Julian O'Shea On Being Cleverly Persistent On Your Journey As A Global Change Maker
Julian O’Shea is the Founder and CEO of Unbound - an educational social enterprise that designs and leads international educational program in partnership with universities across Australia.
He has a background in technology and community development and has worked on community development projects from clean water projects in rural Cambodia to sustainable construction projects in earthquake affected areas of Nepal. His social impact work has seen him named Young Australian of the Year for South Australia and one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers. He calls Melbourne home and loves coffee, live art, and is on a personal quest to visit every country in the world.
Julian shares the importance of local knowledge and expertise, he suggests good grades aren’t everything in your education journey, and provides insight into the power of ‘clever persistence’ for social entrepreneurs.
Highlights from the interview (Listen to the podcast for full details)
[Mikaela Stephens] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to working in the social enterprise and education sector?
[Julian O'Shea] - Sure. It's always a bit of a journey and it's one of those things that with a bit of hindsight you can see how the dots connect, but at the time it wasn't necessarily where I expected to be. I grew up in the country and I moved to Adelaide to go to university where I studied engineering. So not a profession you always think of when you think about the social change sector. So I guess my transition from being an engineer to doing what I do now was - the steps felt small at the time. I was working as an engineer and realised, no, I want to say something a bit bigger, a bit broader, a bit more kind of aligned to my values. So rather than do the normal things, which could be like jump on a website and find a new job, I did the Australian thing where you quit and go traveling. So I bought a backpack, bought a one way flight to Southeast Asia and then spend the next 12 months doing my ‘Eat Pray Love’ moment. Yeah, finding myself, and visiting some amazing organisations that really got me excited about sustainability, about education and about how you can apply your skills in a real kind of way that has impact.
How old were you when you bought the ticket and just went for it? [03:21]
So this is a couple of years after university, so it was a gap year, but it was a grown up gap year, so I didn't have to exclusively stay in dodgy dorm rooms. The other thing that I did do, is that I gave it a bit of thought and I would reach out to different organisations as I went. So, visiting sustainability educators in Malaysia or people working on amazing innovation projects in Siberia, in Russia. So yeah, really great way to travel and it really set me up to work on the things that I wanted to do.
As CEO and Founder of Unbound, could you please tell us more about the aims of this organisation and the types of projects you’re involved in? [3:57]
Sure. At Unbound, our core mission is: how do we make education better? And for us the answer is working on projects that are based in the real world.
The way I like to think about it is, we are trying to look at problems where the solution isn't on Google.
I'm kind of going against the normal grain where when you get an assignment at university, they know what the answer is, they’re testing about whether you do as well. We’re trying to change that to say, well, why don't we work on something where we don't know what the outcome is, and importantly sometimes we don’t even know what the question is. So doing things that are a bit more complex, kind of being prepared for the future that's ahead. The way that we do it practically is we work with universities across the country, and more and more are getting involved that we’re collaborating with, and we work with them to design these really amazing educational opportunities. It gets kids, students out of the lecture theatre and working on a project in remarkable places around the world.
Wow. So I guess every assignment or course structure would be different. Time and time again. The results that you would get might be so insightful from each student. Just being really different in the fact that you don't have to set answers and you don't know what to expect every semester. [05:00]
And they should be different because every person is different. So we have this thing where it's kind of one curriculum, and it is important to cover off on what people know, but…
every person has their own values, goals, and ambitions. So what if every project could draw on that?
And the reason why we think that that's quite powerful, is that if you're working on something you love, you'll do a better job, you’ll care about it more, you'll read more, you’ll ask more questions, you just do better stuff. So we don't think you're making a trade off at all. What we're doing is trying to encourage people to do their best work because they're really passionate about it, because they're interested in renewable energies in Cambodia, because they're interested in public health and women's affairs, because they are interested in all of these amazing topics. And that's our model, is if we let people shape a bit of their journey while making sure we cover these important topics, the outcomes are just a lot more fun.
So, you’ve got your base foundation and then the ability to use that to explore those unique adventures? [6:06]
That's right. It really draws a lot on motivational theory, where at the moment if you're trying to get a good mark, if that's the only motivator, that's all you’ll work towards. But if you can do things that actually impact the real world, you've got a reason to try extra hard.
