Pro-Bono Australia - Aus Entrepreneurs Merge on Poverty Plan

Pro-Bono Australia - Aus Entrepreneurs Merge on Poverty Plan

Two social change Not for Profits, YGAP and Spark International have merged in a move the organisations say will “empower impact entrepreneurs around the world’. Melbourne-based incubator for social change, YGAP, set up by Elliot Costello to inspire social entrepreneurs to end poverty, described the merger as a union of strong and focused organisations with a clear vision to improve and create solutions to address poverty.

“After extensive consultation, both YGAP and Spark recognised that together we can better engage everyone in the fight to end poverty,” Costello said.

The Bliss of Failure

The Bliss of Failure – Awakening to Purpose by Katleho Tsoku

Oprah Winfrey once said “The privilege of a lifetime is to be who you are. What I know for sure however, is that the real privilege is getting to use who you are to elevate the higher good of everyone else.” For me, it took the closure of my restaurant, Bliss and a couple of years of introspection to fully grasp that I am here to use my passions and talents to serve.

In 2009, I decided my life needed a revamp professionally. I had this deep yearning to do more with my life, I just didn’t know what. On a random Saturday, I found myself buying my first copy of Destiny Magazine. The first page it opened to was a quote that read “The secret to life is to follow your BLISS.”

That quote was the first brick laid in my foundation for entrepreneurial pursuits. In that moment, it made sense that I needed to follow my BLISS. And my BLISS was answering my entrepreneurial calling.

I put in my resignation letter at work. Diving into the unknown was scary, but somehow passion surpassed fear.

I did all that was necessary – registering my business, scouting for locations, sourcing consultants etc. But I hit a brick wall when it came to finding funding. Banks were not an option; I was 24 years old with no collateral, so I was not a suitable candidate for a loan. I approached every agency that professed to help young entrepreneurs and received either an automated response saying “we are out of funds for the year” or a straight “No, we don’t fund restaurants.”

So I’d done all this work done and had no capital. I spoke to my mom who said she would help me with what she had in the hope that as the business grew, we would be able to attract more funding. Knowing this was my mom’s hard earned money, I was even more determined to make it work. Hard-earned money that my mother, who believed in my dream and me, was willing to risk. I did not take this lightly.

October 2010, at the age of 25, I opened Bliss, a tapas and cocktail bar. I was on cloud nine! Here’s this baby of mine that started off as an idea that was now tangible. I could eat the food at Bliss, drink the cocktails at Bliss and talk to the customers at Bliss.

There is nothing comparable to the joy of realising a dream. Starting something from nothing; that is the beauty of entrepreneurship.

Weeks and months went by and that ‘honeymoon stage’ soon ended. Now I was running out of capital. The business was picking up slowly, but I had to pay staff and rent and I had to buy stock whether we had 100 customers or one. I was now face-to-face with the reality of being an entrepreneur. The reality of realising a dream and having the soul of the world test you.

I needed bums on restaurant seats; it was the only way bills would be paid. Every time I would vent to a customer, friend or family, I was told “give it time”. While indeed time was what was needed, time went hand in hand with money and that was something I did not have.

People would tell me how lucky I was to be running such a beautiful restaurant and that they wished they were me. Little did they know, being me meant missing my rent and playing hide and seek from my landlord who would eventually find me and issue a stern warning. Being me meant looking at my bank account and feeling my heart beating out of my chest for fear I would not be able to pay my staff. Being me meant crying myself to sleep at night in fear I would lose my restaurant.

Someone said to me, “you are not a real entrepreneur until you have felt like you are being dragged down a tar road naked with your skin scraping off.” I have never heard a truer description, and I believe anyone who is fighting for their dreams, can relate.

As much as there were struggles, there would be major highlights when Bliss would surprise me and I would meet my obligations and the restaurant would be crazy busy. Moments like these assured me that it was a dream worth fighting for.

Despite all of this, there came a time where I had to make a decision I dreaded. There was literally no more money to put into Bliss. My mom told me if I still wanted to fight, she didn’t know how, but she would make a plan. I owe my mom my life! A strong support structure is vital on this entrepreneurial journey; my mom was that for me.

As I was contemplating what move to make next, a patron of mine came in. She did not know I was considering closing down Bliss, yet in my random conversation with this patron she said to me “Have you ever thought maybe Bliss restaurant was not THE dream, but rather a step in the direction your true purpose, your real BLISS…”

In that moment, I knew what I needed to do.

