Sarah Matthee Corporate Coordinator Engineers Without Borders Australia  / 
Ruffling Feathers

story / Interview / November 29, 2015

I completed my law and chemical engineering double degree at the University of Melbourne. A lot of chemical engineering involves the creation of carbon dioxide, yet out of the whole chemical engineering course, we had only one lecture about climate change and it was simply a screening of the Al Gore movie An Inconvenient Truth. I wrote to the head of Department asking how they were preparing us for the carbon constrained challenges we would face as chemical engineers. It may have ruffled a few feathers.

My interest in Engineers Without Borders (EWB) started because I was sitting in my engineering lectures thinking ‘What is the point of all of these equations?’ and ‘Where is the human side of engineering?’ Learning third degree differential equations and calculating heat transfers did not reflect why chemical engineering was so important to society, or what responsibility we had as chemical engineers to the wider community. EWB showed me what a difference engineering solutions can make to those who don’t have access to clean water, safe sanitation, or appropriate shelter. EWB showed me the pressing need for engineers and their skills, to make a difference. I also found that EWB’s approach was positive and rights based, rather than playing on fear or guilt. It encouraged me to question. I got really involved in the EWB chapter at university and was also a Director of the organisation for a time.

I initially decided to work in corporate litigation law for a couple of years. I saw the learning and training opportunities for personal and professional development as being really powerful. For me, the legal system governs a lot of what we do, so understanding the system is important.

Coming back to EWB after working at the firm, I was looking for opportunities to support pro bono work through the engineering and built environment sector. In law, pro bono activity is a lot more institutionalised. Lawyers are known for their pro bono work. But engineers are not. We need to profile and celebrate pro bono in the built environment, to encourage more firms to get involved. At the same time, we also need a place for community organisations to come for information and advice. For example, an organisation might know they need a building refurbished, a road surveyed, or a contamination test on the ground soil of a prospective site. That’s where EWB Connect comes in to provide the connection, and support the process.

One of the things I found really frustrating growing up was hearing stories of engineers volunteering at soup kitchens during their company’s ‘service day’. Don’t get me wrong, the need for soup kitchen assistance is incredibly valid, but I wondered whether this was the most valuable way that these engineers could give back to the community. One of the examples I often use is the potential leverage value.  If an engineering company has a choice between sponsoring an event for say $40,000, or putting that $40,000 in an internal budget towards their employees hourly rate and overheads – the ‘billed out’ value of that pro bono service could be over say $100,000 of engineering services. The social impact of this leverage is so great.

My role now is Corporate Coordinator at EWB. It involves working with our corporate partners nationally on a range of different projects and opportunities. I think corporate responsibility means different things for different companies. It often comes from a different place and intention. I think we’re seeing increasingly with our generation, that there are so many more people looking for purpose in their everyday work. We’re seeing this shift of companies starting to look for more opportunities to benefit the people and communities around them. There’s a growing recognition that businesses should deliver social good.

When I was becoming frustrated working in law, I had all these thoughts swirling through my mind. I thought, ‘I’m not loving this. What else should I be doing? What am I good at? Where should I be spending my time?’ To compartmentalise all that, I had a little journal where I kept inspirational quotes that appealed to me, or things that resonated with me – good or bad. By the end of the year, I had this whole collection of stuff that I loved, or I didn’t like. I think that finding what speaks to you is really important. Find the organisation or the group of people who you enjoy spending time with, and look up to. There were many people at the law firm who questioned my decision to leave the firm in order to work at EWB. Don’t be afraid of ruffling feathers, because sometimes it has to be done, and sometimes it helps you sleep at night.

I relax by putting my hands in the dirt. There is something really grounding about weeding, planting, or sitting out in the paddock watching the lambs jump around, or laugh as our goats push me over! It puts things in perspective, and gives me some space.

I once heard from a non-profit CEO talk on the stumbling blocks she encountered during any given week and how she solves them. She has to go to a space that works for her. It’s an art gallery. She travels there once a week and just sits there with her book. She looks around and within the hour all of those stumbling blocks she’s had that week, she’s solved. She found, if she didn’t go there, it didn’t happen. It’s finding what works for you, recognising the importance of the right atmosphere and finding space. Having said that, I’m a stress pot! I have a lot to learn about how to best solve my stumbling blocks!

My dad has a story he tells of when I watched a poaching documentary at the age of four, on these Australian native birds being sent overseas into horrid conditions. He talks of me running into my room and crying for days. He thought, ‘Oh no, we’ve got a vegetarian!’ For me, right and wrong, has always been really important. I get really frustrated when I see people playing the game to their advantage, when it is to the detriment of others. I don’t think that is right. I think that’s part of what attracted me to law, and attracts me to working in the non profit space. There’s just so many people who are values driven, and we’re operating in a space where the driver is to make a positive difference.

We were blown away when Sarah started emailing us from South Africa on her honeymoon! We went down to meet her at Mossy Willow Farm (@mossywillowfarm), which she runs with her husband Simon in Mainridge. Enjoying the first blooms of spring, our tour of the farm included being head butted by Red the goat while we admired the naked alpacas, cows, chooks and countless sheep milling about. Sarah’s hospitality was overwhelming. Over tea and rhubarb pie, she was so eager to share her thoughts on womens advocacy and ensuring our community is being held accountable for tackling the hard issues. Sarah is kind hearted and warm, yet doesn’t shy away from speaking her mind. She’s a force to be reckoned with. We walked away feeling inspired. It’s true. One person can really make a difference. Find your calling and run with it. Thank you Sarah. 

2 thoughts on “Sarah Matthee Corporate Coordinator Engineers Without Borders Australia

Anna Houston   November 30, 2015 at 8:04 pm

What an inspirational young lady. You can really feel the energy she exudes. Makes you reevaluate what’s important. Thanks for sharing her story and the countless other amazing stories. Very inspiring!

danielle   December 6, 2015 at 6:05 pm

Thanks Anna, I think that’s something we don’t do enough – evaluate what’s important to us!
Glad you are finding Gazella inspiring! -D