Sarina Russo has become a poster girl for strong successful women, a flag-bearer for women in business for more than three decades. So it is somewhat disarming to hear this epitome of entrepreneurship use words like "desperation".

"They say there are two things in life that you should wish for desperation or inspiration and 34 years ago I was truly desperate,'' she says. For eight years straight, Ms Russo had been fired from every job she held as legal secretary. "I was a typing teacher at night and they fired me there as well," she says.

Then a strange thing happened her typing students revolted. "I got called in by the principal who said, `We have to reinstate you (because) all the students have marched out".

"It was just unheard of."

It was all the prompting Ms Russo needed to start her own typing school, which she kicked off with 10 students and $2600 cash.

It was a brave move, especially at a time when bank managers routinely refused to give single women loans. Her mother had to co-sign a property loan without her father's knowledge for Ms Russo to buy her first apartment.

Today, her 99-year-old mum lives with the education and employment services queen in her Brisbane CBD penthouse apartment, one of the trappings of success that have seen Ms Russo build a business empire and a $106 million personal fortune.

"It's an exciting time for women and men to embrace your passion and your desire, to give it a go," she says.

"It's better to have given it a go and fail than never to have given it a go and you could have succeeded. Had I not given it a go 34 years ago, I never would have known that I was a dormant entrepreneur."

Ms Russo is one of eight individual women whose combined personal wealth tops a billion dollars together making up 5.3 per cent of The Sunday Mail's Queensland's Top 150 Rich List.

They include Therese Rein, another employment services entrepreneur and wife of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose net wealth is estimated at $112 million and Judy Brinsmead, co-owner of the ADCO Constructions group, whose share is worth about $90 million. Like Ms Russo, they built their fortunes from scratch. Queensland's wealthiest woman this year, cotton grower Susan Marchant ($221 million), as well as grazier Pamela Dearmer ($185 million) and property investor Leigh Seymour ($75 million) followed in the footsteps of their fathers, while the two others, Xiao Darveniza ($105 million) and Colleen Rasmussen ($65 million), are widows.

But while individual female fortunes have yet to make a serious dent in the domination of the list by individual males, couples and families, it doesn't tell the whole story.

Many women also feature prominently in our most prosperous couples, including Lorna Jane and Bill Clarkson ($111 million), Cathie Reid and Stuart Giles ($69 million) and Maxine Horne and David McMahon ($58 million).

Then there are less well-known women who have helped build major businesses with their partners, including Linda Van Leishout ($1.32 billion with husband John), Hazel Rowe ($1 billion with husband Reg) and Denise Power ($650 million with husband Mick).

Australian Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Yolanda Vega says women in couples and families should rate as highly as those who built their businesses alone.

"If we look at the long list of the richest men in the world, I suspect nobody would say, `Oh is their wife part of the business?', even though she may have been a massive influence on getting that company,'' she says. ``We only ask it when it's the woman that becomes the figurehead." Data from the National Research on Women Business Owners &Female Entrepreneurs in Australia project showed that over the past decade, the proportion of women starting their own businesses rose by 12 per cent while male numbers fell 3 per cent.

Ms Vega says not all women aspire to the dream of running mega-corporations. "Women don't take as many risks. They're not going to put up the house as collateral. They don't grow fast and big. Women don't want big corporations. They want boutique size".

"Pharmaceutical entrepreneur Cathie Reid says banks and financial institutions are beginning to recognise the value in supporting female entrepreneurs and "this will see more women leaders celebrated in the coming years".She draws inspiration from people who persist despite the odds.

"I love the story of Natalie Massenet, the founder of net-a-porter, who turned the online luxury fashion business on its head despite being told her business plan was impossible," she says.

Ms Reid says she "always learned my most valuable lessons during the most difficult of times, both personally and professionally".

"Situations that are incredibly challenging can provide the best opportunities to learn and grow, and facing them with that as your goal not only helps you get through that period but also helps to ensure that you don't find yourself back in the same place again."


Source: The Sunday Mail, August 25, 2013