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30 September 2020

How this industrial designer learned to turn her failures into successes

industrial designer’s

Genevieve Cother

Bachelor of Design (Product Design)
Master of Design (Sustainable Design)
Business Development Manager at The Action Learning Institute
Co-Founder and Director at Cother Digital Pty Ltd

What Genevieve Cother remembers most from her time at University of South Australia is the strong sense of play and exploration. This practical, hands-on approach to her learning and industrial design degree is something that has stayed with her throughout her career, and has contributed to her success in building the Action Learning Institute (ALI).

Genevieve commenced her studies in 1991 – the inaugural year of University of South Australia after the amalgamation of the South Australian Institute of Technology (North Terrace, The Levels and Whyalla campuses) and the Magill, Salisbury and Underdale campuses of the South Australian College of Advanced Education – melding the vocational and innovative spirit of these antecedent’s into UniSA’s enterprising DNA.

After gaining her qualifications and subsequent experience as an Industrial Designer in a range of manufacturing industries – including plastic injection moulding, print and packaging, textiles and metal products – Genevieve joined forces with her similarly ambitious family and poured the last decade into establishing ALI.

Supported by their Edtech Startup company, Cother Digital Pty Ltd, ALI uses action learning and action research to apply principles of sustainable design and social innovation to (surprisingly universal) problems and opportunities in the workplace and the community.

A small team works intensively to tackle a problem of real importance to the organisation and all levels of the organisation, from senior management to front line staff, can participate and contribute.

Genevieve (right) with sister Belinda Cother Hart at the 2018 Industry Collaboration at the South Australian Training Awards as finalists for Industry Collaboration, with their Lean Action Learning program. Credit.
Genevieve (right) with sister Belinda Cother Hart at the 2018 South Australian Training Awards as finalists for Industry Collaboration, with their Lean Action Learning program. Credit.

A decade later, with strong support from industry – plus a UniSA Master’s in Sustainable Design from Genevieve at UniSA – the Institute has since gone from strength to strength, achieving RTO (Registered Training Organisation) status, with a complete management system and cutting edge technology solutions designed and implemented by Genevieve to complement the Lean Action Learning program developed by her father, Bob Cother. The aim being that: ‘all learning is recognised’.

From an early age it was clear that Genevieve would follow in her father’s footsteps. His encouragement and advice proved vital in the male-dominated manufacturing and engineering industry, with only one other female in her graduating UniSA class.

“There was two of us and we had a great time, but that was the first time I was conscious of the fact there was any distinction between ‘male' and 'female' occupations. I grew up in an all-female family, apart from my dad” says Genevieve. “We were completely unaware that there might be different expectations or limitations for women in the workplace.”

“Dad worked as a graduate engineer at Ford, so he's worked in manufacturing my entire life, and when I was quite small he was a lecturer in manufacturing engineering at Swinburne.”

“I used to spend my holidays just surrounded by manufacturing technology. Watching robots machining pieces of metal, watching plastic injection moulding machines being set up.”

Genevieve Cother
Genevieve Cother decked out during construction of the Tonsley Innovation District. Credit.

Enthralled by the machinery, Genevieve always knew she’d go into manufacturing.

“I don't even know that I made a conscious decision,” she says.

After a couple years as an industrial designer – designing products we use every day like drinkware, utensils, and outdoor furniture – she began to explore the other directions she could take her career.

A leader and go-getter from the very beginning, armed with the strong vocational background and practical nature of her design degree, Genevieve quickly became an unlikely entrepreneur. She started and took over a number of businesses where her innate knack for exemplifying the creativity and innovation in industrial design and manufacturing took centre stage.

However, this also came with a lot of hard lessons and not all of them stood the test of time.

“I made every mistake possible,” Genevieve says. “It took a while to get over that – I really felt like I had failed if a business did.”

“I always say, it was the most expensive MBA anyone could ever do. I'm a lot wiser. My confidence ironically comes from those failures."

"I know that people, who haven't had those experiences, may not recognise what could actually go wrong. Now I can go into any situation and hold my own – and I do know my shit.”

Genevieve says that it was during this time that the seeds of the Action Learning Institute were planted. The knowledge she gained from this experiential learning period proved immeasurable.

Genevieve speaking at a Business Action Learning Tasmania forum to past and present participants from a diverse range of industries
Genevieve speaking at a Business Action Learning Tasmania forum to past and present participants from a diverse range of industries. Credit.

Joining her father on his Lean Action Learning projects where he had been developing programs for manufacturing and associated industries, Genevieve jumped at the opportunity to put the business skills she had accumulated into the Action Learning Institute.

After major investments from the South Australian and Tasmanian Governments with the team’s award-winning Lean Action Learning program, the Institute was born and reinvented itself as a self-sufficient private research and training organisation that now offers four nationally recognised qualifications.

At its core, action learning and the Action Learning Institute’s ethos is about innovation. And without Genevieve’s ‘give it a go’ attitude or the space to be able to play, explore – and fail – throughout her university and professional career, the Institute and its graduates would not be out there improving the way we interact with the world as we know it.

“We need new ideas and we need innovation. We rely way too much on existing knowledge,” says Genevieve.

“You can't innovate if you stick to known solutions all the time – but we’re often very risk averse – we only want to try things we know are going to work. Whereas we should be out there being bold and trying things that could possibly fail.”

“In our business, we're constantly experimenting – some of it doesn't work, some of it does – it's a very liberating way to work and learn.”

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