SEP016: Social Entrepreneurship With Julian O’Shea

Julian has created Unbound, a group that is reshaping the way we do education in Australia, providing programs for entrepreneurs and university students that focus on sustainability and giving back.​

Julian O’Shea is a social entrepreneur and humanitarian engineer who is passionate about education and technology for social change. He is the Founder and CEO

of Unbound (formerly Laika Academy). He has a strong drive to create education programs that are more relevant, globally focussed and support students to solve questions where the answer doesn’t exist on Google. 

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I feel like it can also be a bit of a driving force as well. Like in regards to, like, even helping you grow like you have that like, it’s almost like an inset. It’s almost like that goal that you want to raise as much as you want to do as much as you can. So you’re making these choices, because otherwise it’s, you know, quite easy to get complacent. I guess that’s the thing like as a business owner, so much of it is powered by your own enthusiasm, effort and energy. And if you’re doing something that really matters, you just get more effect. Like it gives you the reason to get out, put a lot of effort in to take your work to the next level to really kind of, you know, work hard and have some great impact.

Yeah, I bet. I bet you’ve worked with just a couple of businesses that are doing all the Perseids with what you’re doing as well. But you’ve you know, you’ve been with some people that have been doing some incredible things. Yeah, absolutely. And I think that one of the real kind of joys of the work that I do is working with really great organizations.

Developing countries overseas just these impressive social enterprises that are really transforming lives that are having really positive impact whether it’s a

organization that’s using a traditional paper making process in Vietnam to you know, support jobs and preserve this incredible bit of culture through to people doing construction after the earthquake in Nepal but doing it using

bamboo and rammed earth and sustainable materials. Yeah, it’s really really impressive. Yeah and how did how did unbound start How did you obviously like how did you found it How did you come up with the idea how does like how to build to what it is today? Because today its massive Yeah, um, so I’m an engineer by background, I’d worked as a professional engineer and then I personally on a decided that I wanted to do something with more of a social impact. So the way I discovered that was the thing that Australians sometimes do, which is, you know, go travelling for a year.

yourself. And I just encountered a lot of really great people, really great organizations doing impressive, interesting work. And basically when I came back to Australia, I realized that’s what I wanted to do. So I joined the not for profit sector and worked for about five years doing this type of work. So working in education, working in innovation, working in technology for good, it was an amazing experience. So traveling to Cambodia to work on clean water projects working on outreach here in Australia. So encouraging students in particular girls to get involved with engineering and science projects. And after five years, I was just ready for a change and realized that I had a lot of the skills necessary to to do the work and the projects that I wanted to do. But there was no job there wasn’t anyone doing exactly what I wanted to do. So I realized that I could either find workers

liked or create the real kind of work that I really, really wanted to do. So

that’s kind of how and then kicked off. So it’s only a couple years old.

But it’s been a really amazing journey so far and to bringing something new and new projects into the world. Yeah, definitely. That’s awesome. And after your travels, you came back and he said you were working in the nonprofit sector. Will you still engineering as well? Or were you had you stop doing that entirely? How did that how did that all so I kind of found the one option where you get to a bit advice I worked for a not for profit code Engineers Without Borders

to, you know, continue to be an engineer but also work in the social impact sector. So kind of made the transition not so extreme. Yeah, definitely. And when you first start, you know, you decide to create the job that you love, and I think that’s an awesome way to do it as well. Like if you can’t find the exact

job and the exact profession and the exact

solution to a problem rather than just like you said, you have a decision where you can either settle and find something that you can tolerate and something that like you said something that you like, or you can go out and create something that you love. And I think, yeah, I think it’s awesome that you went with that option, especially one that creates so much good in the world. How did you go along? How did you go about building that? So what unbound does is we work with universities and institutions. And basically the idea is, we think education in particular, higher ed could be a lot better. We think it could be a lot more based on real world issues. We think students could get out of their disciplines and work in multi disciplinary teams. We think that students could work on social and environmental impact projects. This is what we do. So we work with universities to design these really interesting and innovative programs predominately overseas, so you’re getting students out of the lecture theatre and working on a social impact initiative and learning from amazing

