CEO, Foundation for Young Australians

CEO, Foundation for Young Australians

Socially enterprising

Jan is a highly regarded social entrepreneur, innovator, influencer and author who has spent the past 25 years growing Australia's youth, social enterprise and innovation sectors.

In 2012 she was named Australia's inaugural Australian Financial Review and Westpac Woman of Influence; in 2014 she received the Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) from the University of Sydney; and was awarded membership to the Order of Australia in 2000. She is the author of Every Childhood Lasts a Lifetime (1996) and The Future Chasers (2014).

Jan is the CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians and YLab, the global youth futures lab. Her lifelong mission is to unleash the potential of young people to lead positive change in the world. 


The best way to predict the future is to create it." Peter Drucker

Recommended reading

My Story

My story begins with me as a young child growing up in Brisbane, I was always that child who had a lemonade stand at the end of the street. The lemonade stand is a tried and tested path as the beginning of many young entrepreneurs, however there was a catch to running my stand. I was living in a town around 40 minutes outside of Brisbane on a long road, where you’d be lucky if one car went past in a week and of course that car always drove straight past me. I guess I was an early failed entrepreneur but I took the failure on the chin and kept doing everything that I could. I had a strong interest in finding things, selling things, creating things, and using what I had to make money.

My next big venture as a child was ‘Toads Inc.’, something that only Queenslanders will understand given that the state is infested with toads. I managed to make a deal with one of the universities to pay me to provide them with toads for their science department. It was a disgusting arrangement and would probably be illegal now but I employed my younger brothers to come and catch the toads with me every night. We would in turn receive 50c for each toad, naturally being the CEO of Toads Inc. I gave my brothers 5c each from that and then kept the rest. Being the project manager also had the advantage of being responsible for the holding of the torch, some distance away from the toads, whilst my brothers did the actual catching. At one time, I even tried to polish and sell rocks as ‘dinosaur eggs’.

I had always had this creative drive, I still don’t know where it came from with my parents both being academics. My parents were part of the team that developed and started Lifeline here in Australia. At those times at Lifeline, you would take a crisis phone call, you would then get into your car and drive to where the crisis was occurring in order to provide physical help. There was no welfare organisations or systems around it, I still remember seeing my father talk people down from the edge of the Story Bridge in Queensland who were moments away from jumping. I have vivid memories of watching from the car as my parents walked into homes where there were massive incidents of domestic violence where the police were standing around outside, my parents would retrieve the mother and children who would then come and live at our home. On any morning, I could wake up and not be in my bed, there could be someone new who had come in during the night.

My parent’s values of social justice, community spirit and helping really formed part of my own DNA, combined with my crazy entrepreneurial side. The first work that I ever went into was doing drug rehabilitation work with indigenous people in the centre of Brisbane. We would do things such as breaking into disused petrol stations and take over the stations to turn them into these incredible drop-in centres where hundreds and hundreds of children and youth would come every night, I call this gorilla entrepreneurship. We then later wrote to the owners of the disused petrol stations more so apologising than asking for permission. I was always bringing together my entrepreneurial spirit with my want to help those who are not always given the same opportunities. What I had learnt through my parents and through Lifeline was that for nearly every person who had come through our house, just by having that different situation and a safe sanctuary, it was enough to set that person on a new path. I could see first-hand that no matter what happened to you, that does not have to become your destiny. That you could turn your life around if you had the support and community. I still think these lessons have driven much of my work, my life’s work has been around working with children and young people in all different stages of their life and to try to ensure that what has happened to them does not become their destiny, that their past does not become their future.  

Through my work with indigenous young people on the streets of Brisbane, I met a whole lot of young people in state and foster care. This is the group of children and young people, aged from 0-18, who are removed from their families because of sustained abuse and neglect. Those who cannot stay living safely with their own families, who we need to take into the care of the state. I started working in this space and I saw hundreds of thousands of children and young people who were as much victims of the state care system as they had been victims of their own families. I felt that there was something fundamentally wrong that was reinforcing what happened to them in state care. With a group of these young people we set up The CREATE Foundation, it was a consumer group for them or their union. Not only did we reach out and build support and community, I will never forget running the first conference in Australia for children in foster and state care, I remember walking into the room where there were hundreds of children with 5 of our group. They turned to me and asked me who all the children in the room were, I told them that they were other children in foster and state care. The group couldn’t believe it, they had all thought that they were the only ones, not realising that not only were these kids in foster or state care but so were 20,000 other children in Australia, I will never forget that sense of what it means to have that shared lived experience and the sense of empowerment that it gives one to do better and to work with others. We really learnt that you can change people’s individual situations, there is a great power in doing so, there is a one by one story in the world. But in the end, you have to change the system that propagates that result. The fact that we had a consumer group for young people in care because they needed a voice, shows that the system really needed to change.

