Jeanette Allom-Hill is a woman on a mission.

That mission is to empower women in leadership to reject bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct — behaviours so pervasive in the corporate world that she collectively labels them as “the silent pandemic”.

As the CEO of Sunshine Coast-based Lionhearted Foundation, which seeks to build a safer and more respectful workplace culture through programs aimed at protecting, empowering and educating women to lead with confidence in business and life, Jeanette is no stranger to the challenges faced by many women in senior leadership positions.

Her resume reflects the epitome of career success – she has held senior private sector positions at Optus, NBN Australia, and Microsoft, as well as working across all levels of government, with senior roles in several government departments, including New South Wales Treasury, New South Wales Transport and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. After moving to the Sunshine Coast five years ago, she was group executive at the Sunshine Coast Regional Council, a role which culminated in her receiving the Telstra Business Women’s Award in the Public Sector and Academia category in 2020.

But underlying her career triumphs is a string of traumatic experiences that began in her birthplace — apartheid-era South Africa.

Born in 1970 to a teenage mother from a wealthy family who did not want to acknowledge her, she lived the first few weeks of her life in an orphanage.

Adopted by an ultra-religious missionary couple, who did not believe in music or television, she and her younger brother were initially raised by their adored nanny, a black South African woman called Maggie.

However, during the Soweto uprising of 1976, tragedy struck when Maggie was murdered in front of seven-year-old Jeanette and her little brother.

That night, the house was packed up and abandoned, and the children were put in a church overnight. The family fled to Australia the next day. Jeanette and her brother barely knew their parents, who had spent most of their time on the missionary field.

“We thought of Maggie as our mum,” Jeanette says.

“I remember Maggie and joy and laughter and dancing. That was my childhood.”

What followed for Jeanette were years of dire poverty and relentless bullying at school in Sydney. Added to this was the tragedy of what she describes as her mother’s nervous breakdown, causing her to be emotionally and physically abusive towards her children.

It wasn’t until Jeanette was studying teaching at university and landed a job teaching English in Thailand that she saw a glimmer of light through the darkness.

She reached a turning point when she visited her Thai colleague’s humble one-room home and witnessed the joy of a happy family. “There was this lightbulb moment for me; it certainly set me on a path of thinking that there is joy out there, and joy in the most important things, like each other and family, and life, and learning. That was a real trajectory of changing things for me.”

It was a combination of her “ache for joy” and an innate resistance that saw Jeanette overcome such adversity to achieve stunning career success in the business sector and have a happy family of her own.

However, another form of trauma would present itself that would test that resilience to breaking point when Jeanette became the victim of workplace bullying and harassment at a senior level in one of her workplaces.

Rather than let that destroy her, she made the conscious decision to use the experience to give other women a message that they, too, can find hope in what may seem like a hopeless situation. Ultimately, the experience led to the establishment of the Lionhearted Foundation.

“If I hadn’t gone through that bullying episode, I’d never have set up Lionhearted,” Jeanette says.

“I didn’t start to tell my story until I moved to the Sunshine Coast because I suppose I was embarrassed. I was a ‘high-flying career woman’, and I didn’t want people to know that I’d come from poverty or that there’d been trauma.

“But the more that life broke down, the more I thought, ‘if I can’t speak my truth, then why am I living my life’?

“And now, when I speak my truth, it changes women’s lives, so it makes me speak my truth more. I’ve had so many life lessons, and you either let those lessons break you or you let them do something good in the world.

“I think my pain has driven my passion.”

This year, that passion is fuelling the foundation’s national growth, with staged launches planned in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

Jeanette’s ultimate plan is to enter politics, where she plans to make lasting and meaningful change in workplace culture, including the elimination of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), which prevent women from speaking publicly about their experiences of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct in workplaces.

She urges any woman who may find herself in a traumatic or uncomfortable situation — either in their personal or business life — to speak up and to reach out for help.

“The bottom line is that there is hope, and I know it sounds kitsch, but in any situation that you’re in, the number one thing to realise is that there is a way out; there is hope,” Jeanette shares.

“This is not it; this is not the final chapter. When you acknowledge that and find that tiny glimmer of hope, then ask for help. And take one step forward at a time.”

If this article raises concerns for you, contact DVConnect on 1800 811 811.