Sarah Backhouse - A voice for sustainability

Sarah Backhouse BJapS ‘94, BEc ‘94, President, The ANU Foundation USA
19 May 2020

Sarah is a global communications leader, who graduated from ANU in 1994 with a Bachelor degree in Economics and Japanese Studies. She shares her career journey of over 20 years as an eco-journalist, broadcaster, entrepreneur and executive.

Why did you choose to study at ANU?

I was drawn to ANU because of its world-class economics and Asian studies programs. Being a local also helped. Our family had moved to Canberra just two years earlier, as my father had accepted a teaching position as a Professor of Japanese Linguistics at ANU.

In what way did ANU prepare you for a global career?

I was amongst the first students who could transition from a broader Asian Studies degree to a specific language degree, which in my case was Japanese. This included a one-year study aboard program, and I found myself living in the heart of Tokyo, my mother's birth city, studying at Keio University. This allowed me to interact with students from around the world, immerse myself in Japanese society and opened my eyes to careers I would have never imagined, like bilingual newscasting.

What has been your biggest professional challenge?

Shuttering my online media company, Future360, was one of my toughest professional decisions. It was a platform to highlight advancements in clean technologies and their positive impact on the planet. It was not only my job but also my passion.

I had received a job offer from World 50 to lead a community of Chief Sustainability Officers from Fortune 500 companies. The overall impact I could make in the field of sustainability made it an opportunity too good to refuse. While it wasn't easy to walk away from something I had built from scratch, I have never looked back.

Sarah Backhouse and Al Gore
Sarah Backhouse and Al Gore

Who has been your greatest inspiration and why?

Al Gore. 2006 was the year his documentary An Inconvenient Truth was released. It was also the year I became a mother. Those two events motivated me to dedicate my TV career to raising awareness around environmental issues.

I went on to collaborate with Mr Gore for many years as a host on 24 Hours of Reality, a live broadcast to raise awareness on climate change. His unwavering passion for climate, his level of energy through political campaigns and marathon TV broadcasts alike, and finally, his humour and humility are a constant source of inspiration.

What is the best advice that you have received that you still follow?

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” -- a quote I first heard at a Women’s Leadership Summit more than a decade ago. Since then, I have embraced challenges that were daunting knowing they provide an opportunity for growth.

What advice would you give to a recent graduate?

Seize opportunities to work abroad. Be open to changing careers. Don’t underestimate the importance of soft skills. Stay in touch with your ANU alumni network.

What is your favourite story from ANU?

There are quite a few from when I was co-editor of the student newspaper Woroni. I remember all-nighters with the team proofreading articles or arranging layouts to meet deadlines. It was an invaluable experience and incredibly fun.

Do you have any goals you would like to achieve as Chair of the ANU Foundation USA Board?

I want to continue to build the ANU alumni community in the US, and also create opportunities to convene and share ideas and experiences – like a virtual happy hour, which is coming soon! Another goal is to establish an ANU Foundation USA Board scholarship.

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