Lizzie Brown On Creating Scalable Positive Change & Gross National Happiness
Lizzie Brown loves getting new ideas up and running. At the moment, this means working with great people on the establishment and growth of social businesses. She also into outdoors adventures, spontaneous kitchen dance parties and mucking about in the garden.
Lizzie has recently joined the team at Kindred Spirits Enterprises (KSE) as CEO. KSE incubates new social ventures that improve community health, well-being and education. Right now, the team is focused on the growth of the native botanicals industry across Northern Australia, and school readiness programs with kids.
Since 2015, Lizzie has worked with early stage social businesses in Australia and the Asia-Pacific Region. Her contribution typically includes: venture and program design, strategy, business model development, partnership brokering and fundraising.
During the past couple of years, Lizzie has discovered a passion for working with boards - supporting the creation of strong, effective governance from the outset. She is a voluntary director with various social enterprises and non-profit organisations including ATEC, Utility360, Robogals, Co-Design Studio and The Next Economy. She is also an active member of industry advisory boards for Charles Sturt University Engineering and The University of Queensland’s School of Chemical Engineering.
Lizzie played a key role in the development of Engineers Without Borders Australia for more than a decade. As CEO, Lizzie’s team led the establishment and growth of major new international and domestic programs in humanitarian engineering and engineering education, in partnership with community organisations, engineering companies, universities and government.
In 2014, Lizzie was recognised for her contribution to humanitarian engineering as a winner in The Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence Awards. She is a Churchill Fellow and was named in the Engineers Media Top 100 List of Australia’s Most Influential Engineers in 2013, 2014 and 2015
Lizzie discusses her experience in putting community and people at the heart of decision making, provides deep insights into opportunities for social entrepreneurs and philanthropists, and shares knowledge gained from a recent trip to Bhutan, where she learnt about Gross National Happiness.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to working in the social enterprise sector?
[Lizzie Brown] - I started my career as an Environmental Engineer, and I followed that particular career pathway, because I thought I could help provide very practical solutions to environmental challenges, but it didn't take me very long to realise that it's actually people and their relationship with the environment and how we make decisions that fundamentally impacts on not only environmental quality, but also on quality of life, and inequality around the world, too.
I started looking for ways to apply my engineering skills directly in community development contexts, and this was 20 years ago now. I found it very difficult. I could see big oil and gas projects in Papua New Guinea, I could see major road and bridge infrastructure projects in Vietnam, but that really wasn't what I was after.
In fact, in those types of projects, a lot of the material I was reading showed that the impact on the local community was often quite detrimental. I was looking for a way of using my engineering skills with communities in a way that I thought was effective. Meanwhile, working as a consultant in the urban development sector, I came across Engineers Without Borders. That was back in early 2004, not long after the organisation had started, and I was just delighted, because it was that perfect fit that I was looking for. I then quickly realised at that stage, EWB was no more than a handwritten mission and vision statement, albeit very good ones, and a group of quite young, early career engineers who had similarly reacted to the state of the profession and said, "we've got to do this differently. We want to practise from a place that's aligned with our values."
We realised or decided very early on in the piece that this wasn't about development to other people. In fact, it was almost the opposite. It was about our own development, our own journey and how collectively as a society, whether we're talking about inner city Brisbane or the global society, could work together to a better place. Whatever that looks like for each of us. So, that actually ended up being a 12-13 year journey which was just remarkable. I started out volunteering as all of us did, and then that eventually then became a formal role with a title and I did take on the CEO role there for a number of years as well.
And right from the start we had that dual focus on supporting communities through technical and engineering capacity building. That was always about this concept of how do we build the system? How do we build organisational capacity so that the strong engineering industries emerge in the environments we're working in? And concurrently and perhaps even more importantly,
how do we educate the next generation of Australian engineers so that they put the community and people at the heart of their decision making?
I think that really corresponded with a movement in Australia, I think we triggered it, and the timing was right as well, for young people coming in to engineering degrees to be saying, "we want more from our jobs. We want jobs that align with our values," and so of course that then manifested itself in university programs, corporate partnerships and development programs, particularly in Timor-Leste, Cambodia, and parts of South Asia as well.
I'm sharing this background with you because it led me to look at scale of impact.
How do we really create change that's more than local? Local change is of course where everything starts, that's critical, but once something's worked well in one community or in one location, how do we actually bring that across a whole region or a whole country?
