Jan Owen On Opportunities For Youth & Social Entrepreneurship In A Rapidly Changing World


Jan Owen is a highly regarded social entrepreneur, innovator, commentator and author who has spent the past 25 years growing the youth, social enterprise and innovation sectors.

In 2012 she was named Australia's inaugural Australian Financial Review and Westpac Woman of Influence. Jan has been awarded honorary degrees (honoris causa) from the University of Sydney (DLitt) and Murdoch University, Western Australia (DUniv); and was awarded membership to the Order of Australia in 2000. She is the author of Every Childhood Lasts a Lifetime (1996) and The Future Chasers (2014).

Jan is currently the CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians; was previously Executive Director of Social Ventures Australia; and Founder and CEO of the CREATE Foundation.


Jan discusses how we might best unleash the potential of young people to change the world, she discusses issues affecting youth and the changing education landscape, and shares great tips for entrepreneurs who are working hard to create positive impact.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - To start things off could you please share a bit about your background and what led to your passion of empowering youth?

[Jan Owen AM] - I have a really eclectic background I guess. I wish that I knew now what I knew, or sort of thought about back then and how things link. I think that things happen to us, and we take different paths in life. Then, retrospectively, about 25 years later, we see all the connections. That's what's happened to me. I was one of those entrepreneurial kids. As a really young kid, I was the kid trying to sell lemonade at the top of my driveway, after school everyday. Which is fine, and lot of people do that. The only difference was that my driveway was an hour from a major city. Two cars went on that road each day. One of them was my dad coming home from work. I sold him a glass of lemonade every day.

Your pocket money!

I started other little enterprises when I was a kid and enrolled my brothers. You know, I was a CEO really early, because I was running a little company with my three younger brothers, which was not easy. Went on all through school, I was a really, really terrible student, and a really bad learner. In order to stay at school, which I had no choice about, I created my own path, and learned in a way through some of those things that I was doing. I was always this kind of maverick entrepreneur, coming up with ideas, and getting things started. At the same time, my family were very, very involved in community. They helped set up Lifeline, which of course now is a global organisation. They helped set up that in Australia. From a really young age, I was also exposed to all kinds of things and people who for all kinds of different reasons had tough times in their lives. My parents and our family were kind of this open house where people would come and stay for a time while they got back on their feet. Whether it was women and children escaping domestic violence, or whether it was people who had fallen into some kind of hardship, kind of financial stress. Lifeline when it started, they were also not only phone counsellors, they were also respite carers.

At any one time, I would wake up in the morning, and there could be any number of people in beds scattered around the house, or on our lounge room floor. That idea of community and also that things happen to people, but you actually, with the right supports could reset, and you got another opportunity. It was really built into my DNA.

Finally, I guess, even though I was a really terrible student, I did a lot of things in school and out of school that were real leadership things. One teacher said to my parents and I once, "Jan is actually, genuinely, a really great leader." That stuck with me for some reason as a 10 or 11 year old, and thought, 'wow, that's interesting'. Those three things have converged throughout my whole life. Where I have used entrepreneurship for social change and I'm also leading new ideas and collaborations and working with other people really, really closely. Particularly, obviously with young people, which is has been a driving passion of mine as a young advocate and activist myself in my teens, and my 20s, and then leading and establishing organisations that were run with and by and for young people in Australia. I've converged; entrepreneurship meets social change, meets leadership and enabling leadership, and promoting the next generation as the thinkers and designers, and innovators, that we need.

That's certainly a really inspiring background and story Jan. As CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians then, how do you believe we might best unleash the potential of young people to lead positive change in the world?

Well, I guess there's a couple of things where we've been focussed on. At FYA, we've taken a view about thinking about the future. Much of that work is about now and next. I think that, that's really, really important, because if we can ensure that young people have a seat at the table, and more than that, actually get to be the co-designers, and co-creators of the future that they want, then I certainly feel that, that's very, very, very powerful. We've got two generations at play at the moment. There's millennials, who are moving into their mid-30s now, who led the charge on some of the new ways of thinking. They certainly had a new tool set, which no previous generation had access to. Particularly with social media, so they really exercised their power with that.

