The Melbourne-based founder of The Suite Set Sally Branson Dalwood has worked as a senior media advisor to a prime minister, developed and promoted strategy around entrepreneurship policy for women and worked as the director of a political party. Ask her about her career in politics, and you'll hear about the time she was catapulted off an aircraft carrier. And the time she climbed a rope ladder down the side of a US warship into a pilot boat floating aside it in the middle of the ocean. There's also the time she was accompanying the Prime Minister when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Australia. Dalwood not only attended the royal's events in Sydney and Canberra but travelled in the car behind the couple...
There’s also another chapter to her impressive career: Branson Dalwood is behind The Suite Set, a company targeting women about to give birth and helping them to pack their hospital bag with ease (as in, free of stress, chaos and confusion – trust her, it’s possible). When Branson Dalwood’s first son Magnus, now 3, arrived, something inside her shifted. “I never stopped loving work, but I couldn’t make it work,” reflects Dalwood, now a mother of two (her second, Fenton, was born 19 months after her first). “To be able to fully participate in my work at the level I needed to successfully do the role, meant that I couldn’t be present for my family. I really felt I had failed.” It’s a feeling so many of us can relate to and often tangled in a loss of identity, confusion and wondering how life veered so far off course.
Yet, in time you discover that life is working out exactly how it’s meant to. For Branson Dalwood, this realisation was the beginning of a different career path. After getting a great insight into the small business landscape for women in Australia during her time in politics, Branson Dalwood’s eyes opened to the world of female entrepreneurship. “My eyes were opened to the wealth of ideas and also the challenges female start-ups face – do you want your venture capital with a side of commentary on your appearance or a sexual proposition? I remember one woman coming in for a one-on-one sit-down meeting with the small business Minister, but her childcare fell through, so she was in the meeting plus one. I can only imagine the stress she would have felt, but she powered on. Bringing a baby didn’t make her ideas any less valid or supported. It was a seminal moment for me – you can bring a baby and still impact policy.” It was when she was packing her hospital bag that an idea spurred. “My hospital bag was all sorts of overpacked, overwhelmed chaos.
The one saving grace was some cobbled together zip-locked bags, so we had a semblance of organised. It sparked a kernel of an idea – if I could manufacture something, that made sure there wasn’t any overwhelm or chaos when everything else was overwhelming and chaos,” she says. After a year-long product development phase – and hours and hours spent learning about different plastic compositions – The Suite Set launched. Each reusable set contains ten bags with detailed, thoughtful instructions on how to pack for mama, baby and the support crew for a hospital stay. They are designed and made in Australia and BPA free, reusable and recyclable. You can purchase a pack depending upon your birth plan (there are sets for an overnight stay, a three-day stay and a five-night stay). The Suite Set has also partnered with i-change, and $1 from every sale goes to the charity (30% of the world still lives on $1 per day). Here, we speak about Branson Dalwood’s incredible career journey and also get practical tips around packing a hospital bag and staying organised in the lead up to the birth of your baby.
Go to thesuiteset.com
Tell us about your days in politics – what was your role and what did it entail?
Over a career in public affairs, I’ve played a few roles in politics. I’ve worked as a senior media advisor to a Prime Minister and developed and promoted strategy around entrepreneurship policy for women. My last role before I had children was as the Director of a political party – it’s the true behind the scenes role of a political party. Campaigning, electioneering, making sure membership was happy, making sure each elected politician was doing what they said they’d do and working to harmonise the elected officials aims with that of the party’s membership. Each role has been early mornings, long days and working on projects that were highly value-driven – so many great days of job satisfaction.
You were once catapulted off an aircraft carrier…
I was working in public affairs for the US government at the time and had fallen into the role of Defence specialist. This is a role I had never thought I would have interest or aptitude in, but it turned out to be a life-changing experience for me. I learned so many lessons in crisis management, planning and about service and community. Who knew? I had to host a visiting group of VIPs on to an aircraft carrier -these things are about ten times the size of the town I grew up in. It’s a true skill to be able to land an aeroplane on the deck of a ship, it take amazing technique and defiance of the laws of gravity- the plane literally has to catapult off a slingshot to get enough movement to fly. As a passenger, you have to brace to take off and land because of the velocity. Because I was managing the guests, I spent a week “commuting” to work. I kept getting in trouble from the pilot because I was becoming too relaxed and too busy asking questions and chatting. Part of the joy of this role was that sort of excitement, but also learning and appreciating the roles other people play in the world. Sometimes now, I look at my piles of washing and wonder if this really happened.
