“My life was very nomadic, very isolating. I was shuffled from relative to relative for most of my childhood,” she tells The Suite from her Sydney home. “I moved from Jakarta to Perth when I was very young, and I remember it being so racist. I mean, it still is to some degree, but back then I had broken bottles and rotten fruit thrown at me. I was told to go back to where I came from. I was spat on… And it came from all sources, not just your derelicts hanging around the train station, it was the entitled privileged kids at school and even well-dressed businessmen. People who you would never have thought held these intense biases.”
Unfortunately, home wasn’t a haven either. “I always felt like an outsider looking in on someone else’s happy family unit, and each minute was so heavy on my heart,” explains Wirya. “I desperately wanted to find my own version of family because I felt like I didn’t belong where I was. So, I decided to move to Sydney, by myself. At first, my relatives obviously said no, so I stopped eating. After three days, they begrudgingly agreed that I could go – with a few conditions of course. I’m very headstrong.”
“I don’t need to see the whole staircase, I just need to take that first step, and then the next, and the one after that…”
Not surprisingly, Wirya faced many hardships and challenges, young and virtually alone in a city thousands of miles from anyone she knew. “I had saved all my money from every birthday and Christmas present, and lived on a very tight budget, learned to cook for myself and make every dollar stretch. I also made a lot of stupid mistakes, as a young and impressionable girl in the ‘big smoke’. I didn’t have any aspirations really, I focused on survival; on getting from one step to the next. And that’s been my life philosophy, in a way. I don’t need to see the whole staircase, I just need to take that first step, and then the next, and the one after that…”
One such step included going to university. “The best decision I’ve ever made was getting an education,” she says without hesitation. “I didn’t have the money to pay for university, but I was very resourceful, did my research and got a scholarship to one of the best universities in California. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t do that; if I didn’t push myself off the deep-end.”
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Not that it was easy – not by a longshot. “I thought my brain was shot – I’d always been blessed with intellect but I thought I’d done too much damage. I sailed through my earlier years with straight As. [When I started university] my brain was still there, ever reliable, ticking along. And I pushed myself through. No free rides here, not then, not ever.”
These days, nothing phases Wirya. Even when she’s in an executive boardroom and someone is yelling mere inches from her face about lost car-parking privileges, everything Wirya does is an extension of her inner strength and determination. It’s also deeply connected with her passion to help others.
“That’s why I can change the world’s largest organisations for a living – because I don’t give up; I just keep hammering down that resistance.”
“Most would not believe what I’ve gone through work-wise. People are at their worst when they’re worried they’re about to lose something – this is a knee-jerk reaction during times of organisational change and upheaval. But it really doesn’t bother me. “That’s why I can change the world’s largest organisations for a living – because I don’t give up; I just keep hammering down that resistance,” she says simply. “Everything comes easy to me now because I’ve done the impossibly hard.”
It’s taken many, many years of work to make life look effortless. “A lot of people say that I make everything look so easy, and it’s always high quality, but I certainly wasn’t born confident,” explains Wirya. “I was socially awkward as a child because I didn’t have any siblings or friends. I grew up with books and dolls, so all these social skills – this ‘charisma’ (she says with air quotes) that everybody says they’re drawn to – I worked on that. I knew back then that rapport building was a skill that was holding me back, so I intentionally looked for jobs where I had to build that skill – and build it fast. I worked at Tiffany’s and other high-end stores because I wanted to be able to relate to high net-worths from different backgrounds and be comfortable around them.When you’re talking to people who can buy a Hublot watch for more money than your first apartment, you learn a lot of power, prestige and what people hold dear to their sense of self.”
It wasn’t long before Wirya’s corporate career took off. But after many years rising through the ranks, something felt off. “I became really burnt out,” she explains. “I was sick of the corporate world. I saw a lot of toxic behaviour that was just swept under the carpet. Don’t get me wrong, I had it ‘good’ by all accounts – I walked away from a half a million-dollar job for the biggest gold miner on the ASX. But I felt really empty inside, like I was part of the problem, my nose in the trough. I realised I wanted to – and could – make an alternative path work. I didn’t want to look back a decade later, and wonder ‘what if’, so I decided to back myself, stop being enticed by these ‘dream’ jobs and chart my own journey on my own terms.”
Wirya finally took the leap and launched her own business, Fresh by Friska, two months before COVID hit. “It was like the light had been switched off. Then I realised I had a very rare opportunity in front of me. Everybody was bored out of their minds, at home and online, and it was the equivalent of being on prime-time TV. COVID was the poster child for change. The way we work, the way we live, the way we parent – they all changed. And change is what I do impeccably well.
“People were looking for inspiration and education. I did both through my thought leadership. I started to seriously invest in my personal brand and began building my network. I was ruthless about it – at least 10 virtual coffees a week. I’d start at 10am and finish at 10pm and I’d be in front of the laptop the entire day, developing relationships, introducing myself, and working on getting engagements – speaking, chairing, facilitating, as these were easier and a lower investment than consulting gigs.”
