Five in Five: Maria Thattil

By Niamh O'Sullivan

Master of Management (2017) alum Maria Thattil works in talent acquisition in the State government, is a vibrant social media creator with 70,000 followers and has just been named Miss Universe Australia.

Like many successful business people, Maria reflects on her 20-year-old-self’s vision of life, career and success, and things are looking very different. What has remained constant is Maria’s commitment to her values and her passionate pursuit of equality and empowerment; values that will be central as she represents Australia in the Miss Universe pageant next year.

I caught up with Maria to discuss career, life and being in the spotlight.

So, Maria tell me a little about your career journey and how you’ve found yourself where you are today

Post high school, I completed a Bachelor’s degree in applied science, majored in Psychology and had big plans to be a clinical psychologist! However, halfway into the Honours Program, somewhere in my gut I just felt I wasn’t in the right place. I’ve learned it is so important to trust that intuition. So, I took two years off and worked in fashion retail and I loved managing a team, using my creativity and, I realised I really loved the business application of psychology.

Maria Thattil
Maria Thattil, MBS alum ...

So, I enrolled in the Master of Management at Melbourne Business School. I was doing night classes till 9:45 PM during the week and working retail on the weekends for two years. It was tough but worth it. I did a lot of contract work upon graduation, indulging my love of people in my first HR role which led to the next opportunity and eventually helped me land my most recent corporate role as a Talent Acquisition Partner at the North East Link Project.

And you also have a make-up qualification?
Sure do! I enrolled in a make-up course while doing my masters because it was something I enjoyed but I felt I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t expect that to be the foundation of my career change. I just started sharing some beauty tips online and I began to garner an audience as I realised this was something people of colour were largely excluded from. I knew I could build a platform using beauty and fashion and then I started building in messages about what I value. It’s not just about likes, there is power in community and I have been able to facilitate conversations within that community about issues that matter, inviting others to provide their unique perspectives.

Social media became a part-time job and, as it turned out, my two roles were quite complementary. I try to champion my passion for equality and empowerment in both jobs. Now, becoming Miss Universe Australia is an extension of that. I have a responsibility to be true to who I am, uniting people and talking about issues such as bullying, racism and how women are treated in society. With many eyes on me, I want to rise to the challenge as best as I possibly can.

As an Australian woman of Indian heritage in the public spotlight, have you had to overcome stigma and discrimination to get where you are?
I have because people, unfortunately, tend to make inferences based on very little information. Women, in particular, are often generalised based on different facets of their social identity. We should be able to wear our achievements with pride without being put in a box. It’s important to remember that when we are being judged or discriminated against, it reflects an inability of the other person to speak, think and perceive beyond their own limitations. I’m very privileged that the workplace culture at the North East Link is one which values diversity and inclusion and I have been able to use my own experience to further push the boundaries.

When it comes to Miss Universe Australia, I am proud of the norms broken for me to wear this title - I’m a woman of colour standing at 5’3” and I hope that my success will open doors for women who may not have felt they could show up in a leadership space – whatever that arena may be for them. As for the other women in the Miss Universe program, we were all different and we wear that difference with pride. It’s about our substance and capacity for impact.

Maria T
... and Miss Universe Australia

What advice do you have for current University of Melbourne students / graduates?
Cherish every part of your tertiary experience – I owe so much to my time at the University of Melbourne. Know what your ‘why’ is but be really open about your career prospects. Be open to evolving your ideas of success. I remember people looking down on my decision to pursue a makeup qualification concurrently. There is no mould for success – it thrives in unchartered horizons embraced as opportunity.

Don’t regard anything as a mistake – everything that feels like a ‘mistake’ can be perceived as the gift of a lesson. Every course you take and qualification you gain will broaden your commercial acumen. Take value from every learning opportunity because the world of work is changing so we will all have to be adaptable.

For those looking to break into the social media space, I say do it fearlessly and realise it is a realm of immense opportunity. The people who have built sustainable, powerful careers in social media are the ones who took a risk and ventured into new territory before it was widely understood. They decided to play around, break the rules on conventional media and just operate in a space that many doubted.

If you want to jump in now, I think the best way is to build a following that is a ‘community’ and be your most authentic self. As simple as it sounds, it is a highly saturated space, so, in order to stand out you have to have a unique value proposition. Find your niche by sharing what you are passionate about from the unique lens of ‘you.’

Another piece of advice I wish to give is to break the ‘rules,’ try new things, use social media in ways that others don’t and see what happens. Take risks – the realm is ever-changing so don’t get comfortable. The most successful social media creators, brands and businesses are those that remain agile and adaptable in our ever-evolving digital climate.

What does the future hold for Maria Thattil?
I remain open to an abundance of prospects but in the short-term, there is a podcast in the works and I’m investing energy in establishing my own community based social enterprise committed to empowering people to be a leader in their own life and to live confident, conscious and mindful lives. Other than that, the future holds laughter, abundance and adventure! And hopefully staying in touch with the University of Melbourne community.

Follow Maria’s journey through the #MindwithMe series on her Instagram channel @mariathattil