My aspiration is the world anyway, and so this is now going back about five years, I started to see more and more the opportunity for business models and more traditional business models, around the sale of products and services to create that kind of scale.
So, one of the programs of work we've been involved in for many, many years was based on sanitation in challenging environments on Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia. There's lots of floating communities up there, many people will have mobile phones but won't have latrine systems, so the lake water quality is terrible, but it's used for cooking, cleaning, washing, and so on.
We were looking at different latrine solutions and that evolved into looking at biodigesters for household gas. I might tell you more about that in a moment, but…
to deliver that sort of technology and the required social infrastructure through a charitable model reliant on grants is just an uphill slog we weren't ever going to win.
We saw an incredible opportunity there to say, "Well, if this is a product that households genuinely need and value, then what's the price point at which we can sell it?" That started my journey into looking at social enterprise, and essentially I've oriented all of my work now around some form of social business and particularly early stage social business.
It's a fantastic story and it's led you to where you are today. As CEO of Kindred Spirits Enterprises, can you please tell us a little bit more about this impact organisation and what it does?
Kindred Spirits Enterprises is fairly new and it's the sister organisation of Kindred Spirits Foundation. The foundation has been working in community health and supporting community education and employment opportunities for over 10 years. The foundation realised that there are different modes of working, and it was increasingly involved in what I would call development programming and development program delivery, so Kindred Spirits Enterprises was set up.
I joined at around that point in time, and our focus is on supporting early stage social ventures and social initiatives, particularly in community health, wellbeing, and in employment opportunity creation. Now, that's of course incredibly broad. I appreciate that. Practically, what that means is that for the next 5 to 15 years, we're going to be focussed on supporting the development of the native botanicals market in Australia.
Incredibly exciting. Not because I had any particular connection to native botanicals, or the team more broadly, but because they present an incredible opportunity for traditional owners, for First Australians, to gain employment and to run strong businesses on country. There's 60 to perhaps 80,000 years worth of knowledge around the medicinal and nutritional value of use of plants. Some of that knowledge has been retained which is incredible, and there's this real desire that we're hearing clearly from communities and existing Aboriginal enterprises that they'd like to access markets for these products in a way that's respectful of their knowledge and their country.
What an amazing opportunity.
It is. Because it's scalable, it's aligned with the values and aspirations of many people, and it's on country, and it's about a resource. I mean that in the most positive way; it's a resource that's renewable and it's in our local environment. It's right in front of us. I don't know if you've had the chance to spend much time out in the bush, but when you're with people that know about the plants, suddenly what might look like a fairly homogenous landscape turns into a pharmacy or a grocery store, depending on what plans you're looking at. Often both in the same plant, both in the same leaf even, it might have antimicrobial properties, and really high antioxidants. You can use it for a hand sanitiser, perhaps, and maybe you can use it as a health supplement.
It's insane. And we're just starting this journey.
It'll be great to see.
Well, some of us are just starting it. Of course, many, many Australians have known this and survived and thrived with these plants for tens of thousands of years. It's just some of us. Some of us are coming to the table a bit late.
So when it comes to social enterprise incubation and acceleration, this is a big part of helping a lot of these enterprises move forward.
Yep, that's right.
Where do you believe then the common gaps lie in helping these sorts of businesses of this nature to succeed?
In the last five years, I've worked with about half a dozen different social enterprises, and the major gap I've encountered multiple times has been on the period between the successful demonstration of a pilot and being ready for impact investment.
Maybe if I can give a very specific example, for the last couple of years I've worked with a team to set up a social business in Timor-Leste called Bee Lafaek, which stands for crocodile water.
Just briefly, Bee Lafaek uses the integration of a new household scale water treatment system with solar to provide verifiable potable water and power to a range of different scenarios. So, we tested the technical system in a community health centre in a school, so that's essentially a public sector model, so we were looking at what would it look like for government, and in the interim, donors, to pay for power and water as an integrated service with a locally trained technical team.
We also trialled the system in four water kiosks, so we trained teams of four entrepreneurs, a group of 16, to learn how to run their own micro business, using bottled water in 20 litre carboys as the product with really clear branding. Now, water and power were just the vehicle. Our ultimate objective was youth employment and skills development, but we saw provision of clean water and power as a mechanism for doing that.
