Ask Juliet Riseley what her husband, Rotary International President Elect Ian Riseley, enjoys the most about Rotary, and without a moment’s hesitation she says: “It is clearly the people. There is a New Zealand saying (a Maori proverb) he tangata, he tangata, he tangata… it’s the people, it’s the people, it’s the people. And for Ian, it is always the people. He gets such a lift from the enthusiasm that is there in Rotary. And there are so many ordinary Rotarians who have done such extraordinary things, and that is what both of us enjoy the most about Rotary.” She herself is a Past District Governor.
We are seated in PDG Ashok Gupta’s spacious office at the IIS University in Jaipur where Riseley (pronounced rise-lee) is the chief guest for the MDPETS of Districts 3060 and 3054. It’s been a whirlwind and hectic trip of India; after Bengaluru, Chennai, Madurai, Khopoli, they are now in Jaipur and headed next to Mumbai. If they are exhausted, they mask it well, and with absolute grace, pose for photographs with Rotarians.
Juliet and I place great emphasis on the need for quality education and I tell my children if we’ve given you nothing else, we’ve given you possibly the best education.
At the dinner, where Riseley loves the vegetarian fare — he is a vegetarian by choice from the age of 27 — he displays a great sense of humour, is full of fun and wears his senior Rotary leadership role lightly… without any fuss, frills or fluster. What comes to mind is the image of the President-Elect at the International Assembly in San Diego, swaying/dancing his way up to the stage before and after every speaker, to peppy music clips he had personally chosen, “to match the personality of the speaker”.
Career in accounting
Born and raised in Melbourne, Riseley became an accountant as his aunt worked in an accounting firm and “it seemed like a good career at a time when direct entry into universities was difficult and expensive, unless you had a scholarship and I wasn’t smart enough to get one of those,” he smiles.
So he went into accounting business, did his studies part time, tertiary education later, including a part time Masters course, and today runs the immensely successful Ian Riseley & Co. Growing up, an important value he imbibed from his parents was hard work. “My father worked at two jobs at a time, mainly to enable me and my four siblings to have a good education, which he firmly believed in. Juliet and I place great emphasis on the need for quality education and I tell my children if we’ve given you nothing else, we’ve given you possibly the best education.”
So why did he join Rotary? “This may sound frivolous, but because I was asked.”
He was invited to speak at a Rotary club, “they seemed like nice people”, and then when they approached him a couple of weeks later saying that a new club was being chartered, and would he like to join, “I asked Juliet for her opinion. She was happy with the concept that it broadens our acquaintance levels.” At the ‘interest meeting’, he found “all the business and community leaders of the suburb where we lived were present. We had fun, enjoyed ourselves and when the structure of what Rotary does was explained, I thought why would I not want to be involved in this group which had the crème de le crème of that area?”
I love the music I grew up with in the 1950s. In my early teens, I’d have a small transistor next to my bed and listen to that music and go to sleep listening to music.
So he joined the Rotary Club of Sandringham in 1978. Much later, in 1995, Juliet followed him into Rotary, when Riseley’s club was asked to charter a new club. Of course by 1995 women were able to join Rotary; “Australia took up the idea of membership of both genders very easily, and my club has always been 50 per cent male and 50 per cent female, and very different to Ian’s club which was mostly male,” says Juliet.
Riseley quickly jumps in to defend his club; “what is important is that my club was one of the first in Australia to quickly endorse the idea of women entering Rotary. In fact, we were promoting it prior to the Council on Legislation, which finally passed it and we have been very strongly in favour of women in Rotary from the early stages and had women members even before Juliet entered Rotary.”
Women in Rotary
So what have women brought to Rotary?
“Well, I could again be flippant and say numbers, but it’s much more than that. It is a different perspective, a different set of life experiences, and in particular, representation of the broader community,” he says.
Riseley adds that in 1978, when he joined Rotary, and women weren’t allowed in Rotary, “it just didn’t occur to me that this was possible. I just didn’t think how come the membership of our club is all male. And when I came to realise this fact, I was very strongly involved in changing that position.”
While over 100 years ago, when Rotary was founded, “there were fewer women in a position to join an organisation such as Rotary, this is not the case now, and every club would certainly benefit from having a significant number of women Rotarians,” he maintains.
What Juliet brings, apart from her very sharp mind on just about everything, is her varied experiences on Rotary issues. I am unbelievably fortunate to have her as my advisor.
