Today’s female entrepreneurs have plenty to thank Imelda Roche AO for. This pioneering business woman saw important avenues for women at a time when society could not. Her insights into work and life are abundant and form the backbone of her immensely successful career in direct selling. In 1968, Imelda and her husband, Bill, brought Nutrimetics to Australia, with the goal of broadening career opportunities for women, giving them autonomy to become financially self-reliant, and the ability to both work and have a family. “Both Bill and I were awarded an Order of Australia, basically for our contribution to business and the opportunity we provided for entrepreneurship, in our case, most especially for women,” she says.
Mrs Roche, as she is fondly called by those around her, and her husband built their livelihoods on direct selling, through one-on-one demonstrations in people’s homes. What is perhaps lesser known is that this model also provided a very productive social network and a way for many women to create a business opportunity for themselves, at whatever level of involvement and achievement they chose. In short, it was an easy entry into entrepreneurship.
“There were many women who joined Nutrimetics who were content to earn an extra hundred dollars a month, then there were others, who through building an organisation, went on to earn close to half a million dollars a year,” says Mrs Roche. “So basically it depended on the level of ambition, commitment and energy dedicated to it. It did not depend on financial investment as very little was needed; rather there was nothing at risk except the investment of time, self-esteem and personal confidence.”
I banned the use of ‘just a housewife’ in our company, asserting that they were not ‘just’; they were homemakers, a very noble occupation.
When the Roches were first married, very few women were considered capable of financial self-sufficiency or suitably competent for appointment to higher office, either professionally or corporately. Instead, it was expected that they would be totally dependent on their husbands. There were very few opportunities for women in the corporate world. Women were mostly hired as stenographer/typists, clerks, tea ladies or cleaners, and their roles rarely extended beyond being a secretary. “There were few, if any, valued independent thinking PAs in those days. Most other options for women were to become nurses, teachers, shop assistants, carers or domestics,” she says.
Mrs Roche inherently understood that women in the home had many skills that were well suited to business, most especially their organisational and managerial skills. “We saw an opportunity to focus on the untapped organisational ability of women that had, up until that time, rarely been expanded outside the home. When you think about and consider the many demands and issues most women with a family have to cope with on a daily basis, and all at the same time…” says Mrs Roche, herself a mother of four, who saw women’s managerial skills as a valuable resource, both for the women themselves and for society in general.
Even more than the business potential of Nutrimetics, at the heart of which was a skincare product which she believed in, Mrs Roche saw the venture as giving women, in particular, a previously unheard of opportunity for autonomy and independent income. “I saw it as being very empowering and life-changing for many women, who up until that time described themselves as ‘just housewives’. I banned the use of that terminology in our company, asserting that they were not ‘just’; they were homemakers, a very noble occupation which could be readily expanded and combined with an attractive earning opportunity. To me, the term ‘just a housewife’ was denigrating to women.”
There were a number of instances where Nutrimetics’ husbands began to feel sensitive about the fact that many of their wives were out-earning them. Some saw it as undermining their position as head of the family. Mrs Roche quickly dispelled those fears by asking the men to consider what their wives would do in the event that, for any reason, they became unable to work. Wouldn’t it make perfect sense and relieve their worries if, through Nutrimetics, there would be a continuous reliable income for the family through difficult times?
Take every opportunity to praise in public, while at the same time be ever mindful that you always reprimand in private.
One of the most important questions Mrs Roche would often ask Nutrimetics consultants was, “Do you believe and trust in the benefit and value of the products you are offering to your clients?” If you cannot with all sincerity answer yes, she would then advise, then “maybe you should consider representing some other company or service that you could have that belief in,” she explains. “We took the view that we did not need to teach our consultants to sell Nutrimetics, rather we taught them how to create an environment in which the customer wanted to buy, and that is achieved through genuine belief, personal passion and sincere recommendations. If the focus is on making a sale, rather than servicing the need and benefit to the customer, then you will not be representing the true spirit of Nutrimetics.”
Once Mrs Roche recognised the enormous potential women had for business, it became a case of encouraging them to believe in themselves, their abilities and the product. “Initially, when many women joined Nutrimetics, it was as a customer for the product. If they then decided they would like to become a consultant, they were given a basic product training course, followed by continuous updated training, to enable them to present with confidence. Most often they would say that they still lacked the confidence to present to a group of people, which of course the role required. I would then ask if they lacked the confidence or had that same feeling were they invited to talk about their children. This led them to understand that the difference here was they knew everything about their children, and thus had every confidence in talking about them. Nutrimetics’ product training would provide them with the same necessary knowledge and confidence to capably present the Nutrimetics product range.
Having had a long, illustrious career working with others, surely Mrs Roche would have a wealth of advice that still holds relevant for employees today. So I ask her. She explained that people contribute best and thrive in an environment of continuous encouragement; they need to feel respected and to understand that the contribution they make to the business is valued. “It is also important to remember to take every opportunity to praise any and every achievement in public, while at the same time be ever mindful that you always reprimand in private. To reprimand anyone in public achieves nothing. You demean the person and undermine their confidence while embarrassing everyone else around you.”
Always remember that your life journey is your own to create.
Though she can’t recall where she first heard it, one of Mrs Roche’s signature quotes is, “If it is to be, it is up to me”. This is the philosophy she has lived by and shared with every woman who joined her and her husband as a consultant or staff member at Nutrimetics. It is no doubt illustrative of who she is as a woman and why she has achieved all she has.
In 2013, Mrs Roche was invited to open an exhibition titled First Ladies: Significant Australian Women – 1913-2013 at the National Portrait Gallery, in honour of women who had made a significant contribution to Australian society during this period. A portrait of her commissioned by the gallery featured prominently in the exhibition. Also in her company were women who represented various aspects of Australian national life, from early feminists and social reformers to Indigenous leaders, scientists, sports women, a WWII heroine, renowned artists, actors, aviators, jurists, bankers, academics, parliamentarians and governors.
“Always remember that your life journey is your own to create,” she stresses. “Never allow another – no matter who they are – to take control of your life. Though others throughout your life may provide a valued guiding hand, each individual is ultimately responsible for their own degree of success, happiness and fulfilment.”