You also once climbed a rope ladder down the side of a US warship into a pilot boat floating aside it about 500kms out to sea – tell us about this?
I had managed a visit by a large warship, it was a visit that had significant political value and interest – it was not without challenges. There was also a really large community element behind the scenes. When a warship visits a port, it’s like a mini town arriving so it can be a big injection of money into a community as well as raising some eyebrows. In our planning, I always made sure there was a community volunteering element of a visit, where I would send US Navy personnel out into work with local community groups, from building, repairing, painting, landscaping. We’d lend the sailors in to do meals on wheels and provide staffing respite for community organisations. We tried to provide value for the communities we visited, these sailors come with such diverse skills, cultural background and education. At the end of the visit, the Ship’s Captain asked if I would like to sail off the Port of Darwin with them. I initially declined, because it felt so out of my comfort zone. One of the NCIS (like the tv show, yes) officers explained to me that it was a rare privilege and not to turn it down. He also gave me some sage advice on what shoes and clothes NOT to wear. It honestly was an amazing experience to sail out, pods of dolphins aside and get a glimpse into this world for a short time. Growing up, landlocked in a tiny rural community, this was far away from the life I had imagined for myself. The whole climbing down a rope ladder into a boat to come back ashore was not the graceful experience of being at one with the sea as I had envisaged though. I truly learned the meaning of white-knuckling it, I was on the ladder over the side of the ship, holding on to the metal edge of the ship and I’ll always wryly remember the lovely, polite sailor repeating “Just let go of the side ma’am. Just let go. C’mon M’am, let it go”….
You’ve spoken about not forgetting the visit of William and Catherine to Australia?
I’ve long been a fan of the Queen and the way she has served and worked in her role, and long-held a soft spot for William and Harry. I had followed their story with interest and was obsessed with Price George and his peter pan collars. I was accompanying the Prime Minister at the time of William and Catherine visiting Australia, attending their events in Sydney and Canberra, travelling in the car behind the royal couple. I remember being amazed at the people lining six deep on the streets to wave to the royal couple, and thought it was lovely – albeit extraordinary. My real shock came when I was walking with them in public spaces, I was wholly overwhelmed by the screaming from the crowds. I appreciate the adoration and the excitement but I was shocked at the primal nature of it. It was something I had never experienced before and I found it really confronting. It gave me such a small insight into the realities that come with their privilege and power, gifted through birth and marriage. It also made me think more about the concept of what it is to serve. I think to be prepared to have that privilege, you need to steel yourself for the public ownership. Although from a public affairs/past media advisor perspective, I feel like Meghan and Harry made some strategic mistakes in the way they exited the “firm”, I can very much see why they did.
When you fell pregnant, did it change the way you thought about your career – what were your expectations around motherhood and work?
I knew a federal election was looming. I honestly thought that at 39, I would have a baby, love it and still be all consumed by politics still. I scheduled in a time frame for my return, first meeting a month after I was due (to keep connected) and then all guns blazing at six months. My expectations were that I would love being a mama, but also that I would still really need the cut and thrust of work to feel fulfilled. I felt confident that I could and would manage it all.
And what happened after your first baby arrived – what led to you leaving politics?
I soon realised that although my love for work was still there, it had been eclipsed by my love for my child and my desire to meet our family needs first. I simply could not believe that I felt this way, that my wish to be there for his early days, surpassed my ambitions for my work. I did try and juggle working, breastfeeding, running home from the train station with boobs leaking. I never stopped loving work, but I couldn’t make it work. To be able to fully participate in my work at the level I needed to successfully do the role, meant that I couldn’t be present for my family. I really felt I had failed. I had failed all the women that went before me, and those I was working so hard to set an example for. I also felt I was failing the progressives in my organisation who had supported me along the way and were working hard to make it work for me. And it was a big blow to my ego too. I kept thinking “but all those other mothers could do it” which is reductive and unhelpful. I had to do a lot of deep thinking about how my identity had changed as a mother and as a professional and what that looked and felt like. I had to get clear on what my priorities were at that exact moment. And after years of just making decisions based on my own values I had to factor in my family priorities too. Funnily enough, I had trouble reconciling what I knew was the right path, the path that physically felt right – which my own expectations of what I should. I still sometimes feel “less than” when people ask “but doesn’t being at home with babies bore you? how do you get any mental stimulation” and my honest answer is that I was never bored, I could still self stimulate and be in wonder every day even as a stay at home mum. I’ve had to work to reconcile this with my value and worth.
