Melbourne, Paris, New York
Estée Lauder executive Dimitra Manis has become a global citizen since graduating from Monash Business School. There have been challenges living abroad, but Manis and her family have overcome everything thrown at them and now happily call the Big Apple home. By Andrew Murfett
The decision to live abroad – particularly when it involves uprooting your children from school and moving away from family and friends to a destination where English isn’t the first language – requires a certain toughness. You’ll regularly endure calamitous situations as a family unit. There’s the thicket of unique local mysteries, such as health care and school placement, that every newcomer must unravel. This is exacerbated by the daily challenge to prove your worth in a foreign corporate environment.
When Melbourne HR executive and Monash alumna Dimitra Manis, her investment banker husband Peter, and daughters Koni and Stefi (then six and eight, respectively), departed for Paris, they initially believed they would return home within three to five years. Twelve years later, they’re ensconced in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, their daughters have progressed through high school, and any notion of an imminent homecoming has diminished substantially. That’s not to say their resolve isn’t frequently tested. “You have to be tough to live abroad,” Manis says. “You can’t be a softie.”
Today, Manis is thriving in the upper echelons of the Estée Lauder Companies, serving as Senior Vice-President of Global Talent, responsible for developing staff, finding and acquiring talent, leading succession planning, and assessing performance. In her pursuit of talent, Manis regularly listens to prospective employees’ stories. Yet rarely is she asked to tell her own, which begins, like many migrant families, with the arrival of her parents in Australia. Her father, an orphan at four, arrived from Crete in the late 1950s; her mother, one of 10 children, from Sparta in the early 1960s. Both spoke no English; neither had completed primary school. “They came with nothing and worked to build a future and give us an education,” Manis, one of four children herself, says. Both her father, a baker, and her mother were open-minded while raising her. Having sent her to a prestigious Melbourne grammar school, they didn’t flinch when she failed to pass her Year 11 exams. “I was rebellious,” Manis says. “I was a free-spirited, opinionated young woman spending time on Fitzroy Street listening to alternative rock music, like Nick Cave, with my cool brother. (My parents) gave me the space to be who I was.”
This approach yielded a positive result several years later. Having earned solid HSC results following an abandoned attempt at speech pathology and a gap year spent overseas, she landed at Monash’s David Syme Business School. “I felt like I could express who I was there,” she says. “You didn’t have to conform. I was bold, challenged my mind and loved it.” At Monash, Manis would work during the day and study at night. “It accelerated my growth,” she says.
After graduating, she embarked on a career in banking and finance at ANZ, where she came across a program encouraging bankers to join the HR function. Her curiosity piqued, she enlisted and completed a graduate degree. She steadily climbed corporate Australia’s HR executive ranks with high-profile roles at Nortel, Nike, Village Roadshow and AXA, which eventually invited her to relocate to Paris as worldwide leader of the company’s talent function. “I couldn’t turn it down,” Manis says. “But it was a real family move.” Her daughters have now spent more time living abroad than in Australia. “They speak Greek, French and English,” she says, proudly. “They’re global citizens.” Still, their resolve was regularly tested in Paris, particularly when Peter was diagnosed with stage-three lymphoma. “It was extremely challenging,” she says. “I felt like it took 10 years off my life.” The first thought the family had upon receiving his diagnosis, unsurprisingly, was to return to Australia. “We nearly came home,” she says. “But this is the reality of living abroad. Things happen. People think it’s easy or glamorous, but you have to be resilient.” After 12 months of treatment, Peter was declared cancer-free, and has remained so for nine years. His illness, however, hastened his urge to fulfil a long-held aspiration. “My husband’s dream was to live in Manhattan,” she says.
After nine months of commuting between Paris and New York to maintain her role at AXA, she accepted a Manhattan-based role at Thomson Reuters as global head of talent, and remained for four rewarding years. Her current role at Estée Lauder Companies, which began two years ago, is also globally-focused, driving the company’s talent agenda. Adjusting to life in the Big Apple has taken fortitude. “It can be a lonely place. You have to make an effort, become part of a community.” Cloistered friendship networks generated by her daughters’ schools and the Greek Orthodox Church helped immensely.
At Estée Lauder Companies, she gathers together Australian expats for bi-monthly drinks. “You shouldn’t stick with just Aussies,” she says. “I do gravitate to them – I can’t resist sometimes.” Meanwhile, after several years renting, the family bought a Manhattan townhouse and embarked on a thorough renovation. “We lived there through the renos, which is another Australian thing to do.” The pitfalls of life in the US – such as the belligerent political divide and the confounding health care system – are outweighed, she contends, by the many positives.
Today, Manis maintains her connection with the University by funding and hosting students in New York through the Monash Global Discovery Program, and as a guest lecturer. See the video of Dimitra Manis’ return to Monash as a guest lecturer.