A supporter of gender equity, inclusion and lifelong learning, Andrea Fernandes is using her AGSM MBAX education for good.

The notion of giving back was ingrained in Andrea Fernandes from an early age, with her family actively involved in education and volunteering roles in their local community in Singapore.

When she was 16, Andrea left Singapore to pursue her love of learning through further study in Australia. She was the first person in her family to go to university and later went on to complete the AGSM MBAX (Social Impact) from AGSM @ UNSW Business School in 2021.

It was in her early years at university that Andrea learned even more about the importance of a strong, supportive community.

“I learned to place a lot of value on networks and connections outside of the family when I first came to Australia on my own.  Forging friendships and having a supportive community to fall back on for support was invaluable.”

It was then that Andrea decided she wanted to spend her career in a sector that helps people and has made sure to use her education and skills for this purpose.As a board director at YWCA Hunter Region Inc and the Strategy and Planning Manager at Youth Support + Advocacy Service (YSAS), Andrea works with others to champion and create positive social change for young people and women in Australia.

It all starts with lifelong learning

Andrea strongly believes that opportunity lies in the power of learning.

“Education allows us to strengthen and use our skills to make a positive impact. ”

That’s why after finishing her undergraduate degree, Andrea always knew she wanted to return to higher education eventually. When a friend mentioned AGSM’s unique MBAX Program with a social impact focus, Andrea knew it was what she’d been waiting for.

“I had been looking for something I could put my heart and soul into, something that would help me contribute more to YSAS and the for-purpose sector. I’ve always been interested in business, and I also wanted to study social services. And AGSM’s program ticked all those boxes.”

Alongside developing her understanding of the corporate support functions of a non-government organisation, Andrea learned practical skills she could immediately apply in her role at YSAS.

“My MBA’s specialisation subjects have really shaped my view of how to approach and solve problems. The Collaboration for Social Impact and Leadership courses in particular provided skills and insight into the need for working well and communicating effectively with people across all areas – from executives and funding bodies to communities with lived experience especially.

“The program also helped me improve my teamwork skills and taught me how to further leverage others’ strengths, share my points in meetings authentically, compromise effectively, and find meaningful ways of drawing the best out of each other.”

Addressing societal issues around gender inequity

As a female leader, Andrea has long been interested in gender inequity.

And after more than 10 years in the for-purpose sector, she is no stranger to the deep-seeded challenges of creating a meaningful impact when it comes to the issue – from societal attitudes about gender roles and norms to a lack of awareness of inequity.

“These can create biases that lead to a lack of action and imbalances in female representation in certain fields and professions,” Andrea says.

She also knows change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes patience, curiosity to learn, and courage to enact change with others.

“We need to keep our eyes and ears open, to understand people’s stories of where they have come from and where they want to go. It's important to know what exists outside of ourselves,” she shares.

And it’s this focus on learning and working in a sector that helps others that is enabling Andrea to contribute to positive social impact.

In 2022, Andrea joined the all-women Board of the female-led organisation YWCA Hunter Region. The not-for-profit exists to help support, empower and connect women and families in the community.

“We make YWCA Hunter's programs and services accessible to women, marginalised gender groups, and families in the Hunter region, and further advocate for gender equity and the empowerment of these communities,” Andrea explains.

For Andrea, a large part of creating change is about using her platform to raise awareness and contribute to positive social impact. But she used to shy away from this kind of visibility, until an ‘Aha!’ moment during her AGSM MBA.

“One of the biggest takeaways from my MBA was about using visibility for good. I recognised that my voice is a privilege and a responsibility by way of making sure we address matters that need to be discussed in a real-world context.”

Today Andrea takes an interest in coaching other women and in important conversations around gender inequity in open forums, including speaking on the leadership panel at YSAS’s Festival of Ideas.

“It was an opportunity to reflect on my lived experience as a female leader and to discuss thought-provoking questions around power, privilege, and what that means in terms of interacting with others, and inclusion.”

Facilitating the strategic direction at YSAS

Andrea also helps advocate for and support programs and services for young people and families at the Youth Support + Advocacy Service (YSAS) in Victoria.

In her role, she is responsible for working with other leaders to shape and implement YSAS’s strategic direction for 2022 – 2025 and strengthen the organisation overall. Using her personal library of skills and tools from AGSM, Andrea went through a highly collaborative process with others to develop the future direction for the organisation.

“My MBA equipped me with the skills and knowledge for us to develop a strategic plan for the future,” Andrea says. “Knowing how to think strategically around the external environment through the PESTLE framework and implementing a SWOT tool and 5-step strategy model to analyse YSAS’s current situation has been incredibly helpful.”

Andrea also found design thinking particularly useful when working with others and drawing on their input to develop the organisation's strategy. Through the development, there was expertise sought from the Board, Youth Advocates and young people accessing the organisation’s services, and individuals across the organisation which comprises more than 350 employees.

Being able to draw out pain points and needs from all these different perspectives has helped to inform, share and monitor a strategy that is centred around the people YSAS supports.

Understanding different identities, backgrounds and lived experiences is incredibly important to creating meaningful change, Andrea says. And in 2020-2022, to elevate these voices during the pandemic, a group of women initiated the YSAS Festival of Ideas.

The four-day online event for YSAS staff and others working in the for-purpose sector shared innovative, inspiring and thought-provoking ideas from those who’d experienced trauma, , discrimination and other forms of disadvantage.

The festival also shaped the pathway for an internal Inclusion and Equity (I&E) network and then a steering committee that now oversees a number of initiatives as part of YSAS’s strategy.

 Influencing the future of board-inclusivity

Her work with YSAS ignited Andrea’s interest in Board composition and inspired her to complete the Observership Program, which enables young, talented leaders to observe Board meetings and learn about the fundamental principles and functions of not-for-profit Boards, the roles of its members, the fiscal processes and other governance priorities.

YWCA runs a similar program called the Board Traineeship Program, offering young women the opportunity to join the organisation’s Board for a 12-month period and actively encouraging women with lived experiences to apply.

“Programs like these are very important in enabling more diverse voices in the boardroom,” Andrea notes. “I see the inclusion of lived and living experience increasing over the years, and I am keen to get behind recognising and celebrating successful Boards with such experience.”

Andrea also actively encourages younger women and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to reflect on how they can contribute.

Today, Andrea is committed to sharing her skill and knowledge to empower other women and young people – and help create a more equitable and inclusive society.


Find out more about AGSM’s MBAX here.

Find out more about AGSM @ UNSW Business School.