Women in Business Q&A: Danielle Chiel, Director, Danielle Chiel Luxury HandKnits

The story of Danielle Chiel HandKnits began with Danielle's passion for the knitting craft, and a mission to make exquisite and unique hand-knitted garments that offer beauty, quality, and individuality. This passion has materialised in her Danielle Chiel high-end Australian fashion label, which specialises in the artisan hand-knitting of visually stunning, sensuously indulgent, high-quality garments.

The Danielle Chiel label also makes a difference. Adding to the 'richness' of its range is the inspiring story that surrounds its personalised production. All garments are individually hand-knitted by women who live in rural villages in the south of India. These women transform the highest quality fibres into the label's high-end pieces. They have acquired and impeccably honed a lifetime skill, and the income they earn from their work helps to support and improve their lives and the lives of their families.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
This is an interesting question. In reflecting on it, I've learned things about myself that I had never contemplated! I realize now that I was given the first opportunity of leadership when I was quite young--as an Australian Brownie, a Girl Guide, and ultimately, as a Queens Guide. As I worked my way up this 'ladder', I had to take others on camping trips and sleep outs; without my knowing it, these responsibilities were probably establishing my early leadership skills. At the same time, because I was an only child, my mother would bring home children from orphanages to keep me company, so I guess I 'lead the way' at home too. After leaving school, I became a teacher, and this (though, again, it wasn't recognized until later) further cemented my leadership and role-model tendencies.

During my early childhood experiences (because they were, in one sense, somewhat rocky) and to this day, I have also sought out others to be my role models. So, I have always had in my life, initially for survival and later for support and guidance, others to whom I could turn when I needed them. I have always admired leaders too, and enjoy hearing their journey.

Most importantly, I have learned to take my own lead, because I have always had faith and trust in myself to know what is best for me. I guess this faith and trust in myself is facilitated by my faith and trust in other people, and in the world. It also allows me to readily share my experiences with those around me, especially the amazing and rewarding experiences from my work in India.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as Director of Danielle Chiel Luxury HandKnits?
I have been formally employed for a very short period (5 years) of my life--as a high school chemistry, maths and music teacher. Needless to say, the teaching role involves, demands, and develops numerous skills, such as creative, organisational, leadership, communication, and people management skills--to name but a few!

Perhaps an even greater influence has been my study for my PhD in Musiclology. Anyone who has done their doctorate will tell you that it has given them more than that fetching piece of paper; it also provides organisational and analytical skills of the highest order--not to mention the sheer and dogged diligence, determination and commitment that is needed to get through the four year process! And all of these are essential to success in leadership and in business.

What have some of the highlights and challenges been in your position as Director of Danielle Chiel, Luxury Hand Knits?
My luxury handknits for the Danielle Chiel label are produced in rural knitting hubs in the south-western Indian state of Tamil Nadu. My Indian company there not only produces the garments for my own label, but also for other luxury brands that wish to offer handknits as part of their range.

I can't begin to tell you the challenges and adventures that have brought me to this point in my working life! When Australia's new industrial legislation made my business untenable in the Australian context, I had to find another country where I could have my label's garments produced. This led me on a complex spiral of learning the social, cultural and administrative customs and requirements of the amazing India. Not to mention needing to address the challenges of recruiting, and language, and visas, and pattern translation and training...! While my head continues to spin, I have overcome all of these hurdles in 18 months and feel that I've conquered the invincible. And loving it!

Tell us about the charitable arc attached the company.
I take great pleasure in knowing that my business supports the women's communities. The employment they receive allows them to stay in their rural villages, and thus maintain their strong family values, traditional culture, and lifestyle. The money they receive allows them a level of financial independence they have never had before and this, in turn, has flow-on benefits for their children As my business and presence in India grows, I am establishing special projects to enhance the women's living conditions; my current goal, for example, is to raise the funds to ensure a readily available drinking water supply for each village where I have a knitting group or groups. The communities themselves will be heavily involved in this project.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire American leaders such as Hilary Clinton (ex-US Secretary of State, and current US presidential candidate), Arianna Huffington (columnist, author, editor) and Jane Wurwand (Dermatologia), who, in my view, are nothing short of extraordinary. I am also inspired by my Australian compatriots Emma Isaacs (Business Chicks), Lisa Messenger (the Collective Magazine), and Cathy Bourke (the Hunger Project) who I also feel are amazing leaders.

These women have numerous admirable qualities that contribute to their successful leadership. But if I were to single out just one of these many qualities for emulation in each case, it would be Hilary's resilience, Arianna's versatility, Emma's drive, Lisa's creativity, and Cathy's compassion.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I believe that if you continually strive to be the best person you can, age and gender should never be an issue. I do feel, though, that I am in a unique position to be a great role model for my Indian women artisans in this regard. They live in a traditionally male-dominated society, so I feel proud that the employment I give them enables them to gain some social and financial independence, and some control over their own futures. What's more, as an independent woman with my own business, I like to think that I am a great role model for my Indian knitters. In fact, I am ever conscious of ways I can positively motivate and influence them.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I probably have a natural tendency to work too much. However, my partner Peter makes an enormous contribution to remind me to keep a balance. Whenever I am with him or our adult children (six between us!), I am 100% with them. I even turn off my phone or (better still!) frequently leave it behind when we go out. Having learned to 'cut off' in this way, we have wonderful family meals and holidays together.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?
I was recently privileged to be on Richard Branson's Necker Island for a business leadership program organized by http://businesschicks.com.au and www.virgin.com/unite. There, Australian Business Chicks owner and director Emma Isaacs shared a wonderful expression: "Just say 'yes' and figure it out later." I completely endorse her advice. Be brave and go for it! Creativity will help you find the way to your goals. So, if I were asked for some words of wisdom for women seeking to start their own business, I would simply say: Go for it!

What do you want to personally and professionally accomplish in the next year?
Personally, I would like to travel with my partner to the Northern Lights, and share more time with my family. It is rare for all of us to spend more than a few hours together. I would love to have either a full week or a weekend away with either all, or any combination of, the eight of us.

Professionally, I would like to employ more and more women. During my last visit to India, I partnered with Apne Aap Women, (www.apneaap.org) an organization that rescues women from the sex trafficking trade, teaches them skills and subsequently employs them. It is both amazing and rewarding to watch how women flourish when given the circumstances to do so. I am seeking to partner with other high-end businesses that are interested in both fashion, and in supporting such ventures so that as much support can be given to these women as possible.