I looked at my staff of thirteen and realised that closing down Bliss was not just about me. Closing Bliss meant people would be out of jobs and their families affected. In an industry of high staff turnover, I was lucky to have had the same team from day one, right until the very last day. I promised myself I would do everything in my power to find them alternative employment. It was the least I could do for their loyalty. And thank goodness I managed to.

It is believed that fear of failure is the number one reason women shy away from entrepreneurship. Failure is a bitter pill to swallow. I was a complete mess following the closure of Bliss but the experience taught me many, many lessons. My most treasured lesson however, was the awakening to my purpose.

While still running Bliss, a friend of mine asked me what my purpose was and how Bliss fit into it. I was unable to answer him, but for some reason that question pulled at my core. I now know, until you are clear on your WHY, you are in big trouble. Certainly Bliss was built with love and good intentions, but I was not clear on how it served my true purpose. It certainly was however, a catalyst in awakening me to that purpose.

Celebrating women is why I exist. Seeing women thrive is my ultimate BLISS! My greatest joy is championing female entrepreneurs; that is the work that fulfills me.

Am I afraid of failure? YES! But I choose to give the fear of failure the middle finger and say yes to work I love. That is a service in itself, to my self and the sisterhood!

Helping Women Thrive

Helping Women Thrive - Sheree Rubinstein

Lately an interesting and recurring thought has been popping up for me.

I am being challenged to answer an important question. While it is being posed to me in different ways essentially these questions derive from the same premise:

Why do I create hubs, programs and communities that either predominantly or exclusively focus on women?

Shouldn’t men be encouraged to get involved in the conversation?

Don’t we need to help men feel more comfortable in attending spaces, programs and events that support women?

Isn’t it time we encourage women not to just spend time in “safe” environments amongst like-mindedness but actually connect them to people who will challenge their thinking, get them out of their comfort zone and connect them to new networks?

I don’t necessarily disagree with this sentiment. Men need to be involved in the conversation. The issue of gender equality and levelling the playing field for men and women in business and entrepreneurship is an issue that affects all of us, no matter who we are.

But while I take notes and absorb the feedback I can’t help but strongly believe that there is still profound merit in curating opportunities that predominantly or exclusively support women.

I am the cofounder and CEO of One Roof, Australia’s leading co-working space dedicated to women-led businesses. Much more than a co-working space One Roof is a community and an entire ecosystem of support. In fact the name ‘One Roof’ embodies the idea that we provide everything a female entrepreneur needs to thrive under one roof.  We are currently home to over 70 women-led businesses across a range of industries providing them with a suite of support including mentoring, access to experts, curated connections, networking events and business coaching.

One Roof was born out of the indisputable reality; women are universally under-represented across the entire entrepreneurial and business landscape.

If we don’t actively think about what will attract, support and retain women to co-working spaces, programs, positions of leadership etc, often they will be, and they already are and continue to be, left out.

When we say ‘women-led’ what this means to us is businesses with a female founder, cofounder or CEO. Recently, we broadened this definition to include businesses that have an equal representation of women on their boards and / or a commitment or clear mandate of gender equality within their organisation.

We have men working at One Roof (and have recently increased these numbers), we have men hosting events, attending events, sponsoring One Roof, acting as experts, mentoring our members and, in fact, some of our greatest supporters have been men.

That said, we still predominantly see women working at One Roof and attending our events and programs. It is still overtly clear that One Roof is a space for women.

At this point in my two and half year One Roof journey I know it is crucial to create spaces and programs that are exclusively or predominantly focused on women.

For instance this year we launched the One Roof PLUS entrepreneurial support program to support early stage female founders. This is a 3-month program designed by women for women. To design a program that thinks about the unique challenges and needs of women, that provides examples and case studies of successful women and creates a ‘safe’ space where women feel comfortable to be vulnerable, be challenged and ask questions, is truly profound. When we run programs we design them around what we know women want. We do things differently rather than trying to fit women into traditional paradigms that don’t always work for them. One example is instead of hosting a big pitch night or ‘demo day’ with judges and hundreds of people in the room, our participants pitched to an invite-only room of investors and experts and then sat down to an intimate dinner with an opportunity to network in a more comfortable setting. I witnessed firsthand just how much value the participants gained from a female-only program. Not only did I witness it. They told me.

And, of course, YHER is a prime example of a program that, at its core, supports women.  I had the pleasure and honour of volunteering as a facilitator to support Kaitlin and Katleho at the YHER accelerator program last year in Johannesburg. This program is paving the way for female impact entrepreneurs across Africa. In fact, on the 16th of August we are hosting a fundraiser at One Roof. Come along and support this incredible initiative. Details here.