Riseley received the Australian government’s AusAID Peacebuilder Award in 2002 in recognition of his work in East Timor-Leste. He has also received the Order of Australia medal in 2006 for his service to the community. On the East Timor award, he says that for long decades a strong affinity between Australia and East Timor has existed, and when he was DG, one of the clubs in his district started a programme for a manufacturing facility to provide roofing that had been destroyed in the civil war, to orphanages, schools and hospitals. This project also served another crying need of the community, which was employment after the guerrilla fighters had been immobilised. “So setting up this facility also provided employment to the local people and the project was a raging success.”
Priorities as RI President
Riseley has served RI as treasurer, director, trustee, RI Board Executive Committee member, etc. On his priorities as RI President, Riseley says, “I’ll be very happy if at the end of my year of Rotary leadership, the world knows more about Rotary than it does now.” In his speech at the Jaipur MDPETS, he had urged Rotarians to keep an account of the hours of community work they clock in. This, he says, comes also from “my professional curiosity” to keep an account of the number of hours Rotarians put in as volunteers. Till now, the Rotary world has no clue about this collective figure, which when available would give Rotary image coordinators something specific to talk about.
Riseley is also very passionate about the environment and asks all Rotary leaders to ensure that at least one tree per member is planted per club; this would make our planet greener by at least 1.2 million trees in the coming year.
On his passion for environmental issues, he points out that Past RI President Paulo Costa from Brazil had introduced the Preserve Planet Earth programme in Rotary, “but I don’t think we’ve done much about it since then. I think this issue is becoming increasingly important to the world and Rotary can’t turn a blind eye to it. It is a vital part of our life today and there are many opportunities for us to make a difference,” he says.
I ask him about Clem Renouf, a very popular Past RI President from Australia; is he a role model? “Oh absolutely. Juliet and I were so lucky to spend some time with him last year. He is a special human being and I’ve read so many things about him in Rotary history, particularly on the start of the polio immunisation programme.” Riseley strongly recommends reading “a relatively small book Renouf has written on the interesting time when PolioPlus was launched. “It is such an interesting read.”
Ian is an extraordinarily talented individual, with a strong sense of purpose, the highest of ethical values and a ready wit. He will watch costs and bring about a casual management style that only the Aussies can, and yet
hit every target he has set.
– Past RI President K R Ravindran
His theme is Rotary making a difference. But with the world we live in getting more and more turbulent with all kinds of negatives — from terrorist attacks to civil wars/rebellions triggering a massive refugee crisis, what kind of difference can Rotary hope to make?
“Often we forget that times are almost always turbulent and there is always a need and opportunities available for organisations like Rotary to make a difference. We have 35,000 clubs; the work these clubs do can certainly make a difference,” he says confidently.
That confidence stems from his recent tours during which “I’ve seen some amazingly good programmes and projects that Rotary clubs have done to meet the community’s needs. It’s inspirational. They just have to continue doing that.”
In RI circles Riseley has the reputation of being a “fun guy”; the introductory video at the Jaipur MDPETS had an image of him wearing a raincoat-like polythene apron and eating watermelon, seated beside RI General Secretary John Hewko. Asked to elaborate, he says, “Oh, that was at the Rotary staff picnic. They have an annual picnic on the lakefront in Evanston; it’s a fun day and they do all sorts of things, like playing volleyball. One of the activities this time was that you have to eat what I thought was going to be a piece of watermelon. But it turned out to be a massive wedge. Our hands were tied at the back and they gave us a (polythene) poncho to keep ourselves vaguely dry or else we would have been terribly sticky!”
Along with Hewko and some senior staff members, the contest began. “While most of us lowered ourselves on the watermelon and went munch, munch, there is this guy from the IT department who, most amazingly, was able to pick up the entire wedge by his teeth and he won.”
But Riseley is much more than a ‘funny and fun guy’; Past RI President K R Ravindran has interacted with him at close quarters as the Chairman of his Korea Convention in 2016. Perhaps the only thing wrong with the nomination of Ian Riseley as President is that it was long overdue, he says, adding, “In fact if he had put in his name at the time I did, he undoubtedly should have been picked ahead of me and I have no qualms in saying that.”
Often we forget that times are almost always turbulent and there is always a need and opportunities available for organisations like Rotary to make a difference.
– RIPE Ian Riseley
Ravindran describes Riseley as an “extraordinarily talented individual, with a strong sense of purpose, the highest of ethical values and a ready wit. He will have a careful watch on costs and bring about a casual management style that only the Aussies can, and yet hit every target he has set. He is a strict vegetarian and is an encyclopaedia of knowledge on any sporting event whether it be ice hockey or women’s netball, American football or lacrosse!”
Grateful for his good fortune that he had “a person of his calibre chair for me at the Korea Convention”, Ravindran adds, “The record speaks for itself; an attendance of 45,000 and a profit close to $ 2.5 million. The Rotary world will benefit from his leadership.”
