The secret to living is giving: Why Lee Tonitto chose to become a future giver

Lee Tonitto, Managing Director for Tonitto & Partners, on what it means to be a catalyst for magic

| 06 Sep 2021

Lee Tonitto, Managing Director for Tonitto & Partners, was born in Sydney’s western suburbs. As an only child to hard working parents, they encouraged her independence, cultivated her work ethic, applauded her 5am swimming drills and taught Lee that education was the pathway to the future she wanted, whatever that might be.

Lee excelled at school, at university and in her career. First with marketing roles in fast-moving-consumer- goods, then in senior management in the financial services sector, and later serving as the high-profile CEO of the Australian Marketing Institute.

Belying these accomplishments was Lee’s experience of toxic gendered workplace cultures: norms and expectations that weighed on her, but only served to strengthen her resolve. Typical of her generation, Lee faced it all with silent stoicism.

Now, with a gift in Will to endow a Women in Leadership MBA Scholarship program, Lee hopes to empower a new generation of women with the skills and the self-belief they need to take their place as future leaders.

As a UNSW BCom (1981) and AGSM @ UNSW Business School MBA (2000) graduate, Lee has been involved as a volunteer, alumni mentor with the 2020 UNSW Business School Career Mentoring Program which is a formal university student extracurricular activity that is included on UNSW Business School students’ Australian Higher Education Graduation Statement. The program pairs the School's most ambitious business students with accomplished Business School and AGSM alumni, and industry professionals for a fifteen-week mentorship.

As an engaged alumna who strives to #AlwaysBeLearning, UNSW spoke with Lee about her career so far and what inspired her to work with UNSW to create the Women in Leadership MBA Scholarship program.

UNSW: What do you remember about hitting the UNSW campus as an under-graduate?

Lee: First of all, the journey there, starting at 7am to get from Padstow to Central by train, then the bus from Eddy Avenue to Anzac Parade, and the walk up to the lecture halls which were right up the top of the campus. The travelling was big!

I was captivated by my marketing lectures and the idea that understanding the needs of customers can help you grow and transform a business. My career has been all about breathing new life into tired businesses, being a catalyst for magic, and it's all because of those early lessons at UNSW.

UNSW: You started your career at Unilever, where you launched brands like Domestos, then you moved on to Revlon and made a big impact there, too. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Lee: Yes, I was part of the team that first developed the big cosmetic display units for pharmacies. It revolutionised cosmetic retailing in this country. Retailers were happy because they were selling more product. Consumers found it easier to interact with. And, during the time I was there, Revlon doubled in revenue.

UNSW: At around that time you also decided to return to university to complete an AGSM MBA. What was the impact this had on you, personally and professionally?

Lee: the AGSM MBA had a really profound impact on me. The courses I did gave me great insights into my strengths, weaknesses and leadership style, and helped me pinpoint the areas where I needed to improve.
 
And from that came the confidence to undertake negotiations, deliver compelling presentations, and I learnt to be really calm and decisive under pressure. By the end of the third year, I was in a completely different space, mentally and physically.

UNSW: Before you finished the MBA, you made a move into the financial services sector, and later into leading professional associations as CEO of the Australian Marketing Institute. Is it fair to say you were operating in a highly gendered business environment for most of your career?

Lee: Very much so. As you get into more senior roles, the gender politics come out more and more. I remember vividly, after one promotion, being told the most important thing I could do was learn about AFL and rugby league and cricket. 

I then found out why: because the first 20 minutes of every leadership meeting was spent talking about the weekend’s sport. All of a sudden you had to become another person to fit in. It was, and is to this day, so commonplace—and it's wrong.

UNSW: What was your motivation for funding the Women in Leadership MBA Scholarship program through a gift in will to UNSW?

Lee: My parents gave me the greatest gift anyone can give a child: an education and an opportunity to break the cycle of disadvantage. I decided I wanted to give that gift to other women, to help them break through and achieve their dreams. I think it’s important to give women the tools they need to cope with those toxic, hostile, hyper-competitive environments, and to have more women in leadership, so that future generations don't have to deal with all of that as much.

UNSW: How does it feel to be in a position where you can make a difference like that?

Lee: I think the secret to living is giving. I've practised that all my life, personally and professionally. Focusing on the needs of others has a way of motivating you to do more than you thought was possible.

UNSW: Of course, you’re a UNSW alumna, but what motivated you to work with UNSW to deliver this program?

Lee: I think that UNSW does two things really well. One is that it retains really strong industry links. The other is that it embraces diversity and inclusion in all their forms, and that really resonates with my personal views.

UNSW: If you were in conversation with someone who was thinking about making a philanthropic contribution, what would you say to them about the benefits of future giving?

Lee: The first thing is, if they’re interested in growing optimism, confidence, creativity and resilience in the next generation, if they're interested in helping people realise their dreams, helping them make a difference in the areas they're passionate about, then being a future giver is a great way to do that.

The second thing is that, if you're of a financial mind, then the return on investment for education is very compelling. If we invest in higher education, get more people educated at a higher level, embrace lifelong learning, then we end up with a stronger economy and sustainable development for everyone on the planet.


Leaving a donation to UNSW in your will is a generous and powerful contribution to make. Your gift will fund much-needed research, new and improved facilities at the University, and scholarships for those who deserve our support.

For further information, please visit our website and email us at scientiacircle@unsw.edu.au and we will be happy to answer any questions.