I then started working out of my garage, working with a group of young people who had just come out of care, to building this organisation across Australia in order to connect 5,000 young people with each other as well as working with governments, agencies, and not-for-profits. It was about making the opinions and thoughts of the young people who had actually been through care, the centre of the system. Through this we were able to create a lot of systematic change, but we also saw people be empowered by the fact that they had a voice. This was a long-time before the NDIS, a time where it was considered very radical that you would actually go to the consumer and ask them what needed to change or what they wanted. We were doing what is now termed ‘co-design’, before the concept even had a name. We would get ministers and service providers into a room of young people to work on designing the system from the ground up. Anyone who wants to change a system that impacts on the way that people day-to-day will go through a period of not only resistance but also hate, I was often referred to as the ‘maverick entrepreneur’. We went from running out of my garage to, in 10 years, running a fully funded national organisation which only employed people who were out of care themselves. We set up a consulting social enterprise through which we were able to employ more young people to go and train those in the system. It is only after those 10 years that you yourself see the change that you have made, that you finally go from being the enemy or a ratbag to being recognised and applauded for your efforts.  

After 10 years of doing this work, I realised that I had come to the point where you need to transition from a fast-moving start-up to an organisation. It is at that point that I decided to exit, as my role is one of a starter. A start-up takes a lot of time and at the 6-year mark I always do something different for the next 3 years, with CREATE I spent that time doing a lot of convening in order to form an alliance with the other organisations and bodies in the space of helping young people. Doing the bigger piece of work allowed me to stay at Create for so long. I was then headhunted for a role within another start-up, one which was coming from the UK to Australia. The move was an unmitigated disaster, I had left this thing that I loved and had built and gone to this thing that had sounded great and had been successful overseas but in which I failed to do my due diligence in. Within 3 months I had basically put myself out of a job, I had gone back to the drawing board and found myself unemployed for the first time in my life. I was absolutely devastated, I spent at least a month cradled in the foetal position just dwelling on my decisions and what I had done.

During the first three months of the failed venture, I had met someone who I was going to ask for help and mentoring, a gentleman named Michael Traill who had come out of Macquarie Bank to set-up an organisation called ‘Social Ventures Australia’. He was the new kid on the block bringing business ideas and principles into the not-for-profit sector, to align the two in order to help professionalise the social sector. I rang Michael up and told him that the venture had failed, told him it was nice to have met him and thought not much more of it. A few weeks later I attended a Social Ventures Australia Workshop, Michael was up on stage talking about entrepreneurs within the social sector in Australia and in the background, there was a massive picture of me up on the screen. I went up to Michael after the speech and said to him, I am that person that you have spoken to on the phone and have now talked about it front of all these people. I told him that I was a massive failure and that whilst he had referred to me as a social entrepreneur, I did not even know the meaning of the term. Michael responded that in the world of business, failure is known as scar tissue and it is something that those in the world of business actually look for as it is essential in all entrepreneurs. He explained the ‘social entrepreneur’ as a new breed of entrepreneurs, who are very entrepreneurial in their way of thinking but are so for a social impact. Now days’ social entrepreneurs are known for running social enterprises as businesses but where all the money goes back into the business as opposed to shareholders or directors.

What Michael said to me that day changed my life, nobody had ever told me to think of failure as scar tissue, to see it as a positive or that scar tissue denoted an entrepreneur. I had never been told that there was a name for people like me, that instead of being a ratbag or maverick I was a social entrepreneur. I went from feeling like a hopeless loaner, to realising that I actually had a tribe. A few weeks later I joined Michael at Social Ventures Australia, with us becoming the ying and the yang. Michael has always said that what he knew about social enterprises you could fit on a postage stamp and I had always said I didn’t know much more about business. Over the next 8 years that I was there, we raised hundreds of millions of dollars of new money through new philanthropy. We put hundreds and hundreds of social entrepreneurs into start-ups and new projects. In turn, reenergising and revitalising the social sector in Australia. Just before I left we built the largest social enterprise in Australia, Good Start, which were the ABC childcare centres of which most were in administration, which we took out of administration and turned into a social enterprise. 65,000 children and their families suddenly became part of Good Start. It is such an amazing story of Social Ventures Australia leading the Benevolent Society in Sydney, The Brotherhood of Saint Laurence, and Mission Australia, as the founding partners, to build the largest social enterprise in Australia and one of the largest still in the world.