What changes would you like to see for mothers who work in politics?
I think recognition mothers must be supported to be active and involved in formal policy and legislation making – but after having a newborn, they should be able to take formal maternity leave, even as an elected representative. I think an open discussion about the true challenges of balance, mother and career guilt need to be discussed, that it shouldn’t be an all in, or not at all equation. Mothers have to be involved in policymaking or else policy isn’t fit for purpose.
You’ve said that politics that ignited your interest in small business – and the innovators – tell me about this?
I was so fortunate to be able to work on “the small business budget” in 2015 focusing on energising a culture of female entrepreneurship and startups. The research and connections that went into preparing this budget meant that I was able to sit down in roundtables and policy discussion with amazing female small business bosses. These were the most invigorating and exciting meets we had. My eyes were opened to the wealth of ideas and also the challenges female startups face – do you want your venture capital with a side of commentary on your appearance or a sexual proposition? I remember one woman coming in for a one-on-one sit down meeting with the small business Minister, but her childcare fell through, so she was in the meeting plus one. I can only imagine the stress she would have felt, but she powered on. Bringing a baby didn’t make her ideas any less valid or supported. It was a seminal moment for me – you can bring a baby and still impact policy. These women opened my eyes to entrepreneurship, I was unashamedly inspired by them and even though I’d started my own babysitter’s club and car wash at age 11, I never thought it was a path I would “need” to take – I was so committed to politics. Funny how it turns…..
Take me back to your first baby – how did you pack your bag? And what exactly did you pack in your bag?
I often laugh that our business is based on being organised. I had a reputation for having the most chaotic desk, the most jam-packed handbag ( Once upon a time, I was out on a visit with a VIP and one of the visiting Secret Service complained he hadn’t had time to eat, so I dug around my bag and found him a boiled egg). As footloose and fancy-free child-free couple, we used to joke that we could fling our stuff from one end of a hotel room from the next on a visit and we didn’t want that chaos when we were learning about our new baby. I’ve always been able to pack light (but messy) for a work trip, but when it came to my hospital bag, I did all the overthinking I could. My hospital bag was all sorts of overpacked, overwhelmed chaos. The one saving grace was some cobbled together zip-locked bags, so we had a semblance of organised. It sparked a kernel of an idea – if I could manufacture something, that made sure there wasn’t any overwhelm or chaos when everything else was overwhelming and chaos.
If you’re not a naturally organised person, what’s your advice on packing a hospital bag?
I’m not – which I feel brings a special perspective to our business! Hospital and birth is unfamiliar and often uncontrolled situation. So it’s good to be able to control what you can and focus on the important things rather than what’s in your bag in the hospital. So prepare well when you can, segment your bag and follow a good list.
If you’ve got a support person, make sure they’re playing an active part in packing. They know where and what things are. You’d be surprised at how hard it is to recognise the difference between a singlet and a onesie at 2am if you don’t really know what they are to begin with. Only pack what you need and what you know will bring you joy or make you feel comfortable. Oh, listen to me, Marie Kondo-ing. In every single hospital, I’ve been to, there has been a chemist close by which always stocks essentials so relax into knowing that if you do forget something, you can always find it close by. My other tips are just to pack for simplicity, ease and comfort.
You did a load of research about new parenthood – what did you find?
That all mamas, young and old, felt overwhelmed by the pressure to have it all worked out and all perfect before babe was even born. That often we spend so much time getting a good looking nursery set up, we have not talked about the pressure of being prepared or our values around parenting. To be able to take small action steps about organising the detail, means it isn’t overwhelming when the time comes.
So many women think about launching their own business - Tell me about the early days of launching The Suite Set and have you ever looked back and wished you were still in politics?
Talk us through the ups and downs? Some days when I worked madly through nap times, or tried to ignore the triggering piles of washing, and worried about finance – I have thought how nice it would be to be salaried and in politics. Even now in COVID times, there are some days I think “how can I help more?” Would I be more useful in a formal role.
