July Story-Share: Advice to my teenage self, with Hannah Wandel

Our July 2016 Story-share theme was ‘Advice for my teenage self’, and featured three amazing speakers sharing the advice they would given to their 15-year-old selves, based on what they know now. Below is a transcript of the talk given by Hannah Wandel, CEO and Founder of not-for-profit, Country to Canberra, and a very inspiring young woman!


Dear 15-year-old Hannah,

You’re one of the most complicated people that I am ever going to pen a letter to. And that’s okay.

I’m writing to give you some advice about the future, because from memory, life as a teen can be a little stressful, fun, confusing, and at times, a little too much to bear. Before I go any further though, I need to give you tip number one – break up with your current boyfriend. He’s a bona fide dickhead. Any guy who hoons around in a beat up Holden, listens to 50 Cent and tells you he’s ‘just not ready to settle down right now’, needs to be given the immediate flick. Trust me, you find a very good one later on. While I’m at it, please throw away those ‘hidden’ cigarettes in your top pyjama drawer. To be real, mum never finds them. But a few years later she does get cancer, and you start appreciating just how short life truly is.

Right now though, you’re bright, 15 and living on a farm in rural South Australia. Your closest town has a population of 300. You’re sweet and incredibly idealistic, and you’re about to move to Boarding School. You’re disastrously nervous, but guess what? That turns out to be okay.

So 15-year-old Hannah. It’s time for my next piece of advice, and quite simply, it’s that at times, life will be imperfect. And that’s okay too.

It’s better to put yourself out there and fail, than not to try at all.

As a teenager, you’re pretty addicted to getting things right. You spend an hour every night practicing netball goal shooting, and for the first two and a half years of high school, you never score less than an A. Despite confident appearances, you worry about friends and how you’re perceived, but also, how and whether you’re actually going to make your mark on the world.

You’re hard on yourself, and I won’t lie, even at age 27 the pursuit of perfection is still something you fight. Last week, for example, despite speaking at an event, planning a fundraiser, hosting a dinner party, working and attending three not-for-profit meetings, you described yourself as having had a ‘B minus kind of week’. You’d failed to write back to all your emails, and in a fit of panic, poured half a bottle of Clonakilla Shiraz into your pulled pork to mask the taste of burnt meat. But what you have developed is introspection, and an ability to identify when you’re being too hard on yourself. Write down what you love about yourself and what you’re good at, and read it again and again. Over time, you’ll start building upon that self-belief and start letting the little things go.

Excitingly, what you aren’t afraid to do at age 27, is risk embarrassment or failure. Believe it or not, when you turn 24, you’ll actually have the courage to start a not-for-profit called Country to Canberra, which is a national organisation that empowers young rural and remote women to reach their leadership potential. You run multiple programs, lead a team of volunteers and run events that involve federal MPs, senators, CEOs, Defence chiefs and students.

When starting Country to Canberra, you were incredibly nervous. You were scared that you didn’t have the skills to create a business strategy, that your leadership competition wouldn’t get any entrants, that no one would attend your events, and that people would laugh at you for trying. And at times, you did fail. The Ministers for Women and Health rejected invitations to your first ever event, you didn’t win much-needed grants and you had a couple of media interviews that could have gone better. But you didn’t give up. You kept speaking with the media, and organising meetings with women like Julie Bishop. Instead of keeping your ideas a secret – so that no one could poke holes in them – you put them out there for everyone to see.

Recently, you went on a trip to Tamworth as one of the staffers with the Chief of Air Force. On the plane home, you strategically placed yourself on the plane across from the Chief, and asked him point blank if he would be a panellist for an upcoming Country to Canberra fundraiser. In this moment, you realised you were asking a man in charge of a 20,000 strong workforce, in control of dozens of fast jets and missiles, if he could speak at your grassroots gender equality event. You had butterflies in your stomach. And guess what – he said yes.

Essentially Hannah, you learnt that trying and failing is better than not trying at all, and unsurprisingly, this is when you gain the most success, and meet the most amazing people. So 15-year-old Hannah, get yourself a mentor, start speaking your ideas out loud, and as hard as it is, try not to worry what other people think. You recently went to your 10-year school reunion, and trust me, no one was talking about how they wished they were cooler in high school.

So, 15-year old Hannah, this success with Country to Canberra brings me to my next piece of advice: you’re never going to be motivated by cash. And that’s ok.

