Anna Donaldson – founder of Life Experience

SSE logo (1)This is part of a series of interviews with alumni from the School for Social Entrepreneurs Australia which inspires and equips changemakers and social entrepreneurs to establish, scale and sustain social ventures that foster social and economic participation, and create a lasting impact within disadvantaged communities.

Anna Donaldson is a 25 year old social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Life Experience – a social enterprise that aims to connect generations, create meaningful employment opportunities for young people, and increase the connectedness and inclusion of older people in our community.

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Born and bred in Melbourne, Anna was inspired during her university studies to do something with her career that would make the world a better place – but without much idea of what exactly, or how. She was drawn to the international development sector, and spent several years volunteering and then working with Oxfam Australia. During this time, she responded to an ad calling for a volunteer to write the life story of an elderly woman named Patricia, and her life and career path was changed forever.

One lightbulb moment later, Anna discovered her passion for social enterprise, and now lives the unpredictable, uncertain life of a start-up founder. In the little time that she’s not working on Life Experience, she loves to escape to the beach, soak up time with her friends and family, get lost in a book, and enjoy the many great food spots around her home in North Melbourne.

Tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?

A few years ago now I was going about my normal business when I saw an ad calling for a volunteer to write the life story of an elderly woman named Patricia. For some reason I found myself applying, and before I knew it I was making a pretty big drive out to Melbourne’s outer-east every Saturday afternoon, visiting Patricia, writing her stories, and generally becoming her companion and friend. I visited her for almost two years, and it was a fascinating, eye-opening and often quite challenging experience. She was such an amazing lady, and had lived an absolutely jaw-dropping life, but for a range of reasons had ended up completely isolated and completely alone, and spent every day on her own in this dark, empty house. It was my first wake-up call to the serious issue of social isolation that faces many elderly people in the community, and I realised just how widespread the problem actually is.

Around the same time, I was becoming increasingly concerned by the growing problem of youth unemployment. I had younger siblings and other young people around me that were finding it impossible to find a job, all because they lacked previous experience, and I could see so clearly the hugely negative impact that this was having on their self-esteem, confidence and general motivation. I wrote ‘youth unemployment’ on a post-it note and stuck it on my noticeboard as a reminder to think of something to do about it!! Then, one morning, I was having brunch in a café with my boyfriend and his family when I suddenly had a complete lightbulb moment. I saw this amazing opportunity to link the growing care and support needs of our ageing population with the growing shortfall of employment opportunities for young people, and in so doing, to solve two of our biggest social issues at once.

My idea was therefore to employ young people to deliver services that would help older people stay connected and engaged with people and the community. And, at the same time, to tap into the vast experience, knowledge and wisdom that older individuals hold, and create new ways for this to be shared – both with our young employees through personal mentoring, and also with the wider community through a blog platform (think Humans of New York, but specifically sharing the wisdom and stories of older individuals).

As Life Experience goes forward, there are so many possible services that I see us providing, but to get it off the ground we’re starting with a technology training service – having our young employees teach the old how to use technology, in particular as a tool for connecting with family and friends, with their interests, and with the community. It’s funny that this is where we’ve landed, because I’m far from a techy myself, but I’ve come to genuinely believe that technology can be such a powerful enabler for older people, especially those who suffer from mobility issues, or have family who live far away. I’ve seen for myself the incredibly positive impact that it can have, and it feels like the natural starting point for our enterprise. It’s also where there’s a clear demand and market for us to tap into.

So, as for ‘what made me take the plunge and make it happen’, the only answer that I can really give is that from the very first minute after I had my ‘aha’ moment, I’ve been more or less driven by this crazy feeling that I just ‘can’t not do it’. It’s definitely turned a lot of other stuff on its head, and there’s been many a low point during which I’ve found myself wondering why on earth I’m putting myself through it all, but I just can’t not! It feels like what I’m supposed to be doing, and I don’t know where I’d be if I wasn’t. 

