UNSW Business School alumni were granted an audience with one of Australia's leading business executives and Chairman of Carnival Australia, Ann Sherry AO.

During her interview with Mark Scott AO Secretary, NSW Department of Education, Ann shared the highlights of her extensive career spanning medicine, government, banking and tourism and her trajectory to leadership.

Early life lessons

Ann recalled her early childhood years growing up in the small town of Gympie, Queensland.

"Being a girl in a country town…there wasn't much territory calved out between boys and girls, so I could climb a fence as well as anyone, climb a tree as well as anyone…there wasn't a sense that wasn't okay," she said.

Ann's idyllic country town life changed when her family moved to Brisbane when she reached her teens.

Whilst at school, she was told by her teachers about an explosion – a gas leak had destroyed a block in central Brisbane where her parents owned a pharmacy.

 "That changed our lives…not only did we lose the pharmacy, but there was a lot of conversation in the house about our responsibility to the people who worked with us, and the stress this caused" she said.

There was yet more uncertainty and distress to come for Ann and her family.

Several years later, her mother became the second person in Australian history to be diagnosed with Ross River Virus, spending two years in a hospital spinal unit with paralysis.

At just 16-years-of-age, Ms Sherry became head of her household, a position she relished.

"My sisters thought I was a tyrant, but I was a natural leader," she said.

Against the odds, her mother made an extraordinary recovery. It was during this stage of her life the Carnival CEO learnt the importance of determination, and not accepting low expectations.

Career choices

It was during Ann's first professional job as a radiographer, that she noticed the distinct gender divide.

After returning to university, The CEO found herself working in Queensland's public service sector in the now defunct Department of Productivity. It was during this time Ann finally felt free to flourish.

Ann explained, "When I came out of university, the Courier Mail still had job ads specifying gender and all the really good jobs were for men and boys…the reason I went into public service was because it was the one place where you sat a test to get into the graduate program. I sat the test, got an offer a few weeks later, and had a fantastic job," Ann said.

After that, the Carnival CEO moved to the capital and was appointed First Assistant Secretary of the Office of the Status of Women in Canberra in the 90s during the Keating era. It was here where she worked on innovations like superannuation for women, paid maternity leave and campaigns around sharing domestic duties.

From there, Ann said she was headhunted for a senior HR position at Westpac as part of the bank's campaign to increase diversity within the workforce.

"It was a strange experience because I'd been busy bagging the corporate sector whilst I was in government…so I had to make a choice, and I decided I might as well have a go at changing it rather than criticising it," she said.

"They hired eight women in total – there we were, eight gals in senior roles, taking the jobs other people thought they owned. Everybody made it known they thought we were interlopers."

All the more determined, Ann decided to take a stand against all forms of everyday sexism, and to prove she could enact real change where others had failed.

"I'm pretty combative so I had a 'bring it on' attitude," Ann said.

Carnival time 

Having spent a few years in banking, including CEO roles with Westpac NZ and the Bank of Melbourne. It was time for Ann to make yet another career pivot.

In 2007, she joined Carnival Australia on the back of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis); a tumultuous time for the cruising industry.

During her third day working at the largest cruise ship operator in Australasia, Ann dealt with a very public company scandal.

"The first thing I had to do was promise it would never happen again…there's a thing about Mea Culpa in business, it is so important," Ms Sherry said.

At the time Carnival Australia had approximately 250,000 customers a year for the past 30 years. Despite the difficult business conditions, Ann set herself an audacious target of reaching one million customers by 2020 – a target she met six years early.

"You have to turn over every rock, what I learnt quite early, there's so much embedded in custom and practice…you have to peel it and peel it, until you get back to the core of business…plus you have to listen to your market," she explained.

Today Ann Sherry AO is also the Chair of UNICEF Australia and currently holds non-executive roles with National Australia Bank, Sydney Airport, Palladium Group, Rugby Australia, Cape York Partnerships, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and Infrastructure Victoria.

The Australian Government awarded Ann the Centenary Medal in 2001, and in 2004 she was awarded an Order of Australia. In 2015, the Carnival CEO was named as the overall winner of the Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence Award.

"If you want me to do something, tell me I can't do it" Ann said, recalling the challenges she has faced by those who didn't believe she was up to the task, particularly due to her gender.

Speaking at the event, UNSW Sydney Deputy Chancellor, Jillian Segal AO said, "In the 70 years since our great university was founded, we have always valued the relationships we've maintained with the alumni community…through UNSW Sydney's 2025 strategy we place great value on innovation, collaboration, leadership and social justice and in Ann we see all these qualities personified."