Remarkable rural, nonprofit leader and advocate shares her powerful story

Georgina "Georgie" Somerset, AM, is a seasoned leader in the nonprofit, government and primary industries (agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, quarrying, and the extraction of minerals). She and her husband run a multigenerational cattle station in southern Queensland, Australia, and she has worked tirelessly to overcome rural, regional and remote women's challenges.

In 1993, Georgie was a founding member and later president of an organization designed for rural, regional and remote women to connect, develop capacity and support each other to overcome adversity – known as the Queensland Rural, Regional & Remote Women's Network (QRRRWN).

She is the first female general president of AgForce Queensland, the deputy chair of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (Queensland section) and is a director at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the National Farmers Federation, the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal and the RFDS Foundation.

Georgie has been nominated for ABC Rural Woman of the Year, named one of 100 Women of Influence in the Local/Regional category by the Australian Financial Review and honored with a Member of the Order of Australia in 2020.

In April, Georgie was featured by Zonta International in a Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories event, a leadership series hosted by Lynne Foley OAM, chair of the Zonta Spirit Working Group.

Here are some of the top takeaways from their conversation:

Typical rural childhood

"I grew up in the country. Our family lived in a couple of different places, but I was what I'd call a typical rural child—probably not as typical as some in that we did do distance education, and I did school on School of the Air and I went away to boarding school. But that's very normal in rural Australia and I think it does shape you. But it gives you a real chance to be involved in your family's business, and I look back on that time and think that we were so involved in the family property that it just became part of your DNA. And even though I went and did some other things, that yearning to be in the bush was very much there. I've only spent a couple of years in my life not living in a rural community."

"We had an enormous amount of freedom. You're living on a rural property, so you get to do things, you get an independence. Once you learn to drive, you have to learn to change the tire because you have to be the one who actually is doing those things. And I'm really grateful that in my life I've also been able to also pass that on to my children, that they can have some sense of independence, not quite as remote, and not doing distance. But you do have freedom. And I think that also shows you when things can go wrong, and you have to fix it up because there's no one else to do it for you."

School of the Air

"In my time, our papers arrived in the mail, and we had a paper set for the week. … And we would do half an hour session with the teacher, and that would consolidate some of our learning. But really your mother or your governess or your home tutor were responsible for instructing you through those lessons. And as the youngest, because the others were already in boarding school, I was very adept at cramming a lot of that learning into a short period of time so that I could then help with shearing or mustering and be available when my siblings came home to be with them. But I do think it teaches you some great time management skills. It also allows those who want to do more to be stretched."

First leadership opportunity

"We were living in outback Queensland and we could see a real opportunity to let other people come and experience outback Queensland. So, I took a couple of school friends when I was 17, and actually set up accommodation on our station, and that was my first taste of running the business for my parents, and I'd watch them run our business. My mother always did the books and we talked about family business. We had family meetings, but it was my first experience, certainly of getting something off the ground."

Agricultural technology

"The fascinating thing about agriculture is that we are constantly working with the environment and the weather we get. We've had some pretty crushing droughts, but we also had some good seasons, and you learn as much from good years as you do from bad. But no two years are the same."

"There's some great technology coming through in Australia now. We have cameras set up so that we can monitor water points on tanks, or just actually so that we can see whether a creek has flooded and fences need checking, that type of thing. We've also got a system where the cattle self-weigh themselves, and so you get an average of what their weight is. That just happens during the day we get a report each day. So, I'm really excited about where technology is going to take things so that we can continue to evolve the business as well. That's what the next generation is going to really embrace, so I think it's quite exciting."

The impact of being a Zonta club founder

"When you live on a property an hour from town, you go to town, you do your shopping, you have lunch, you head home again. You know the people that you see in those businesses, but there are people you don't know—those that are doing social service work, the lawyers, the accountants, the real estate agents—because you're not part of their social network. And so, the ability of Zonta to give you this professional network where you meet other thinking business women who want to have an impact on the next generation, and their own generation, is quite extraordinary. We weren't around for a long time in Zonta Kingaroy, but I really loved it. I was a founding director. It was an hour's drive so going twice a month could become challenging. But I'm really proud of some of the work we did."

