We want to be the first to welcome you to the April ‘Stella Women Series’ and introduce you to the incredible Liz Dawes, a passionate community leader and businesswoman who founded the Robert Conner Dawes foundation after she tragically lost her son Conner to brain cancer in 2013. Liz has turned the tragedy of losing her son Conner into her purposeful mission to help others affected by this relatively unknown disease. Liz’s other greatest fight was in her career; against sexism, ageism and the stigma attached to being that ‘Grieving mother’. Liz has used those stereotypes to motivate her on her journey and give hope to other children and families globally who are also in the fight of their lives against this disease.
We sat down with Liz to chat about the work she has done and what’s next for her and the foundation.
We can imagine this never gets easier to talk about but can you tell us about Connor’s illness and what he was diagnosed with?
My son Connor was diagnosed with an ependymoma, a type of brain tumour, when he was 17 years old in 2011. He passed away 16 months later when he was 18 years old in 2013.
You said, “I love what I’m doing, I hate why I’m doing it”. Can you tell us more about the foundation Liz and the work you have undertaken since Connor’s passing?
Shortly after Connor passed away, we knew we wanted to do something to keep his spirit alive. Connor had such a great personality and promising life ahead of him – and we wanted to do something in his name, to celebrate him and also, to change the odds for paediatric brain cancer. We didn’t know at the time, that paediatric brain cancer is the number one disease killer of young people in Australia – and we’re determined in Connor’s memory to change those odds.
We founded the Robert Connor Dawes (RCD) Foundation in 2013, just a few months after Connor died. Our Foundation has now raised over eight million dollars. We started with, what is now, our signature event Connor’s Run, which we are now in the process of planning our ninth iteration of. This event is now the largest event in Australia for paediatric brain cancer, where we have 5000 people participating on one day. Last year because of COVID we had to reimagine how Connor’s Run would look, and we came up with Connor’s Run “Your Way, Any Day” in September.
When Connor was unwell, he undertook yoga therapy. During his yoga lessons, his instructor wanted to lead him through an affirmation – an intention beginning with “I will…” and Connor could finish it any way he wanted. He looked at his yoga instructor and said, “I will be awesome.” The participants of Connor’s Run all have the chance to write an “I will” on their participant bid and also when registering, have the chance to register an “I will”. It could be anything as simple as something you want, or if you so wished, could make it a bigger challenge for yourself.
Connor’s Run is our biggest event, but we also have Go Grey In May, which is held during brain cancer awareness month. We engage with schools, companies and individuals to celebrate their own grey matter by doing something healthy for themselves whilst helping us raise money and awareness for paediatric brain cancer.
What did you focus on in your career before starting the RCD Foundation? What key skills did your early career teach you?
I am from Wisconsin, United States. Before our family moved overseas, I worked for a manufacturing company for 13 years and I had a wide variety of marketing jobs within that company. All of those jobs have been valuable in my current position as CEO and Founder of the RCD Foundation. One of those jobs was industry marketing and it made me understand that every business is part of an industry and in turn for us, with paediatric brain cancer, connecting with the industry, sponsoring industry meetings, working to fund research that is connected not only Australia but also the US – we also started our foundation in the US in 2013 as well. So, the ability to work together between the two countries, from a foundation standpoint, has been really helpful in driving research, helping connect researchers to each other, because we are very much aware that paediatric brain cancer is not going to be cured in one lab in one country, it really is going to require a collaborative effort.
My previous experience has given me confidence in my approach to running the foundation now. In terms of our culture, it is important to focus on being happy with what we can achieve without putting too much pressure on ourselves. Brain cancer is very complicated, it’s going to take a long time to cure, so we’re in this for the long haul and I have to keep a positive mindset, so I don’t burn out. Aside from my mindset and wellbeing, it is important that the foundation’s employees work in an environment that is as positive as possible, despite that we’re working with a disease that is so cruel.
How did you find strength and resilience during Connor’s illness?
It was hard. I was afraid. The entire time Connor was sick, I was afraid, but I knew that what he had wasn’t anybody’s fault, so I could separate that. But I was worried, Connor was my first-born son, he had such a promising life ahead of him, he was such an interesting and wonderful person. It made me sad after his surgery that if he had lived, he was going to have so many deficits.
In terms of my resilience, I think I was strong for Connor. My husband Scott was such a wonderful partner, we came together rather than pulling each other apart during Connor’s illness. We felt it was important for his brother and sister too, they didn’t choose for this to happen. They were only 13 and 15 years old when Connor was diagnosed and we tried as much as possible for them to carry on living their lives when everything was focused on Connor’s treatment and declining health. All in all, I tried to remain calm at all times.
Connor’s Run was taken online in 2020, with the biggest ever turn out worldwide raising $1.3 million dollars – tell us more about the women who supported the journey.
Last year we noticed a big increase in the amount of brain cancer families that were involved with Connor’s Run. This is something we worked hard to promote to make sure that charity is not only in Connor’s name but is really trying to change the odds for other children that are affected and give those families hope. We have quite a few legacy ambassadors, a mixture of people, however last year we had some wonderful engagement with some very strong mothers who have either lost their child, or their child is living with deficits because of their brain cancer.
What does 2021 have in store for you personally?
We just recently hired our first research manager for the foundation which is huge for the foundation and me personally. I am are hoping that through her work, we’re going to have a better understanding of the research that’s happening in Australia and how it connects with the rest of the world. I want to be in a position to share that information, so we as an industry, with other common types of charity and foundations, can work together to determine which is the best research to fund and really move the needle on the amount and quality of research conducted.
Liz, we have heard you speak about your tools of reframing, reimagining and reaffirming – can you tell us more about this?
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to do a TEDX talk and it gave me the opportunity to select and reflect on the tools that I use every single day since Connor has passed away and how I can move forward after his loss. Reframing is a way to look at a situation, to change the way you’re looking at it, in a way to make it easier to live with. For example: rather than focusing on Connor’s death, I am choosing to focus on his life and the lessons he gave us and the life he lived.
Reimagining is about letting the magic happen. Again, looking at situations and thinking how we can take this to make it something special. So reimagining Connor saying “I will be awesome” during his yoga, we now have taken that and paralleled it with our foundation. Reaffirming is about believing in your way forward.
With #IWD just being celebrated and also the #march4justice shining light on women and their demands to be heard what would your advice be for women in business and leadership in the current climate?
First of all, I’m very proud of these women for having a voice and being brave enough to share it. I think it’s really important for women to feel safe and for them not to be judged for being a female, rather for the work they are doing. We have strong voices and you need to not be afraid to use them and stand up for yourself and for other women. I think women supporting women is really important and I think also surrounding yourself with great men, there are lots of great men out there and choosing to have them in your life is important too.
What is it about Stella that excites you?
I think giving women the knowledge that there are opportunities for them is exciting, they’re not alone in the quest to run their own business. There is support out there, I think it’s really important and I think we’re all finding our way forward. That’s all going to help move the needle for all women.