Danielle Dal Cortivo named Executive of the Year in the Canberra Women in Business awards 

By Sarah Cannata

CEO of Asthma Foundations ACT and Victoria, Danielle Dal Cortivo, was selected as the Executive of the Year in the Canberra Women in Business awards in late August. Having successfully led the ACT organisation for three years, Danielle took on the additional challenge of leading the Victorian foundation earlier this year following the devastating thunderstorm asthma outbreak in Melbourne.

Our founding editor, Sarah Cannata, spoke with Danielle about leadership, asthma, the challenges she’s faced along her journey and raize the roof, the not-for-profit  Danielle founded 8 years ago.

Although asthma affects 11 per cent of Australians, it can be thought of rather casually. In your time with The Asthma Foundation, have you seen this dialogue changing? 

Asthma management and treatment has come a long way since the 1980s. After a peak in asthma-related deaths in the 1960s and 1980s, the death rate declined dramatically, reducing by around 70%. We now have effective treatments for people living with asthma which is remarkable. However, this is argued to have created some complacency about asthma and its seriousness.

The epidemic thunderstorm asthma event in November 2016 in Melbourne was a devastating reminder that asthma needs to be taken seriously and that sadly, people are still dying from asthma each day. It is still significantly impacting people’s quality of life if not managed appropriately.

It’s hard to believe that in 2017, 400 people each year still die because of asthma. What are some of the more common triggers?

When I think of this number as a jumbo jet filled with that number of people dying each year, or two families dying each week due to asthma, it really puts into perspective how tragic this condition can be – and that’s not even addressing the impacts on people’s ability to live a life they love!

Asthma is a complex condition as triggers and symptoms can vary from person to person. However, there are common triggers that can bring on asthma symptoms in some people, specifically:

  • Colds and flu
  • Exercise
  • Smoke e.g. tobacco, wood fire or bushfire smoke
  • Pollen
  • Weather e.g. thunderstorms, very cold or very hot weather
  • Dust and dust mites
  • Moulds
  • Animals
  • Chemicals
  • Deodorants and perfumes
  • Foods and additives
  • Certain medications
  • Emotions

Do you think it’s possible a cure will be found in the near future?

I absolutely believe that a cure is possible, but as for when, that’s the million dollar question. Asthma isn’t viewed as ‘sexy’ compared to other health conditions and therefore, funding for research and available resources is finite. Therefore, prioritising how funds are best spent provides for very interesting debate. There needs to be a balance between searching for a cure and undertaking translation research that enables people with asthma to breathe better today and into the future.

What are some of your most memorable achievements as the CEO of Asthma Foundations ACT and Victoria?

Working for the Asthma Foundations has been such an incredibly rewarding adventure! What has astounded me is the passion, commitment and desire of our team to make a real difference to the lives of people with asthma.

A key highlight at the Asthma Foundation of ACT has been the way the organisation has transformed over the last three years. We have evolved from a training based organisation to one that is delivering consumer-centred products and services that really work. We’ve increased funding, expanded our services and we’re helping even more people with asthma to breathe better. Within one year, the Asthma Foundation quadrupled the number of people with asthma we supported. We’ve diversified income streams, increased our meaningful partnerships and collaboration across the health sector, and more than tripled our overall revenue. I’m proud of my contribution and that our organisation now has a much brighter future ahead, and so do the people we support!

This has been the result of hard work, taking risks, creative problem solving, and never giving up, even when things don’t turn out the way I’d planned. I love working collaboratively, and enjoy building genuine, authentic and meaningful relationships.

Taking on the role at the Asthma Foundation of Victoria just after the devastating thunderstorm asthma event in Melbourne in 2016, is a career highlight. It’s been grounding, challenging and incredibly rewarding to be directly involved in such a large and important public health campaign. It’s been a delight to be a part of shifting the organisation’s culture to one that has staff that are energetic, creative and so committed to making a genuine difference.

Do you have any leadership advice for women in business?

Absolutely: for me, self-awareness is key to becoming an extraordinary leader – and it’s not easy! It requires continual enquiry and insight into ourselves; what makes us tick, what makes us fulfilled, what triggers us most and the type of leader we choose to be. It also enables us to gain empathy and understanding of our colleagues, stakeholders, competition and all those we engage with (and don’t engage with!)

I invite women in business to really explore and define what I coin as their ‘non-negotiables’ – the traits, characteristics, feelings, ways of being etc. that must be present in a job that enable you to thrive. Once you’ve developed them, find the workplace that fulfils them and if you can’t, start creating the culture you want in the job you’re in.

I also think it’s critical that women in business ask for help and ask for what they want. We may not always get exactly what we want, when we want it, but the real accomplishment is having the courage to ask anyway. Finally, continue to find things that inspire you, and when you are inspired or compelled to do something, take action, straight away before any of the doubts or fears creep in that stop you. Stepping out of your comfort zone and taking action is where we begin to really grow and develop – and have adventures.

What has been your most challenging experience in your career to date?

One of the biggest challenges I’ve experienced relates to witnessing the devastating impacts of politics and personal agendas at play when key decisions need to be made. I’m still working on how to navigate these interesting challenges!

What do you feel needs to happen to encourage more women into leadership roles?

The prospect of stepping into a leadership role needs to be compelling and appealing for women. We need to create environments that inspire women to want to take on these jobs and ensure they will be supported and encouraged to succeed. We need examples of amazing women who are thriving in leadership roles and still living a life they love!

The reality is organisations are in desperate need of brilliant leaders. We are facing some serious global challenges and operating in a world that is being disrupted daily. We need leaders who can empathise, who are emotionally intelligent and who have the passion, mindset and courage to make real impactful change.

I think we also need to recognise that we already have more extraordinary women leaders in this world than job titles that acknowledge that, and we need these women in influential roles, and we need them now!

You also founded raize the roof 8 years ago – what motivated you to want to help sick and disadvantaged children in Australia and Botswana? 

The inspiration for raize the roof is my best friend Brittany. She died when we were 21-years-old after a long-time battle with kidney disease. Naturally, I was devastated when she died and it made me realise how short life is and how it can change in the blink of an eye.

So a few months later, I was compelled to volunteer in an orphanage in Tanzania. This was a pivotal moment in my life as I began to see first-hand the disparity between the life I was blessed with, and the challenges facing orphaned children living in developing countries. I knew I wanted to do something, I just didn’t know what.

A few years later I was talking to my brother Lincoln, the co-founder, about wanting to make a difference to the lives of orphaned children, and I didn’t want to wait.

In that one conversation, we invented the local Canberra charity raize the roof and our vision: A world that is free of poverty, illness and suffering for all children.

We’d build a house in Canberra through fundraising and donations of time and materials. We’d auction the house and half the proceeds would support the Starlight Children’s Foundation to support seriously ill children – in memory of Brittany. The remaining proceeds would support orphaned children in Botswana through SOS Children’s Villages Botswana. And that’s how the adventure of a lifetime began!

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