Cathy Burke is a woman whose inspirational leadership at the helm of The Hunger Project saw her lauded as a 'global change-maker'. It seems inconceivable, then, that she started her university degree with no thought for her future.
Cathy Burke laughs when she recounts why she went to university: "… because I couldn't face getting a full-time job. I really didn't have a social conscience; I was just incredibly self-absorbed."
"The education I got at ECU in Women's Studies was world‑shaking for me, as I was able to see how society was created to favour different groups of people over others. I just remember being completely shocked. That education informed my career."
Burke's distinguished career has included two decades travelling to villages across South Asia and Africa to help end world hunger and poverty by pioneering sustainable, women-centred strategies and advocating for their widespread adoption – this, as Global Vice President of not‑for‑profit The Hunger Project (THP) and before that, CEO of The Hunger Project Australia.
In her work throughout the developing world, Burke discovered inspirational leadership in even the most poverty-stricken communities. She cites her first trip to Ethiopia with THP in 1992 as pivotal in her life.
"I don't know what I expected, but as a young mum in my 20s from Perth, I hadn't had a lot of world experience. Nothing can compare to seeing the level of suffering and hardship and loss that the people there were experiencing," she says.
On tripping over a man lying outside his hut and willing himself to die to no longer burden his community, and on looking into the faces of women nursing babies who were suckling breasts that had no milk, Burke asks: "What sort of person would I be to have seen this and then do nothing?"
"So I thought, whether I act or not defines the person I will become. I realised I needed to give the hungry and the people living in poverty a voice in a way that restores their dignity, to enable them to resolve their problems."
"These experiences shaped me profoundly as a human being and a leader."
Those experiences also informed Burke’s book Unlikely Leaders: Lessons in Leadership from the Village Classroom.
Burke worked tirelessly for THP until 2017. Her current work in transformative leadership has made her a highly sought-after speaker and educator, delivering keynote addresses and intensive workshops to more than 20,000 people and corporations globally, including Silicon Valley giant eBay.
Yet when asked to define her greatest achievement, she humbly points to her personal growth:
"It has been expanding my sense of compassion and my ability to love," Burke says.
"I have been able to support hungry people on the ground to become leaders and have the courage to become change agents. We have so much to learn from their resilience and courage."
She cautions that people who are continuously working to improve the world must also take care of themselves.
"I've done lots of mentoring with young people craving to impact the world, which is great, but my advice is to tend to your inner world as much as your outer world," says Burke.
"I believe every single person is equipped with the fundamental and innate power for extraordinary transformative change.
"We all need to move out of our smallness. Only then can we own and act on the power we have to shape the world we want to live in."
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