innovators in rural Nepal or an innovation hubs in India or in a bamboo community in northern Thailand. So the kind of step to, to get there and realizing that this is what it was about, what we’re interested in was one building on the things that I know well, so I’ve done a lot of travel, I really love it. I also know the education sector pretty well because that was kind of my role prior to this. So basically, it was building on strengths and we actually teach that to students that you know, it’s not a when you’re working with communities, it’s not a thing around going in and saying, what are your problems, what’s not working, because that’s really disempowering. So the methodology we use is called a strength based approach. What are you good at? What do you want to do? What’s your aspirations? What’s your dreams? So I kind of took that approach to my own business to say, look, what are the skills that I have and where can I add value? Was there a gap but where where do I have the skills to make something really cool.

Yeah, that’s awesome. And I want to touch on that strength based approach, because it is something that we can overlook as well. And I love what you’re talking about. On a little side note in regards to the education sector, and we’re going to touch on that too, because you’ve, you’ve picked my us up a little bit with that. So I want to touch on that again. But with the strength based approach when you’re working with, in your case, university students, how does something like that look, because I know a lot of the people who would be listening to this employing others and they’re dealing with others and they’re working with others. And a strength based approach is a great way to get the best out of somebody. So how does that look? In practice,

you’re exactly right, that when people are doing what they’re good at, when people are doing what they enjoy, the outcomes are just better. So that’s kind of part of the rationale. So at the moment within University, the reason that students try and put an effort is that they want to get a good grade they want some good marks and that’s fine, but that’s only one kind of

motivator. Whereas if they’re doing something that they really passionate about, if they’re doing a topic that actually has a positive impact in the world, they’re more likely to have other motivators to do a really great job. That’s kind of the logic, the thinking behind our work. So practically look on a community level, you can work with different people and realize right out this, this community has a lot of artisans and makers and builders. So if we could come up with new designs and you products, then it can increase livelihoods in these rural communities. And they can kind of have ownership of that and really improved their outcomes on a personal level, it means that you can

work on projects that really leverage your skills, as in the work that you put out is likely to be good or even great. And it’s work that you enjoy it because, you know, as I say, mastery is one of those things that really motivates people. And it’s true Yeah, I think that’s also that’s a good way to

Good methods to bring into the workforce rather than if you’re dealing if you’re working with people, and you’ve got you’ve got some employees in your business at the moment, rather than,

I don’t know, getting people to

strengthen their weaknesses and

want to basically wanting to get people to achieve for the sake of, like you said, getting that good, getting that good grade by having a more holistic approach and giving them giving them the opportunity to do what they like they’re going to want, like you said, more reasons to do well, so I think a lot of Yeah, sorry. Yeah, I think that question gets asked enough, like, So, yes, there’s the,

you know, and people when they’re working for an organization, what they’re kind of role and position description is, but that shouldn’t be fixed. That should be just the starting point to say, look, these are some things we need you to do to make the organization better. And then the next question should be, what are you bringing to the table? What are your unique skills and interests that could take

to the next level, and that, to be honest, is in my experience, often where people and where people do that well in their organizations, they create some of the most interesting work and really enjoyable job roles. Yeah, I completely agree. And I want to go back to like I said, the education sector it’s,

it’s a pretty it can be a pretty old school, pretty old school sector and pretty pretty clicking in some ways. How did you find

being able to bring something like unbound into what can be a pretty traditional thinking business sector? Yeah, um, it’s been a really interesting process and to be honest, I love the higher education sector. There’s something pretty special about this space and time in people’s lives where they’re there to learn and connect and Reno young adults really just kind of progressing their own interests in careers. A lot of it,

you know, hasn’t necessarily changed a lot but a lot of it has.

