Russo tells The Australian Financial Review’s How I Made It podcast that after losing another job, she decided she would start her own company. She set up a typing school in 1979.
But things were tricky for female founders then. She remembers her de ella accountant telling her that for all the rent she was paying, she could probably buy her own offices. “We started looking and not one real estate agent would take my call,” Russo recalls.
She asked her brother-in-law, a lawyer, to call the agents for her.
“And of course, they took his call. And the rest is history. I bought 82 Ann Street [in Brisbane], which I still own today. I’ve never sold it.”
The building is part of an extensive property portfolio spanning Queensland, NSW and Victoria.
Building her property and business interests took persistence. She was fired quite a few times, but Russo does not believe in failure.
“I didn’t believe I failed. Every job I went for, I learned more than the last job. I was not a failed legal secretary, I was different. I challenged the status quo,” Russo says.
When Russo was fired from her job at a typing school, the students demanded she be brought back, she tells the podcast.
“I got reinstated. but as she [my former employer] was telling me to come back, and persuading me to come back, I thought, ‘I can do this on my own’,” she says.
“So that was a boost of confidence that I got from the students.”
Russo went to the bank, which required a big chunk of her savings as security for an overdraft facility.
“I virtually kick-started the company with 600 bucks,” she says.
“And I gave myself eight months that I was going to do this. And I was determined. I used to work 17 hours a day to drive this little business. In the first year, I was making more money than the prime minister of the day.”
Russo has since expanded, and the company boasts more than 100 offices that help get people into employment, training and education.
But it has not always been easy. In 2009, Sarina Russo Job Access lost government contracts for 11 areas in Brisbane and south-east Queensland, representing about 30 per cent of its national market share.
Headlines screamed she was set to sack hundreds of staff as a result. Except, she did the opposite.
“I said, I’m not going to make one person redundant. Everyone will have a job. I’m going to keep all the offices open. And I’m going to re-engineer the company. And we re-engineered ourselves,” she says.
“We moved to the UK, to the Midlands, and we actually shook the tree. And we placed over the last 10 years there in the Midlands something like 10,000 [people]. I was told that I’d never make it in the UK because I didn’t belong to the class distinction. And I said, well, watch me.”
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