If it’s something you care about, you're just going to really dive in and explore.
And turn up to those 8:00 AM lectures.
Working as a course coordinator and lecturer for the Social Enterprise Incubator program within the University of Melbourne, can you share some of your experiences there, and what advice would you give to university students who are keen to use their future careers to create positive change in the world? [6:34]
I would love to be a student right now. I studied a few years ago and these topics did not enter my degree at all. Every single person I studied with, got a job very soon after university and very few people actually saw, including myself, that entrepreneurship was an option. So I think this is a big change. So this is something that the students can think about and do. And I like that idea of normalising it.
Entrepreneurship can be all kinds of different people with different backgrounds, not just a tech bro, Silicon Valley kind of thing.
I think that's the beauty of it as well, is that you get that multidisciplinary collaboration and that's what makes it so special. [07:26]
Absolutely. I think entrepreneurship can look quite different. It doesn't have to be tech, it doesn't have to be huge. It can be one small business that employs one or two people that really is bringing a product that you just wish existed into the world. They're teaching this course at the University of Melbourne and it's been an absolute joy seeing what people are interested in.
And I think that there is also a change that's happening, in that social impact, social entrepreneurship is not niche. It's not weird. It's not only for a few. It's not a tree huggin’ hippy vibe. It's just such a thing so many people want.
And yet it's something that people are really keen to get involved with.
If I was a uni student, what's some advice that you might be able to give? [08:18]
I think they just don’t recognize they're in a really powerful position. That there's something pretty special about being in this place in your career where you're there to learn and that people are there to help you out. So something I would do, and really think about and recommend, is that people work out what they want to do, who they want to meet, and make those things happen. It's something that I've experienced both when I travelled, took this year off to kind of really discover what I wanted to do, when I was setting up Unbound.
Just the amount of people that you reach out to and just kind of say, Hey, I've come across your work here. I really, really like what you've done with this. Everyone likes their ego stroked. And you can then just say, I'm studying this, I’m a student. I'm here to learn. I'm trying to grow. Can we catch up for coffee? And people are remarkably generous with their time, so I'd recommend that students kind of work out what they want to do, and then go and then really meet the people that want to connect with.
Another thing I saw recently, is that there was a survey done for graduate employers. These are people that directly employ people out of university and they ranked something like 40 skills, around things that they look at when students apply to them, and I think their marks were in the bottom five things that actually matter.
Things that were important were of course things around teamwork. People they really want to work with, being proactive, value alignment. So what I would recommend is that, yes, get good marks, work on your assignments, get a good score, fine, but do something that's interesting, engaging.
That could be anything. It could be starting a social movement to fight for policy change, it could be building a robot, it could be volunteering with a not for profit, getting involved in clubs and societies. But demonstrate that you really care about something and you have the skills to bring things into the world.
I guess that also shows that you as a human being and what you could bring to an organisation is more than just a number or a grade. It's yourself, and your personality, and your passion. [10:14]
Absolutely. What a brilliant way to show you could have passion to say I did something above and beyond.
In our interview with Dr Ingrid Burkett, she described curiosity as ‘a remarkably underplayed quality that is fundamental to addressing [community] issues’. Do you agree that curiosity is one of the most important characteristics of great designers and entrepreneurs? If so, how might educators best help students unleash this? [10:28]
It is a very important topic. It's one of the things that can grow. I think that as you look in through programs like Impact Boom, you hear about these amazing stories. You've got to realise that these things are muscles, and things that you grow over time. So whenever you see someone doing something amazing in the world, and we live in a time where you can jump online and see LinkedIn profiles, is that you build up to that. Is that you start with a small workshop, then you're on a bigger summit, then you run a whole conference, then you run a whole education program. And curiosity is a bit the same, that if you start to ask some more questions, you can start to explore things in a really modest way. Let's do coffee and catch up. You can then move onto bigger things. I want to travel halfway around the world to spend time embedded in this remarkable organisation.