And some of the directions that the sectors moving in, I think you’re really positive. So as an example,

when I went to university students traveled far, far less than they do at the moment. So this week, I was at the International Education conference. And the number of students that are traveling as part of their degree is at an all time high. I think that’s really a positive trend and in the right direction, and more people from Australia, a traveling in the Asia Pacific region, which

hasn’t traditionally been the destination of choice for Australians, but it’s so smart, like Australia’s future is absolutely in the region with emerging China and India and Indonesia. So so I think part of what I’m doing is is timing this pretty well in that there is a bit of a move in a shift to have more diverse experiences because and also recognition that that hasn’t necessarily been the strength of

Researchers, academics and institutions, for example, doing projects in emerging Asia. And that’s kind of the role that we’ve been able to fill to support them to do that. Because within a big institution like that, there are of course people that are really keen and passionate educators that really want the best for their students. Yeah, cool. That’s that’s a really good answer. Thank you so much for sharing that and you mentioned before working in a lot of very different countries and how big of a role travel and working with different cultures is with unbound How do you grow something especially when you’re starting out? It’s not really I did you start locally with just working with Australian charities and Australian organizations and the grow from there. Did you go international straightaway. How did that all look from the beginning because it seems like a lot of I’ve got a place to get spitting at the same time. There is some and there are definitely a lot simpler organizations and businesses.

Amen. But we started globally from the start because we thought that could be our kind of unique

proposition that that we can connect Australian students and institutions with the region with a social impact lens really, really well. We only started with one location. So now unbound works in in many countries across Asia and beyond. But we started with one country in Vietnam. We picked Vietnam for a few reasons, some really kind of interesting and high level and some much more mundane and practical but Vietnam is a remarkable country where

basically they’ve, they’ve transformed the country in the past few decades. So they moved

between 2000 2015

from least developed to a middle income country. So really kind of achieved a lot during the period of the Millennium Development Goals.

Which was kind of global aspirations for the, for the world, particularly for poor in emerging countries. So we just thought that was a fantastic story of transformation. And they’re doing a lot of really interesting things that Australia can learn from. So that’s where we started. And now first of a program, their educational program, like a study tour, or educational intensive, really focused on sustainable development, which is a great topic because it’s all around how does business work with government work with the social sector to grow, to give people real opportunity, but also to address important global issues as well. That’s what we started with our very first trip there with a small number of Australian students a couple of years ago and it’s just grown and grown since then. Yeah, that’s cool. And going from that one destination like you said, You’ve grown out and how many how many different countries is unbound working in at the moment

we’re working in around six or seven.

Countries down, but have also done kind of one off projects in different places as well. Yep. One of those things I did last year was hosting students from other countries to come to Australia. So we had a delegation of

Guatemalan Pakistani, and Kenyan social entrepreneurs. They actually came to Australia to do a study to a program to learn all around about the Australian social enterprise sector and meet with amazing businesses and startups and educational organizations here. So I’ve worked with other countries that we haven’t necessarily run projects in. Yeah, that’s awesome. And I want to touch on you said some social entrepreneurs from different countries. And social entrepreneurship is a term that’s being used a lot of the moment and I think it’s awesome that it is sort of coming into vogue and more, more businesses are trying to try to do something and make a bit of a social impact and become more of a social enterprise for someone who’s either

About two is in the process of starting their business and they have a startup or someone who has a more established business and is looking to do a little bit more, what are some steps that you could you could give for someone to turn, you know, their business into more of a social enterprise.

Yeah, it’s a great topic. And I think that the time for this is right. Like, I think that consumers are being far more conscious about what they buy and where it comes from. And there’s just a real passion for creating businesses with more of a purpose then, of course, to do well, but but that’s not being the sole reason to do it. So I actually taught social enterprise at the University of Melbourne earlier this year. And so I’ve had a bit more to do with this sector seeing new businesses come to life and it’s a real trend it’s a real movement that people are looking for more impactful businesses and what’s great is actually a lot that that organizations

can do from people that are starting up who really want to embed the social mission in at the core of what they do to existing organizations. But for new organizations, one of the things I’d suggest is to look at the different models available. A lot of people know models where a certain percent of profits get donated to cause and that’s good, that’s fine. But I’d really encourage people to find ways to embed their social impact into the core of what they do. What does that mean? It means you could be employing people that experience disadvantage, whether it’s people with disabilities or at with at risk youth, or you could be creating a product that itself solves a social issue, something to do with health, something to the education and what that means is that regardless of how your business does, you’re having positive impact every day, every step of the way. And that can be really transformative. It’s not relying on a future day where there’s a good payout and you can kind of give back

