Passion project: Why Brynnie Goodwill is pushing for urgent action on climate change, diversity and gender equality from her organic farm

August 2021

 Brynnie Goodwill is an international law graduate from Columbia University who today finds herself growing organic produce in the lower Hunter of NSW and serving on multiple boards.

A strategist and non-executive director who has helped grow emerging businesses in health, sustainability and education, American-born Brynnie has held executive as well as NED roles and urges all women seeking to pursue boards to follow their passion. 

Since last speaking with Women on Boards for our podcast series, American-born Brynnie reflects on the challenges COVID has presented to health boards and shares her hopes for encouraging diversity and inclusion on boards in the future.

What boards are you currently on?

I’ve been a NED of Sydney North Primary Health Network for five years and was recently re-appointed for another three year term. My other responsibilities on the SNHN Board include Co-Chair of the Community Council, Member of the Nominations and Remuneration Committee and former Member of the Finance, Audit and Risk Committee. I was also involved with establishing SNHN’s Business Development Committee.

I serve as a NED of Earth Trust and was a NED of Women for Election Australia for just over three years until stepping down recently. I have also been a NED of Community Housing Australia, CEO of Life Circle and Strategy and Partnerships Director of the Sharing Stories Foundation.

I am the Executive Director and Co-Founder of BKG Group, advising emerging businesses and organisations engaged in future planning, and in early 2021 became Co-director of Kawalang - our organic farm in the lower Hunter of NSW.

Since you last spoke to Women on Boards you’ve stepped back from some of your many board roles. Why was that?

I reflect every time I'm up for reappointment to the Board of a particular organisation and ask, ‘Is it right for me to stay?'. With Women for Election Australia, it was an interesting time of change. The founder stepped down and I stepped down with her. I’d been on the board for just over three years and I feel that the leap we had made as an organisation in that time was substantial and that it was important going forward to have a slightly different composition on the board.

Having relocated from Sydney to property Kawalang in the Lower Hunter where we are growing food organically I realised how much I wanted to spend more time developing what we could do here.  We're so lucky to be on this land on Wonnarua country.  We’ve hosted numerous amazing events here, from a music festival to a fantastic gastronomic lunch experience  with food organically grown on the property. There have been other events including a yoga retreat, AGMs, Indigenous plant workshops, gatherings...inspiring.

I think on a board journey there are times when you absolutely consolidate your activities. And there are other things I'm looking to do. I do have my eye out potentially for another board that would be a right fit but I'm very picky.

COVID has obviously had some bearing on your decision to be based at your farm. How else have the challenges of the last 18 months affected your board work?

COVID has been a big disrupter. The Primary Health Networks have been very involved in getting GP practices and allied health up to speed. We had people packing boxes of masks, gowns and all sorts of supplies to get out to the practices. 

The change for us is developing the concept of compassionate communities: community helping community through the life span, strenthening mental health, the experience of ageing and through to end of life issues. So where COVID has disrupted it has also given us the mantra of building compassionate and connected communities to drive health initiatives.

The pandemic has also resulted in a number of medical initiatives that we've been pushing for years, such as telehealth. While the  digitalization of the health service jhas been on the books for years, some of those opportunities may never havebeen acted upon were it not for COVID.

COVID has also made everybody more reflective. In general I’m an optimist and I'm also a deep advocate for urgent action to address climate change. There aren't many things that could have happened on the planet that would have stopped people like this.

As well as being an advocate for climate change, you have also pushed for gender equality and cultural diversity at all levels of business.  Are you optimistic change is happening?

On diversity, I wish it would happen faster. Diversity is critical to the best decision making on boards and in organisations. It's sometimes the question that comes out of nowhere that actually gets people to think. When you have homogeneity on a board or in any decision making context, you don't get the best result. 

I love being the person on a board who asks the questions like: ‘what are the implications of this in the long term as well as the short-term?’ or  ‘what does this mean for communities?’ 

I remember sitting in my first finance audit and risk management meeting, and asking a question like that. People just turned and looked and said, ‘Oh, we didn't think about that’. It was an interesting question to ask rather than just looking at the numbers.

So are quotas the way forward to make sure we do get diversity on boards and in leadership?

Quotas won't address everything, but will address some things. If you don't put in quotas, you're not going to look hard enough, you are not going to look for diversity.

And it's very easy for people to look around their peer group and pick mates to come on to boards. It's very easy to stay within your own circle, but you don't get the best situation.

So, quotas are one of the critical strategies to create change. And there are other initiatives that need to be introduced to address the structural issues and to support diversity being valued, respected, celebrated and cherished.

You have said that following your passion, not necessarily your credentials, is the best way to the boardroom. Is this something you still believe in?

Some people say they want to join boards as sort of a professional pursuit and I respect that. But if you have a deep feeling about the core business of the organisation I think your capacity to contribute is enhanced when there is that alignment.

I know people who have accounting skills so they go on lots of audit committees. I have very strong governance skills because of my background as a lawyer and I've always done governance. That's one of the skills I bring.

But if you're looking to innovate in a space and see holistically about where the organisation is and where it can be going (which is a key responsibility of a director - to help provide strategic support, not just for where the business is right now but to anticipate disruption) then having an insight or a passion and connection with a particular business of the organisation is absolutely critical for you to do some visioning and look into the future and see what needs to be done.

If you have professional skills you feel so excited about using, then that's fine. But that alignment is critical so you're able to draw upon the best parts yourself. 

What, for you, is the best part about being on a board?

What draws you to a board is choosing something you’re interested in. What keeps you on a board is often something else. Sometimes it's the collegiality. Sometimes it's the community among board directors and staff.

Are there any particular challenges or hurdles that you've had to overcome in your board journey?

Sometimes on a board you may find someone that for whatever reason you don't click with. This can happen in many areas of life, except now - you’re on a board with them!

Interestingly, in a situation that happened after Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins had spoken out I found myself with a very different voice, partly because of these women who had spoken up and I had seen that. It was so fascinating to me. I had faced similar confrontations before. Only this time I shrugged my shoulders and held my space and kept going.

One of the things that I will say is that we learn from each other. Our personal voice is enhanced by the voices of other women who are out there speaking because we all face moments in so many places where you can be degraded with it almost just going right by you or.

What’s your advice to other women starting their board journey?

I would just encourage women to find their voice and use it. It was wonderful when Sam Mostyn, who I worked with years ago on climate change initiatives, said that when she went on the AFL Board she was asked by the Chair what she wanted. She said, ‘Look, I'm the first one - I want your commitment that I'm not the last’. I really think it's important when there's one woman on the board, make sure there are two, three and four more women coming on with you. 

Support the diversity. Women supporting each other in a collective context is absolutely critical, finding their voice and not being afraid to use it.

Don’t suit up in a suit of armour. Strength is your core, strength is feeling confident in who you are, what you have to say, and why you are here. I once ran a program in cultural diversity, and I'll never forget a woman who said, ‘When I go into work, I leave the best part of me. I hang it like a coat outside the door before I go into work’. The whole room just stopped. 

I'm saying to women: we need all of you - be all you can be. It's been long enough that women have held back, or not been included. And if you're not included, keep knocking on the door until you are included.

Hear Brynnie’s podcast with Claire Braund HERE