Julian O’Shea – Founder of Laika Academy

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FYA logoThis is part of a series of interviews with members of the Foundation for Young Australians Young Social Pioneers program which supports Australia’s best and brightest emerging social entrepreneurs and innovators, aged 18-29. The program amplifies their social change purpose, builds networks of support and develops their business skills and capabilities to drive successful purpose-driven ventures.

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

He is the Founder of Laika Academy, a social enterprise that designs and leads innovative overseas education programs in collaboration with Australian universities. 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.

His background is working with Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB), an international development NGO, where he was the Director of the EWB Institute and headed up the organisation’s university engagement programs. In this role, he created a range of programs to engage researchers and students with poverty alleviation and sustainable development projects. These included the Regioneering Roadshow – a science and engineering education outreach program to rural, remote and Aboriginal communities; the Humanitarian Design Summit program – an overseas practical design study tour for engineering students; and the Journal of Humanitarian Engineering – an open source, peer-reviewed academic journal. His work in education program design, saw him recently named one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers by Creative Magazine.

He is an inaugural Westpac Social Change Fellow, a travel and professional development fellowship that will see him visit with world-leading programs in Asia, Europe, Africa and America.

Outside of work he loves adventure travel and has visited over 100 countries and once set a Guinness World Record for a 3,700+ km rail journey across China.

Can you tell me a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge?

Laika Academy is a social enterprise aiming to make higher education more engaging and to equip students with the skills and experience to tackle emerging global challenges. We work with Australian universities to design and lead innovative international education programs – think study tours and global studios. All of our programs connect with real world issues and have a strong focus on social and environmental topics.

In Australia only around 17 per cent of university students travel as part of their degree. It’s clear that the future of work is going to be globally linked, so having the skills to work across cultures, particularly in Asia, is key. There’s no better way to learn about this than to pack your bags and spend time living and working alongside peers and colleagues in Kathmandu, Bangkok, Hanoi and beyond.

All of our programs have students working in small multi-disciplinary teams on real-world projects. Just like most work, these are a project where there is no one right answer, and often the question also isn’t clearly defined.

I have an engineering background and for five years headed up education and research projects in the not-for-profit sector as the Director of the Engineers Without Borders Institute. This work was excellent grounding in learning about innovative approaches in higher education, and in leading social innovation projects. The big idea behind Laika Academy is that all the important global challenges – from earthquake reconstruction to climate change to sustainable development – will need multi-disciplinary input, so building education programs that span faculties is a great start.

Our programs are about education, adventure and transformation – so we named the organisation in honour of “Laika”, the Russian stray street dog who became planet Earth’s first orbital space traveller on Sputnik 2 in 1957.

Can you explain your business model to me?

We partner with academics and universities and then design and lead study tour programs. To date, we’ve run a highly successful series of programs in Vietnam themed around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which had students creating prototypes and designs in support of the UN’s Global Goals.

We have a strong social mission and design our programs for inclusion. Our aim to engage students that might not normally have the opportunity to study overseas – such as students from low socio-economic backgrounds, students from rural and remote areas, and students who are the first in the family to study at university. There’s been some great research in this field, which we use to shape truly inclusive programs. Laika Academy aims to make these programs more accessible and travelling overseas a normal part of the university experience.

We’ve been delighted with the great reaction we’re getting from academics, universities and students.

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

This is a big year for Laika and me, personally. I was awarded a Westpac Social Change Fellowship – one of the inaugural scholarships funded by the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation – which gives me the opportunity to travel to Singapore, Nepal, Ghana, US and the UK to learn from world-class education programs. I’m excited to learn from these innovators and see how some of their work can be incorporated into the programs Laika is running.

After numerous overseas visits, we have just finalised two new programs that we will be offering over the summer. The first is a program in Nepal exploring the re-building process after the devastating earthquakes in 2015. We have some amazing in-country partners, and it’s a remarkable part of the world. The other program is based in Thailand and is about human-centred design and how to use user-centric approaches to design great products, services and building. We’re super excited to have students get involved.