Essentially, I am on a mission to close the gender gap in entrepreneurship and empower women to succeed in business. The ‘why’ is what drives me. The ‘how’ isn’t so important. In fact I anticipate the ‘how’ to change many times during the course of my pursuit for equality.

But at this point in time women are still significantly lagging behind in entrepreneurship. Hubs, networking groups and educational programs that have a strong focus on supporting women are having an important impact in shifting the dial and paving the way for women to step into the arena with the confidence, skills and networks that we need to thrive.

Sheree Rubinstein
Cofounder and CEO of One Roof

Embracing Female Energy

Embracing Female Energy - Wawira Njiru

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the most brilliant women. My organisation, Food for Education, provides meals to 500 girls of the 1200 school children we work with each day and 85% of our 15 member team is female. I’ve sat with 12 year old girls, discussing school, boys and their hopes for the future. I’ve sat with our staff, some of whom are in their late 30s, discussing marriage, motherhood and what the future is for women in Kenya. I am mentored by the two brilliant women, one of whom is the former Chief Financial Officer of Apple and the other the Senior Global Development Executive at Hewlett Packard. I am blessed with incredible girlfriends and women in my family who continually inspire and push me to be better but it was not always like this.

Popular media often pits women against each other, pushing the narrative that there is only space for one or two women, either in politics, leadership of various positions of power. Women are portrayed as being canning, untrustworthy and always having ‘an agenda’. I have 2 sisters, went to an all girls high school and have always been ambitious. For many years, I struggled to reconcile what I saw in majority of movies, read in books with my reality. My grandmother and mother who continue to be the strongest female forces in my life have an incredible bond of love, mutual respect and a deep friendship. I’ve been blessed to share in this love and have them as some of my best friends. They’ve always encouraged me to excel in whatever I put my mind to, and my grandmother, a single mother of four and successful business woman who worked for years to bring herself and her family out of poverty has always pushed me to believe in my limitless potential.

There’s space for more than one woman. Women are often pitted against each other as if in competition because we are often made to believe that it is not possible for us to share in each other’s success. I see a lot of women, younger especially, deny the comfort and strength that comes with female friendships and instead spend time fighting and competing with each other. The older I get, the more I appreciate the wonderful females I get to share life with. For every challenge that I am faced with, a woman in my life has overcome it and they are always there to offer insight and encouragement when I need it most.

The women in my life have also taught me how to embrace my style of leadership. When I started out, I wanted to lead like my father who is respected in his community and offers leadership to many people. I thought that to lead I must be tough, no-nonsense and basically, lead like a man. My mother and grandmother however continue to teach me how instead of thinking ‘be a man’ in a difficult situation, think, ‘be a woman’. They’ve taught me that I do not have to be loud, tall and sturdy to lead but rather be firm, seek wisdom and treat people with respect.

Women lead differently to men and that is something we should learn to embrace and love about ourselves. In many situations, I’ve been looked down upon because I am young, female and speak with a soft voice- not what many people expect a boss to look like. This can be disheartening and frustrating and as women, we are often tempted to change our leadership style to suit a patriarchal society that embraces male leadership and refers to it as the standard.

I’ve learnt how to demand respect even with a soft voice, how to share in my staff’s life stories because I am interested in them as people not just as employees. I have learnt that it’s okay to cry when you fail, to not always have the answers and to embrace this. I’ve learnt this from the women in my life and those I look up to and as I grow older, I’m more thankful for the female energy around me.

Women are strong and resilient. The world will be a better place with more of us in leadership positions and for this, I embrace and cheer on any woman who is aspiring to lead in whatever field. There is space for all of us, space for all our female energy and the world is a much better place because we exist and continue to push boundaries of what we can achieve.

The people behind the statistics - the refugee crisis in syria

The people behind the statistics - the refugee crisis in syria

In 2015, when a photograph surfaced of three year old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore, it sent shockwaves through our country. This was not a black and white image from a time that did not belong to us. It was a crystal clear image of a child dressed just like any child we might pass laughing in the street and it cast the plight of the refugee crisis into broad daylight. We could no longer turn a blind eye. That was, until the next day when this confronting image slipped straight back into the forgotten archives of our memory.

As we pause to observe World Refugee Day 2016, we face a global crisis with the greatest displacement of people since WW2. These events will be written into the history books of generations to come and yet we continue to ignore, worse, criticise the millions of people begging for our aid right now.