I remember as a founder of CREATE, which was really to the consumer group, for young people in out of home care, and foster care, we used to sit around. Myself and all the young people that were involved. We employed a lot of young people in care, and coming out of care. We used to stuff 15,000 envelopes every couple months, to talk to, to get messages to young people. That was only 25 years ago. Now, you can reach thousands, and thousands, and thousands of people with your messaging. In fact, FYA does that itself. We have a platform of a 150,000 young people throughout social media channels in Australia. It's one of the largest platforms for social change. You see organisations like Youth Climate Coalitions, of which we have a very large one here, FYA's platforms, and others, that have constituencies, or contributors, and participants who are about four times the size of any political party in Australia. This is an incredibly powerful strength.

Another great example is that in Australia, as we know around the world, marriage equality is coming up through the legislature of many, many countries. In Australia, we had a survey about marriage equality. 60,000 young people in Australia, who should've been signed up to the electoral roles to vote, and had decided not to, signed up to vote, for the marriage equality survey. Because it was about fairness, and about equality. They may not have signed up to vote for a political party, or an election, but they signed up to vote for fairness and equality.

What we see is young people super interested in fairness and equality. Very interested in the sustainability of the planet and hyper connected. Also, very concerned about their own personal futures as well.

Around what the future work would be, what sort of jobs they'll have, what they'll be doing. FYA's work is very much about really powerful research. How do we ensure that we're driving a national conversation, and that there's real discourse about the issues now and into the future, and how are young people at the centre of that.

Then, of course, we back young people through our Young Social Pioneers program, which is the largest incubator program for young social entrepreneurs in the country. We back their ideas to change, and then build an ecosystem around them, so that they can thrive. We're super interested in information, really good information, and sharing stories. We're interested in backing great ideas. Then, three years ago, we set up YLab, which was really our social enterprise at FYA, where young people are design consultants, and specialists who go and work alongside corporations, governments, and not for profits to think about how they could do their work differently, and how they're going to engage. Not just millennials, but now the next generation, which are called Gen Z (just for something original...), we call them Generation Compassion. They're a group that are completely different again to millennials.


That research work you talk about has had a big impact. The New Work Order research series, now comes to six reports to date, from my understanding. It's analysed how disruption to the world of work is significant implications for young Australians. Could you please highlight what you believe will be the biggest factor affecting youth in the coming five to 10 years? What can be done to ensure that youth succeed in this changing world?

As you rightly say, we've produced six reports in the last three years. We've been absolutely driving it at the forefront of a national conversation. I think there's three things that are worth pointing out. Number one is that this is a global issue. It's not just an Australian issue, a national issue. Research showed that the forces of change at work in the world, in terms of automation, globalisation, and flexibility - so a non-linear world of work...

the idea that you're going to have one dream job for life, 37 years and collect the gold pen, and off you go to retirement, is done and dusted.

We're in a very, very different environment. That's happening globally, it's not just happening to young people in one place. The other thing I think that was really important, is that our research pointed out that there is in that context, in that new environment, the requirement for a new set of skills and capabilities to navigate but also, to be equipped to thrive in it, not just survive.

This inevitably took us to education.

Whilst we have had one education system, the big question of course around the world is that it's not fit for purpose. It's a 20th century education system and in the fourth industrial revolution, we need a new education and learning system.

It has a few features which are uniquely different to the past. Number one, it's built around skills and capabilities and knowledge, not just knowledge. A content-led education and higher education system that we've had is all about content, we are now talking much more about skills, capabilities, knowledge, and also disposition. What are the things that you care about, and that you're passionate about. The other thing that we know is that learning is going to be lifelong.

The university degree, unless it's highly technical, has got about a two year shelf life. That means that we're learning on the job, we're learning in and out of jobs, and we're learning through many, many ways.

Immersive, real world learning is one of the new principles of education now and into the future. Then, this idea, that if we're going to be learning a lot in different ways, then we need to actually have much more porous boundaries between these old silos.

We've had silos of primary school, and high school education. Then, technical education, or university education. Then work; you might get some PD.

I would like to see the boundaries as being much more porous, and focussed on the learner. What does it look like if a learner is creating their own learning journey throughout their whole life. How are we enabling and supporting that?

That is definitely what the future looks like for young people. We're also in a position where there aren't actually enough jobs, and certainly in countries like Australia, there are not actually enough jobs. We have high youth under employment.