This is one reason we’ve started doing some information “brokerage” on the suite set – how to actively talk to your health providers, how to have a conversation about your values as a family before babe is born” – so I hope this past experience is informing and value-adding to our community online. I started working on the concept in the 19 months between babes, I did some informal and some more structured research and recognised that the idea was one that people loved and wanted. Although I had done some work in PR in the past, and been and seen so many product launches by celebrities – it wasn’t in our wherewithal to launch in a big way (we’d spent our bathroom renovation money on ethically manufacturing the bags so a launch budget wasn’t there). To be frank, we were also deep in having a baby who had not yet turned one and a two-year-old – and sometimes even having a daily shower seemed like a task, let alone organising a product launch with balloon garlands and champagne and influencers. It is important for small startups to realise – that isn’t what a launch has to be, in order to be successful. We did what’s known as a “soft launch”.
I had to keep reminding myself that “perfect was the enemy of the good” and we launched with the product done, and the webpage as good as it could be for that stage of our business. So we pressed “live” at about 8pm at night, sitting at the kitchen table when the boys were in bed. At nine am the next morning we sent an email out to all of our family and friends, explaining our why and how of the business. We then posted on my personal social media accounts and linked in and shared the website. It was as soft as it gets, but it was the right launch for our business. I’m not saying I don’t play the compare game when I see a celeb launch a product with celeb friends and celeb promotions – because any business that needs monetise, loves that exposure. I am saying that accepting that wasn’t within our start-up means, was a healthy thing and it’s been a true joy and satisfaction to see our business and community grow through word of mouth and recommendation.
How did you go about getting the products made and what was important to you?
I had a crystal clear image in my head of what the individual bags would look like, and I kept true to that during the whole manufacturing process. For me, it was vital the bags were quality and strong enough to be reusable, for them to be as environmentally friendly as they could be (for plastic), they were smell free and nasty free. Although our market research showed differently (!) having them made in Australia was really vital too. In fact, in all of the suppliers of product and service were Australian, and mostly female sole or small traders. I felt this needed to be part of our DNA. But, easier said than done.
It took a literal year of learning about plastic compositions, learning about manufacturers and speaking with manufacturers to work out how I could get this done. I dragged a six-month-old and a just turned two-year-old around international plastics fair, powered by coffee, bottles and bananas meeting with suppliers and explaining I wanted an environmentally friendly plastic option to manufacturers from all over the Asia pacific. I was well and truly a novelty at that trade fair. It was here, just as the wheels fell off and the tears were almost flowing down the three of our faces – that I saw my supplier – I couldn’t stop and talk but emailed as soon as I can and set up our manufacturing relationship. They were very patient as I felt my way through the process, multiple questions per email and multiple emails a week.
What is your vision for The Suite Set?
For our products and our conversations in our community be a valuable contributor to supporting growing families, in whatever form they take. That we engage in conversations about understanding realistic and manageable expectations for new mums, we promote care and community and we just make things easier.
You describe yourself as a fixer – how has this practical approach to solving problems helped you in your career?
I think that “fixing” things comes from a mindset of generosity in the first place. I’ve learned that to fix things, one must remember a few “rules”. Some things don’t actually need fixing however there is always a workaround, always a way to be able to reframe a problem and it is important to go along the path knowing “the outcome may not look like you thought it would look, but it is the right outcome for the time”. This mindset I am sure is a genetic one, inherited from my nana and my mum. It’s meant that I’ve always been willing to get in and do the work for a better outcome, find the greater good (because that’s what fixing is) and be willing to be flexible. By knowing how to reframe something, means you’re never stuck. This comes in handy at any workplace, or in any relationship really!
What do you think holds women back the most?
Our lack of self-belief coupled with the sad reality that other women can be dissuasive of each other. Also the pressure we put on ourselves for perfection means we struggle to be able to bring joy into our lives – we’re so busy with the mental load, of making sure we’re doing everything right, the competition – we forget that it feels good to feel good.
If you could go back to before you had children, what advice would you give yourself? I wouldn’t have listened to even myself, and I still don’t listen to myself – when I say “all babies need is love and food, so rest, be kind, don’t worry about the washing piling up”.