The negative attitudes that are prolific throughout Australia were further highlighted to me a few weeks ago whilst working in my local cafe. I was completely disturbed by a comment made by an elderly gentleman as he scanned through the newspaper whilst waiting for his coffee. Shaking his head, he murmured “ahh these bloody refugees”.

To say I was shocked is an understatement. Have we become that desensitised to refugees that we have lost our perspective of what these numbers represent? When we see figures of hundreds of thousands, millions of people forced to flee their country, has our ability to sympathise become so tainted that we no longer comprehend these numbers as humans just like ourselves?

It would be ignorant for me presume this man may not have his own reasons that have built up over time resulting in a resistance to foreign entities. Perhaps he has lived through wars that impacted him in a way I can only imagine.

However it is these negative stigmas associated with refugees that need to be broken down, and soon.

March 15 marked five years of war in Syria. Since 2011, over four million people have fled Syria, more than half of those children. The conflict has resulted in the deaths of up to 470,000 human beings just like you and I. As Filippo Grandi UNHCR High Commissioner states “Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions which should be garnering a groundswell of support around the world”.

These refugees are the definition of desperation. Try to imagine travelling across the waters of the Aegean Sea, piled into a rubber boat with 50 other people. A boat with a safety capacity of 15. Sandwiched on top of one another, young, unaccompanied children surround you and the air temperature plummets to freezing with no land in sight. What dire circumstances must these people be fleeing for this to be their best option?

Let’s not forget these journeys of life or death to new countries follow loss of belongings, homes and family members. These people have essentially been stripped of their identity to date. This is just one picture of the millions of unimaginable circumstances people are being faced with.

If it takes is a confronting A4 photograph sprawled across the front of the newspaper to humanise these numbers, then that is what we should be doing every day. Because there are over four million of those photographs waiting to be taken and more importantly, stories to be told.

Let’s learn from the injustices that have come before us and refuse complacency at the very time we have the greatest responsibility to act. I have faith that older gentleman in my café can shed the negative stigma he holds and one day, when he hears the word refugees and sees those numbers, remember they are human beings with the same human rights as himself.

Life, Love and Personal Growth

Life, Love and Personal Growth with Karl Lokko

To stand in a room full of strangers and be completely transparent about your life – where you have come from and where you are heading, is no easy feat. At YGAP’s latest community meeting guest speaker Karl Lokko opened his heart to close on 100 people, providing a glimpse of a life most will never know, and it was awe inspiring. A former gang leader from London, who admits he was“running to a dead end”, Karl lived a life consumed by drugs and crime. He was the embodiment of our global systemic failings – dismissing and pleading ignorant to minority groups so clearly crying out for help. Karl opened with a poem and with every rhythmic sentence that followed, the room was transfixed.

Karl’s earnest description of his decision to become a gang member in order to protect himself and his family sounded so pragmatic. From a young age he distinguished that his unblemished report card would not stop kids in gangs from harassing both he and his family so “if you can’t beat them, join them”. With this decision came years of pain and trauma, dealing drugs, being shot at more times than he had birthdays, being stabbed in the back and watching his best friend die from a bullet on the pavement next to him.

It was a life too heavy for anyone to deal with, let alone a child. Karl admitted he knew his actions were diminishing his future but that he had reached a stage so far gone, he was unable to care – “living life like a gamble, my life a casino”.

This is where pastor Memi entered the story – a woman with whom Karl credits a large part of his reformation out of the gang world. The mother of his right hand man, Memi played a pivotal role in coercing six members of the gang to leave, reminding them “life – it aint got no reset button”. She was able to see past society’s label of them as “worthless criminals”, rather acknowledging they were simple children that had taken a wrong turn and with some guidance and love, could be redirected.

You could say Pastor Memi indirectly led Karl to where he stands today as a, activist and social influencer. He speaks so earnestly of the power of love and support, “that talking is growth and growth is healing” and to never underestimate what compassion can do for a fellow human being. He condemns the notion that we are defined by what we do, instead recognising that people can make bad decisions or be dealt a bad hand, but that this should not define their status as a human being.

Rather than respond reactively to problems we are faced with in society, Karl aspires to channel the approach of Pastor Memi – changing attitudes and offering support. Short-term answers don’t yield long-term sustainability. Throwing money at a social problem won’t eradicate that issue. In his own words, “there’s youth running round like there’s no jail”, so incarcerating a misguided teenager won’t necessarily deter others or break the cycle of offending. Karl is a shining example of someone who has seen both sides of the spectrum and chose the path less travelled, dedicating his future to helping others see the light of hope in darkness.

