Introducing Sarah Pearson: DFAT’s new Chief Innovation Officer

Earlier this year, Sarah Pearson joined DFAT as the Department’s first Chief Innovation Officer. As a member of the International Reference Group (IRG), Sarah has been a close friend of the innovationXchange since its inception in 2015. Now a few months into her new role, we sat down with Sarah to hear more about her plans for embedding innovation across DFAT, and to find out what makes her tick.

IXC: Thanks for joining us Sarah. It’s been a busy few months for you in your new role as Chief Innovation Officer (CXO). How would you describe the experience so far?

SP: Fascinating. Having been an advisor on the outside of government it has been really interesting to get to know the breadth of areas DFAT works in – we do everything, internationally. It’s also been great to get to know about the innovation activity across DFAT, and of course to get to know the iXc team and their impactful projects in detail.

IXC: We know you’ve got a lot of experience in the innovation sector. Can you tell us a bit more about your professional background prior to this new role?

SP: I’ve been involved in pretty much every part of the innovation sector, from basic research into Particle Physics (involved in the early days of the WWW), to research into diagnosing cancer as a physics academic, head of Open Innovation at Cadbury (Mrs Willy Wonka), management consulting at McKinsey for high tech companies, CEO of ANU Enterprise attempting to connect the research base with industry, setting up an innovation ecosystem in Canberra as CEO of CBRIN, and PVC Innovation at the University of Newcastle.

I’ve provided innovation advice to several governments in Australia and overseas, been on Boards as an innovation expert, and done a lot about encouraging young people into STEM. I’ve published in academic journals, TV, radio and newspapers, and have 8 patents in cancer diagnosis and confectionery. I have a passion to see Australia become a hot bed of innovation that drives the success of our economy, and at DFAT am loving the opportunity to do this for countries in our region.

IXC: What’s your vision for the role and for embedding innovation across DFAT?

SP: My vision for the role is to help put innovation in the hands of everyone at DFAT so that we can reach our ambitious Foreign Policy White Paper goals; to put innovation in the hands of people in our region to help them solve their social challenges and build their own economies; and to lead on new approaches and technologies that will help us do our work with excellence, making the most of technological changes.

Video: Sarah Pearson presenting a keynote address at the 2018 Public Sector Network Conference.

IXC: What would you say are the core elements of your role on a day-to-day basis?

SP: Goodness no one day is the same as the next. Which I enjoy. As a CEO I always planned what I would do each day, knowing that as soon as I got to work it would all change and I’d get to my own To Do list at about 5 pm. It’s not quite that uncertain at DFAT, but each day has its own interest and challenges.

There is a lot to do to adapt the iXc model to the new direction, whilst keeping the current work on track. Lots of working with others inside and outside DFAT to build trust and partnership. And of course lots of working out how the public service works, and what feels like rather a lot of reporting.

Going forward, once the new DFAT strategy, and the iXc work plan is sorted, I imagine I will spend more time helping to inject innovation in as many projects across DFAT as I can, whilst building external partnerships to help us achieve our FPWP goals by leveraging others’ resources.

I also hope to help Posts build trust with their country’s government by demonstrating we know how to build innovation into their economies – a sort of innovation ambassador type role. I also look forward to finding many ways to help DFAT with innovation in whatever way makes sense for them.

Pictured: Sarah Pearson with David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme

IXC: What’s been the highlight so far? What are your favourite aspects of the position?

SP: I like to lead change, drive impact, work at the forefront of whatever I am doing, and love to keep learning. I do all of that as CXO at DFAT. I think the two highlights so far have been formulating the DFAT Innovation Strategy; and seeing someone in our Frontier Innovators program saying thanks for helping them help themselves – the whole aim of building innovation ecosystems in the Pacific and why we on the IRG suggested it.

IXC: What’s been the greatest challenge for you so far?

SP: Learning the DFAT acronyms!


Pictured: Sarah Pearson with fellow members of the Global Innovation Fund board in Washington D.C. 

IXC: Has anything surprised you about your new role?

SP: The breadth of activity that DFAT engages in, as well as the importance – I don’t think we make enough of that with the Australian public. I am immensely proud of the work we do and wish we were better understood.

IXC: If you could invite three people (dead or alive) to a dinner party, who would you invite?


Tesla – he sounds like he was pretty insane and did some amazing experiments, which included blowing up his early electricity generators (not deliberately), which got him kicked out of Europe.

Rosalind Franklin – I’d like to hear her story about how the structure of DNA was discovered and her role in it.

Kitty Flanagan or Billy Connolly – I think they’d make it very amusing.

IXC: What are you most proud of?

SP: My two sons!

IXC: If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?

SP: I’ve got a few places on my bucket list – would love to helicopter over a live volcano somewhere or climb Mt Kilimanjaro.

IXC: If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would you choose?


  • Future focussed
  • Impact driven
  • Optimistic

IXC: What do you like to do in your spare time?

SP: I have two sons who are grown up and left home but I like seeing them when I can.

I love the outdoors so weekends you will find me either horse riding or hiking somewhere.

IXC: Thanks for your time Sarah, and best of luck!

Comments 2

  1. Dear Dr Pearson,
    Would you happen to be the Sarah Pearson who was once on the physics lecturing staff at the University of New England? If not, please forgive the intrusion. If so (or indeed even if not), allow me to express my admiration at the diversity and success of your career, and offer my congratulations on your appointment.
    Matthew Fewell

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