Like with my time at CREATE, I had done the start-up part, I found having a co-founder to be extremely powerful, but again by the 8 to 9-year mark I started to look at what was next. I think Michael and I were both wondering what was next for the two of us, both being the start-up types. I was then tapped on the shoulder by the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) where I have now been for 6 years. FYA was the perfect amalgamation of my heartland of working with young people, I have always been engaged in creating opportunities and working educationally alongside young people. It was also new though because it wasn’t a start-up, it was something already in existence. I found and discovered that when you come to something that is already set-up, the three years of a start-up which you spend in the garage which is so time consuming and energy draining, has already been done. There is already infrastructure, people, money, and a brand. It brought together all of my experience working with young people over my life and all my experience within social enterprise, but wasn’t a start-up. It was the perfect trifecta. I was supported by a board who was at a crossroad, they said to me that I could create the path and the model that I wanted. In the last 6 years, we have really focused on two key things. Firstly, that there are already so many agencies, bodies and enterprises that work with young people so we did not feel the need to be a service provider in that sense, the need was to instead support and encourage young people regarding what is coming now and next. Secondly, we have focused a lot on research into what the future of work looks like and are doing a lot of research into how the future generations are going to live, work and learn.

The idea that the best way to predict the future is to create it is the very DNA of FYA, we support the largest cohort of social entrepreneurs aged 18-29 in Australia. We have really taken to heart the research that predicts that the future of work will transform rapidly, we expect a 15 year-old today to have 17 different jobs across 5 different industries. We are actually creating and embedding innovation and creativity into the curriculum being taught to young people, so that they are ready for a life which is going to be a life of learning, upskilling, retraining and transformation. It is not only about having the skills and capabilities but also the disposition as it is not an easy transition, the linear path has always been the linear path. I look at my parents who just worked for 37 years and then grabbed the gold pen at the end, slapped a caravan on the car and then travelled around Australia until they died. That model of life is dead, a jungle gym is a much better analogy for the new approach of learning and of life, one where you go in and out. This has meant that we need to think a lot about education and learning, what that looks like and how we ensure that those entrepreneurial types of mindsets are really imbedded in the DNA of our young people. We need these skills to not only be practiced but to also be credentialed, they need to be recognised. This research is driving everything that we are doing here at YLab, we have built a very powerful platform. We have built an in-school program called ‘$20 bosses’ for high-schoolers teaching them how to set up a venture for just $20. We then have the largest cohort of social entrepreneurs who are genuinely looking into issues such as climate change, disability, gender discrimination, community inclusion and urban development, the things that we are all going to be grappling with in the way that we live, work and learn in the future.

The future of work

There are three key areas that our research into the future workforce has been focused on. Our first area of research has been around the importance for all of us to not only understand but also to tell our children that what is happening is global. The global context is being driven by automation, globalisation and flexibility. We do understand a lot more now about automation than we did just a few years ago but there is still a need for greater understanding, the bottom line is that we expect 7 out of 10 jobs that exist today to be completely transformed or disrupted through automation in the future. On top of that we expect 9 out of 10 jobs in the near future to have a strong digital component.

Globalisation is only going to expand further, already one in ten jobs are performed off shore anywhere in the world and we only expect this to rise. In our region alone, there are 750 million 12-26 year old’s, we have 4.3 million here in Australia which is only a tiny percentage. When you consider that just 3 hours north of Darwin where many of us travel to holiday, there are 750 million 12-26 year old’s who are becoming increasingly educated, increasingly hungry for opportunity and increasingly are looking for new pathways for themselves. There has been massive investment into this group for that very reason, take for example the investments in China to bring 250 million people out of poverty over the last couple of decades. Globalisation does not just take the form of products and services, there is also globalisation in terms of collaboration right on our door step which at the moment we are doing very little with.

We live in a time where already 1 in 3 people are working flexibly, we are already in a flexible and collaborative economy. Right now, the problem with what I call the gig economy is that it sounds way sexier than it is, it is far less secure and stable than we think. It is actually not that sexy for young people, you can’t go to a bank with your cobbled together part time work or casual work and ask for a home loan. The collaborative environment is yet to be privileged, yet to be legislated for and hasn’t yet be constructed in a way so that it has real value or the same value as a 9 to 5 job.

Our second area of research is around the concept that it is no longer about the dream job anymore, instead it is about identifying your key skills and capabilities that you are building job to job. It becomes about building a portfolio of skills and capabilities that you can then carry from place to place, it is this that will get you the next job. We are still thinking in the 19th and 20th century way of here is my list of jobs which is the old way of looking at work, the new way is looking at what skills and capabilities you have been collecting and how you are able to demonstrate those across your spectrum of work.

