Updated: Apr 26, 2020
This is a transcript of the podcast interview. Listen to the episode here.
JULIAN: I arrived at the same time in a country as he did. And we got a tuk tuk together and as we drove across these these roads in Phnom Penh that by the time we were done, his eyes were like big dinner plates. Because he'd been home schooled his whole life, it was his first time overseas and we'd just arrived at the hotel to check in. He was like, "Julian, this is the biggest experience of my whole life" and it hadn't even started. All we've done is provided some options for him to travel and see something different. So yeah, it's always pretty transformative when you see people that have never left the country and the very first thing they're doing is hanging out in communities in these incredible parts of the world. I just know that they're going to have a big life. A lot of travel, a lot of engagement, a lot of adventure and a lot of real hopefully impactful work.
PREMA: In this episode, I speak with Julian O'Shea. He's the founder and CEO of Unbound, a social enterprise based in Melbourne, Australia. That's redesigning education. Julian grew up in a small town called Ceduna in South Australia. He spent his schooling days there, then moved to Adelaide for university.
JULIAN: I remember back to my degree that I studied engineering and every single subject from the start of first year to the end of final year was an engineering subject. And while things are changing a little bit in the sector, that's still far too common. So I got really involved in the Adelaide Uni Engineering Society, clubs, groups, and that to me was more important honestly than anything that was said in the lecture theatre.
PREMA: Finding valuable knowledge outside of the lecture theatre or away from usual methods has been a consistent desire in Julian's life. It is this desire that led him to start Unbound.
JULIAN: So our main activity is partnering with universities across the country to design and deliver innovative education programs that get students out of the classroom, out of the lecture theatre, working on real world, social impact and sustainable development projects, whether they're looking at sustainability in rural Vietnam or cutting edge startups in India. Our goal is to do things that are real world and based on practical impacts challenges.
PREMA: Through Unbound, Julian is introducing students to parts of the world they wouldn't normally experience through their Australian education. In doing that, Julian is also introducing many more students to higher quality education.
JULIAN: We also were really interested in being an organization that has impact through our educational work. So what we didn't want to do was provide another great opportunity for really kind of talented but very well off and very privileged students. There's a lot of opportunities for them and they'll do very well. So we deliberately designed our programs to be accessible, to be programs that people from all sorts of backgrounds can do.
PREMA: These include students who are the first in their families to go to university and those from lower socio economic backgrounds. Julian graduated from university, underwhelmed by his educational journey, so underwhelmed that he got involved with the group that was interested in educating uni students in different professional groups. Through this involvement, Julian learnt that travel and volunteering could be another type of classroom in which students receive a critical part of their education. Julian worked for a few years, struggling to find a job to fit him. He packed his bags and traveled the world for 12 months, crossing from over land, not a single flight, from Southeast Asia to Europe. This trip changed his life and planted the seeds of unbound.
JULIAN: Along the way, I'd reach out to community groups, education groups to just see some really innovative and interesting things happening in that space and decided that that was where I wanted to spend my time and my effort. So when I came back to Australia, I joined the not for profit sector working in international development at the intersection of design and technology, but also education.
PREMA: Julian got involved with Engineers Without Borders, working in countries like Cambodia, helping locals with the rainwater harvesting system. He learned a lot watching how different communities worked, how they'd come together to quickly solve problems, even though they often lacked resources and finances. This is where it all came together. Julian realized that there was an opportunity to help these communities in a sustainable and meaningful way, while at the same time, broadening the horizons of students.
JULIAN: A good philosophy in international development is not to be an outsider,that is working in a context that you don't know a lot about. So we'd always have local, local community organizations that would have some projects and definitely strong connections with the various communities we were looking to serve. Obviously local language skills, a lot of experience, good cultural knowledge, but they may have a gap in their expertise. So it could be around design theory or you know, some areas where we could make a contribution. That would be kind of our role as being a great partner and supporter and providing some technical knowledge and expertise.
PREMA: And this is where Unbound's students help communities.
JULIAN: So our very first program was in Vietnam. Firstly, it's an amazing country with an incredible history. A lot of connection, of course, to Australia. There are a lot of Vietnamese people that live here. So it's a country where you can get some exposure to it, even in your own local city and town. It's a country that's just transforming. So they are a country that's very much moving from developing country to middle income and just an economy on the rise. It is an exciting time for Vietnam. So our very first program was based on the Sustainable Development Goals. And it's a great place to kind of learn from Vietnam's incredible success and bring lessons back to Australia.