Can you please explain your business model to us? 

We’re only just getting going, and we’ve got a few rounds of piloting to go before we start selling our service, but basically our technology training will be a paid, fee-for-service offering. We’re still exploring the specifics and doing our market testing, but I expect that we will have a few key customer segments; older individuals signing themselves up and paying directly for our service, middle-aged individuals with an older parent buying and paying for the service on their behalf, and aged service providers contracting us on behalf of their clients. There’ll also be a few different service offerings and therefore price points – the first, one-on-one visits and training in a client’s own home (or a location of their choosing), and the second, group-based training in more public spaces and venues.

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next year?

We’ve just launched our first pilot program, which is super exciting! We’ve partnered up with the Centre for Adult Education (CAE) and the City of Melbourne, and are holding an 8-week technology training program at the new Kathleen Syme Library and Community Centre in Carlton.

We’ve got 8 young people working with and teaching 8 older people how to use the technology that they’re most interested in learning. It’s been such a wonderful experience so far – both groups have been getting so much out of it already, and it’s just so validating and exciting to see the idea coming together and being so well received!

In the next year I’m mainly excited about building on what comes out of this pilot, further developing our business model, and gearing up to the point at which we can officially launch to market and become a real social enterprise. I can’t wait!

How do you make ideas happen?

I’ve always been a bit of an ‘ideas person’, and I tend to have quite a lot of them. Normally when I have a new idea I tend to think about it obsessively and get super excited and do a bunch of research and scrawl a million thoughts in my ‘ideas’ notebook… and then forget all about it! The funny thing with Life Experience was that this one really stuck, and I never got over that initial burst of enthusiasm. I guess if I think about it, the thing I did differently this time was get straight out there and start talking to all sorts of people about it. That created its own momentum, and before I knew it, it was all happening!

Anna Donaldson - Life Experience

What role have mentors played in your business life?

I’ve been amazingly lucky to be connected to some wonderful mentors since I started working on Life Experience. I recently completed the Incubator program at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, and as part of that program I was linked up with my mentor Michelle, who has been an absolutely incredible support. She’s actually now become the chair of my board!

I was also really lucky to be connected to two mentors from Macquarie, Julia and Matt, as part of a funding competition that I entered earlier this year. In all three cases, the knowledge and outside perspectives that my mentors have brought to support the development of Life Experience have been just invaluable. It can get hard to see the forest for the trees sometimes when it’s an idea that you’re so invested in, and that’s so close to your heart, and having those outside voices has made such a difference in getting aspects of the model straight.

I’m also wildly inexperienced when it comes to building a business – I’m basically making it up as I go along! So having some wiser heads in my corner is a wonderful and much needed thing. 

What does your typical day look like?

I recently left my day job to give Life Experience a real crack, so right now it looks like me working from home and ducking in and out of the city a whole lot for meetings, as well as to run our pilot program. I’m hoping to get out of the house and into a co-working space really soon though, as working alone at home every day gets a bit isolating! It’s also pretty hard to draw a line between ‘work time’ and ‘home time’, so most days my work ‘day’ stretches right up until bed time. I do try to switch off and do nice things on the weekends though!

What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?

I think the biggest challenge I’ve experienced in bringing this enterprise to life has been finding the sweet spot that balances and meets the needs and interests of both young and old people (two very different audiences!), while also being based on a really solid and viable business model.

Added to that is the fact that I’m also a very ambitious thinker, and my vision for Life Experience is to be really, really BIG – our vision is a wise, caring and connected community, in which the young and the old work together to get the absolute best out of life – and to achieve that, we need Life Experience to become a really visible, prominent pioneer and leader across the country, driving us towards an end-game in which working to support our older population has become as mainstream a first job and employment pathway for young people as hospitality and retail is today.

So marrying this monumental vision with the real needs of two highly distinct groups, and matching it to a really tight and well-designed business model (which has no exact precedent or equivalent anywhere else to use as a guide or reference!) has been a really big ask. But I know we’re going to get there!

