Jan Owen’s current role as the CEO for the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) is just the latest evolution in her career as a social entrepreneur dedicated to supporting and uplifting vulnerable children and young people. Jan spoke to us about how she progressed from recognising flaws in the social system at an early age, to ‘hacking the environment’ and as a young activist, and uplifting fellow female professionals as an industry leader.
On where her passion for social change came from
I was very aware from an early age that people live in lots of different circumstances. My parents set up Lifeline in the 1960s. Back in those days when you got an emergency phone call you put down the phone and you drove to where the emergency was and you were physically engaged because there were no services, there was no 1800 RESPECT or women’s shelters. As a six or seven year old I would tag along with my parents on these calls and sit in the back of the car watching my Dad talk a guy down off a bridge or watch my parents walk into full flight domestic violence situations and come out of the house with the mothers and the babies and the children under their arms and they would come to our house. I have a really strong memory of the police at that domestic violence scene, standing on the street saying ‘we can’t intervene, this is a family matter.’ I knew even that something was wrong about that. I’ve always felt that we need to very carefully and consciously advocate for those people that the system is not set up to support or advocate for. Especially children in foster care or state care. I’ve always been struck by that Gandhi quote ‘You should measure society by how well it supports the most vulnerable’. It’s not about GDP, it’s about how the most vulnerable people fare. Growing up, I was always surrounded by this community that worked to support people when they needed to reset and I think it was a natural flow on for me really to go into the not for profit sector.
On being an autodidact with an entrepreneurial mindset
Another strong influence in my earlier years was my interest in money and business. I think that having that brain really helped me, although it wasn’t something that was in my family. My parents are actually academics, so business to them was a foreign and not necessarily wholesome idea. I was a bit of an outlier in that sense.
Today we think that qualifications are so important but the only qualification I’ve got is the driver’s licence in my pocket.Jan Owen
I’m an autodidact, I learn by doing and through osmosis. I was in a lot of trouble when I was really young, and it had to do with being bored at school, failing miserably, and having high expectations from my family. I just voted with my feet. I was always really clear that education failed me, I didn’t fail education. That’s a super important frame of thinking, because if you believe you’ve failed a system that’s been geared towards you, that fundamentally begins to shape your view about a lot of things. I saw it differently.
There are many different kinds of autodidact. I’m lucky that I am the entrepreneurial kind. From a really young age I was setting up micro-businesses—I was that kid with the lemonade stand. I grew up in Queensland and so I set up a business catching toads with my brothers. The science school down the road from our house needed toads, and Queensland has an excess of them so we used to catch toads and sell them to the university. At eight years old I was the CEO of the company. I stood 100m away and held the torch whilst my brothers caught the toads. I gave them a small cut of the profits for their efforts.
At that young age I just felt this call to experiment and make money and iterate. I think I was lucky that I had that drive because it meant I wasn’t adrift and floating, I was implementing ideas. That entrepreneurial drive was a huge advantage for me as a young person. That’s why FYA has spent the last four years developing Australia’s largest entrepreneurship program for students. Micro-entrepreneurship teaches young people to set things up and fail and learn and iterate. Those are fundamental life skills today even if you don’t go on to become an entrepreneur—the skills and things that you learn through that are powerful in any context and in any organisation.
On how our social system often fails the most vulnerable
My early impressions that our society was failing to protect its most vulnerable people were galvanised when I went on to work with children and young people in state and foster care. I went to a home where there were a lot of young women that had all been removed from their families due to sustained abuse and neglect. They were locked in the house. It was then that I realised something is fundamentally wrong with our social system. Their perpetrators are walking free and these women are living in a house under lock and key. It was all supposedly for their protection, but clearly we’d got it all wrong.
On hacking the environment as a young social activist
These early experiences with the system were part of the reason why in my early 20s I worked on the fringes of the child welfare system, outside of institutions. I was working in inner city Brisbane which was where the poorest people lived. The wealthy lived in the suburbs and the poor lived in the city. I used to do some work on after school programs with Aboriginal children and young people who were the inner city kids. I spent time with their families too. We were looking for a place to gather because as the program gained momentum, more young people and children came out of the woodwork. There was a disused Shell service station in the area, so we got the bolt cutters and broke in. It was an amazing space so we set up an after school program there. There were literally kids hanging off hooks in the mechanic’s workshop, using it as a flying fox. It was a time when CSR didn’t exist, nothing existed. Eventually we felt guilty and wrote to Shell telling them what we were using the service station for. They wrote back to us saying ‘that’s awesome, do you want any more?’. Our view was you don’t ask permission you just seek forgiveness. That’s been my mantra the whole way through.