So, I think we were very successful in testing both of those models, albeit small scale and early stage, and there was a lot of work still to be done to refine both business models. We weren't at a point where I think it would be reasonable to ask an investor to come onboard. In fact, there's probably another two years of work there reasonably, but we also had already received significant pilot grant funding and we do need another $500,000 to get us to the point where I could turn around to impact investors and say, "Right, we're looking for $1.5 million, or $2.5 million, and we're going to set up 50 kiosks across the country, and we're going to work with 20 and then 200 schools."
My work shifted onto other things, but we could get there.
There's this gap in between where more preferably philanthropic funding really is required before impact investment is possible.
I've seen that in a number of cases and it's tricky, because it's not as attractive as saying, ‘we're funding the idea from the outset.’ But it's still too high risk for the impact investor.
Yeah, it's a very difficult space to be in, in that period of time.
And it's critical. If we're serious about scale, then yeah. Of course, I'm not suggesting anyone should back initiatives that don't look like they're going to get off the ground, but when there's been two or three years worth of work invested into getting things right, better to leverage that and push forward.
Completely. What do you see as the most important traits of social entrepreneurs then?
I'd have to then say tenacity and resilience on the back of that, wouldn't I? Actually, I think maybe this is cliched, but being very bold, and being brave and putting a vision out there that feels different and feels uncomfortable, and selling that again and again and again.
I'm about to get on the phone with ingredient companies to try and sell a Kakadu plum this morning. I've not done that before, but that's okay, because I believe in the job creation opportunity. I'm learning all about plants.
Fantastic. Tell us a little bit more about the social enterprises that you've worked with more recently.
I might go back to ATEC Biodigesters for a moment…
...and work on Tonle Sap Lake. Because I think that demonstrates the journey that I'm really enjoying going through with enterprises. With Engineers Without Borders and our partner, Live and Learn Environmental Education, we designed a new type of biodigester, which really looks like a household rainwater tank with a volume of about 3.25 cubic metres. So, the way it works is that you put animal manure into the system, it decomposes in an anaerobic chamber, (so the absence of oxygen), and then you get two products, a high quality fertiliser, and biogas for cooking.
It's really beautifully simple. Biodigesters have been around for a long time, but most of them are made of brick and mortar in the ground, so they're completely unsuitable for a flood affected environment. Our system uses plastic, basically. And it can be, it sits half below the ground, a couple of metres high, so perfect for a household with a couple of cows or four or five pigs.
We were successful in receiving a Google Impact Challenge grant of $500,000 to test the business model, to build the team, and to refine the technology. I mean, a brilliant combination. I've been incredibly fortunate, because we then got a DFAT grant that was offered in conjunction with the Google Impact Challenge for Bee Lafaek. If Google and DFAT would like to offer more of those, I'd be delighted.
$500,000's a really good amount to give you an 18 month, two year runway to get this sort of work happening. Anyway. That led to the establishment of ATEC Biodigesters. ATEC is a play on appropriate technology. We now have a remarkable team based on Phnom Penh, who are installing biodigesters every day right across the country.
Tell us a little bit more about the social enterprises that you've worked with more recently. [Continued].
For farming families, and an increasingly extensive distribution network. One of our real points of difference, aside from the technology, is our focus on after sales service and making sure that the customer can continue to get value from that product for its full lifetime, and just to give you a sense, the system itself is about $650USD. We sell it with the cook stove, so our value proposition is a clean, modern kitchen.
The cook stove is therefore a critical part of that, and of the biodigester that sits out the back is actually just the mechanism for getting there. For the household, this means that they no longer need to buy firewood or need to collect it. It's improving crop yields, it's just an incredible package.
The family typically would look at paying that off for $30 per month. The product has a lifespan of 12-13 years, so we're talking about three and a half thousand US dollars worth of savings across the product lifetime.
So, we went through our first impact investment raise about 18 months ago, which really helped us grow the team and focus on sales strategy at depth. We're now looking at expansion into Bangladesh and have pilot units in Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Thailand, and very soon in Fiji as well. Our ambition is absolutely global. We're looking at a million biodigesters sold and working effectively in the ground, creating improved qualities of life for people in the coming 10 years.
It sounds huge and it is, when you're starting out, but I'd like to think it's actually 10 million [biodigesters].
The reason I wanted to talk to that example is it's starting to demonstrate the scale, and this is a business that I truly believe will be profitable. Every element of how the technology works within the household is about creating social change. Even if the worst case scenario happened today, and for whatever reason, that business had to close, the employment opportunity that it's created in the last two and a half, three years, for 40 odd plus Cambodian people, and the training and support that have gone into building particularly the leadership team there, I feel is a worthy outcome in itself.
