Martina Rienzner - The Migrant Experience: Stakeholder engagement, finding common ground and working to your strengths

Updated April 2021

It was 1988 when Martina Rienzner first came to Australia. “I did the typical backpacker thing. I bought a second-hand car in Kings Cross and travelled up and down the coast.”

As a young, single, English speaking German woman, Martina’s paperwork was approved and she arrived in Australia as a skilled migrant. “I had completed a cabinet-making apprenticeship in Germany. It was the 1990 recession and cabinet-makers in Sydney hadn’t heard of women cabinet-makers, so I got laughed out the door several times.”

A consultant at the CES advised her to rediscover her female side and let go of her cabinet-making dream because it would be easier to find a job that way. Determined to prove otherwise, Martina started her own business in Sydney in 1992, Rienzner Workshops, creating high quality custom-made furniture and joinery.

During her 13 years as a business owner, she trained many young people in her craft. Her entrepreneurial acumen led to success, evidenced by multiple awards and her induction into the Business Women’s Hall of Fame for her unique approach to stakeholder engagement with her customers, staff and suppliers, which set her apart.

“I had a real interest in what our customers wanted and built the business outside in, instead of inside out, which has followed me throughout my career.”

Martina went on to become a respected advisor, director and committee member. As a Senior Advisor to the Department of Education and Training (DET). Today she brings business and government insight, evidence-based assistance and respectful stakeholder engagement to her Board roles, with a deep appreciation for the valuable role of migrants in the social fabric of Australia.

How did you enter the world of Boards?

“I was tapped on the shoulder and invited to join the Board of the National Association of Women in Construction because I’d won a couple of construction awards. I didn’t stay long because I wasn’t sure what I could contribute, and I was still juggling my business. The timing wasn’t quite right.”

It was a few years later that Martina was asked to join the DET in NSW. “That’s when I learnt about governance. As a business owner, I was in charge of everything and I could implement change immediately. In governance, it’s all about considering multiple perspectives, which I’m actually very good at.”

Martina sat on several regional steering committees and working groups through her role with the DET and found the spirited conversations from people of vastly different perspectives invigorating. “I loved finding the common ground. It gave me the opportunity to contribute in different ways so three years ago, I rekindled my interest in Boards and started to take my journey seriously.”

What Boards do you currently serve on?

Last year, Martina was appointed NED for the Australian Overseas Foundation and this year, NED for Spectrum Migrant Resource Centre. Both are very different, which allows her to learn and contribute in new and varied ways.

“The Australian Overseas Foundation is a small, values-based NFP that has been around for more than 60 years and focuses on vocationally trained people who want to go overseas to expand their horizons to learn more about their trade. They then return home to implement their skills in the Australian economy,” she shared.

“It’s close to my heart because I know what inner strength can come from that type of learning. We currently can’t send people during COVID so we’re going through a strategic reset and considering whether to change the original business model… It’s important that we increase our reach, despite the current restrictions, and modernise so we meet the needs of young people now - not the needs of young people 60 years ago.”

The Spectrum Migrant Resource Centre on the other hand, is much larger. “Another not-for-profit, Spectrum helps migrants and refugees settle in Australia, particularly in Victoria and northern parts of Melbourne. Obviously close to my heart too, coming here as a migrant and understanding the cultural nuances that can make that journey has deeply benefited me. I fully appreciate that being a white Anglo Saxon migrant has been much easier compared to other Spectrum clients.”

Martina also serves as Chair for Industry Collaboration on Victorian Training Awards, Treasurer for the Whittlesea Adult Riders Club and as DET representative for the Hume Climate Partners Advisory Group.

What other boards have you been on?

Prior to her current roles, Martina has served as:

  • NED for the National Association of Women in Construction NSW
  • Sustainability Victoria Representative for the Technical Committee of Grant Allocation for Environment Trust NSW,
  • Sustainability Victoria Representative for Hume Regional Managers Forum Environment Subcommittee,
  • Chair for the People Matter Reference Group in Industry Engagement
  • DET representative for the Technical Working Group of the Seymour Revitalisation Plan for Goulburn Regional Partnership priority project.  

