Sandra Birkensleigh

It’s hard to miss the colossal billboard in the foyer of Pricewaterhouse Coopers. ‘What would you like to change?’ it asks. ‘… You don’t need power or money; all you need is passion and motivation to make change happen.’

The sentiment reflects the interests of an international accountancy practice but it just as clearly speaks of one of its partners, Sandra Birkensleigh.

Sandra had the passion and discovered the power but it took time to make change happen. Today’s leading global risk manager grew up in an average middle-class western suburbs family and, until the age of 29, fulfilled her chosen option of raising three children.

“While I was still at school I had been to a session of career counselling,” she explains. “I was a straight ‘A’ student but I was told my options were hairdressing, teaching, secretarial, bookkeeping or lab assistant. I just thought ‘Yuk! I’m not going to do any of that so I’ll just get married and have kids. That’s what I did. My eldest daughter was born when I was 18.”

Nothing in Sandra’s sphere of reference or experience suggested that anything else might be on offer. “Then one day we had some friends over and all I was talking about was nappies and garbage and cooking. I just started to think … ‘there’s got to be more to life than this!’”

She chose to start from ground zero: completing her Higher School Certificate by correspondence and then going on to do a six-year part-time course in commerce at the University of New South Wales. By then, she was a single mother working to fund her family and education, becoming the first member of her family to have a tertiary education.

“I’ve learned that I have a level of intelligence that I probably didn’t appreciate when I was at school,” she says. “We’ve all got power over ourselves but, until you understand why that is inhibited, you don’t realize the capacity of it.”

The same stimulus for change exists in the scholarship created in memory of Sandra’s eldest daughter. The Mandie Rebecca Birkensleigh Scholarship in Accounting is available for students enrolled in a Bachelor of Commerce at the UNSW Australia Business School. The scholarship was established after Mandie was killed in a car accident in 1992.

“The scholarship was a way of finishing something that hadn’t been finished if that makes any sense at all,” says Sandra. “Anybody who has had the privilege of education has an obligation to find some way to provide assistance for others and for me, it’s about doing for the living, not doing for the dead.”

The UNSW scholarship program was a more relevant recognition of her daughter, and the university’s promise to match the $15,000 contribution from Sandra and her second husband Alan, added value to the proposition. The yearly $6,000 scholarship is further underpinned by Sandra’s fervent belief that “without education, we have nothing”.

“It has also meant that I’ve continued an association with UNSW. I really like the values of the university, it’s a place of excellent teaching, but it is also very business minded. I know that the money has been put to good use.”

In much the same way, Sandra made sure to put her own education to good use, stubbornly refusing to be discouraged by rejection.

Lessons learned along this journey continue to frame Sandra’s actions. Over the last two years she has started playing the piano, learnt to scuba dive, taken up skiing and is working towards a private pilot’s license. A degree in marine biology is under consideration.

“What’s the worst that can happen? If you say ‘No’ or something doesn’t go right, what’s the problem? Give it a go because you’re a long time dead. Move forward. When I was 17, I felt that nothing was possible, but what I believe now is that … anything is possible.”

Sandra Birkensleigh proves that all you need is passion and motivation.

Author: Anabel Dean

Sandra Birkensleigh"Anybody who has had the privilege of education has an obligation to find some way to provide assistance for others and for me, it’s about doing for the living, not doing for the dead."

Sandra BirkensleighBusiness School alumni leader & Partner at Pricewaterhouse Cooper

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