Actually, um, for existing businesses, I really encouraged them to think about

who they use in their supply chain, who they procure from, because they’re amazing organizations that provide excellent service that are themselves social enterprise. So unbound, we really, really work hard on our social impact procurement. So it means that when we’re doing catering, we’re getting

food and, and event services from fantastic organizations that have a social mission. So for example, lentil is anything which supports people from different backgrounds. When we’re getting our certificates printed out. We use zero project, which is the Vietnamese paper organization I mentioned briefly before, and they’re all around women’s empowerment and preserving Vietnamese culture. So from our point of view, it just makes a better product because people are getting really interesting services and saying

Really amazing products on there as they engage with our organization but it also those dollars that we would be spending any way of being spent with a really good cause yeah I love those examples and thanks for sharing those because they are they’re easily attainable

achievements as well like you said you can always you know donate a percentage of profits and that’s that’s all well and good by the money’s obviously needed but there’s a lot more that you can be doing as well and

hiring you know, hiring people of you know, that have faced social and justices and giving people that second chance and solving some problems like that way or you know, dealing with the right company is suddenly you know, you have to employ people anyway and you have to you know, you have to get those certificates printed no matter where you are, no matter what you do, and working with people who are

also in the social enterprise

Well, for lack of a better

word like the little niche, I guess, who are also in that sort of space

helps everyone those businesses that are like you said, you know, you’re working with lentils, anything, they do some amazing work and working with those guys as opposed to working with somebody else. And they’re just little choices that you have to make. It’s that you don’t have to spend, you know, a month out of your year, going off and building a school in Nepal or something like that. Like you don’t have to go big, you can just start small and build from there.

That’s spot on. Um, there’s a lot of fantastic social enterprises in Australia. So, you know, it could be small things that people actually do recognize and appreciate. So, you know, if I’m in a cafe and I go use the bathroom, and then I can see they’re using who gives a crap toilet paper, which donates 50% of their proceeds to water projects in the developing world. Or Thank you hand sanitizer and soap, which again donates their proceeds to hygiene projects around the world.

Just kind of feel better about the experiences in Yeah, it just kind of lets you know, as a consumer that, hey, this organization looks like and seems to kind of, you know, walk the walk when it comes to social procurement. So yeah, you can start small. But then yeah, I’d encourage organizations to just be a bit more ambitious with how they can make impact and really embed it into the core of what they do. I think they’ll find that if they do that their team, their staff will feel more pleased about working for an organization that actually cares and can lead to some really fantastic business results. Yeah, Julian, I think that’s completely right. And like you said, as well. And you mentioned you touched on it really briefly, that being a social enterprise and having that added purpose also, you know, you do it almost you do it to help but it also helps you It helps it helps the bottom line it also helps business was like you said, it’s a way to stand out from your competition and it’s a way to engage staff and it’s a way to

engage kids like to engage clients and customers as well?

That’s right. Because I think people really,

I’ve got a lot of kind of faith in humanity. And I think that people do care about this stuff. So if you can actually do it. Now, you can’t just, you know, this shouldn’t be a greenwashing social washing exercise, you really need to do the thing, rather than just say you do. But when you actually do it, because people are sophisticated and they truly care, then yeah, great, can lead to some really fantastic outcomes. Yeah. And is that something you’ve seen a little bit of, like you said, People kind of

having a bit more back than they do. But when it comes to this sort of stuff, it can happen. You know,

it certainly happened a little bit when it came to environmentally friendly products, that kind of greenwashing thing where you know, it does a few examples where it really wasn’t

as good as people. As you know, some of the bigger companies were saying that it was the

As a business owner and a small business, you’ve got a lot of control. So you can actually do things that that are really positive. So I definitely would encourage people to do what they say they’re gonna do but but actually embed what they’re doing into the work they do. So it just becomes a normal part of the business practice. So it’s not this bolt on add on where the purpose is just marketing benefit that more it’s the way that you do business. And that’s where you get the real benefits of how people feel about engaging with your business how people feel about working inside your business. Yeah, I I love it. And do you have any examples of you know, small to medium businesses that are that are doing things and just so we can have a bit of an example of how it looks in the real world.

