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Becoming Valerie Khoo: So you want to be a…?

16 March 2021
Finding a firm foundation in economics
Alumna Valerie Khoo, CEO of the Australian Writers’ Centre, shares how she continues to follow her curiosity and why her economics degree is invaluable in her creative career.

It's hard not to be impressed by the many talents of Economics alumna, Valerie Khoo.

While she is most notably known as the founder and CEO of the Australian Writers Centre, Valerie is also a journalist, podcaster, author, artist and printmaker, curator, business owner and former accountant.  

As someone who has pivoted her career in different directions, Valerie understands the importance of adaptability and embracing change. “If you’re not adaptable, you will be left behind. The world is changing so quickly – sometimes, as a result of the most unexpected events. So whether you run a business, or are an employee, your ability to pivot and embrace new ideas will be what keeps you ahead of the curve.”

With such creative pursuits, it may be surprising to know Valerie is a Bachelor of Economics graduate. Valerie says, “I was always fascinated by the world of business and economics at school so it was a natural choice for me to do this degree. I loved every minute of my time at university - the lecturers, the interning opportunities and, of course, the social life. I was heavily involved in business-related clubs and societies, so I had a very rich and busy experience while I was studying. At the time, there was also a lot of interaction with industry so it was great to be able to make contacts with potential employers while I was still at university.” 

After graduating, Valerie worked at PwC as an accountant but soon followed her passion a few years later by becoming a freelance writer. She became the features director for CLEO Magazine and deputy editor at CLEO Singapore. Valerie went on to write the popular Enterprise column for Fairfax media.

I was always fascinated by the world of business and economics at school so it was a natural choice for me to do this degree. I loved every minute of my time at university - the lecturers, the interning opportunities and, of course, the social life.
Valerie Khoo, Founder & CEO of the Australian Writers' Centre

While Valerie might work more with words these days, her ability to work with numbers is just as important.

“My background in economics and accounting has been invaluable in every role I’ve held. It’s particularly useful in running a business and I’m always grateful that I have such a firm foundation in cashflow, balance sheets, economics and so on. Even now, as a practising artist, it’s great to be able to rely on these skills to run the business side of art.”

It's no coincidence Valerie understands that regardless of which creative pursuit she undertakes, the key is recognising that those skills also have a market value. “With each pivot, I also want to maintain a lifestyle I enjoy so it’s important to me that I monetise my passion – so that I can get paid to do what I love.”

When asked about the future of the arts sector, Valerie believes that with the decline in funding and grants, organisations will be challenged to adopt new models and mindsets. “The arts organisations that will survive and thrive will be the ones who are able to adopt a more entrepreneurial and self-sustaining approach to the way they work.”

As the founder of a business in the media and communications sector, Valerie knows about finding new ways of doing business amidst a fast-paced and evolving industry.

For over 15 years, the Australian Writers’ Centre has grown to become the leading centre for writing courses – an achievement that Valerie is rightly very proud of. “We’re getting bigger each year, helping people and organisations with the training they need. It’s been very rewarding to build a dedicated team who are passionate about creating wonderful learning experiences for all our participants.”

The arts organisations that will survive and thrive will be the ones who are able to adopt a more entrepreneurial and self-sustaining approach to the way they work.
Valerie Khoo

Along with co-host, Allison Tait, Valerie discusses the transition to writing in her weekly podcast, ‘So you want to be a writer’. Her advice to those wanting to become a writer?

“First, believe that it is possible. For some people, a career in writing may be a world away from what they are currently doing. But many people, from all walks of life, have transitioned successfully into this new career after completing short courses at the Australian Writers’ Centre. Second, it doesn’t have to be a dramatic plunge where you quit one career cold turkey and start a new one the next day. I recommend a staged approach. I’ve mentored many people through this; they start their writing projects on the side until they’ve built up enough writing work to let go of their main job. I have mentored IT managers, architects, lawyers and many others to go through this process.”

In navigating her own career transitions, Valerie is also mindful of her own challenges and what it takes for her to overcome them. “I’ve pivoted my career a number of times because I’m passionate about following my curiosity and doing work that I’m interested in. However, each transition results in a series of professional and personal challenges. Professionally, you have to learn new skills. That’s certainly achievable. Personally, it’s about overcoming self-doubt and the fear that you might not succeed on your new path. Over the years, I’ve realised that negative self-talk serves no useful purpose at all. It only paralyses you.”

Valerie is also quick to point out the critical role that mentors and coaches have made in her career.

“I discovered the benefits of this very late in life and, if I could do one thing differently in my career, it would be to engage the help of mentors and coaches much earlier. When you can tap into the advice and experience of these people, you can fast-track your progress and reach your goals much quicker.” While the career turns and leaps of faith can be daunting, one thing that Valerie knows for sure is there is power in being surrounded by those who will cheer you on. 

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