His final words still echo – “If we can’t see hope in the mirror, how can we see hope in the sinner?”

A huge thank you to Jane Tewson and the team at Igniting Change for bringing Karl into our lives. An unforgettable experience.


This Mother’s Day I challenge you

This Mother’s Day I challenge you

There are days created specifically to celebrate people that have been fundamental pillars in our lives. Today we stop to acknowledge mothers globally carrying out what is arguably the most important and challenging job in the world. Whether its shaping our future leaders or simply teaching children how to tie their shoelace, mums are on the front line, handing this world over from one generation to the next. So, this Mother’s Day I challenge you to imagine a world where your mother’s life was lost in the process of bringing you into the world. A world where due to something that could have been avoided, your life was lost and with it, her chance to love a child. A world where if you both survived, she was denied the basic support she needs to grow you into the best version of you she possibly can. Every day, at least 20 women in rural Kenya die during childbirth. Lack of access to medical facilities and timely maternal health information are the key reasons for this tragedy. Their ability to mother and love a child is defined by their socio economic status and geolocation. When I think about Mother’s Day I think about arguments with my siblings – what tea towel to buy, what photo we should have framed or trying to remember what flowers mum doesn’t hate. The squabbles over who would be tasked with making mum breakfast in bed, when looking back, she probably would have rather eaten at the table. Now, a few years older and I can look back on my childhood through an objective lens. I would tell my younger self to stop focusing on these trivial notions and appreciate the woman standing in front of you. This Mother’s Day, I challenge you to think of all the times she made sacrifices for you or lost sleep worrying about you. I also challenge you to think about what pending motherhood might look like for a woman in rural Kenya. She will make those same sacrifices, have the same worries, but she also might die bringing her child into the world or be robbed of the chance to love a child who doesn’t make it out alive. Now let me tell you about a group of Kenyans who did something incredible for mothers (and fathers) in Kenya. A group of local leaders with a solution to a local problem. With YGAP’s support they developed Totohealth, an SMS and voice technology reducing maternal and child mortality while also detecting developmental abnormalities in early stages of pregnancy and a child’s life. Totohealth enables parents to receive targeted, personalised messages linked to their stage of pregnancy or child’s age, highlighting warning signs in their health or development and providing access to timely care if required. With 21,126 parents currently registered across 6 counties, Totohealth’s reach has been instrumental in providing these women with a hopeful future as mothers. It is a privilege women in developed nations are blessed with and Totohealth’s goal to provide every mother an opportunity to safely bring another human life into the world inspires us every day. This mother’s day I’m going to tell my mum I love her and thank her. My challenge to you is to do the same – on behalf of the children who don’t get that chance and the mothers who will never hear it from a child they lost.

YGAP Impact Tour 2016

YGAP Impact Tour 2016 - Francesa Blundell

Day One – Sunday 31st July

‘If you can’t find any miracles in life, be the miracle for those around you’

Today the most impactful experience for me was definitely our meeting with Shile Thsalabala. Shile is a wonderful person who really opened my eyes to the fact it does not matter what mistakes one has made in the past, everyone still has the right to not only change themselves, but to change the environment around them for the better; by changing one’s mindset.

Sihle lives in and works to improve his township, Langa. We visited Langa and the digital educational enterprise Sihle runs. Everyone within the group was impressed and astonished by the professionalism and quality of work that he does. Sihle toured us around the old school and very proudly showed off the classrooms and equipment that he has installed into his coding school. It was so heart-warming and truly inspiring to hear his story and to be told that it was whilst serving time in prison for eleven years, Sihle realised that a change in lifestyle and decision-making was vital. The fact that he could move away from a life of crime and give back to the community was so profound. Whilst serving time in prison Sihle did more than change his attitude, he started the world’s first not-for- profit behind bars.

Day Two – Monday 1st August

‘Everyone deserves a fair second chance at life’

Beginning the day meeting Paul Talliard was the perfect way to put everyone in a good mood. Paul is an amazing man who runs an enterprise consisting of a furniture building team made up of ex-addicts or as Paul so succinctly puts it “people trying to get a fair second chance at life”. Paul also owns a recycling business a few minutes away. Both fitting and reselling old appliances is a method Paul uses to prevent these workers from taking the wrong path by staying in a sturdy job. The thing that struck me about Paul was the way he showed his workers that he cared. He was firm when talking to them to maintain authority however he would say to a passing man, “Hey Jimmy when you gonna come in and turn your life around?” and this showed he truly did care about people changing their ways and becoming better people. He would also speak highly of other workers in front of them.