At a glance
Music: Just about everything. I am not a huge Rap fan, I should say, but I’d love to be able to sing; to carry a musical instrument with me at all times would be fabulous. I will not say I am tuneless. What I will say is that I can hear a tune really clearly, but it just doesn’t manifest itself very well in what comes from me! (Juliet chuckles away). There is good music in every era of course, but I love the music I grew up with in the 1950s. In my early teens, I’d have a small transistor next to my bed and listen to that music and go to sleep listening to music. I simply love music.
Sports: I used to play cricket but obviously can’t now. But I am a very keen golfer, and am blessed with a membership in Royal Melbourne, one of the world’s greatest golf clubs and among the top ten. I love the place. It is a kind of escape from day-to-day, which is wonderful. These days I simply don’t find the time to play golf, but will go back to it. Juliet doesn’t play golf, though. (She: ‘It spoils a good walk!’)
Fitness: The one thing that is most difficult about being RI President Elect is finding the time to exercise, which I am missing. I feel sluggish and am putting on weight. My exercise of choice? Twice a week a group of us back in Melbourne get together and we walk 7 km and just talk about the world, and that is fun.
Food: I am a vegetarian, Juliet is not; when I was 27, I gave up eating non-vegetarian food. I am blessed to be in India where you get such delicious vegetarian food. But I put on weight every time I am here!
Cooking: I am a master chef at eggs (“he can make a good omelette,” Juliet says approvingly), I crack eggs very well and I can do soups which are so nutritious and full of wholesome ingredients.
Favourite cuisine: You can tell from my shape … most of them!
Religious: Not very, but I am spiritual in the sense of being a vegetarian. I don’t go to church but we follow the basic tenets of Christianity.
Family: A son, who is an outstanding lawyer and a daughter, who has expertise in corporate sustainability and good reputation and she runs her own company. She is extremely successful.
Reading: When I have time, which isn’t often, I love to read, and Juliet will tell you there is a pile of books back in Australia waiting to be read. I get the Harvard Business Review every month and I enjoy it very much. A Rotarian in the US, knowing I am a fan of the Green Bay Packers, a professional American football team, gave me a book on a player called Bart Starr who was their quarterback in the ‘60s, and I am reading it now.
All-time favourite book: Because I enjoy being amused, my all-time favourite is Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and the Trilogy books. I tend to read something that is light and enjoyable, rather than serious, in-depth reading.
Future of Rotary: Rotary has a massive future, and a future with great opportunities. We have a critical mass of 1.2 million Rotarians who are so focussed on doing humanitarian work. And now that women are taking an appropriate level of not just participation but also responsibility in our organisation which is bound to improve, and with that the public perception of Rotary will improve as well.
Rotary in Australia: Its membership is between stable and stagnant and in fact like in so many other countries, there is a big opportunity for Rotary in Australia and we need to grasp the nettle and encourage more people to take part… Rotarians are doing some great projects in Australia.
She will be the first past governor to be the partner of the RI President. What she brings, apart from her very sharp mind on just about everything, is her varied experiences on Rotary issues. She has been a club president more recently than me, and a District Governor in 2011-12, as also a club secretary, which I have never been, and she is a very keen and astute observer of Rotary issues. I am unbelievably fortunate to have her as an advisor.
India’s importance to the Rotary world
So how important is India to the Rotary world, I ask RI President Elect Ian Riseley. “Well, it is important in many ways, and not just in numbers. As (RI) Director Manoj (Desai) pointed out, you will soon go from 2.5 to 4 Zones.”
Which will only increase my headache, as I’ll have more Directors to deal with, I joke. Riseley grins sympathetically and says, “But the good news is that future directors will be easier to deal with than Manoj (Desai)!”
On a serious note, he adds that one of the advantages India brings to Rotary is membership development, along with countries such as Korea and Taiwan, making up for the regions where membership is falling. “But it is not just numbers. Take Foundation giving, for example. What a tremendous change has taken place in the last 20 years when India was, for a long time, the beneficiary of Foundation giving. Now it is a net donor. This is fabulous. That is one of the reasons why it is important.”
But, he adds grimly, a really important fact and “the only one potential reason that can stop India from being a pre-eminent nation in the Rotary world is that you have so many election disputes and arguments that happen. I don’t know what causes them; it is not for me to say. But I do know that it denigrates Rotary in India when that happens.”
But take away that, Riseley reiterates, “Rotary in India is achieving great things, implementing some great projects, which I got to see during this visit, and has a bright future.”