On finding protection through your peers
If you follow that philosophy, it’s important to seek cover through collaboration. I’ve always worked collectively so I’ve always had other people working around me and given myself cover this way. Your peers will give you cover when you need to speak out on issues and push boundaries. Speaking truth to power is very difficult and it’s not necessary to go into battle on your own. The idea of working single handedly sounds great and it looks great, but change never happens when led by just one person. You do need to give yourself cover and you need to get collaborators. Sometimes that cover is your collaborator and sometimes it is an institution. I was lucky when I was pushing against the child protection system, I had a lot of cover from incredible organisations who were really supportive.
On supporting other women
I’ve never really been a solo entrepreneur. I’ve always expressly collaborated with women. I’ve tried to bring women along with me because I believe that the number one thing to do is to back each other. I don’t mean that in a closed ranks way, because I don’t want to set up that dynamic. I feel like clustering is important. You don’t put one woman on the board, you’ve got to have two or three. It’s the same with diversity. That clustering effect is hugely impactful and powerful for the culture of an organisation but also for those people so they’ve got the cover of their peers. If I’m asked to speak on a panel I’ll ask if there are other women involved before I agree to participate. I think there are ways of being and acting in the world that are pro-bringing people around you, and lifting others up. I also think that you’ve got to back each other once you’re there, be alert and call out bad behaviour. I still don’t see enough people doing that. I’m quite senior and yet I still have men who repeat what I say in their own words as though the idea I just came up with was theirs.
On being a self aware leader
When you get more senior you need to be more conscious of stepping back, pulling people up and forward, and calling out things. I can do that better now than I could have five or ten years ago. I want to say to women that you get more equal latitude and opportunities if you stay and you don’t give up. You also get to a point where you don’t care what people think about you. I’m in a position now where I’ll say it as I see it, not to antagonise people but to keep the field of possibilities open and new ways of doing things.
I’ve seen egos get in the way in every industry. I think entrepreneurs in and of themselves are often egocentric. As an entrepreneur, you have to back yourself in a way that you don’t have to if you enter a slipstream in an organisation. You have to have an extra boost of courage or chutzpah in your DNA. That’s super important. However, ego is the biggest thing that gets in the way and often entrepreneurs can’t see when they’re getting in their own way.
In any leadership role, you need a heightened level of self awareness. You need to do a lot of self work to understand what your blindspot is, what you barriers are, what pushes your buttons and what your defences are. That’s a lifetime’s worth of work.Jan Owen
You also need to balance that with relentless optimism, passion, an ability to inspire and motivate, humility, authenticity and self awareness. It’s truly a lifetime’s worth of work.
This kind of self work is really important for social entrepreneurs and innovators because we’re looking at how systems change and how to empower and bring the most vulnerable people into the centre. Entrepreneurs in this space need to initially drive change but then step back. That’s leadership from behind in a way. I feel like there are lots of lessons around that and there are many hacks now, but there’s this old adage of ‘first know thyself’ and the extent to which you spend time doing that work will dictate how fast you become a truly effective leader. A lot of entrepreneurial people are very outwardly focused on doing rather than being. The balance between doing and being is profound, and if we could get that right then we could get to understand ourselves faster. But we’re action and doing-oriented at the cost of being. That’s the work. I know 22 year-olds who have nailed that but it took me a lot longer.
On feeling at home in her own skin
I actually remember the moment when I felt like I had come into my own skin rather than outwardly looking at myself – observing and criticising. That happened when I started at FYA in my late 40s. It was after I’d had some epic fails and carried quite a bit of scar tissue. Until that point I always felt I’d bluffed my way into the next gig. When I started the job, I felt like I could contribute a lot of my experiences, successes and failures, my passion around young people, and my knowledge around business building and models. Now I feel truly in my skin.