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Jan Owen


01 December 2012

Jan adds new spin to the term entrepreneurial flair and has a lot to say about the importance of our youth, today and for the future, and the part we must play in this as the adults in charge.

Recognised as one of the leading pioneers of Australia’s youth sector, Jan Owen’s life’s work has been finding and providing young people with a space for their voice, as well as advocating for their rights and needs.

She has occupied this space and worked in the not-for-profit sector for more than 20 years, utilising what she considers to be one of her greatest strengths, her love of the entrepreneurial process.

As a child, the eldest of 4 growing up in semi rural southeast Queensland not far from Brisbane, Jan was the one with the lemonade stand at the end of a very long drive fronting a road over which very few cars ever passed.

She admits she’s always been very optimistic.

She also began, with her three younger brothers, a much more successful venture catching toads for the University’s vet science students’ experiments. At school, some years later, she set up the first motor mechanic class in a girls school in Australia and had herself and four friends (following her astute call to the papers), dressed in overalls and strategically painted with grease and oil, splashed over the front page of the Sunday papers nationally.

“I’d purchased this old Holden and we were going to do it up. The motivations behind many of my entrepreneurial activities have often had a flaw or two,” explains Jan, going on to say, “We had one male teacher in our catholic girls school. I was 16 and I wanted to understand what made him tick. A motor mechanic course seemed like a way through. He turned out to have absolutely no idea about cars and in the end our fathers came in to finish the job. We sold the car for three times what I’d bought it for, and used the funds to get to schoolies week.

“I’ve always been more fascinated by inspiring others to a greater purpose, building teams and making a difference in my work (organizing the people, managing and maintaining and assessing what is needed and what needs to be done) than in pure commercial returns,” Jan admits, when asked what was done with any cash earnings.

That childhood entrepreneurial flair, and her abiding interest in returns of the social kind, also says something about who she is now.

“I’m very mission and purpose oriented. Making money for myself has tended to take a back seat,” explains Jan, who jokingly points out that working in the not-for-profit sector, “where for most of my early working life I earned about 2.3 dollars a day”, indicates a lot about her personal relationship to economics.

So, why the commitment to youth and youth affairs?

Firstly, Jan says, it would be very short sighted not to invest in and see the importance of those who are coming up behind us.

She also rejects on every level the portrayal of youth in the media, where the stats indicate 7 of the 10 stories about youth focus on what they are doing wrong and their negative contribution to society. Her experience is of amazing stories of contribution by both those who have had opportunity and those who have not, including many young refugees living in our communities now. Take the young Afghani boy who arrived here 5 years ago and was a recent participant in one of the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) programs. He arrived without a word of English to live with his uncle, having lost his entire family – eight of them. Since then he has been instrumental in beginning a group for refugees in his school and in three others, to support young people and their families to integrate and come to understand and accept what has happened in their lives.

On a wider national and global scale, the importance of our youth, Jan notes, is bound to the fact that half the world’s population is under 25 and our young Australians must be able to see a place for themselves now and as well as the contribution they can make to our future.

“Whereas older generations have been about flogging our resources out of the ground to sell to other countries, especially Asia, this generation will carry us into the Asian century with real, abiding relationships,” believes Jan.

“When it comes to young people,” says Jan, “I am very focused on our role, which is to prepare, develop and equip the next generation, who are 12 now and will be 22 in 10 years time, so they can build the nation, the perception of Australia in the region and the world, and hold their own with their global peers as part of half the world’s population.

“We need them to be independent learners, confident global citizens and actively connected. We want them to feel safe and valued and to have the new world literacies: the ones that revolve around the social, cultural and emotional aspects of life.”

Career trajectory

In 1993, Jan was working for the newly formed Australian Association of Young People in Care (AAYPIC), an organisation she progressed to become, in 1999, the CREATE Foundation, Australia’s peak body for children and young people in out of home care.

In 2000 she was accepted as a fellow at the Peter Drucker Foundation in the US, which focused on the ‘novel’ concept of getting business, not-for-profits and government working together.

Two years later, Jan was appointed Executive Director of Social Ventures Australia a start-up established by The Benevolent Society, The Smith Family, WorkVentures and AMP Foundation to invest in social change by helping increase the impact and build the sustainability of those in the social sector, provide funding and strategic support to selected non-profit partners and offer consulting services to the social sector more broadly.

“I don’t consider myself as having planned my career… having said that I’ve pretty much known when to move on and how not to get in your own way when doing that. It’s very hard to move, for example, if you’ve founded an enterprise . I’ve always had a broad vision about where I was going next – but only at 10,000 feet, and I often find myself in a situation thinking about what I want to do next and then the opportunity appears. I consider myself incredibly fortunate in that way. All my life I have been very purpose driven. I don’t settle. I have to have a strong passion and purpose in what I am doing,” says Jan of her long, steady career trajectory.

She also counts herself among those who can combine vision with pragmatics, understanding that grand goals without strategy, plans and action are useless.
Her role as CEO at the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA), the largest national secular organisation for 3.1 million young people in the country, is the first time she has not been ‘setting things up out of her garage’, so to speak.
“I didn’t realise what an incredible free kick it is to actually arrive at an already established organisation, with a reputation, a team and funds. It has been quite remarkable. I’ve worked out you can get to scale a lot faster if you don’t have to spend that first three years digging the trench,” says Jan.

Adult advice

In Jan’s mind, there is also no doubt, and many others agree, that the best advice for any young person is to get an education. It is the level playing field that enables you to get a ticket to play. She also believes mentors, including significant others outside the family and parents (which the research shows young people still site as the biggest and most important influences in their lives), are also very important.

Resilience is also important and is fostered through allowing children to experience calculated risk.

The predominant culture of fear of failure which we instill in our children – whether it be academic failure or fear of others or of potential situations – Jan believes is doing young people a disservice.

“Helicopter parenting as well as our inability to step up to the plate and be role models, mentors and ‘elders’ for our children is failing them and us. There is research that states that having just five conversations at the ages of 13, 14, 15, with somebody external to your family group, and of significance to you, around career options for example, makes a huge difference to the choices you make,” says Jan, who views the outcomes of those five conversations as a significant return on investment.

The human condition

Employment is also crucial to confidence and self worth. Economic viability and employment are, for better or worse, the way by which we are judged in our society. Community, connectivity and contribution form the nucleus of the human condition, and their importance to the wellbeing and health of young people is significant, making youth employment an important issue for all of us, says Jan.
According to an annual report on young people, How Young People Are Faring 2012, there is 17.6 per cent youth unemployment, which remains almost three times higher than for the population as a whole.

“It’s simply not good enough that while Australia’s economy has fared  extraordinarily well both in recent years and recent decades, young people are still not seeing the benefits. All of Australia’s young people should have the best opportunities for education, training and employment and the benefits which flow from these,” believes Jan.

Diabolical number

She also says that if you want any measure of what is going on for young people, you need only look at the mental health bill: “We spent 10.6 billion dollars in 2011 on youth mental health in Australia. We live in a country with the highest income per capita in the world, the safest place in the world and supposedly, a relaxed and happy place. For that sort of number to exist is diabolical. Why aren’t we getting to the bottom of the problem and asking why?”

One answer to the why question, she says, is young people feel they don’t get time from the significant others in their lives. Most young people, says Jan, are looking for support and guidance from adults.

“It’s very important that adults don't abrogate their responsibility. We need to step up and support young people to navigate their way through the increasingly complex amount of information, ethical issues and life challenges thrown at them on a daily basis. Young people do help each other to try to make sense of all this which is fantastic, but they’re also looking for the wisdom of life and experience as well.”