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Sonia Irwin

The life that led Sonia to start a movement

HerCanberra Team

“My life has been change,” says 46-year-old Sonia Irwin with a laugh, “I’ll say this. It has made me resilient.”

She’s not kidding. As a child, her parents divorced and her mother remarried. A few years later, her stepfather died of cancer. Meanwhile, her own father returned to the UK and transitioned into a woman – something far less common or accepted in the late 1980s. Sonia herself has also been through a divorce, single parenting and bullying at work. And that’s just for starters.

Sonia was born in Wollongong, but she’s been in Canberra for 36 years and considers it her home. “My parents moved every year when I was a kid and they then divorced in 1980 which was unusual in a small town like Canberra where we had landed.

“I was lucky to end up here. I’d stayed in contact with Dad who went to live overseas and visited him a lot. Then Dad let me know that he’d decided to change sex. In 1989 being gay was unusual and we had only heard of the idea of transgender from Boy George,” she laughs.

Sonia Irwin

Sonia Irwin

“I was 19 at the time and I remember feeling very old and tired and I probably was depressed,” she says.

Despite feeling lost and alone, Sonia had a great group of friends and went “out dancing three times a week to burn off the stress at some regular Canberra haunts. “Of course, I then failed at college and couldn’t get into university and ended up with three part-time jobs so I could live out of home.”

Like many Canberra folk, she has spent a hefty stint of her working career in the public service. Nearly 20 years, in fact. There were ups and downs. The years from about 2006 until 2008 were especially rough.

“The hard part was my marriage failing. I had a three-year-old daughter and at the same time was going through a bullying instance in the public service. I won a compensation case but it, and getting divorced, sucked all the confidence out of me,” Sonia says.

Although Sonia took on numerous different high-level Government jobs in her previous career, she reflects that: “working with technology projects has been a theme.”

During her time in the public service, something else also struck her: “I could see the same patterns of mistakes about change occurring across the government.”

“For example, as soon as Government starts to outsource you get an unhealthy tension where cultures clash between the consultants, the contractors and the employees.

“There was also a consistent failure to not learn from past experiences,” she says.

One question dogged Sonia: “As humans, why are we so unable to handle change?”

Sonia took a redundancy package and turned to academia. She already had a communications degree but in 2013 began a masters degree in climate change.

“I love learning to the point that it can be a bit obsessive. I research everything to understand how things fit and where the gaps are,” she says.

While listening to a lecture, Sonia had a ‘eureka’ moment. “I had to make a decision to either keep learning about climate change or take the risk and make a change for myself.”

“One night I had this dream about starting a conversation about change. I even dreamt the name of it – Convergence. It took a couple of years until I got the confidence to actually do it,” she says.

But in 2015 the time had come. “I’ve always believed in that quote: ‘A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.’ This was the moment.”

Sonia started her own communications business two years ago, and single-handedly kicked off the Convergence conference.

“On offer is smorgasbord of topics and experts that contribute to understanding why change it hard to get right and how to do it well.

“We spend so much money on these big programs to implement change and it’s always unhooked by people. Leaders lose their employees along the way,” she says.

“I’m operating as a social enterprise, and am really focused on investing the energy that Convergence creates into supporting the community, whether it’s using local businesses, giving back to the speakers who use their free time to share their knowledge, to donating both proceeds and tickets to what I feel are worthwhile causes.

“The goal is to build a movement towards creating positive change energy at all levels and I’ve convinced both speakers and sponsors, like the Change Management Institute, to support this effort,” Sonia explains.

This year’s conference is on from March 7-9 in Canberra. The impressive lineup includes futurist Tim Longhurst and Professor Giles Hirst, inaugural chair of leadership at ANU. The event also includes masterclasses, panel discussions and all-important networking sessions.

As for Sonia, these days her personal life is much calmer. She has “an awesome partner” named Chris and they live with her own daughter, Charlotte, 11, and James 14, who is her stepson. “Canberra is a great place to bring up my family and it’s a really smart city. People are well-educated and it’s a joy to connect and be part of the community”.

“We are a modern blended Brady Bunch supplemented by two cats, two dogs and two inherited goldfish!” she laughs. “I love spending time with my kids to help explain the world to them. Both are very smart and it’s a joy to teach them things,” Sonia says.

“For me, my life changing moment was having to reimagine a future without a dad. I had to rethink what a family structure was and there was no one around who could help. In the end, I feel loving a human being for who they are is more important than what role society imposes on us in terms of gender or even family structure.”

“Everything that has happened to me personally really motivates me to help others navigate complex issues. Change can be hard. It’s how we connect and help each other to survive that is the key to success,” she says.

Find out more about the Convergence here or email [email protected] for enquiries.

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