When Paul was asked where he draws the line and has to ask people to leave he said that there is no line and that he will always give people a second chance if they are willing to change. This is something that not many people would honestly be able to say.

Next was lunch with Janine. It was so inspiring to see how she could pick herself up and come back fighting even stronger after the painful process of being forced to liquidate her company. While she was walking us through the factory it was heart-warming to see she had done everything by the book and all of the workers spoken to described working at Ukama as being a part of a big family.

An experience of today that will always resonate with me was the visit to the crèche. Although the never-ending affection and songs from the adorable three, four and five-year olds was oh, so gorgeous, it was the principal who was truly inspiring. Finding out that she had given away all of her furniture in order to turn her house into a creche was absolutely astounding. Liz was a truly unique person to encounter and could only be described as an angel. The power of generosity and forgiveness were very valuable lessons today.

Day Three – Tuesday August 2nd

‘Each one, teach one’

Today began with a trip to Robben Island. Thinking about such vile and horrendous acts such as apartheid happening so recently in the past is sickening, however it was important to learn more about it and be aware of the events. Seeing Nelson Mandela’s cell where he was held for eighteen years was extremely eerie and dark. The stories of Mandela’s motivation, optimism and positivity was a great way to represent all the motivating, stunning and intriguing people we had met over the previous four days. Our visit to the primary school in the Philippi township was extremely uplifting and a breath of fresh air in a way. Walking into a room filled with bright-faced kids who were just so happy and pure was a truly joyous moment. This is an after-school preprogram devised by Bulelani Futshane.

After a lot of dancing and singing about the importance of recycling, everyone’s spirits were significantly lifted.

Day 4 – Wednesday August 3rd

“don’t buy me meat, teach me to hunt”

Never have I come across such a vibrant, energetic and loving person in my life. Lebo Bogapane is a wonderful woman who has endured so much heartache and devastation in her life, yet finds the love within her to devote her time, money and skills to help children who have endured the worst situations possible. Lebo energetically runs a centre that supports and hosts children and teenagers who have been victims of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse. Upon arrival, we were greeted with smiling faces and gorgeous songs. After being taken around the centre and shown all the facilities, we gathered together for a ceremony.

The kids showed us how much they knew about abuse and how open they were to speak about the issues surrounding the topic. It was jaw-dropping to listen to these brilliant kids who had been victims themselves, talk so matter-of- factly about such a sensitive topic, explaining to us how if one were abused there are steps one must follow to report someone and fix the situation. A group of boys and girls performed a magnificent song and dance for us. Passion and pride were presented during the dance and the kids had such impressive, mesmerising voices. Lebo is a person who will always stick in my memory for being so heartfelt and genuine when talking about her work. She demonstrated that she isn’t in it for the praise or money, but the fact that she genuinely wants to make a difference in these young people’s lives. The energy that she brings forth is so empowering and inspirational.

Day 5 – Friday August 5th

“It is not possible to teach someone how to learn”

A truly remarkable experience today was seeing how far our support goes and further reminded me why we are doing this. Noni Masina founded The African School for Excellence and my goodness does it live up to its name. Each student, or should I say scholar as the kids referred to it, utterly blew everyone away with the way they presented themselves, their social awareness and vocabulary. We were shown around the impressively large school and its many classrooms and facilities. With each classroom I visited, I was further comforted that our contribution was being stretched as far as possible. Every room was filled with talented teachers, engaged kids and appropriate learning tools to match. The spark and fire in the kids’ eyes, along with the goals of becoming lawyers, doctors and scientists, really proved their determination for a quality education.

Day 6- Friday the 5th of august

Today we were privileged enough to listen to the pitches of eight female impact entrepreneurs starting or developing their own small businesses through the SHE by Spark program. It was really inspiring to see the thorough planning that each of these women went through to pitch their ideas to us. A personal favourite of mine was a lady who uses natural indigenous African materials to create sanitary napkins. This business not only supplies sanitary products to girls who would have in other circumstances not had access, but also creates jobs and income for the women in the community. All of the women’s businesses had great impact on the community from education to beauty products. Hearing from such bold and inspiring ladies was a great way to end the trip.

The non-profit journey

The non-profit journey - Aaron Tait

Eight years ago Kaitlin and I started Spark International, from our little house in Boko, Tanzania. We had no money, no connections and no real idea of how to run a non-profit. But with passion, conviction and lots of hard work we stopped talking about the change we wanted to see in the world, and launched an organisation to try and do something.