It's a great project.
It really is. I guess my role there was being a champion for the idea, and the original partnership with Live and Learn, who were an ongoing shareholder with Engineers Without Borders, pushing more funding and trying to take the idea forward and doing that within a social business model.
Finding the right CEO who would blend the business background with a deep interest in supporting the social values; I think that was absolutely key.
It's always key, getting that right person onboard.
And then I chaired the new board for a period, and I've just yesterday formally resigned as a director.
My involvement there is largely done in a formal capacity. I will of course, continue to champion the work, but I feel like I've done my bit, and there's an incredible board, the shareholders are amazing. A carefully curated group that'll bring so much value above and beyond the financial investment, and so coming back to your question about qualities of the social entrepreneur, I know this is self-explanatory but if they've not got that social change background, then I think it's going to be an uphill battle.
If they've not got the business background, then good luck. Because it's really such a critical blend of the two, and I think there's probably quite a bit of work for us to do there, supporting those from the business world to understand impact measurement, design for social change, advocacy. All of the tools that are core to how the community sector has traditionally worked, but then bringing the financial literacy and the business acumen into the community sector, I'm lucky because I come from an engineering background, so I quite like the idea to have two hours to sit down and build an economic evaluation of a business, but I think that's probably the exception, not the rule.
That's great. Lizzie, I'm really curious to hear a little bit more about a recent trip to Bhutan that you went on. You went there with the intention of learning about the Gross National Happiness Index. So, tell us a little bit more about the purpose of this trip, and what you learned.
Certainly. I travelled with an incredible group of people through a Small Giants Impact Safari. Small Giants have started organising these really special experiences to support a curated group of people, to learn about social change creation in a really unique environment. The group included Australians, Israelis, and then individuals from New York, Tokyo, and Amsterdam, most of whom were involved in impact investment and philanthropy in someway.
We went to learn about the Gross National Happiness Index and tool, as a way of thinking differently about social change in our own countries, and our own role personally, and as business leaders in doing that. Bhutan's quite a remarkable country. There's less than a million people, and there's been an incredible focus placed on retention of the positive parts of their culture and there's a whole range of historical reasons how that's been enabled.
The previous king, I believe, was asked about Gross Domestic Product, and in response said, "We focus more here on Gross National Happiness," which then gave rise to quite a profound way of looking at health and wellbeing in the country. I should say, it's a Buddhist country, so the principles of Buddhism strongly underpin it.
There are a number of different applications of the Gross National Happiness Framework and then I'll tell you a little bit more about what it actually is. There's a non-profit centre who hosted us, who look at application of the tool with youth programs, for example. There's the Gross National Happiness Commission which advises government on policy.
They use the tool to review and improve policy that's been put before them, and then there's a social science research team that undertake a survey every three years. So, there are four pillars behind the tool and then nine dimensions, and essentially it's a way of saying, "How do we look at all the different aspects that we believe are important to a healthy, happy, thriving community?"
So, how time's used, mental health and wellbeing, cultural practise, physical health of course comes in as well. And so those dimensions are then underpinned by about 120 or 140 different indicators. It's a much more integrated and complex way of looking at health and wellbeing, but if we compare it with GDP, GDP captures economic activity around a whole range of activities I think most of us would agree aren't positive for health and wellbeing. The tobacco industry, gambling, extractive resource industries. Yes, we're dependent on those as well, but the billions of dollars spent on health treatment are all captured in GDP. So, the intention wasn't to say how do we directly take this model and way of life per se? But instead to use it as a mirror to reflect, or to help us reflect back and look at our own way of working and being. That said, and I do think there are a number of direct opportunities to apply that practise.
And I'm really keen to hear about those.
So, I might talk about my own work with Kindred Spirits Enterprises to start with. The first thing that I'm going to do is look at a modification of the tool in everyday decision making. Over the last couple of days I've been working with my colleague, Anne, to develop a new due diligence process for customers. Because we're not going to accept sales opportunities from anyone. We would like to create the group of customers we work with, so the GNH tool then gives us a starting framework to say, "Well, is this a business, one, that's aligned with ours, in terms of values and in terms of practise? And more broadly if we partner with that particular organisation, what are the key ingredients to that partnership working effectively?” As opposed to it being a transaction of money and time.
