Just go for it

By Becky Crew

It’s a long way from the NSW bush to the US west coast for engineer Jillian Kilby.
Image of Jillian Kilby

Credit: Brian Mcinerney

"You’ve never met a more talented and diverse group of 10 young people,” says Jillian Kilby of her fellow 2013 John Monash scholars. “If you pooled the 10 of us, imagine the business we could start!”

Having established her own project engineering firm four years ago, Kilby can appreciate the potential of a venture built around some of Australia’s most promising future leaders. This year’s John Monash scholars, whose expertise spans the fields of engineering, technology, social justice, international relations and indigenous culture, will be supported by scholarships worth $50,000 per year to study at the world’s most elite universities.

Kilby, the 2013 BHP Billiton John Monash Scholar, is a former Australian Young Professional Engineer of the Year and the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies Young Alumni of 2010. She will use the scholarship to study supply chain management and a Master of Business Administration commencing in September at Stanford University in San Francisco. In the long term, she sees herself working as a strategic consultant to improve national infrastructure using her experiences in supply chain management.

Not that the Coonamble-born 29-year-old plans to abandon her profound commitment to rural Australian communities; Kilby counts this as something that likely appealed to the Monash Foundation. “I want to continue to help improve infrastructure in regional Australia, but I need this education to allow me to work at a more strategic level, where the critical decisions are being made,” she says.

In 2002, Kilby left the family farm to study civil engineering at the University of Sydney. “I was just so fortunate to have chosen the right degree,” she says, crediting the practical and rural focus of the course in particular, plus the exceptional peers she studied alongside. “If you wanted a case study on the most amazing young men and women in engineering, my friends are it. They’re in France, London, Perth, Townsville, Kempsey Bypass, Sydney, New York. The career path is boundless, engineering presents global opportunities for young men and women.”

While in Sydney, Kilby spent four years with Waterway Constructions, building wharves and pontoons on Sydney Harbour, Circular Quay and Walsh Bay, before relocating to her boyfriend’s farm, 50km west of the small town of Walgett in north-western NSW. “There weren’t any employment opportunities,” she says of the town that sits a 2.5-hour-drive away from the nearest traffic light. “I always wanted to have my own business. I guess I was 25, I wasn’t scared of anything. The young people I meet today, I just say ‘go for it’. It’s not as hard as you think. The hardest thing is finding the work and maintaining the workload and customer satisfaction.”

Business meetings in Sydney also presented a unique challenge. “[I would] leave home at five in the morning … and be in bed at midnight. It’s eight hours of driving and two hours of flying,” she says. “You just do it. I think country women have a level of resilience to do these crazy things. Marie Bashir was originally a country girl, and Quentin Bryce. They’ve been my idols for a long time.”

Now on her way to an international career, Kilby is committed to providing the same kind of assistance to rural education and community initiatives through grants and scholarships as a Director of the Royal Agricultural Society Foundation of NSW. “For me, I was always going to come to Sydney to study. I’m a third generation Wesley College [resident], so I had my sights set on it. But for a lot of young people, the expense of leaving the country, and leaving family and friends, isn’t an option,” she says. “Through my work with the Royal Agricultural Society Foundation and my rural infrastructure company, I have been able to give back to rural Australia, as I know how fortunate I have been.”