Laura Stokes has never been one to shy away from a challenge. From bringing TEDxWomen to Australia at just 24, to taking her seat at the senior leadership table helping people experiencing homelessness – Laura proves how important human connection is.
In 2011, Laura was made redundant from a marketing role at a not-for-profit that was facing cuts. She had only just graduated two years earlier, and this was not where the inherently ambitious twenty-four-year-old expected to find herself.
"It was difficult, finding myself on the end of a redundancy so soon into my career," she recalls. "I suddenly had all this time on my hands, and I started looking for something to lift my spirits."
In her search, Laura came across an opportunity that was too good to pass up. TEDxWomen, the global phenomenon which started in New York, was looking for people to license the series in other countries.
“It was just my kind of thing – I love platforms that bring people together and provide a forum for idea generation, particularly today when most things are done behind a screen. I am also passionate about driving gender equality – so it just seemed like a perfect fit," says Laura.
Although Laura recognises it might have seemed a long shot to others – a 24-year-old licensing the TEDx program, attracting speakers and curating large-scale events – she says she had to try.
"I knew I had the passion and determination to bring the series to life in Brisbane and that's all that mattered. I applied and was fortunate enough to be successful."
Over the next four years, Laura ran a highly successful TEDx program in Brisbane, bringing together some of the most inspiring speakers to influence, inspire and shape the journey of women all over the country.
"The idea was to create a community of women who had a space to share ideas and, ultimately, turn them into action. I really think we achieved that," she says.
One highlight for Laura was working with a team to curate The Lady Stripped Bare – a talk given by journalist and author Tracey Spicer, which questioned the expectations on women to wear make-up in the professional arena. It became a viral TEDx talk that would go on to inspire people all over the world.
"After the events, we would hear of women in our community making large-scale changes to follow their passions or improve their lives – things like switching careers, ending relationships that weren’t right, starting side hustles and taking on volunteer roles.”
“Witnessing these women taking action and being part of the change was just amazing," Laura says.
The experience also inspired Laura to think differently about her own career. TEDx was a labour of love, and Laura was also working full time to support her passion. It was time to focus on advancing her career to the next level.
In 2014, at the age of just 26, Laura would become the youngest person to be accepted into the highly-ranked Master of Business Administration (MBA) program at The University of Queensland (UQ). Not only was she accepted, Laura was granted a scholarship which supported her to complete the MBA in an accelerated time-frame – a challenge she was ready to take on with gusto.
"Typically, people undertake an MBA in their thirties or forties; I guess I considered it the right time in terms of my experience. I felt like my youth and not-for-profit background would bring a different perspective and background to my fellow students, and that the program could extend me. Luckily, UQ saw that potential too." Add a quote source (optional)
Laura says the program was a great fit for her. "I've always gravitated towards strong female leaders as role models, and UQ really brought that to the table.”
“There were so many strong females in the team who had championed the advancement of women and were flying the flag for gender equality across an array of industries – it was inspiring."
She graduated in 2015 and says she still calls on her learning on a daily basis.
"It's a fantastic experience as a professional – but particularly as a woman. Learning from women and men who are willing to speak up and speak out about their own experiences and transform the conversation is empowering. It really helped me to shape my own career."
Following her MBA graduation, Laura craved international experience and the challenge of an unfamiliar environment. So, she moved to London, where she took on increasingly strategic roles at Virgin and then Microsoft.
"Working for global brands in London was a great experience – these brands have the power to really push the boundaries and have an impact around the globe," says Laura.
While she enjoyed working for international powerhouses and the boundary-pushing of living in another country, Laura wanted to get back to what drives her – actively making a difference in the lives of others.
In October 2019, she returned to Australia to take up a role she describes as her "dream job" as Chief Marketing Officer for innovative not-for-profit, Orange Sky.
Orange Sky is the world's first mobile shower and laundry service for people experiencing homelessness. But, as Laura explains, it's about so much more than that. Laura, like many in the Orange Sky headquarters chooses to walk the talk, going on shift with the service every fortnight.
"One of the things that keeps people coming back to Orange Sky is not just the services, but the people and the conversation. We often have people return who have found temporary accommodation and don’t require the service anymore, but just want to come down for that human connection."
"Professionally, the role is extending me in many ways, but still plays to my strengths in marketing, fundraising, and engagement, while giving me the opportunity to have a positive impact in the lives of those who need it. Four months in, and I am still pinching myself that this is what I get to do every day."
She says that the biggest learning for her has been that homelessness can happen to anyone. "If you haven't experienced homelessness, it's easy to think it won't happen to you.”
“The reality is that homelessness is just a few unfortunate events away for all of us – losing a job, the bushfire crisis or life circumstances that are out of our control.”
"When I started at Orange Sky, I was shocked to learn that the fastest-growing category of people experiencing homelessness in Australia is women over 55.”
“There are so many systemic issues that play a role in the growing number of homeless women, such as juggling family and work their whole lives. When it comes to their later years, some women do not have the means through superannuation to support themselves," says Laura.
Laura believes it is incumbent on everyone to play a role in closing gender gaps across all aspects of society. "It can work like a ripple effect – playing your own role can truly support others and spark major change."
"I was fortunate enough to do my MBA and that gave me the skills, confidence and credibility to sit at a leadership table and really walk the talk. Not everyone has that opportunity – so we need to lift each other up and create spaces where women can succeed."