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Dame Therese Walsh’s big dreams ‘It’s important to give back’

This inspirational leader is paying it forward as much as possible

Dame Therese Walsh received her distinguished title for services to sport, but unlike Dame Valarie Adams, Dame Lisa Carrington and other sporting greats who’ve won championships, she was recognised for her role in the boardroom as part of the leadership teams that helped bring the 2011 Rugby World Cup and the 2015 Cricket World Cup to New Zealand.

Despite never winning an Olympic gold medal, Dame Therese is very much a champion, making her mark in the corporate world and often being the only woman leader.

“I worked in male-dominated sports while they were coming into the professional era. It was an interesting time when there was a need to move into a modern way of doing things. I was lucky to be part of that change,” says Dame Therese, who describes how in the early days, men would stand up whenever she walked into the room.

“There’s been a lot of women who’ve gone before me who’ve broken through the glass ceiling. The most important thing for me is having multiple women joining us. That’s where change really happens.”

Dame Therese grew up in Wellington and wasn’t good at playing sports but ended up playing a major role as the chief operating officer for the 2011 Rugby World Cup and Head of NZ for the 2015 Cricket World Cup co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia.

“My involvement in sports was always as a spectator and an enthusiastic participant,” she says – and she became an extremely proud mother when her daughter, Rose, now 23, became a representative gymnast as a teenager. “That’s my claim to fame!” she laughs.

In her mentor programme On Being Bold, Dame Therese takes teens for the day “and shows them what’s possible in life… that you can be what you see”.

Born the fourth of five children, she admits school was not a priority. “I spent my high-school years not reaching my full potential because I got caught up with the social scene,” she says.

At 17, her father died unexpectedly, giving Dame Therese the motivation to make him proud. “He had hopes and dreams for me, and it was important for me to follow through.”

Dame Therese describes coming from a “no frills”, hard-working, working-class family. At 16, a year before her father’s death, her parents won Lotto, which allowed them to pay off their mortgage and travel overseas. She’s grateful her dad was able to enjoy some of the winnings before he died.

“It was a modest win and didn’t make them rich, but it did make [their] life easier.”

Dame Therese had doubts about pursuing a full-time career because she wanted to start a family with her husband Dave, who’s also a business leader and is currently the CEO of NZ Post.

“When you’re a woman, if you want children, you’re constantly wondering whether the juggle is worth it. Should I be home? Should I be at work? These questions dominated my thinking for a very long time.”

In the end, she relied on her mother and mother-in-law’s support to juggle her full-time career with raising her children, Rose and Tom, 26.

After graduating from university, she’d started her career as a chartered accountant and auditor at the accounting firm KPMG.

In 2003, she moved to the New Zealand Rugby Union. After helping to bring the rugby and cricket World Cups to Aotearoa, she became a director of New Zealand Cricket. She’s since served on many boards, was chair of TVNZ from 2015 to 2019, and is currently chair of Air New Zealand and ASB Bank.

Somehow, Dame Therese finds time in her busy schedule to mentor young women in business. She also co-founded an organisation called On Being Bold, a mentorship programme for teen girls from low socioeconomic areas.

With all her achievements, it’s no surprise that Dame Therese has been named as a Beyond Greatness Champion, one of the inspirational women from New Zealand and Australia chosen to help promote the FIFA Women’s World Cup being hosted in both nations from July 20. She says New Zealand should be proud to be co-hosting one of the biggest sporting events in the world, with an estimated TV and online audience of two billion and a boost of 30,000 soccer fans coming to New Zealand to support their teams.

The Beyond Greatness Champion is thrilled with the growing profile of women’s sport.

“When I started in sports, women’s sports did not get the same funding and the same partnerships. It’s now flipped. I feel a sense of pride that this change has happened.”

To purchase tickets to a game, visit fifa.com/tickets.

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