Susan Oliver: Built Environment

"I am a director of CNPR, which I co-founded in 2013. This is an angel investing network comprising mainly women and we invest in women-led start-ups."

In the 1970s Susan Oliver, ASX company director and tech investor, graduated with a Bachelor of Building into a deeply male dominated industry. Her career trajectory marks key moments in the recent history of Melbourne development – managing Victoria’s first urban renewal project in Emerald Hill; working with Merchant Builders; joining the board of Transurban in 1995 as the Citylink project was about to commence.

Tell us a little about your background

While my peers were mostly men on graduation, I had supporters – some amazingly forward-thinking men and women. Professor Leo Simon encouraged and supported me, his first female student, and wonderful women such as Blanche Merz, Elizabeth Caldicott and Helen Tippett, all of whom were firsts in their fields. I hit my head on glass ceilings as I tried to find a place where I could work at full stretch. I was appointed as Head of the Australian Commission for the Future and had the pleasure of working with Barry Jones, Nugget Coombs and Derek Denton. Working in Merchant Builders in the heady days with Professor David Yencken, Jan Faulkner and Kevin Greenhatch was amazing. Following that period, I moved into senior government roles, then into the private sector in technology strategy. I have pursued a board career since my Transurban appointment and have served on listed and private companies over a period of more than 20 years. I am a Fellow and Councillor of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am an independent member of the investment committee of Industry Funds Management, which has more than $100b in assets under management and is one of the very large investors in infrastructure in the world. I am a director of CNPR. I chair scale investors which I co-founded in 2013. This is an angel investing network comprising mainly women and we invest in women-led start-ups. We have invested more than $7m in 13 start-ups. I chair The Wheeler Centre and am a board member of the Melbourne Theatre Company and of the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra.

Which female built environment professionals are currently inspiring you?

I am working with a small group of graduates from the Faculty on an alumni group for women in architecture, building and planning (Women of ABP), and I am in awe of their commitment, organisation, and intelligence. Their names are Katya Crema, Angie Darby, Danielle Savio and Justine Hadj.

What has been your proudest career achievement to date?

There are many achievements that I am proud of. However, I am proud of the person I am and the values that I practice and hopefully pass onto others. I have a big commitment to making the future a better place and supporting social justice and cohesion.

What would be your dream project?

I wish we could have taken Merchant Builders and its vision into the future. The built environment needs affordable, quality housing that supports society and the environment.

What do you think women offer the built environment professions? What would you like to see more of from women?

It is hard not to generalise – at their best, women are not fooled into thinking that the world is simple. We see the linkages and relationships and therefore search for better solutions.

This article originally appeared in the Melbourne School of Design's Atrium magazine.

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