I guess that's on a day-to-day decision making basis. There are a number of individuals in the group that are now going to look at how the tool might be implemented within local government, within councils. I hope and anticipate there'll be a little bit of a healthy race there between a number of different locations to see how that might go, decision making. The very first thing that comes to mind there is urban development.
It's the area I started my career in and I think the sector's come a way since then, but when we look around us and see enormous homogeneous, high density residential development with a complete absence of focus on social cohesion and community building, or token efforts. Tools like the GNH tool can really help to bring in that focus on what value ... That's what it's about.
It's about what do we define as value. Fundamentally, and simplistically, we live in a society that's adopted a capitalist and consumerist model that values money as almost the driving value, as opposed to saying it is one of many tools that we work with. How do we start celebrating and assigning true value to social change creation, to time?
In fact, I know over the next couple of months when I work with First Australians around the development of their businesses, certainly profitability will be one indicator of success, but, and I'm thinking of a few groups in particular here, constantly growing profit, but no time on country, for example, or no time with family, would actually be the antithesis of the vision that they're aspiring to. There are so many other reasons why we might want to start a business, but then manage its growth to create other types of value.
Such great insights there. I'll be really curious to see how you move forward and implement that GNH principles within Kindred Spirits and other projects that you touch, as well.
Yeah, it'll be interesting. Of course, it's not the only model. There are other models around, as the Bhutanese team were really clear to identify, too. That was so refreshing to hear politicians there talking about and looking at Swiss government and looking at Scandinavian social services and systems.
Fantastic, what a trip. To finish things off, Lizzie, tell us about a few books, films or resources that you've come across recently which you'd recommend to our audience.
I'd love to, and I could talk about books for hours. There are three I'd love to share that I've read fairly recently. The first is actually much lighter and less work related, it's called The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Thompson.
It's a tongue twister.
It is, it's a tricky one, and it's based on a true story about a young violin prodigy called Edwin, who develops an obsession with tying flies for fly fishing. I don't know that he ever actually goes fishing, it's not about that, it's about the art of tying the fly, and he goes and steals priceless feathers from the Natural History Museum, North of London. It's this big feather heist, and then we're talking about birds like Darwin's finches and Wallace's birds, and birds of paradise. Birds that can't be replaced, and then of course, he takes the feathers off on whole breasts and wings and they get sold through the black market. It takes years for him to be tracked down, and in fact, some of the specimens are recovered, some with tags, and so it's just a fascinating story. I loved it. I finished that a week ago, so just had to tell you about it.
Two other books more work related that I'd love to share would be Frederick Laloux's book Reinventing Organisations. That's my go-to management leadership book at the moment. For people that haven't read it, it looks at the future structure of organisations and there's a number of principles that it suggests tier organisations are based on. One is very much around a different model for decision making, in which individuals who have the most experience and are most impacted by the decision come together as part of the decision making team. It's very fluid, can be quite dynamic. I've had some experience trying to implement aspects of that, it's not easy, and it's so different and uncomfortable compared with how we typically work within a hierarchy. Brilliant for anyone I think that's serious about effective leadership in a team or organisation. And then Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu is of course, very related to the work that I'm doing now.
Such a good book.
Incredibly inspiring, and I think just serves to highlight, in our previous conversation about the incredible opportunity that we all have as Australians to respect our natural flora and fauna here, and look at ways in which that can sustain a healthy population.
I also had the pleasure of seeing Damon Gameau's new film 2040…
How was it?
It was brilliant, because it shares such a positive vision for the future, which was absolutely his intent, and he's been incredibly successful in doing that. The film premiered on the Gold Coast about a week and a half, two weeks ago, and is now showing around Australia, so I'm hoping to get to the Brisbane screening soon.
The reason I wanted to mention it, though, is that Damon travelled to something like 17 different countries and then selected half a dozen solutions that are already demonstrated and already shown to be effective, that we could see at scale in the future, that would help create a more equitable, thriving, resilient community. So, decentralised solar systems that are connected for power sharing, the use of seaweed as a source of protein, but also as a carbon capture system that oxygenates water and addresses ocean temperatures. Autonomous vehicles, just some of the examples.
But I think we need a lot more discussion and a lot more focus on the positive opportunities. In fact, I was chatting with a very good friend of mine yesterday, Amanda Cahill, who coincidentally is in Damon's film, talking about the role of women. We agreed that…