Being a job creator, not just a job seeker is now part of the skill and capability set of future generations.

That's where again, entrepreneurship becomes front and centre. In a generation that is very, very, very focused on meaning and purpose, and what does real value mean? How do you add real value? Then, social entrepreneurship of course, which is an area that we work in at FYA, becomes a really, really fantastic mechanism or tool for job creation as well. The future work looks really, really, really different.

I think that there are enormous opportunities, huge opportunities for people if, but only if, young people have the right tools and capabilities, and skills, and knowledge, and know-how to apply them.

They've had real world, real immersive, real hands on experience from the get go, from a really young age, so that you don't get future shock at 18. When you walk out of the classroom, or the school gate.

There's some really, really great insights there Jan. As one of the speakers of this year's Social Enterprise World Forum in Edinburgh, what are you most looking forward to about the forum? What advice would you give to the youth listening to make the most of this experience?

Every Social Enterprise World Forum is phenomenal. This is the 10th Anniversary, so of course it's going to be extra, extra special to be in Edinburgh, where it all started for the 10th anniversary.

I am just super excited about being there. I'm excited about being in Edinburgh, when it's not winter. After that, it's going to be huge and positive. I'm really excited. There's going to be an emerging talent program stream at the World Forum, that's being shaped up right now in partnership with lots of young entrepreneurs. I am very, very excited about how is it that as a mechanism, and as a alternative actually to what I see, really as a last century model of business. I think we're very ready for capitalism 2.0, and all the iterations of that; the many, many iterations of that. I think that as one mechanism, and I hope that at the World Forum, and I'm pretty sure we'll talk about other mechanisms as well. There's a lot of work going on in Scotland around cooperatives, and other new models. Social enterprise is one of the models that we're looking at.

I think we also need to not get confused that social enterprise is just about the social entrepreneurs.

Social enterprises are often set up in communities by local communities. They're often set up by like-minded people. They're often setup by alliances of different groups. Let's be really clear that this has been, I think, a really interesting debate around social entrepreneurship in its own right.

There's been a lot of conversations and stuff written about heropreneurship and the privileged few who come in to rescue everybody else and use social entrepreneurship to do that. I want us to understand that social enterprise is much, much broader than that.

It is often teams and groups of people coming up with new ways of doing things and creating value that really, really generates opportunities for others, and enables inclusive opportunities.

Some of the best social enterprises in the world, are ones which have enabled people who would not have been able to work for whatever reason.

Access to the dignity and meaning of work. Others have enabled new products and services to be developed. Again, with people who would not normally have been able to get their product and service to market, except through joining up with others, and so on.

I think we need to have a really strong view about what we mean about social enterprise. Again, we're rethinking and redesigning the systems of the world, that's an incredible conversation to be in. It's like a once in a hundred year conversation. For every young person who's coming to be involved in thinking about how we're going to redesign the systems, and the institutions that shape our world, and what role does social enterprise have in that, as one of the contributions to that, that adds value and provides meaning, and purpose, as well as profit that's distributed differently. This is the time to be in one of the most exciting conversations on the planet.

I absolutely agree, and I cannot wait to be there myself, and to see you over there Jan. To the youth listening, and those that are either running, or are looking to start up these youth-led organisations, what recommendations would you make to help them successfully create positive impact, grow, and be sustainable over the long run.

That's an entire program! I would say, if they're in Australia, apply for Young Social Pioneers, because that's where you'll get that opportunity to deep dive for many months, and then for the next year get all kinds of different support.

I'm a huge advocate for apprenticing the problem. As much as I have always been a dive in person, and I've set up a lot of enterprises and a lot of different ventures, I believe in doing one of two things or both if you can. First of all, apprentice the problem.

If that problem that you're trying to solve is not part of your lived experience, then go and find the people who you can collaborate with, who might be interested.

Sense check that your idea, if it has any value, or meaning, or purpose at all in the world. It's not just your great idea that you came up with at the pub or in the shower. Find the people who you can work with on it. Definitely find collaborators anyway, even if it is a lived experience that you're trying to think through. Really live this or understand it from the people, or from the product user that you're trying to work with. That's number one.