In our third area of research we discovered that by looking at skills and capabilities, you could group different jobs together that had never been grouped before. We looked at the entire Australian economy and looked at several new clusters of work, linked by common skills and capabilities not because of the job title. Our research showed that it you got one job in one of those clusters, it could then unlock up to 13 others. As work is automated or disrupted, if you saw a cluster of jobs, then you would be able to see how you could move between them. This is vital during periods of disruption. They are jobs not only linked by skills and capabilities but also by disposition, for example there is a cluster called ‘The Carers’ which includes massage therapists but also surgeons, obviously they are completely different jobs but there is that common disposition. I think that this research creates a lot of hope about the uncertain future of work and the ability to create a path if you have these ‘enterprising skills’ in that they can be used in lots of different ways.

Successful habits

I am not an early riser, I certainly don’t get up at 5am each day. I really love reading the stories about great authors who wrote a novel in two hours at 11pm at night.

I have always been really interested in Malcom Gladwell’s work and in the idea of mastery, mostly because I don’t have mastery in anything myself. I have been drawn to the 10,000 hours of Malcom Gladwell, of course 10,000 hours always seem so out of the realm unless you are completely obsessed with something. Recently, I heard it broken down though which made me really happy, it became something that I could actually obtain myself. It was broken down into doing 2 hours of reading a day, spending 2 hours of thinking about the application of that reading and then one hour of the actual doing, you would be perfectly atomising the 10,000 hour model. I now do at least 2 hours of reading, not necessarily from a book, it could be articles but I am learning about my industry from a lot of different perspectives. I try to do the 2 hours of reflecting although sometimes I only get in an hour, and then I definitely do the hour of doing. I love this model, it was such a powerful way of thinking about how you could make mastery part of your everyday life as opposed to the 20 years and 10,000 hours. It is a habit that I am still trying to work on in these ratios, I think the ratios are really important. A classic behaviour of entrepreneurs is the fire, aim, ready approach instead of the ready, aim, fire model.

Advice to self and others

I find advice so hard as I never listened to advice myself when I was young and I probably still don’t now. I do know one thing, I was very fortunate that I had the opportunity and the capacity to bring together the things that I love. I have always needed to have purpose and meaning in the work that I am doing, I am not the type of person who can just show up for the sake of showing up or doing anything for the sake of doing it. I think I was always destined to be within this hybrid space between business and charity where social enterprise and social innovation sits. I used joke that at Social Enterprises Australia, we would get all of the corporate refugees. We had so many corporates knock on our door because we were almost an intermediary between these two worlds, we would help people navigate from the corporate world into the social sector. The main reason for this was because people were searching for purpose and meaning, I see this need only increasing in the future. I only see the whole business for good movement growing, which is way more than just social enterprises, for example the B Team set up by Richard Branson or Humans at Work. There are now so many businesses for good which are so much more than just ticking the triple bottom line, as they were in the 2000’s. People on one hand now understand a social licence to operate is imperative in any business today, but even moreso our universal search for meaning is even more alive. I speak to a lot of corporate audiences about how you blend business with the need for meaning and purpose. I feel very grateful that it was never an issue for me, my advice would be to find out what your passion is and then understand that passion against the purpose and meaning lens in your life. Do the things which genuinely add value, there is a lot of stuff in the world which does not actually add value to anyone’s life. It is this which leaves a lot of people feeling empty, you need to find something more than just what you are passionate about, it needs to be able to move you to actually do something.

My other piece of advice is to be wary of what I call terminal uniqueness, we all think that we are the only one who can do what we do. Suffering from terminal uniqueness can in turn be very isolating, we all think that our idea or our product is the best but there is so much more that we can do together than apart. This sentiment is playing out around the world, terminal uniqueness is one of the barriers to peace in the world yet it is something I see very often in entrepreneurs.

Recommended reading

I would of course recommend all Malcolm Gladwell’s works but the book which I am really obsessed with at the moment is Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It is so well written and is for anyone who is wanting to understand the path of history and humanity. It has probably taken my entire life to date to recognise that you need to understand where you come from in order to know where you are and where you are going. I have always been a future looking person, focused on what’s next, but a book like Sapiens makes you really understand in a powerful way how important it is to understand the journey to this point. It is a must read.

Contact details

If you want to look at our research into the new work order that’s available at If you are in Melbourne and are wanting to get involved in what we are doing, at least once a fortnight we have an open night with drinks and nibbles in our hub at YLab in Melbourne’s CBD. If you are interested in social entrepreneurship and people who are shaping the world, this is the place that you want to be.