Barbie-Lee Kirby could be the next CEO of Qantas. She comes from a town of 1200 people.

22nd May 2021

In 2016, Barbie-Lee Kirby was an intern at Qantas when the company’s CEO, Alan Joyce, made the audacious, but not unfeasible claim that she could be the woman to takeover his job.

“Well, if a gay Irish man can be the CEO of Qantas, then so can an Aboriginal woman,” he said awarding her as CareerTracker’s 2016 Intern of the year.

Three years later, the Ngiyambaa, Baakindji and Yuwaalaraay woman is well on track.

However, while she’s currently working for the airline in their Sydney offices, her upbringing looked considerably different.

Growing up in the rural NSW town of Brewarrina, Barbie-Lee went to an all Indigenous high school, graduating with just five other students – one of them being her twin brother.

“The high school I went to, we were all Indigenous. The interaction I had with white people were with shop owners and our school teachers. Which is really, really bizarre when I look back at it,” she said.

At 12 years old, Barbie-Lee’s mum “forced” her to try out for the representative netball team. She got in.

This meant she would spend her weekends playing competitive sport in bigger cities like Maitland, Newcastle and Sydney, and introduced her to people who were doing things “outside the norm in Brewarrina”. She was also the youngest member of her team, and the only Indigenous woman, and as a result, she was exposed to conversations she wouldn’t have otherwise had.

“They were [also] 16-18 years old, so a lot older than me, [but] the kind of conversations they were having were about the subjects they were taking in high school and what they wanted to study in university,” she says.

“While my peers were up to mischief back home, I was playing netball. I was focused. I was eating right. I was training. I was being disciplined.”

When it came time for Barbie-Lee to begin her Bachelor of Business at the University of Technology in Sydney, she recalls the “culture-shock” of moving from her rural town to a major city. On one of her first days at uni, she walked into a lecture theatre filled with hundreds upon hundreds of people – a monumental shift from her high school class where her and her twin brother made up for a third of the pupils. She also found that for the first time in her life, her Indigenous identity as a “fair-skinned” person was being questioned.

“It was the biggest struggle I’ve had to endure so far,” she says.

“I was in shock to be honest. Moving to Sydney I had to justify why my name is Barbie and add in ‘how are you black?’ on top of that. That was a challenge in itself.

“I had the feeling that I really didn’t belong here, especially at UTS. You have a lot of private school students who end up graduating together. They already know each other, and they’re already in their cliques.”

Allowing for an adjustment period, she eventually found her own community of like-minded individuals. Thanks to a program called CareerTrackers, which links Indigenous students with paid corporate and government internships, she went from a finance accounting internship with Qantas, to nabbing one of their six coveted finance graduate positions, to now working as a manager in their corporate governance sector.

And while her capabilities were evident, the process wasn’t without its challenges.

“Every single one of those graduates [had] family members who [were] accountants, [ran] their own accounting firms, or [were] executives in companies like Qantas. So they [had] sounding boards. I didn’t,” she says.

Instead, this experience encouraged her to find We Pledge, a program in which Indigenous women mentor Indigenous students looking to get into similar industries. The idea for her project came to her when she realised that although she had access to a range of mentors, there was nobody who could relate to her Indigenous background.

“It’s really difficult to find a mentor who’s experienced what you have experienced, and I think it’s important that as young Indigenous professionals, we know the obligation and responsibility of giving back to our own,” she says.

“It would be so unfortunate if we forget to reach back and help the others out. Not only will we have a gap between us and non-Indigenous people, we’d have a much greater gap between ourselves.”

“I’ve had opportunities growing up that enabled me with different experiences,” she continues, recalling her involvement in representative netball, CareerTrackers and her Qantas internship.

“My peers however, did not. That’s not to say they weren’t capable. There were people in my class who were smarter than me, that were more driven than me. I just had different experiences.”

With everything Barbie-Lee has achieved, she’s not afraid to take ownership of her accomplishments, and so she should. Not only is she thriving at Qantas, she also sits on an external advisory committee for prestigious law firm, DLA Piper, and is a Director at NASCA (National Aboriginal Sporting Chance Academy).

“There are so many times I’ve downplayed myself, for the comfort of other people,” she says.

“I got to a point where I didn’t feel as though I needed to justify myself anymore. I know who I am, I’m proud of who I am, and the colour of my skin does not define who I am. Your opinion of me does not matter, because my blackness isn’t measured by how you view me.

“I strive to be the best, don’t we all?”

Listen to Barbie-Lee’s conversation with Marlee Silva on the podcast, Tiddas 4 Tiddas click here