Tell me how you make your ideas happen?

Learning from people doing interesting things either in similar or related fields is always a great inspiration. The travel and meetings I’m having as part of the Westpac Social Change Fellowship has been a great chance to have lots of inspiring conversations.

One of my previous roles was the Festival Director of Link Festival of Design, Technology and Social Change – so I’ve had the incredible privilege of curating speakers and hear from innovators from Australia and around the world.

What role have mentors played in your business life?

I’m really lucky to have been part of some really supportive communities and groups that have become supportive and great sources of knowledge and ideas. I’m particularly a big fan of peer mentorship and learning from people at a similar stage of development. The Foundation for Young Australian’s Young Social Pioneer Program and the Westpac Social Change Fellowship are two great programs I’ve been involved with.

Julian O'Shea (Vietnam river)

What does your typical day look like?

It depends a lot on whether I’m in Melbourne or overseas facilitating a program.

When I’m in Australia, it will usually involve a combination of coffees, university partnership meetings, Skype calls to overseas partners, emails with students, managing programs and hopefully a fun social activity.

Overseas, it’s usually a bit less predictable but could include running workshops, visiting social enterprises on site visits, spending time living in homestays, and working with students on their action projects. Whatever the itinerary looks like, there is always great food.

What challenges have you faced when starting your organisation in Australia?

Starting something new is never easy – but it’s a challenge I love. When it’s just you, or a small team, you need to work on a lot of things outside your usual experience. Lucky most answers aren’t much further than a Google search away.

What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?

As counter-intuitive as it sounds – it’s often easier to do big things than do small things. People are more likely to get excited and help out if you’re looking to do something really interesting or inspiring. So go big.

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

There are some great individuals and organisations supporting innovation in Australia that I really like – The Compass and the Melbourne Accelerator Program are helping build an entrepreneurship culture here in Melbourne.

What about internationally?

We are so lucky to work with a number of great social enterprises around the world.

Zó Project is a social enterprise that sells beautiful modern paper products using 800-year-old paper making process that provides livelihoods and economic empowerment to disadvantaged communities in Vietnam.

Dorsu is a fashion social enterprise supporting selling wonderful clothing while promoting fair conditions for garment workers in Cambodia.

Bloom Microventures supports women farmers in rural Vietnam through micro-finance and loan programs. They have a great approach and connection to the communities that they work in.

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

I’m a strong advocate for the role of business and social change. I’ve recently joined the Social Council for The Compass – the impact entrepreneurship program within the Melbourne Accelerator Program at Melbourne University and love watching the movement towards more socially minded businesses.

Is there a particular charity or social enterprise you support?

Through Laika, we support a number of social enterprises through all of our trips. For example in Vietnam, we always have meals at KOTO (Know One Teach One) and the Hoa Sua Training Restaurant – both great social enterprises that have a strong training elements supporting disadvantaged young Vietnamese people. We’re always on the look out on the best places to buy products and services.

Name three websites you would recommend to our readers.

Foundation for Young Australians has some great articles content this article from Jan Owen is a good place to start.

One10 the new social enterprise accelerator and social impact consultancy has some interesting content about social enterprise.

Ideas Hoist has great features of people doing cool stuff! (Editors Note: Aww shucks)

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

Sure are! Students are welcome to check out our website and join one of our upcoming programs. Our next round of study tours is to undergraduate and postgraduate students from all disciplines are structured as two-week long study tours in Nepal (Rebuilding and Post-Earthquake Reconstruction); Vietnam (UN Sustainable Development Goals) and Thailand (Human-Centred Design and Innovation). We are always open to further collaboration and ideas from universities, educational groups and businesses

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?

What was the worst mistake you made that you recovered from, and how did you get through it?

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?

Living in Melbourne I’m spoilt for choice! Some favourite bars are Section 8 and Sister Bella in the city. I’m currently living in Footscray, which is home to amazing Vietnamese food.

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