When we moved back to Australia, we met loads of amazing young people who had also decided to try to make a difference in the world (including Elliot Costello from YGAP who we later merged with). The brilliant people we met were giving their all for a better environment, better schools, less poverty, less war, more support for those with disabilities, the reduction of stigma around mental health, and challenging race and gender stereotypes. As we grew our small organisations, we would catch up for drinks, sign leases on cheap co-working spaces and share ideas, wins and failures. Most of us were unpaid. All of us were trying our best.

Over the years, many of the organisations grew. Board meetings looked less like friends and family cheering us on and more like high-powered gatherings of accountants, lawyers and business leaders. Budgets we had to try change the world with became larger than we could have ever imagined and our workplace shifted from the local coffee shop to offices with leases, asset lists and risk management plans. Collectively we made a big difference. We changed things.

But in 2016 I noticed something interesting. We weren’t so young anymore. Most of these young founders were in their thirties. Many were married. Some had kids. And when we would meet up for drinks, most of us seemed really tired. By the end of last year 80 per cent of the young founders we had journeyed with for years had moved on from the non-profits that they started.

Some moved countries. Some moved into well paid corporate jobs. Some launched impact businesses and raised seed capital from the growing impact investment community. Some joined exciting new ventures that they hadn’t founded themselves.

At YGAP, the key leaders who made the decision to step up and build things are still at the helm. But as we learn from the experiences of our friends, we are getting smarter to make sure that we keep talent in the organisation. Here is what we are doing.

  1. Setting big goals. There is nothing like a challenging and bold goal to fire up a team. We want to change a million lives in the next two years. We want to continue the exponential growth of our fundraising campaigns. And we know this is just the beginning. Our plans post-2018 are starting to take shape and they are awesome.
  2. Taking breaks. Some of our most senior leaders are packing their bags and heading away for a few months to learn, be inspired by other organisations and recharge their batteries.
  3. Changing positions. Some of our leaders are shifting roles in the organisation to allow them to focus where their talents sit best, and also to allow for fresh talent and ideas to influence where we are headed.

What I have realised moving into 2017 is that social change is a marathon, not a sprint. All of us in this work (whether we are founders, volunteers or donors) should live deliberately and commit ourselves to a lifetime of impact.

The future is female: why we back local change

The future is female: why we back local change - Kaitlin Tait

It was about a year ago and I had arrived a little early for a speaking engagement. I was sitting down to do some work, when another female speaker arrived and quietly confessed how desperate she was for a wine to take the edge off her nerves – an all too familiar feeling for me.

I’d spoken at my fair share of panels, speeches and workshops, but for years I’d struggled to kick the fear and anxiety I associated with putting myself out there. I was incredibly passionate about my work but somehow always felt that the passion and expertise that I’d crafted over the previous eight years rarely translated into confident eloquence on stage. My audiences weren’t necessarily disappointed (I was on my way to mastering the art of ‘faking it until you make it’) but I always disappointed myself – constantly comparing myself to my impressive orator of a husband and the inspiring, confident, and well-spoken people I surrounded myself with. Unfortunately, this trend extended beyond just speaking engagements and into my day-to-day work experience.

For years, I had been navigating the rewarding yet challenging reality of starting a non-profit. In our early twenties, armed with relevant masters degrees and a healthy dose of idealism, my husband and I booked a one-way flight to Kenya, eager to ‘change the world’. We were on a mission to get the all-important on-the-ground experience most people drawn to working in International Development dream of. Nearly two years, three bouts of malaria, a curse from a witch doctor and a death threat later, we left East Africa with the realisation that true, sustainable social change is driven by local leaders with local solutions to the challenges faced by their communities. It wasn’t up to us to be Africa’s heroes. Rather, it was up to the incredible Kenyans and Tanzanians we met with great ideas and a deep understanding of their communities who simply needed the support, resources and confidence to get their ideas off the ground. And so we started Spark* International to find, accelerate and support these local leaders as they improve the lives of people living in poverty.

Fast forward five years and we joined forces with YGAP, creating a dream team which to date has helped 287 entrepreneurs grow the impact of their ventures and improved the lives of almost 300,000 people living in poverty. Entrepreneurs like Felix Kimaru of Totohealth who is providing an innovative, low cost SMS advice service to expectant mothers from conception through the child’s 5th birthday with the goal of reducing infant and maternal mortality. In a country where only 60 per cent of women are delivering their babies in a hospital and a similar percentage of children are vaccinated, Totohealth is seeing 93 per cent of their users deliver in a hospital and 90 per cent of babies receive their vaccinations. When Totohealth first started, they were reaching 300 women. They now are reaching 30,000 parents.