What are the areas of expertise you feel you bring to your boards?

“Engagement expertise is my greatest strength, my ability to put myself in other stakeholder’s shoes and to view an organisation from multiple perspectives… I  reach out and get genuine input so strategy is informed by reality.”

“Being a migrant, I really had to learn to listen very closely to what people had to say. I think that’s why I am good at personal engagement.”

“I also still have a strong entrepreneurial spirit and am interested in growing organisational capacity and capability, while balancing that with good governance and decision-making,” she added.

When and why did you decide to pursue boards?

“Three years ago, I was missing that big picture conversation around strategy and influence. Initially I thought that women do a lot of unpaid work and that I didn’t want to do an unpaid position. Then I quickly realised that’s not the way to rekindle a Board career… I realised that I’m in a very fortunate position. I’ve been here since 1990, I’m well established, live comfortably, have a nice job and am in a position to give back. So that’s what I’m doing.”

Perhaps down the track there will be a commercially orientated Board role aligned to Martina’s values, but for now, she attests that she is very content.

What challenges and hurdles have you had to overcome in pursuing boards and serving on boards? What have you learnt?

“Initially I didn’t have the academic qualifications needed to apply for Board positions, which was an obstacle so I retro-fitted that by joining Women on Boards and completing the Australian Institute of Company Directors course. There’s also been a structural barrier on my journey. There are many interesting Board roles in the government space, but as a public servant, I can’t apply, which limits the field. I have a lot of interest in sustainable development and regional economies, but they all fall under government.”.

“Then there’s been becoming clear about where my strengths lie and what I can contribute that will make a difference. That’s an ongoing enquiry!”

Have you had mentors or sponsors, and how have they helped?

Helga Svendsen, a former college of Martina’s specialises in supporting women and their Board careers. “It was an easy match. Helga really helped me to understand my own CV and my journey from a Board perspective, where that common thread is and my own inner truth.”

In 2019, Martina won a scholarship for Board Leadership for Culturally Diverse Women and as part of the scholarship, was gifted a mentor. “John Loke is an experienced accountant and director who runs his own engineering company. He is one of those people who ask very difficult questions and I really like that.”

Admittedly a “self-made person”, Martina had to learn to reach out for support. “I had to remind myself how much I get out of mentoring others so it’s not necessarily an inconvenience when I ask others to help me.”

How has WOB helped you on your board journey?

With a lot of practical experience under her belt from her time as a business owner and working for the government, Martina realised she didn’t have the qualifications required for Board roles. “That’s when I found Women on Boards, who opened the doors to up-skill my professional training. Having a network of women who support each other on their journey is incredibly valuable.”

What advice would you have given to your younger self?

  1. The journey is about respecting and leveraging your inner strength.
  2. Be very clear about what you bring to the table. If what you bring is not welcome, that’s fine — there are lots of other tables. When you find the perfect fit, you’ll understand the times you weren’t welcome at the table.”

Do you return to Germany or is Australia well and truly home now?

Martina lives with her wife on a 25-acre farm in Kinglake West at the foothills of the Great Dividing Range in Victoria. “I was drawn to this landscape because I grew up in the foothills of the Alps in Germany. I feel very connected and at home here.” Their house is small and sustainable — “one of the first tiny homes before they became fashionable” — and there is timber everywhere, which makes the former cabinet-maker very happy.

“I return to Germany every two to three years. I cope for four to five weeks but get homesick. Here is home and Germany is part of my history; a very important part.”

“And that’s part of the migrant story — you have to expect that no matter where you are, there is something you will miss. When I am in Australia, I miss parts of Germany, but when I am in Germany, I miss Australia more.”
Find out more about Cultural Diversity on Boards here