What’s an idea you are willing to give away for free? 

Ever since my uni studies and when I first became interested in international development, I’ve had this idea buzzing at the back of my brain that I would so love to see someone set up – a ‘reverse development’ program, flipping the standard international development model on its head.

Just imagine what would happen if you had individuals from developing countries coming to a Western/’developed’ country, specifically looking at what, in their opinion, we’re not doing so well, and telling us what they think we could be doing better!

Not only could it change the power dynamics for the better, and open people’s minds to new ideas and perspectives (because I think we get so stuck on thinking that things just are the way they are and could never be any different), but it could also be a chance for people from developing countries to really see for themselves that we certainly don’t have it all right – and perhaps they might then go back and pioneer a whole new and improved development path for their own country – or even the world! Anyway… that’s my little change the world idea… if anyone wants it.

What people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry, in Australia at the moment?

They’re not exactly in my industry, but I think the Foundation for Young Australians and YGAP do really great work, and my personal favourite organisation is Small Giants. 

What about internationally?

Again, not exactly in my industry, but in terms of global influence I can’t go past TED.

What role do you think business can play in affecting social change? 

A huge one! I was reading recently about how the onset of modern machinery suddenly made manufacturing shoes much quicker and easier, but that shoe manufacturers of the time thought it was a pointless development, because who in their right mind could want or need more than one pair of shoes? There’d be no demand for the extra stock they could suddenly produce, because what need could people possibly have for them? So the marketers got out there and started selling people discontent with their one pair of shoes, and suddenly there was this shift and demand for more shoes. And businesses have just continued to sell and exploit that feeling of discontent to keep us buying stuff – so now the whole economy depends on this continuing, all thanks to those shoe marketers!

Imagine if marketers and businesses turned their energy to selling stuff that makes our lives genuinely better, and our communities stronger, and our world more sustainable. Obviously that’s what social enterprise is all about, and that’s why it’s an exciting space to be in, but I can’t help but imagine what the impact would be if that mentality permeated mainstream business more deeply than it has so far.

Speaking of affecting social change, Is there a particular charity you support? 

It’s not exactly a charity, but Diaspora Action Australia does amazing work with diaspora community groups in Australia that are working to promote development in their country of origin. They are a small organisation and make a really big impact on minimal resources – I highly recommend supporting them!  

Can you name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers?

For inspiring reads and stories I like Dumbo Feather and Humans of New York, and for work stuff my life has been saved recently by

What about 3 Australians we should follow on Twitter?

They’re not all Australians, but Jan Owen, CEO of FYA, Celia Hodson, CEO of SSE, and Maria Popova of BrainPickings.

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?

Absolutely – all of the above! I really welcome anybody who’s interested in the enterprise to contact me – I would love to have them on board.

A few things in particular that I’m on the hunt for at the moment are board members with expertise in business, legal or accounting, and I’m also looking for people with any sort of expertise in IT training who would be interested in helping us to develop our pre-training model for our young employees.

I’m very keen to bring on some marketing and communications interns, and I’m on the lookout for some partners in crime to help me with the day-to-day management of our pilot programs too.

New partnerships with youth and aged service organisations, and of course start-up funding, are also right up there on the list of current needs. So lots and lots of opportunities!

We’re aiming to build a community of Australian idea makers helping each other. If you could have one question answered about startups, marketing, social media, accounting, monetization, product development etc. What would it be?

I come from a not-for-profit background, and I have very little knowledge or experience of the business world – I’d love to know more about how to initiate the engagement of relevant businesses as sponsors and partners for our enterprise.

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant? 

Naming a favourite would be way too big an ask, so I’ll stick local and say that within my home suburb of North Melbourne, my favourite café is Elceed on Queensberry St, my favourite bar is Prudence on Victoria St, and favourite restaurant is Little Africa just a few doors down from Prudence.


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