PREMA: One project that Unbound students worked on in Vietnam is AbleWork an app that lists employment, resources and training opportunities for people living with physical disabilities. These students have also done study courses in countries like Nepal, building water filters. In Thailand, they built a recycling facility for the village. They've also expanded their courses to cover countries like Guatemala and Fiji. Courses like these are also attractive to international students, students specifically coming to Australia for the university education. Interestingly, a growing number of international students enrolling with Unbound comes from the countries that Unbound operates in.
JULIAN: So there are a lot of international students studying their whole degree in Australia and they may be planning on going home. So they're really interested in getting good connections, networks, internships in their own country, culture and language. And for the rest of Australia, look, it just makes sense. We are in the Asian region. We are really an Asian country. So there's a lot of opportunity to engage more deeply, more strongly without neighbours in the region.
PREMA: Now in its third year, Unbound is growing steadily.
JULIAN: One thing I think we've done really well is we've approached this with a sense of integrity and a desire to be here for the long term. So there's nothing that we're like, let's make a quick buck or have a quick win. It's more how do we set the organisation up? Because we really care about this. We care about our partners. We are interested in investing in our students. And now people are approaching us to help co design programs. So that growth has been really great.
PREMA: The last three years have also taught Julian a lot in terms of being a social enterprise business owner.
JULIAN: I think one of the surprises is just the diversity of things that you need to do as a CEO. A tiny or non-existent organisation to see, you've got to be across so many different things, from company registration to insurances to compliance, to onboarding teams, to branding, to communications, to social media. I think once you need to work out exactly what's behind each of those things. That was a bit of a surprise. And another surprise personally was that how much kind of energy you can get when you're working towards something you really believe in. So while some of these things are objectively not my skill set or even interest areas, you're able to do it because you understand the mission behind it. I think it's been a really positive surprise finding.
PREMA: Unbound now has a slightly bigger team. This gives Julian time to focus on spreading the message of the important Unbound does to students and educators.
JULIAN: We're gonna do this year with making boats, making some kayaks out of recycled bottles, recycled plastic. And then we're gonna go on a series of journeys down the Australia's River systems, culminating in the Murray Darling, the mighty Murray River the big river in Australia, which is really being impacted by water use and drought. We all know the issues around plastic waste. The idea is to have those kind of conversations as we go on an epic journey. Paddling down a river in a silly plastic bottle boat.
PREMA: At the time of this interview, Julian was also planning another overland trip around the world, this time travelling in a tuk tuk.
JULIAN: We're starting our global adventure. So I've just put the tuk tuk on a ship. It's travelling to Singapore today. It leaves Australia. And then over the next, let's say nine months, we're going to drive it all the way around planet Earth. We're going to start in Singapore and drive it across Southeast Asia, through Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, then across India, then through Iran, Turkey, the full length of Europe, then put it across through the US, across Route 66 and then back by New Zealand.
PREMA: As we were finishing our Skype before the magpies interrupted us again. I asked Julian for some advice, advice for someone a lot like me - who's looking to contribute in a more meaningful way.
JULIAN: There is so much interest in people doing things for impact. I love it. I think it's really a positive trend. So for people that are interested, I would just urge them to really kind of reflect on what it is that they're keen on, to do some great research. We've got the internet now so you can really dive deep into some see what's happening nearby. And people's bios are up on LinkedIn. So you can see someone who is doing your dream job. You can see the journey that they took to get there. So some kind of practical advice would be to, one, get involved with things that already exist. That's how I got started. So I understood the sector enough and where I thought there were some gaps and I thought my skills could align. So go and volunteer, join a club, join a society. Secondly, the idea that you've got you can do. I would urge you to find some great people to get started. The way you do that is you open a Whatsapp chat or a messenger group, and you choose your three or four friends that are most likely to be excited by your silly and interesting and important idea. And you say Hey, here's my idea. Who wants to get involved? And then all it takes is one or two or three people to really make something happen. I'd urge people to get started and get cracking and to just enjoy it, that it can be a lot of fun and can really be fulfilling. So if you take this path, I think that it's not easy, but it's very rewarding.
PREMA: Julian's advice about getting momentum by pitching your idea to your friends really struck me. It was one that I kept at the back of my mind. I got onto Facebook after I edited the first episode and created a page for this podcast and shared it with my friends. I'm glad I did. It's a good starting point and created some exciting momentum. I hope my podcast helps you find your starting point. Thank you for listening.