Wirya’s career, which includes change management consulting, speaking, facilitation and custom workshop services, has been thematically focused on personal branding, reputation and relationships – and it’s paying off. “When people ask what my biggest success to date is, it’s that I monetise what I do in many different formats – one on one, one to many, virtual, in person – which I never thought, in my wildest dreams, would be possible. It’s not just the consulting, it’s the speaking, the facilitating and the advisory. I’ve even been approached by a world-leading augmented reality executive education platform to be included in their top 100 consultants and coaches. They’ve signed an exclusive agreement with Facebook to provide executive learning services in a metaverse that they’re building, so you’re going to see me as a four-dimensional avatar in the metaverse!”
“To think that, three years ago, I was like ‘what’s the metaverse?’ and now this is happening… When you do something new, it forces you to move into your growth zone and be proactive about learning new things.”
“I was still very much in the throes of my addiction, and it was my history teacher who pulled me aside and asked me when I last ate something. I just looked at her and tears started rolling silently down my cheeks.”
There’s no doubt Wirya is destined for great things, in real-life and virtually. But, at the end of it all, how would she liked to be remembered? “As someone who made a difference in others’ lives. I never had anyone in my corner growing up, although I do remember one person who really made a difference to me. It was when I was in year 11. I didn’t have any money, I was still very much in the throes of my addiction, and it was my history teacher who pulled me aside and asked me when I last ate something. I just looked at her and tears started rolling silently down my cheeks. She took my hand and led me to the staff lunchroom where she made me a peanut butter sandwich. To this day, I love peanut butter sandwiches! I want to be that person for someone else.”
In Conversation With Friska Wirya
My career began… when I was seven years old, believe it or not! I used to draw The Simpsons characters and sell them for $1 each. Then I moved onto weaving friendship bracelets – selling them for $3 – custom-made as my classmates could specify the colours they wanted. That was big money back then. My ‘real’ career started when I moved into change management a decade ago. Taking a 40% pay cut to start from the bottom as the discipline intrigued me and played to my strengths.
I start each workday with… a double-shot coffee, Pilates and checking Slack messages. I’m more creative in the afternoon, so my mornings I use to for follow-ups and virtual introductions. I save my deep-thinking work for later in the day.
I end each day with… peppermint tea and writing a few more paragraphs of my draft manuscript which is based on the TEDx talk I did in Melbourne this year.
At work, I couldn’t function without… a solid wifi connection and cutting-edge collaboration tools for the practical side of the business. On the dreamy side, it’s my amazing clients who are passionate about making changes for the benefit of their people, community and business.
My greatest strength is… “brutal efficiency” – at least, that’s what I’ve been told. I have an unmatched ability to pump out a large amount of high-quality work very fast, with little need for rework.
My productivity hack is… to work in short bursts. The human mind can only concentrate on the same task for so long before it gets overworked. I do 30 mins on, 10 mins off. The ‘off’ could be a walk around the block or a tea break.
I’d describe my leadership style as… visionary, rational and determined. My support team and partners know I am driven by putting ideas into action.
I manage my stress by… walking in nature. I’m very fortunate I live within walking distance of lush parklands and the ocean. Other stress management techniques are essential oil on pressure points, getting a massage, bouncing ideas off a trusted confidant and, ever the action-taker, drafting a mitigation plan to reduce said stressor!
A good day is… when I feel I have made a difference, and when others have made a difference to me.
A good meeting is… when values are aligned and you share a passion for making an impact. It’s a tell-tale sign as my energy levels are high! I’m a bad actress – you can tell when I don’t vibe with someone.
A good service is… when you’re welcomed so warmly, it’s like coming home. They know your preferences, it’s like they can read your mind. The best example comes from staying at the Matild Palace in Budapest. On day one I asked for a small jug of oat milk for my coffee. I stayed for a week. From day two onwards there was a jug of oat milk every morning. They surprised me with a birthday cake on my birthday and, knowing I was vegan, they wrote a handwritten note about its ingredients and that they used chestnuts as they heard that was my favourite nut. It’s crazy. Not because of the attention to detail, but because this was my first time staying there and they made me feel like a VIP. In all my years staying at Hyatts and Westins, they’ve never done anything remotely close.
The most rewarding part of my job is… seeing the fruits of my labour come alive in different countries and formats: a 4D avatar in the metaverse; an interactive change leadership video game; real-life facilitation and consulting with global clients done remotely and in person.
And the hardest part is… it’s human nature to resist change, even when the change benefits the business. People always have their guard up, and it takes a while for them to lower it. I’ve had people yell inches away from my face because they were losing car parking privileges due to an organisational change. It’s crazy when people’s ‘fight’ response is activated. It used to be hard to not take it personally, but it’s water off a duck’s back now.
My favourite piece of business advice is… Never give up. Perseverance is key to building a business. It is a long journey, but a journey you can call your own.
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