Number two is I think it's really, really important as I said, to find collaborators, and then also to find mentors and coaches. I think again, we underestimate that there are a heap of people out there, who've done things, and learned, and got a lot of scar tissue. I'm a huge believer in scar tissue.

Find people with scar tissue who can share their journey, and their stories, and are prepared to offer you advice.

Then I think the thing about getting started is (the latest enterprise that I've been involved with, which is ours at FYA YLab), really spend a heap of time getting clarity around its purpose, and its mission, and bringing young people to the conversation, to the design, to the delivery, to every single part of this. That's because it's a truly youth lead, co-created, social enterprise. Again, you've got to be very, very, very clear and very true to what it is that you're doing.

Then finally, I think the biggest thing that happens to people is that you get a great few first couple of years often. Then you hit the valley of death. Often it's to do with money, and so thinking really early about how you plan to get through that and what the likely challenges are going to be.

Thinking really early about how you're going to traverse those, and what help you're going to need, and where you're going to need to get it, I think is super, super important. I mean, as I said, there's 20 different things that are on the checklist, but there's a couple, just to get started.

There's some great suggestions there. You've been in touch with many different social enterprises yourself, so what are some inspiring projects or initiatives that you've come across recently, which really engaging young social enterprise leaders, and entrepreneurs, and helping them create that positive change.

Wow, that's a great question. There's a couple that just spring to mind. We have a group here called Catalysr. Catalysr have just really set up the equivalent support system and incubator that we look for and run at FYA, but for migrant entrepreneurs. Migrapreneurs is a really, really new and very fast growing area of support and development going on in Australia at the moment. That's been super exciting to see a couple of our young entrepreneurs leading that. Usman, who's one of the founders, just got named the Commonwealth Young Person of 2018, just for his venture, which is pretty phenomenal.

We also see of course, a huge amount of interesting stuff in tech. Scotland's very own Ali Watson right now lives in Australia, set up something called Code Like a Girl. Just smashing all the kind of glass, tech, byte ceilings, Silicon Valley Ceilings for young women to ensure that young women know how to code and get passionate about it.

Our research is really clear on this, seven in ten jobs are going to need a high level of digital skills in the future. By future, we mean next five, ten years. Ensuring that everyone has access to the skills and capabilities to thrive in a different environment, again is really, really, really important. Ali Watson, and Code Like a Girl are a phenomenal, phenomenal group.

In Australia, we have really pressing Indigenous issues. We've got young entrepreneurs like Rona Glynn-McDonald, who set up a platform to bring together Indigenous stories, not only past but current. Bringing those in a really, really accessible and powerful way to non-Indigenous people and taking people on a journey. All driven by a really, really unique and wonderful tech platform.

People like Chris Raine, who've been going really hard at stuff like binge drinking. He set up Hello Sunday Morning, which is going gangbusters and going global as a platform to help people just rethink their relationship with alcohol. Whether it's social issues, that end up being policy issues, like drinking, and health, whether it's reconciliation with things like common ground, and Indigenous issues. Whether it's new skills, and things like what Ali Watson's doing with coding, or whether it's actually social inclusion; things that Usman and Jake have been doing with Catalysr. Growing a next generation of entrepreneurs that come from really diverse cultural backgrounds in Australia. All those things are very, very, very powerful from my perspective.

Absolutely they are. Jan, as an author yourself, could you please recommend a few great books to inspire our listeners?

I am still a Malcolm Gladwell fan. I just so firmly believe in so many of the really fantastic insights he has about human behaviour and how we work together. I think that Jeremy Heiman's latest book about power is really, really great. A really good insight about power shifting, and I think one of the things that you have to talk about when you're talking about redesigning institutions, is you have to talk about power, and power shifts. You have to talk about resources, and how resources blow into whom, and when, and on what basis.

You can have all the great ideas in the world, but if you starve those ideas of resources because you still insist on supporting the old institutions because they're safe and known, then I think we're in a really difficult place to back real innovation, and real social innovation particularly.

Super interested in power... [and] how power shifts. How we're going to have the really, really difficult conversations, but also how we're going to move things. How are we going to move power? How are we going to move resources? How are we going to enable many more people to have access? That's good. Steven Pinker, I really like still of course.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Jan on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.



Find other articles from speakers at SEWF 2018.