Yeah, absolutely. So the way that unbound embeds our social impact at our core were all around educating,

having a great educational experience so preparing young people for the for the future getting them

Ready to work in Asia, getting them interested in social impact issues. So our kind of core product is a social good product. And then the way that we add on to that is engaging and using social enterprises in many, many things that we do. So for example, when we ran that study tour in Australia with our guests from overseas, we visited and used a lot of social enterprises when we’re here in Melbourne. So for example, we were learning about different parts of Melbourne culture and great, great places to go. So we did a tour at the Abbotsford convent and they’re

transformed former former nunnery convent that is now a really amazing arts hub. So that was one of the places that we that we did a tour we then ate at lentils, anything so that was a social enterprise restaurant that has a really innovative pays you can pay as you feel model to be super inclusive, but also promote kind of philanthropy and some of the work that they’re doing.

Some of the things that we did that we just actually made the event so much better. But we’re at a real social mission is that we

did a indigenous walking tour on arrival. So guests from overseas could really understand Australia’s history and heritage, learn a lot more around Aboriginal culture and actually said that was the highlight of the trip that they did. So while yes we’re using a social impact education and and to a guide organization it really made the experience even more fantastic there’s so many fantastic examples but I’ll leave you with them series spelled si e r e. s, which is environmental park in Victoria in Melbourne. And they’ve got an amazing array of social enterprises there while also being just as beautiful space it was a former rubbish tip many decades ago that’s been transformed into this beautiful environmental Park and if you go there they’ve got

Nursery, they’ve got a lovely cafe. They’ve got bike repair, training and services, they’ve got educational programs, just this wonderful constellation of social impact enterprises as part of a bigger narrative around engaging the community on environmental issues and connecting with culture.

Yeah, that’s awesome. And that,

I think it’s great to have an example like that, and just something that

the business owners out there could have a look at. And they can take that on board as well and know how it looks in the real world, like I said before, and something that they can do. And like you said, there are so many more decisions that you are in control of as a small business owner. So there are definitely ways about it, which is really great. And I want to touch really quickly on the fact that you’re working with a lot of universities at the moment and a lot of university students, why do you think it’s important or why do you think it’s so important to have actually, I’m going to rephrase that.


what’s the impact that you say on the university students themselves, because they are tomorrow’s business leaders. They are tomorrow’s leaders. what’s what’s the impact that you say, working with the younger generation.

So I’m incredibly hopeful that students will engage is so bright there. So I think are a lot more advanced than certainly I was when I was in their situation, they’re more connected with global issues. And more of them are motivated to do things like entrepreneurship, which I think is fantastic. The thing that we really provide, which is a bit distinct this because one of our work happens in a place they’re not familiar with. So we make these incredible entrepreneurs in India. We met with these amazing pioneers in in Vietnam, and we see people that are making things happen in a very different context. So while student Australia might for example, be thinking

Are don’t yet have any resources or investment or, you know a lot of the skills necessary to do the business that I’ve got in my head that I might be able to do in the future. Um, well then we got to meet these amazing entrepreneurs and CEOs that are doing it with so much less is in people that may not have finished their schooling, working with people that you know, living on Far, far, far less resources than we are every day in Melbourne and Sydney. And just the resourcefulness that’s necessary to bring these projects and ideas to life. And I think what what unbound can do really well is one, get students thinking around possible answers to these global global challenges and just incredible opportunities, whether it’s business or social, and then showing that you don’t need a lot of stuff necessarily to have an impact that you can start small and iterate into something that’s really fantastic and meaningful. Yeah, I love it. I think that’s such a

Great, such a great tool to to give the younger the younger business owners because they are the there the next business leaders there the next latest of our country and to be able to put that in and that resourcefulness and to give them those skills that I’m down helping them give I think is you doing an incredible thing. So Julian O’Shea, you’ve been absolutely incredible today. Thank you so much for joining me on our pleasure. Yeah, I know you’re running a marathon to my literally running a marathon tomorrow. So all the best with that. Thank you so much for joining me

real pleasure. been great to chat. Awesome. Thank you.

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