Entrepreneur, CEO, sustainability advocate and 2017 Young Australian of the Year Finalist: Caterina Sullivan is…
Caitlin Figueiredo was just six years old when she felt an acute awareness that the world was not a just place.
Now, at just 21, she has put her passion for equity into practice. Having grappled personally with gender-based violence and chronic mental illness, Caitlin was forced to drop out of Merici College at 16.
Now completing a Double Degree in Law (Hon) and Development from the ANU, Caitlin’s advocacy has been recognised globally. She met former first lady Michelle Obama in Washington last year after being named White House Gender Equality Global Champion.
She ranks alongside Chelsea Clinton and Gloria Steinem as an International Influencer and Mogul Ambassador to an online platform of 18.5 million women from 196 countries. Closer to home Caitlin won the Westpac/AFR “100 Women of Influence” Young Leader category in 2016 – the youngest recipient in the award’s history. She works to end violence against children and the bullying epidemic as the Ambassador of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation. She represents Australian youth as a Board Director of the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition, the peak body for 4.3 million young Australians. She consults to the United Nations on youth and gender equality, founded World Vision’s youth movement VGen in Canberra, the Arts for Peace initiative in Pakistan and became Australia’s first Global Resolutions ambassador.
She also runs an education business with 43 staff. Lake Nite Learning specialises in supporting and upskilling over 1600 young men and women a year. Caitlin is on track to graduate in 2020-21.
Was there something specific, an experience, that triggered your six-year-old epiphany?
My family are political migrants from Kenya and India. When my father had to leave Kenya as a child due to civil unrest, my Avo and Avozinha (grandparents), raised him and his siblings with the belief that they had to be active citizens within their community and they could not take their new home of Australia for granted. And my parent’s and grandparents raised me with the same belief.
From the time I can remember, my bedtime stories weren’t Disney fairy tales, but stories of their lives growing up in Mombassa and Goa. So I’ve grown up with that global mindset. But I never understood what any of that meant until 9/11.
I sat down at the kitchen table to talk about what happened, I was scared and confused, but after a long conversation, finally, everything clicked. My Avo turned to me and said, “Caitlin, it’s your responsibility to make sure people don’t suffer” – huge thing to say to a 6-year-old. But that was my epiphany. I felt it was my duty to follow in my family’s footsteps.
My Avo helped me realise that day that my family’s work was not done. It was my turn to step up. They escaped Kenya for a better life, and that better life was endangered.
How did you overcome your health and mental health problems? Where do you actually fit this level of work into a normal day?
I’ve never overcome them, I manage them. I have bi-polar and it never goes away. Some days are harder than others. But I’ve learnt a couple of techniques to help me get through.
I got rid of all the negative influences in my life, especially playing basketball at an elite level, I surrounded myself with positivity, friends, vision boards, Oprah and watching Lilly Singh on Youtube during my bad days. I also use gratitude on a regular basis.
But more than that, I see a psychologist who helps keep me on track, I take medication to stabilise my mood and I check in with my friend Maddison O’Grady whose a mental health advocate when I feel like I’m spiralling. Having the constant support has got me through.
Health wise, we finally realised what the cause of my problem was – I have Crohn’s disease. So as much as I’m a foodie, I’ve had to learn to change my diet as much as possible (I’m still struggling with that). I also take medication for pain.
Where do you actually fit this level of work into a normal day? Do you take any down time and what do you do to relax?
Well, they say you have as much time in the day as Beyonce. Coming from an elite athlete background, I was used to having an insane schedule. When I was a teenager, I would wake up at 4.30am to start training from 5-8.30, then go to school, train during my lunch breaks, leave to train/play basketball in Sydney and return home the same night. I would do this 3-4 times a week.
I’m lucky ANU offers me a tonne of support with my studies, so I’m able to take my degree at an easy pace. During the day, I work on my consulting and programming, this can be done from any location, which is a big help as I travel a lot for work.
At night I run Lake Nite Learning and between 11-3am, I work with the UN and the multinational organisations. You find you have a lot more time when you switch off Netflix and [don’t] mindlessly scroll through social media.
When will you graduate and what then?
That’s the million- dollar question. Technically, if I were to study full-time until the end of my degree, I’ll finish in 2020. But that’s unlikely to happen. With my international work and Ambassadorship with Alannah and Madeline Foundation, I’ll most likely travel more and more in the coming years. I’m currently working on an initiative which will send me to Colombia to work with an Amazonian tribe, so that’s a first.
But after my degree, I have a few plans: I want to go work in the field before joining the corporate world. I’ll then head into politics and work my way up to becoming Australia’s youngest Prime Minister (I have to beat 37) and then become the Secretary-General of the United Nations before I’m 70.
But whatever I do, I want to make sure I’m making a meaningful difference. I want to accelerate change and unite people together by leaving a legacy of service that lasts long after I’m gone.
Read the entire Future Generation series here.
Photography by Martin Ollman
This article originally appeared as part of our Future Generation editorial in Magazine: Future for Winter 2017, available for free while stocks last. Find out more about Magazine here.