I liked the idea of flexing like a muscle and the fact that when you see people's journeys, or stories on Instagram or whatever, they might be 100 steps ahead, but remember that you are maybe at the start of your curiosity journey and making sure that you're not comparing yourself. Do you find that comparing sometimes inhibits that curiosity push? [11:39]
Yeah, I think you've got to be careful exactly like that, is that some people have done more things in one area and you always hear about people for what they're good at, not the things that they’re not. That means that you always hear about people that may not be entirely balanced, but their one strength. So just kind of managing that. But look, I think Unbound is kind of in the curiosity business in one way. That what we do is we take people from their pretty standard life in Melbourne or Sydney or Brisbane, and we spend time in a very different context. So we lived with families in rural areas of Nepal. We hung out in innovation spaces in India. And what I really, really hope is that people go, this is cool, this isn't as scary as I thought. And they start to learn more and go, ‘oh, I didn't get to this part of the country. I'd like to learn more about this. I saw some people worked on this great artisan project, or science project, or education project’. And they now know the world just kind of opens up to them, and travel is incredibly powerful in sparking curiosity.
Unbound is almost like a supportive platform for those initial curiosity stages. And then when you get more confidence, and the muscles warmed up a little bit more, you're giving them background and the base and skill to flex it. [13:03]
Absolutely. Yep. And we see ourselves at the moment at the start of people's journeys. So we work with higher education, and work with universities on a range of topics. And it's just the perfect time, as people are starting to understand the things they care about, but early on in their careers, so we hope we can have a real impact.
What do you see as the most important traits of successful purpose-led entrepreneurs? [13:33]
Good question. I think people that are really committed and persistent, but clever in how they do that.
So I think persistency isn’t: try something, get knocked back, try it again and get knocked back, try it again, get knocked back, try it again, get knocked back. I don't think that's what clever persistence is. What it is, is try something, get knocked back, tweak it, change it, improve it, try it again, get knocked back, improve it, try it again. So being clear, open enough and humble enough that you get feedback, that you learn from your mistakes that you can continue to grow.
But persistent to know this stuff isn't easy, like running any business is hard, let alone running a business that is meant to have social impact as well. So yeah, where your head and your heart kind of merged together is where it works really well.
I find it interesting as well, because a lot of social enterprise and these sort of communities are often heart based. I mean, people are really putting their heart and soul into these projects and so the idea of getting knocked back and having to change their their baby, their project, is a really tough thing to do. So do you have any recommendations for people, if [you consider it to be] a successful trait to be able to let go of that initial concept, and be able to tweak it, move it, and persevere?
I think it’s understanding which bit is essential and which bit is flexible. Because it's good to have some things that are core. So, before setting up Unbound, I worked for a not for profit called Engineers Without Borders. And it’s in the title, the engineering is going to be our approach, so we can be flexible on who we worked with or the different ways you applied it, but that's something that we're going to do, is that engineering is essential. Working on poverty projects is core, but how we do that could be really diverse. It could be product development, it could be this region, it could be a different community, it could be for education, it could be through technology, and I think everyone should be really essential on that. And it varies from organisation to organisation or person to person. Maybe have a set of skills and you really want to apply it, and you're open to who you work with. So that's kind of what pro bono law is. They'll work with asylum seekers, they work with people that are facing criminal conviction that can't afford a lawyer. They’ll work with charities as they get set up and structured. So they're flexible on who they work with, but not the approach. And other groups it could be different. Say we really care about group ‘x’. That could be a geography, it could be domestic violence victims, it could be with people experiencing homelessness. But your approach to that should be really flexible. It doesn't work if you're not flexible on your approach and the group.
So choose which one?
Correct. So yeah, being really conscious about that. The other one bit of advice I'd say is, there's infinite things to do; the world is incredibly open. So be really targeted if you are trying to build a social business on something where there is a financial business model that does align with your heart and care and what you really want to do in the world. Because there's a lot of things that won’t ever be financially viable. So if your approach is to take your probably quite great idea, and slap a business model on it, it’s a lot, lot, lot harder than finding something where those two things naturally sit together.
From work you’ve been involved in or witnessed, where do you see social entrepreneurs commonly go wrong? [17:02]
I think that this idea that because my business is for a good cause, that's enough. And I don't, I really, really, really don't think it is. There had been some studies around how many people explicitly choose ethical products or things that are quite sustainable. Whereas I think it's really important to provide value. Business is hard, business is hard.
