Finding and providing young people with the space to be heard, as well as advocating for their rights and needs, has been a life work for Jan Owen. For more than 20 years she’s dominated in the space. Her love of the entrepreneurial process, which she considers to be one of her greatest strengths, is from where her success stems.
Jan Owen admits she’s always been very optimistic: “I was the one at the end of a very long drive, fronting a road over which very few cars ever passed in semi-rural south east Queensland selling ice-cold lemonade.”
With her three younger brothers, she also ran a much more successful venture, catching toads for the University’s vet science students’ experiments.
Some years later, as an adolescent, she set up the first motor mechanic class in a girls’ school in Australia. Following her move to call the local papers to get coverage for the initiative, she and the four others doing the course found themselves national news. Dressed in overalls strategically splashed with grease and oil they’d landed the front page of the Sunday papers.
“I’d purchased this old Holden and we were going to do it up,” explains Jan, going on to explain, that the motivations behind many of her entrepreneurial activities were often a little flawed.
“We had one male teacher in the school. I was 16 and I wanted to understand what made him tick. Starting a motor mechanic course with him in charge seemed like a way through. It turned out he had absolutely no idea about cars, and it was our fathers who came in to finish the job.”
In the end the car was sold and the money went to funding the girls’ trip to schoolies week – the end of school bash that has in more recent years developed a reputation for ‘teenage excess’.
“I’ve always been fascinated by inspiring others to a greater purpose. I like building teams and making a difference – organising people, managing and maintaining and assessing what is needed and what needs to be done – more than the pure commercial returns,” admits Jan.
Entrepreneurial flair and an abiding interest in returns of the social kind, say much about who Jan has become.
“I’m very mission and purpose oriented. Making money for myself has tended to take a back seat,” she says with a laugh, pointing 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”, explains something about her personal relationship to economics.
So, why the commitment to youth and youth affairs?
It would be very short sighted, says Jan, 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.
“Seven of the 10 stories about youth focus on what they are doing wrong and their negative contribution to society. My 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,” says Jan.
Take the example of a 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 people. 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, as well as come to some sort of understanding and acceptance around 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 in that as well as the contribution they can make to the future.
“Preceding generations have been about flogging our resources to other countries with little thought about communication and building relationships,” says Jan. “This generation will carry us into the Asian century with real, abiding relationships.
“When it comes to our young people,” Jan continues, “I am very focused on our role as elders, parents, preparing, developing and equipping the next generation. They’re 12 now and 22 in 10 years. If they’re to 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 to be there for them.
“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.”
In 1993, Jan was working for the newly formed Australian Association of Young People in Care (AAYPIC), an organisation she progressed to become in time, 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 most importantly, she explains, “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 but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.
“I’ve always had a broad vision – from about 10,000 feet – about where I was going next. It means I can often find myself thinking about what I want to do next and the outline of the opportunity appears. I consider myself incredibly fortunate in that way.
“My life’s 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 steady career trajectory.
She also counts herself among those who can combine vision with pragmatics, understanding that grand goals without a strategy, plan and action are useless.
Her role as CEO at the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA), the largest secular organisation for young people in the country, marks her first time in a role that wasn’t a start up.
“I didn’t realise what an incredible free kick it is to arrive in an established organisation that has a reputation, a team and funds. You can get to scale a lot faster when you don’t have to spend that first three years digging the trench,” says Jan.
The best advice for any young person, says Jan, is to get an education.: “It is the level playing field that enables people 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 important and is best fostered by 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 – is doing young people a disservice.
“Helicopter parenting and our inability to step up to the plate and be role models, mentors and ‘elders’ for our children we should be is failing them and us.
“The research shows that having just five conversations when you are around 13, 14, 15, with somebody external to your family group and who is of significance to you, makes a huge difference to the choices you make,” finishes Jan.
The human condition
Employment is 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. Their importance to the wellbeing and health of young people is significant.
“Youth employment is 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 continued to do well, 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.
To get true measure of what is going on for young people, you need only look at the mental health bill, says Jan.
“We spent 10.6 billion dollars in 2011 on youth mental health in Australia. For that sort of number to exist when we live in a country with the highest income per capita in the world, is the safest place in the world, and supposedly, a relaxed and happy place, is diabolical.
“It’s very important that adults don't abrogate their responsibility,” says Jan.
“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 a remarkable job helping each other to make sense of all this, but they’re looking for the wisdom of life and experience as well.”