A Champion of Community

Jessica Henry, Class of 1985

Alumni, Jessica Henry (Class of 1985) considers herself fortunate to be part of communities where she is valued, known and belongs. And for Jessica, it began at Roseville College.

Head of Risk and Governance at the Children’s Cancer Institute, Jessica Henry is testament to the power of community in helping people heal, learn, include, grow and succeed.  Alongside an impressive career in banking and the not-for-profit (NFP) sector, Jessica plays Grade cricket for her local club in Gordon! In November 2020, after 35 years, she made her 500th appearance for Gordon, celebrated by the club’s patron, Ms Lisa Sthalekar (former Australian captain and an inductee in the International Cricket Hall of Fame), who presented her with a commemorative cap.

“I am fortunate to have had so many opportunities in cricket, both in playing and administering,” Jessica remarked at the time. (Note what she doesn’t boast about: winning six premierships, eight club championships, eleven Clubwoman of the Year awards, scoring 7,826 runs  – and taking 160+ catches and eight stumpings – and serving as Club President, for the first time at the age of 24, over 25 years!) .  She simply adds, “When I step onto the cricket field, I forget about everything else. It has given me balance and perspective in challenging times. At the end of the day, saying ‘500’ makes me feel a bit old…”  But it is wrong to assume that Jessica has enjoyed a carefree path to the top of her game or her career ladder…

“As a teenager, I actually had a number of dark times,” she admits.  “Sadly, the story begins with me changing schools because of a traumatic series of horrible bullying incidents. The new school was Roseville College. And me? Well, I was a nervous wreck. The prospect of starting a new school, not knowing a single soul, was as terrifying as the possibility that it could happen again.”

In the 1980s, Roseville College was known as a smaller but profoundly caring school community.  “I remember my first day at Roseville, at the start of Year 8… the wonderful Natasha Stanfield (nee Roney) invited me to join her and a group of friends at lunch – I was desperately grateful and remember how good it felt to belong at last. We remain firm friends even today.”

However, Jessica reveals her darkest hour was yet to come. Two years later, in Year 9, her world truly fell apart.  “I was Daddy’s little girl, but one day, quite unexpectedly, he left our family to start his life again elsewhere. I was beyond devastated.  “Friends, their parents, my teachers… my community at Roseville College wrapped warm arms around me. I also remember my darling Grandpa paying our school fees, at great personal sacrifice, so my sister and I could stay at Roseville,” she explains.

It is through these two formative experiences that Jessica says she learnt to accept help and that, no matter what, she knew she would be okay. Amazingly, from a place of helplessness and wounding, Jessica also learnt the power of empathy, love and kindness to help people heal, then grow.  “I came out of this particularly tough phase determined to succeed,” explains Jessica, rejecting the idea that tough times inevitably produce cold hearts.  “When you feel safe, known and loved, and people are empathetic to your pain, you heal with ‘scars’ of gratitude not bitterness. You can accept what has happened and still be thankful,” she says.  “My response was ‘Don’t waste a moment’: I threw myself into everything! Hockey. Choir. Musicals. Charity groups. You name it, I was in it! I just wanted to make the most of every opportunity.”

Jessica graduated from Roseville College with her heart set on a Bachelor of Business at Ku-ring-gai College (later the University of Technology Sydney). At the time, HSC results were not released until mid-January and, in the waiting, Jessica acted on impulse to inquire about a job advertised in her local newspaper.  “NAB advertised junior opportunities and, three days after an interview, I was offered the most junior role at the local branch: 59 Hill Street, Roseville,” she says.  “Around the same time, university offers arrived by ‘snail’ mail. I had missed out on my preferred course by the smallest margin. I was offered a second choice but decided to defer… I wanted to earn some money!”

Jessica’s first day at NAB was 20 January 1986. Three weeks later, she was training someone else and, within the year, she was enjoying her unplanned career path. By the age of 25, Jessica was responsible for ten staff and daily operations in a branch.  “In my 15 years at NAB, I changed roles every one or two years, even though I never applied! Instead I would receive a phone call from Regional Office or my manager would say, ‘Great job. It’s time for something new’.  Within as little as a week’s notice, I’d be in a new environment doing a new job I knew 20-50% about! So I had to learn fast!  “Did I ever doubt my capability to do the next new role – definitely! Did I ever feel uncomfortable leading people much older than me – absolutely! Being uncomfortable is okay! Never wait until you think you know enough to take on that new opportunity,” Jessica urges.

In 2000, she received a targeted call from a recruiter, replying, “No thanks, I’m very happy at NAB”.  After some consideration, she again embraced the prospect of change. By November, she had joined Citibank to manage its biggest branch.  “Before I knew it, I was tapped on the shoulder for another senior role I knew little about!  I reluctantly said ‘yes’ and discovered a whole new side to banking! Travelling to Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the Philippines, Malaysia and Canada, the role demanded hard work and long hours, but I am ever so thankful that each opportunity has equipped me to do whatever came next…”

Jessica took a much needed break in 2015, then studied Governance at the Governance Institute to prepare for the biggest change in her career – one outside the corporate world!  “I wanted to align my values with meaningful work in the NFP sector, but it was hard getting my foot in the door. With support from my sister, Vanessa Tyrrell (nee Henry, Class of 1987), who is Group Leader of Personalised Medicine at the Children’s Cancer Institute, I was offered two weeks of pro-bono work, followed by an 8-week contract. Next came an opportunity to work in Strategy Implementation at the Institute, then (after a season) I joined the Executive Management Committee.  “Amazing things happen in response to a willingness to learn something new every day. Today, I am grateful for the added bonus of contributing to a cause I am deeply passionate about.”

Jessica emphasises the importance of taking opportunities and not letting discouragement hold you back.  “Imagine what might have happened if I lost heart at missing out on a place in the university course. What if I said ‘no’ to offering pro-bono work? If you had told me, six years ago, that I (as an ex-banker) would end up working with my sister-the-scientist in a medical research institute, I would have thought you were completely mad!”

When asked what she is most proud of, Jessica admits it’s a tricky question. In the end, she chooses the thousands and thousands of volunteer hours that she has sown into her local community.  “I experienced leadership roles through volunteering for women’s cricket, before achieving similar roles in my workplace. I have no doubt that my volunteer management experience has enhanced my work life,” she says.

Jessica remains passionate about coaching and mentoring young women in cricket to help them be the best they can be, both as a volunteer and a professional.  “These days, if I am asked whether I have children, I say ‘Yes, hundreds, and all girls!’ And it all started at Roseville.”

First published in The Rose Magazine, Semester 1, 2021