So I think something that I see a lot in Australia at the moment is people going into sectors that actually have really quite slim margins.
So it's just hard to run a cafe in Melbourne. Just any café. High costs and rent and stuff.
Yeah, that's really, really competitive. So I think a lot of people focus on these. So it's just hard for any business, particularly a social impact one. So I think there's a lot more opportunity.
What I would love to see more of, is social enterprises moving into sectors where the margins are better.
If their model is, ‘and then we donate profits’, to really try to embed your impact. So even if you just break even, you're still having impact. So more business to business social enterprises, I'd love to see than just business to consumer.
You clearly have a passion for global travel and purpose-led initiatives. From your experiences travelling, are there any countries you believe are really leading the charge when it comes to social innovation? What are they doing that you think Australia and other countries could adopt? [18:22]
There are many, many great lessons from overseas and I would encourage people to go and travel and exploring, steal great ideas and bring them back to Australia. I'm really focused on emerging Asia and I think that there's some incredible things happening there that Australia could really take on board. So Unbound’s been set up to change a bit of a mindset where normally people go to places like the US or the UK to study, but when they go to places like Nepal, they might be there to help, this community needs us, and I just think that's wrong.
They equally have something to offer.
One of the great projects that work, that I really have taken on board my own practice, (I wish Australia would as well), is the importance of using local knowledge and expertise.
So we worked with an incredible organisation, they're called ABARI, and they use a lot of traditional materials. So bamboo and rammed earth. Just basically saying, ‘hey, hey, hey, the whole world doesn't have to be built out of concrete and steel that, you know, things can be more beautiful, can be more affordable, can be really locally designed.’ And I think that mindset is fantastic. I think that Australians could definitely build better design better. And really take more things into account than just costs for efficiency, those types of things.
So it's challenging what people accept as the norm, or this is x, y, z, and it will always be this way. Go overseas and you can see things, that no, we do things really differently and it's okay. [19:58]
That's right. And we live in this era where this idea that what can be measured matters.
So the fact that we can put a dollar value on some things, the fact that we can measure some outputs, gives it a higher value than other criteria’s that could be important. Does it add to community connectedness, are we more connected to the natural environment, does this promote happiness, joy, love, connection and because those things are hard to measure, they often get undervalued.
Yeah. And they’re not less important.
What inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently which are creating positive social change?
Am I allowed to be cheeky, and say what I’m involved with in Unbound?
Because what's amazing about my work, is we get a chance to work with just incredible organisations here in Australia and overseas. So I really love the work of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) here in Australia. We've been collaborating with them, with their entrepreneurs program under an initiative that's been funded by Launch Vic, that Unbound received some support for, to support migrants and refugees. So ASRC, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre is supporting some great entrepreneurs and we've been really blessed to help them in that work. So they are fantastic here locally. Overseas, I get inspired all the time by the incredible innovators that we get to work with. There is an organisation that's Australian and Nepal linked called Seven Women and they support disadvantaged women in Nepal. So maybe people with disabilities or single mothers with employment opportunities. They're a social enterprise in their own right, and just do fantastic work. So if anyone's ever going to Kathmandu, look up Seven Women and go do a cooking class, learn how to cook MoMo’s. Just meet these remarkable women that are transforming their lives.
To finish off, what books would you recommend to our listeners? [22:11]
I would recommend… I think biographies are a pretty amazing way to get an insight into people's stories and hear actually how they got there. So find someone who you respect and admire and see if anyone's written about them and actually see what the steps were because it's always a lot more messy.
Yeah, it stops you from just focusing on that end. You're like, ‘oh wow, look how amazing they are.’ But it's like, ‘how did you get there?’ I want to learn about their fails.
Exactly right. Other things I liked to read, are Tintin. Tintin inspired me as a traveller and Tintin is a boy explorer/traveller, and I was like, ‘I want to see the world like that one day,’ and now I get to!
Did you have a little white dog as well?
No, but I’ve got ginger hair as well, so I think that Tintin is kind of my go-to for dress-up characters.