Over the next 10 years, you change your career about five times, from being a journalist right up until becoming a public servant. Don’t beat yourself up about it. All these shifts connect you with amazing people, like your mentor Natasha Stott Despoja or media skills for C2C. As you evolve, you’ll learn that you’re not interested in a big pay packet, but rather, that your career needs to be strongly linked to improving social welfare, equality and a safer society.

You wont realise it now, but a big part of this stems from when your family house burnt down at age 13. You’ll remember seeing the devastated look in your mum’s eyes when she received that phone call, learning that a freak, electrical accident turned all your possessions into ash. Despite wishing you still had mum’s wedding dress or those Madonna dance videos you made with your sisters, over time, you will stop missing them. You’ll realise that possessions don’t mean a lot to you, but rather, it’s community and relationships that matter most. It’s organisations like YWCA Canberra that raise money for domestic violence victims, it’s the Canberra Global Shapers who are working to create better local engagement for youth, and it’s your childhood best friend who spends hours searching through rubble trying to find an in-tact toy to make you smile. You’ll soon learn that community forms a critical part of your value-system, and that’s where you should place weight when choosing a job.

Which brings me to my next point, 15-year-old Hannah: do all you can to learn about inequality issues, because unfortunately, it’s still going to exist in 10, 20 and even 30 years time. And that’s not okay.

It saddens me to think that as a 15-year-old, you believe that gender inequality isn’t going to affect you. As a society, we’ve truly let you down.

I’m ashamed to tell you that in 2016, we still have a 17.9 percent gender pay gap, that the current leaders of the federal Greens, Nationals, Liberal and Labor parties are all men, all our defence chiefs are men, 94 percent of ASX 200 Chairs and CEOs are men and in Australia, at least one woman is killed as result of domestic violence every single week.

What I can tell you though, is that there’s a whole bunch of people dedicated to generating change. I can also tell you, that you don’t have to wait until you’re older to take action – as a 15-year-old, you can start fighting gender inequality right now. Don’t say ‘yes’ to a date because you don’t want to offend the person asking you. Don’t dumb yourself down to seem more likeable, and don’t be afraid to call out unacceptable behaviour like sexism at school. Over the next few years, you’re going to see boys treat your girlfriends badly, and in some cases, as disposable. Help your friends educate themselves, and reinforce their independent self-worth. As a young woman, I want to remind you that you have every right to a respectful relationship, and every right to choose the pace and depth of your friendships. Educate yourself about unconscious bias. Believe in yourself and put your hand up for leadership opportunities, because as one person, you can make an impact.

And just quickly, 15-year-old Hannah, body image is tricky. And again, that’s not ok.

I could go on for hours giving advice on this point, and perhaps I’ll write you another letter on this critical topic, that plagues so many young women across the globe. But for now, I’ll leave you with this: you’re beautiful, your body is beautiful, and the media has the power to twist minds.

Lastly, 15-year-old Hannah, for my final piece of advice, I encourage you never to stop dreaming.

In 2015, you stood at the airport with one of Country to Canberra’s Leadership Competition winners, called Ellecha. Ellecha had written an inspiring essay about becoming Prime Minister, and because of this, Country to Canberra flew her out to the ACT, gave her leadership and public speaking training, a mentor, and connected her with women like Tanya Plibersek. As you hugged Ellecha goodbye, she started crying. Ellecha said that no one had ever believed in her like this before, and she promised she would do everything in her power to reach her potential.

15-year-old Hannah, your ambition, your optimism and your challenges as a teenager, inspired the creation of Country to Canberra. Because of your perceptiveness about gender and geographical barriers, our organisation now inspires countless other 15 year olds around Australia. There will be times that people try and cut you down. Where people tell you that you’re too confident, not confident enough, or that you need to minimise your ambition. But I say remember exactly how idealistic you are right now. Write down every dream, every goal and everything you want to change about the world. If there’s anything you’ll learn as a Board Director at the Y or as the CEO of Country to Canberra, it’s that young women have phenomenal ideas, and they’ll play a critical part in creating a better future for Australia, so don’t let anyone or anything change that about you.

Thanks 15-year-old Hannah, and remember, break up with that jerk of a boyfriend.

Lots of love,



  • Sarah commented on August 5, 2016 Reply

    Made me cry! You are so inspiring Hannah. Keep up the amazing work as always. I can’t wait to see the road you travel and where it leads you.

  • Shifra commented on August 7, 2016 Reply

    So inspiring! It’s sorta sums up what I’d say to myself at 15 too!

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