But this entrepreneurial journey for me was anything but smooth. In the early days, I battled with a strong case of imposter syndrome, questioning my ability at every turn while I watched the men around me ooze confidence. And I wasn’t alone. In every accelerator program we ran, I saw many of the same tendencies in the women-led ventures we supported and this concerned me.

Even more concerning was the reality faced by most women who pursued entrepreneurship or positions of leadership. In the startup world, there are around 131 corporate run accelerators, and a staggering 87 per cent of these are run by men. Y-Combinator – one of the world’s leading startup accelerators – has invested in more than 700 startups, but just 13 per cent of these are led by women. When it comes to venture capital, women receive only 3 – 5 per cent of the funding available and less than 5 per cent of venture capital firms are led by women. In Australia, just 20 per cent of startups are female founded and less than 30 per cent of tech roles are filled by women.

When we look at women in leadership more generally, the statistics are equally concerning. Women hold just 12 per cent of the world’s board seats and only 4.6 per cent of Fortune 500 CEO roles. Across the workforce, women are earning today what men were earning 10 years ago.

It’s clear the cards are often stacked against women as they venture into entrepreneurship, and we wanted to do something about it. So we developed SHE – an accelerator program aimed at finding and supporting women-led businesses improving the lives of women and girls living in poverty. A program designed by women to specifically address the unique challenges women face when trying to step up and lead in a decidedly male dominated field. A program supporting women like Lucy.

Lucy is a Kenyan entrepreneur and in Kenya, girls miss 3.5 million learning days per month due to lack of access to sanitary products. This contributes to high dropout rates in schools with serious social and economic consequences. Many communities also lack clean water, which leads to hygiene related illnesses. As a result, many young women do not always have access to clean underwear, let alone sanitary products. In response, Lucy developed SanPad – an innovative 70 per cent bio degradable two-in-one pad-pantie. The product is affordable, hygienic and disposable, negating the need for soap and water. Through our SHE program, Lucy has access to entrepreneurship training, ongoing support and funding to help her keep more young women healthy and in school.

Does it make a difference? Absolutely. The women we’ve worked with report huge benefits. In an all women forum they feel more willing to open up with honesty and vulnerability about the difficulties they face navigating gender discrimination or the daunting realities of pitching to an all male boardroom. They share techniques for approaching these situations, encouraging each other to use their feminine approach to their advantage, rather than feeling the need to emulate the men around them. They discuss the challenge of balancing work and family, drawing on the strength of other women in the room who are walking the same journey and facing the same barriers. Most importantly, we see a shift in mindset around what they are capable of. They see other women who’ve done it, and realise ‘if she can, I can’, feeling the power of a whole new tribe of women who have their back.

This year, we want to take SHE across the African continent to reach many more Lucy’s, but we are not the only cause for celebration. There are incredible groups right here in Australia and around the world working to balance the scales:

  • One Roofis a fantastic female centric co-working space in Melbourne giving women-led businesses access to a feminine space, events, entrepreneurship support and expert advice.
  • The Criterion Instituteis pioneering gender lens investing, encouraging companies and organisations to see investments they make and how they make them as a tool for creating a more equitable world for women.
  • Through global research, tools and services, events and other programs, Catalystexists to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion.
  • And there are other legends like SpringboardScale Investors, and She Starts, doing incredible work here in Australia to ensure female founders are getting the support and funding they need to grow.

To go back to that night when a fellow female speaker was reaching for the alcohol to calm the nerves, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t. I was calm, collected and confident. How did I get there? It has most definitely been through the vulnerability, honesty, and support of countless other women who have given me strength. Who have reminded me time and time again of what is possible, and that I have something unique and valuable to offer.

Now, as I plan to start a family and bring new life into this world, I still have cause for concern. Concern that my future daughter will not be afforded the same opportunities as my future son. That, like the many women who have come before her, she may be a minority around the boardroom table, in her STEM classes, and in the startup world.

And yet, I have cause for celebration, because I do believe that things will be better for her, thanks to the incredible groups who are tirelessly fighting to give women and girls an equal chance at success. Groups who are going beyond just counting the women at the table and are instead attempting to truly understand what women need to thrive. Groups providing the environment, policies and procedures, financial capital and social support to do so.

It took me a good five years to find my feet and confidence as an entrepreneur. Through our programs, we aim to get women there faster, helping them grow better businesses that create a better world for women and girls. Join us at YGAP. The Future is female.