Q&A: Bernie Black steps up in the brave world of leadership

When Bernie Black pitched at ADM’s 2018 Annual Funding Event, she knew exactly why she needed to be there: leadership development. Her organisation had grown and she needed help to lead well. Bernie’s idea landed and she won funding to participate in Harvard’s Kennedy School as well as in year-long mentoring through ADM’s Hub program of innovation. ADM wanted to hear about some of the things she learned in Boston—beside Red Sox baseball—knowing her insights would be helpful for others.

ADM:  In 2009, you founded the Brave Foundation in response to your own experiences as a teen parent. Tell us a bit about how the work has grown since.

Bernie: The vision of the Brave Foundation is to build a village of support and acceptance around expecting and parenting teens. Brave is the 10-year over-night success; in fact, we celebrate our 10-year anniversary in July 2019, with Her Excellency Kate Warner hosting us at Government House in Tasmania.

I am the Founding Director and essentially Brave is what I looked for and couldn’t find as a 16-year old expecting teen. I was shocked, very alone and scared at this time. So I made myself three promises late into my pregnancy: 1.) to somehow be a good mum – I’d hardly held a baby and wasn’t a maternal girl; 2.) to finish my secondary school education —I had no idea how to do this either; and 3.) if I fulfilled the first two, I would write something for others in the same situation.

In 2006, I wrote Brave Little Bear (this is the meaning of my name Bernadette), and due to its success, created Brave Foundation in 2009. Soon, people called me from all over Australia to find out how the expecting or parenting teen in their life could be connected to education and support. That was the beginning of our Directory of Services, which now has over 600 organisations listed and referred to nationally.

What I didn’t realise in the early days was that it would take time for Australia to have a conversation about how to help young parents. I learned how important it is to share a compelling vision with widely varied stakeholders. For me it’s now about knowing my audience and why my message matters to them. For example, the economic benefits of supporting young people in vulnerable situations may be more important to some, while others might care about the social impact we have.

But whether we have ever supported or known a young parent or not, we are all part of the Brave village. Just one positive voice, one ‘You can do it! ’ or one smile that smashes a stigma reminds us that we all have a role to play in helping those at risk of disadvantage, which many young parents can be. 

Bernie graduates from her leadership course at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Bernie graduates from her leadership course at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

ADM: Last year, you pitched at our 2018 Annual Funding Event. What were you hoping to get out of that experience? What happened?

Bernie: It was a very empowering experience, and one I’m grateful for. A dear mentor and friend nominated me, so I felt encouraged from the get go. At the time, I was dreaming about the possibility of learning from an executive course at Harvard’s Kennedy School in Boston, MA. But that course, “Women and Power: Leadership in a New Generation” is one I couldn’t fund myself, even though I knew it could help solidify my leadership skills while strengthening and expanding the work of Brave Foundation where I serve as CEO.

So when I filled in the application for the Annual Funding Event, I explained that I would use the prize money to pay those course fees. I was astonished when I won my category!

Not only have I been blessed by participating in the Harvard Kennedy course (even to go there!), but the growth, strategy and direction of Brave has since increased dramatically. That means we’re able to help more people at risk of experiencing disadvantage, especially expecting and parenting teens. The women and team at ADM really champion women in the unique lanes they run in. The whole experience (of AFE and The Hub) has been a massive gift, personally, spiritually and professionally.


ADM: So your dream came true and you travelled to Harvard earlier this year for its leadership course. What were some of key insights you gained during your time there?

Bernie: I learned that according to research most women are reluctant to ask questions. We likely get sweaty palms, question our questions a million times over, and even after this arduous process, we often decide not to ask the question. Research also shows that most men skip this process entirely and just ask a question without over-thinking; nor are they worried if the question doesn’t sound great. The moral of the story here is we need to ask questions and then ask more questions. Ladies, raise a hand because we need your perspective and influence.

Another key insight was realising that our vulnerability is a gift to others and can be a strength. The power of your ‘North Star’ story can also gain more traction in the career world, rather than your ‘Gold Star’ story, according to research. The Gold Star story is the one we often tell on our CV’s and biographies, which include your qualifications, roles, leadership advancement, experiences, etc. Your North Star story, however, uses your personal story of survivorship and vulnerability, and this creates a community of followers who are energised by your ideas, leadership and pioneering. When both the Gold Star and North Star elements of a person’s career and life story are told together, there is an increased opportunity for career advancement and personal joy and fulfillment. 

While in Boston, Bernie managed to catch a Boston Red Sox game.

While in Boston, Bernie managed to catch a Boston Red Sox game.

Finally, I learned about transformational and transactional leadership styles. I use a transformational leadership style, and research shows that women innately use this style because it creates longer lasting changes in a culture.

Four core ingredients of transformational leadership are:

•Individualised attention: why does what you are saying to someone matter to them?;

•Inspirational motivation: where you are taking the listener inspires them;

•Idealised themes: how connecting values and ethics with the person listening motivates them;

•Intellectual stimulation: acknowledges and challenges intellectual gifts.

Studies show women come out stronger than men in the use individualised attention.


ADM: What would you say are practical ways women can grow as leaders or as people of influence in their respective areas?

Bernie: Perseverance, passion, persistence, sacrifice and lifelong learning! Keep knocking on doors and be bold. Keep asking questions. I went to Canberra 10 years ago but we didn’t receive federal funding until 2018. We need to remember why we’re doing what we’re doing.

I now have the privilege of reading the stories of young women in our Supporting Expecting and Parenting Teen program (who we assist intensively). As I do, I learn of the promises they make themselves, changing their own lives and their child’s as well as the generations beyond. Honestly, I didn’t know if I would live to see what is currently operating across Australia and am so grateful that I kept at it to be a part of this work.

ADM: As one of the winners last year at the AFE, what advice would you give to those women who are pitching this year?

Bernie: Practice your five-minute pitch, but don’t overcook it. Authenticity is key. I wrote down five key points for each minute on a small palm card, in case I needed it, and it did help with my nerves.

By sharing a part of your personal story in your pitch, you can create a sense of transparency and vulnerability, which is a real strength. Be you— that’s who all of us want to see because the world needs your idea. Enjoy the moment and regardless of the outcome, be prepared to make connections that will last, friends you haven’t met yet!


 ADM:  What verse continues to inspire you as a woman flourishing in your work?

Bernie: “If you are faithful in the little things, you will be faithful in the large ones,” -Luke 16:10.

Find out more about our Annual Funding Event and Hub for Christian women here 

 At the Annual Funding Event (AFE), ADM awards funding to Australian Christian women to support them and multiply their effectiveness as they use their opportunities and gifts to develop gospel-shaped innovations. Applications are now open!

At the AFE, invitations will also be issued to become part of our Incubator Program. Our incubator is a community for Christian women leading for-profits, charities or community initiatives seeking to do gospel-shaped work.