"We have a couple of towns that have a very high teen pregnancy rate … so there was a lot of disadvantage, and I think that Zonta gave me an opportunity to get an idea of that disadvantage. And, I think, it has also helped me to be more empathetic for our region and its needs going forward that I probably wouldn't have seen as a farmer, a rural woman an hour from town. But I got a real insight into that through Zonta and met some great women who were fabulous businesswomen. And again, I learned about running businesses from them, and what they were doing."

Intergenerational business

"It's strong in agriculture, but I do see it in other ways where you pick up intergenerational wisdom, because things are passed on inherently and you get an opportunity just to absorb it always by osmosis I think, as a family. And you gain this wisdom from grandparents and people around you that if you're new to an industry, you have to actually work at that and develop those, and I absolutely see that happening. And I'm really excited about young people who are coming into agriculture. But I do think that if you have got wisdom in the past that you can gain from and build upon it, it's really strong, and I think that works in any industry. … You stand on the shoulders of those who founded and went before you, and you hope that those that that come after you can create an even stronger organization."

Learning about leadership

"I was incredibly fortunate because I look back now and think, Gosh, that was so brave to let me do what I did. I had been working as a freelance journalist and running my own media consultancy business, and they allowed me to be the media person. And so, I was putting words into their mouth and writing media releases nearly every week. And what I gained was these women who had a deep understanding of policy and communities and regional development, and not in a theoretical sense, but in a very practical sense."

"I think it's really important to invest in yourself. … I was really fortunate to do the Australian Rural Leadership program … [which] gave me an alumni who challenged me and held me to account, but also supported me, and it was a great experience. … And one of my gifts back to the community from doing that leadership program is to establish a community leadership program in our region, and I just see significant impact on people when they gain an understanding of themselves and their impact on other people and how to work together in a team. So, I'm a huge advocate for investing in yourself and these sorts of basic leadership skills, because I think they'll improve your family life, they'll improve your work life, and then they'll give you the confidence to find the leadership journey that's right for you."

"Every person's journey is different. But you need some basic skills and understanding of how you impact other people. I look back at my 17- and 18-year-old leader, and know that I was a very flawed leader at that time. But I can still reflect on that and know that I've polished a few of the edges of that roughness as I've gone through life. But it's also about other people holding me to account and that feels really uncomfortable. And actually, I think that in any of these leadership journeys, if you don't feel a bit uncomfortable at some stage, you probably haven't dug quite deep enough. There needs to be some real soul searching about how do you operate. And for women I think it does empower them. I think it's important for men too. So, I think we need to encourage our communities to invest in leadership skills."

How to make change

"I think it's really important to turn up. You get invited to things, and people probably want to invite you a second time. So those who turned up to that first meeting got involved, and we kept turning up. … It actually takes a lot of energy and a lot of time to do these things, and I think that's the thing that this is not going to happen overnight, and I also think that you've got to commit to things. So, you've got to be deeply committed and lose some sleep over it to actually make it happen. I really encourage young women to get involved in organizations or causes they believe in, because that will be where they learn a lot of skills. And they have this opportunity to learn from women who have been through the ropes and done this before."

"We shouldn't feel pressured that we have to do something or be like the others. Comparison is so fraught, and I loved the article I read once that a plum is a great plum, but when a plum tries to be a banana, it's a really awful banana. So just be the plum. Just be yourself. And I think we need to try and not place pressures on other women because of what our lived experience has been, but actually to embrace what their journey is."

Finding your purpose

"It is about confidence and it's about understanding yourself. And for me, it's about knowing what is your purpose and what is it that you can bring to the table, and thinking about the great pieces that you offer and what are the skills and attributes you have, and actually building on those. So often we focus on what we can't do. … But if we work on that sort of 3% we're not great at, we don't get as great a result as if we worked on the 97% we're fantastic at."

