The sisterhood of success
Dorothy Allison-Furhagen was a pioneer, securing large commercial loans for her business at a time when women still struggled to get a mortgage in their own name. Now she hopes to help drive the success stories of a new generation of enterprising young women with a Gift in Will to UNSW.
Dorothy Allison-Furhagen didn’t believe she’d ever get to university. Growing up in working-class Balmain in the 1940s, she followed the example of her classmates and left school well before she’d completed her Leaving Certificate. But Dorothy’s love of reading, her immense curiosity, and her natural affinity for history and economics kept her dream alive.
Decades later, when university access was first opening up to mature-age students, Dorothy was accepted into a sociology degree at UNSW.
“When I walked through the gates of the University of New South Wales in Kensington, I breathed a great sigh of relief,” she remembers. “I was just so happy to be there and I felt so privileged.”
Second from right: Dorothy Allison-Furhagen
Dorothy’s longing for a university education was met with success. Top marks led to two master’s degrees, the publication of multiple books, and a career as a fashion entrepreneur. These days, she is a fierce advocate for the transformative power of education, and not at all reticent about its commercial value.
Her recent decision to leave a Gift in Will to the University will fund scholarships that she hopes will allow young women to benefit not only from the knowledge and skills they gain through their degrees, but from the “financial rewards and quality of life” made possible by further education.
“The University of New South Wales did so much for me,” she says. “The success I’ve had, the money I’ve made, the quality of life I’ve enjoyed, they all come back to the education I received at the University.”
When she first stepped onto the Kensington campus in the early 1970s, Dorothy had already seen more of the highs and lows of business than most people experience in a lifetime. As a young woman, she had married a man who claimed to be well established in the wool trade, a claim she later learned was false.
“I was only a young slip of a girl at the time,” she recalls. “But I went into the office one day and I heard him say, ‘if you sit here long enough, the business will just come to you’. And I thought, if we just sit here, we're all going to go under!”
Dorothy was spurred into action. She wrote letters to all the international consulates, offering to do business with their importers. The replies came in, not from the high-value export markets, but from the likes of India and Mexico: developing countries that were not then serviced by the established wool traders, who doubted their ability to fulfill contracts.
With her husband’s brokerage on the verge of bankruptcy, Dorothy appeared in front of the bank managers and presented her case. If the bank would provide her with a line of credit to cover the purchase of the wool, and its transport to the wharves in Sydney Harbour, then she would ensure that her international buyers paid their contracts in full before the ships left shore. On those terms, the bank agreed.
In order to fulfill her end of the bargain and secure full payment from her buyers before the ships left the docks, Dorothy had to find a way of proving the quality of her product. It was then that she first made contact with UNSW and its pioneering wool testing facilities. Dorothy took a specimen from every bale of wool, handed it over to the testers, and received back an official report detailing the ‘tear’ of the fibre, its colour, and its integrity. If any of her international buyers disputed the quality of the wool, she had only to show them the documentation.
“I didn't quite know that what I was doing was so different. I just put one foot in front of the other, without thinking too much about it. I really didn't know that I was making history as the first woman in Australia who'd actually owned and successfully operated a wool exporting business. In fact, I had no idea of my value in these areas until just a few years ago.”
Now aged in her 90s, Dorothy is at last enjoying something of a retirement. More than ever, she is convinced that quality education is critical to helping young women achieve their potential – and that young women shouldn’t shirk from making financial success one of their goals.
“In my day, money-making was frowned upon and the worst thing you could be in history was a businesswoman!” she says candidly. “I’m hoping my Gift in Will will benefit underprivileged women, like me, and help them to become their own person, enjoying all the success that I’ve been able to enjoy.”