From a quick glance at Shamini Rajarethnam’s career, it might seem like a seamless path to success. After joining RATIONALE as a marketing and digital coordinator, it would take just a few short years before she would be offered the role of Chief Executive Officer at the Australian luxury skincare brand, founded by Richard Parker. It’s a position she’s held since 2017, and one that not only made her one of the youngest CEOs in Australia, but one of the few women to hold the title. Despite that clear trajectory on paper, it’s clear when speaking with Rajarethnam that it’s her willingness to commit wholeheartedly and lead with authenticity that has, and continues, to contribute to that success.
“They drew me into what they wanted to do,” she reflects of joining the company, which at the time, consisted of a small team of under 10 staff.
There’s a clear theme woven throughout Rajarethnam’s career, with the now CEO continually having found herself at small businesses with big dreams. Prior to starting her journey with RATIONALE, Rajarethnam worked across a range of industries and roles, from publishing in Singapore to a stint at Australian fashion house Bettina Liano, starting on the shop floor and eventually returning to work in the brand’s marketing team years later.
“I really like that camaraderie,” she says. “You all have the same vision, all moving forward in the same direction.” Despite how daunting it might have been taking the helm of one of the country’s leading skincare brands, one that’s known for its consistent innovation, Rajarethnam admits she “wasn’t going after a role” and learnt quickly to trust her instincts. “I only knew who I was, and I only knew myself leading in the capacity that I had led up to that point in the company.”
Learning not to compare herself to what a ‘stereotypical’ CEO looked like at the time, Rajarethnam likens it to a game of tennis. “You play to your strengths,” she explains. “I know I don’t have a very good poker face, so I have to meet authentically and I have to be myself. I’m quite empathetic, it’s hard to be that tough person.” Knowing those strengths, she played to them, and continues to do so. “I only knew how to be the person I was, leading the way that I did.”
“The landscape is starting to shift,” she adds, noting a wave of people dominating industries, positions and careers that did so by atypical routes. Rajarethnam notes Chanel, who appointed ‘industry outsider’ Leena Nair, a former executive at Unilever, as their CEO in 2021. “It has shifted so significantly.”
Looking to that changing landscape, Rajarethnam encourages young female leaders not to be deterred, and instead advocates leaning into this new wave of influence. “They’ve got the platform to lead how they want to lead, and in what capacity they want, and to decide what they want to stand for as well.”The future is exciting, Rajarethnam says, as we have the ability to “create our own playbooks” when it comes to what careers, or any aspect of life, looks like.
“You get to pursue businesses that you want to pursue, back social justices that you want to, and pave the way.”
But despite years of experience and a track record of breaking moulds with unwavering composure and certainty, nobody is immune to self-doubt taking hold, as Rajarethnam notes. It’s learning to “reframe” where you’ll find the greatest strength.
“I don’t think women in general ever don’t deal with self-doubt, whether in career or anything else,” she says. “There have been so many moments of imposter syndrome, of; ‘Do I know what I’m doing? Can I do this?’ The most important thing, firstly, is to identify it, to take a moment to reframe what it actually means.”
“It’s not a bad thing,” she adds.
A realisation, or “turning point”, for Rajarethnam would come when she welcomed her two children, Asha and Leo, which shifted the way she approached both her roles, as CEO and mum — a reality many women in the working world face. “There was a turning point when I had Asha, my first child, where I felt like I had to be everything to everybody. It was the realisation that you don’t have to be.”
“The most important thing I realised also is time,” Rajarethnam adds. “I didn’t have as much time to give to the role. As well, the team I had was another important thing — being able to just let go and realise we’ve built this team. It’s an incredible team.”
Trusting her gut and trusting her team became the magic balance for Rajarethnam, a cohesive relationship that allowed her to truly understand the “core purpose” of her role at RATIONALE. Which, of course, has been effortlessly meshed with Rajarethnam’s natural ability to connect with those around her.
That’s emulated in a piece of advice her father once gave her, a quote from Teddy Roosevelt: “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
“It rings true to everything that I do and how I lead,” she says. “Nobody cares about how much you know, or I know, until they know that there’s a level of connection between us and then everything sort of falls into place.”