"Find the bit that really makes your heart sing—that makes you energized, that you are buzzing when you're doing that sort of work, or in that space. It is different for everybody. And when you find that, do more of that. Lean into that and have the confidence to turn up. Decisions are made by the people who turn up. Things happen when people turn up. Don't be afraid to turn up, even if you don't know anybody there. It's really hard sometimes going to something where you know nobody. But maybe that will be the opportunity for you to break out of where you are and find what it is that really makes your heart sing. I think deep down we all know what it is, but sometimes we're so busy we don't give ourselves the space."

"I really encourage people to sit, and sit in silence to think about what it is that is their voice. Busyness can often crowd in. You think you're busy, so everything's fine. But, in fact, that busyness stops you from being who you really want to be, and you need to sometimes strip away some things and let some things go so that you can really focus on what's your voice and what's your purpose. … There's lots of busyness, and we can be busy scrolling and all those sorts of things. But if we strip that away and just have some of that calm, that's when we really find who we are."

Greatest leadership gift

"I think it's about being able to bring together disparate parts and see similarities. And if I liken it, I think it's that I can be up on a balcony and I can see what's going on in the big picture, but I can also bring together. I've never been terribly good at staying inside one lane. I've always had lots of different interests, and I'm incredibly curious. That's one of my natural inherent values is curiosity, and I love learning. And so I've picked up lots of different information and worked in different areas. … For me it's about that ability to think strategically about the long term and bring together divergent views."

"And I think positivity has helped me in good stead, in that we do have to find a way through. We actually do have to provide leadership, and there have been periods of my life when I haven't been so positive and so I can completely understand what that is like for people. But I work really hard on being in a mental space where I can be positive because I think that for leaders, we need to be able to see over the horizon. We need to be able to provide a vision for those who aren't there yet, and we need to be able to bring together people to go on that journey with you."

Reaching gender parity

"We've got to value ourselves. We've got to go in and ask for those opportunities. As older women—and I'm certainly one of them now—we've got to be the ones who give the 25-year-old me a crack. We've got to be prepared to step aside. We've got to sponsor other women. I try hard not to say no to anything. I say, 'I'm not able to, but here are three other great women who could do this.' "

"It's important we bring [young women] through to senior leadership and CEO roles. They need to be in senior leadership because unless they're in senior leadership, they're not able to make those decisions. We need to make sure they don't get stuck in technical roles and aren't able to come through to board roles and we need to sponsor them. We need to be their advocates."

"I love Kirstin Ferguson's quote where she said, let's not talk about a ladder; let's talk about a fishing net; let's throw that whole net down and bring those women up. This this is not about one or two, and a linear thing. This is about, how can we magnify it so that women are gathering in a network to celebrate, not to have to constantly advocate and seek their place at the table, so that people don't comment when there's a panel of all women on the sport show. They'd never comment when there's panel of all men."

Overcoming challenges

"A cow gave me a tap on the leg, which smashed my tibia. Three and a half years on, it's there, but I can walk, and that's alright. But there were times during that period where I wondered whether I would ever walk normally again. I think it is all these things along the way that at no stage did I feel any anger. I just knew that I had to take each day as it came, and I had to use all the strategies that I had. But learning from my own experience, I kept working."

"The other thing is that you also need to, in those tough times, be willing to ask for help. And that was probably the toughest thing for me, Lynne. I couldn't even drive. I had to ask for help. It was very, very humbling, but it's also very empowering when you can work your way back from those moments as well, and I think that we all have much more strength in us than we understand."

What's next?

"One of the things I've really embraced in the last few years is not filling my life so full that I can't embrace opportunities as they come. So, I don't actually know what's next, and that's OK. The young me really struggled with not knowing what was next. But I really love that now."

"I'm really determined to make the next period count. And what I want to stay true to is those things we've talked about today: adding value, ensuring that when I do come to the table, I bring something that's going to build that organization, that I focus on enabling other people to come through, that I continue to advocate for rural Australia. I just don't actually know where that will be. But I know that I have no intention of slowing down, because there are great opportunities out there; there are great people to work with, and I think I've still got a lot to offer. And rather than trying to script it all, I'm really deep in what I'm doing at the moment, and embracing what will come ahead."

To keep up with Georgie, follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Watch Georgie's Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories video below:


27 APRIL 2023