Rotary. Rotary opens these doors and it’s just amazing.
And another thing, I’ve got to say, the reason I’m saying this is because I want so many more people to experience these things. This is why I’m sharing it. One of the things I said—they asked me, “Where do you see this going? What is your goal?” When we started the project, I said, “Wouldn’t it be great, I said, if we could go to the United Nations and say, “Look, at what a Rotary and Salvation Army is doing”, because Rotary is in 179 countries, Salvation Army in 130, two majestic trusted organisations. If we can share what we’ve done here and we could do that everywhere where they want it—not we, but just give them—“This is what we did.”
AMBER: “This is what we’ve done. Learn from it or act on it.”
REBECCA: Rip it apart. Make it your own. It has to be their own with their culture and only local people know, right?
AMBER: Yes exactly.
REBECCA: When I ended up with the Secretary-General with the United Nations in Geneva and as I walked out there was another Rotarian there who organised that, and I thought: wow, what’s next. I made my goal. Well, the next goal they asked me to sit on the main assembly hall in Geneva to speak. So, this is what Rotary does.
REBECCA: I know. Seriously. I was sitting with these amazing people. I was so nervous and so I was so prepared, I was over-prepared and all my paperwork was perfect. The head for human rights, the UN in the globe were there and then me, and they were shuffling papers and I’m thinking: Oh, my God, there is like 1 600 people sitting out there looking at me. I better shuffle some papers. So, I was shuffling all my papers and then I’m thinking: I better get them right at the end here. They were obviously extremely experienced. I wasn’t, but what an experience. What an experience!
AMBER: Did you see that would be happening when you attend your first Rotary lunch?
REBECCA: No, I didn’t. But I’ll tell you how this all started though for me to learn to volunteer. So, this is what it’s really about. When I came to Australia and the mums at my son’s school—volunteering is something that you do. For a day, I spent calling—I was working—I was studying full-time, working part-time and then when I graduated, I worked full-time. But one day I took off and I called—I tried to find refuges for women and children escaping family violence because I said to my friend, “This is something that we can do something about, something, if we can understand it so we can raise some funds.” All we wanted to do was raise a little bit of funds. Everyone said no. Nobody wanted to meet us. Nobody wanted to let us in, and I couldn’t understand. And I’m thinking: this is strange. Now I know why. But anyway, one woman says, “Come on, ladies, come in for a cup of tea.” And I was like eight hours later, and that was Major Margaret and one of the first things she said to us, she goes, before you can help, you need to understand. So, I’m still learning Amber, so much. I’m learning every day. This was 12 years ago, that meeting.
AMBER: It never ends.
REBECCA: It never ends, and you keep asking questions and you keep trying to understand and making sure you don’t judge and doing those things. Having the opportunity to volunteer and having the opportunity on the ground, I found that just something that is—I say I found my heart when I moved to Western Australia because my brain keeps sharp through business, but my heart keeps compassionate and beating because of my community work.
AMBER: It’s good for the soul and the community.
REBECCA: Yes. So, for me, that’s why it’s taking me a long time to get rich because I want to do both. I want to make sure that I do both.
AMBER: Wow. A very good success story for Rotary, anyone listening.
REBECCA: Well, what’s really important is people have to make our own journey. I’m just—this is just a Rotary story. This is just one. And there is 1.6 million, I think, someone said the other day. Or we’re 1.2 million. We have grown exponentially. There’s so many Rotary stories. This is just one. You make it your own. You make your own journey.
AMBER: I think that’s a lovely quote to end on. Thanks for listening again. You’ll hear from us next week and thank you very much, Rebecca, for joining us this week.
REBECCA: Thank you so much, Amber. I want to say thank you for this opportunity to share and I really hope to have people visit their local Rotary club.
AMBER: Thank you for joining us. Very insightful. You’ll hear from us next week. See you next time.
– – –
If you are interested in being part of a local Rotary project, event or club in Western Australia or being part of an international movement, which is creating positive lasting change, check out Rotary in Western Australia’s Facebook page or go to Rotarydistrict9455.org for more details.