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Industry insider

The business of giving

A bright future for Australian philanthropy.

Dr Lisa O’Brien (MBBS ’84 MBA ’91 MHRMgtCoach ’05) leads the Smith Family, Australia’s largest children’s education charity, and is driving a new five-year plan to grow its reach and effectiveness to support more disadvantaged children and young people. We talk to her about the future of philanthropy and what she’s learned from her experiences.

Dr Lisa O'Brien at the Sydney launch of Cadetship to Career

Dr Lisa O'Brien at the Sydney launch of Cadetship to Career

Is Australia a charitable nation?

I am constantly inspired by the kindness and compassion of everyday Australians who give generously to causes close to their heart. At the Smith Family, our work is focused on supporting the education of disadvantaged children across Australia. We’ve recently seen an increase in the number of people sponsoring a child, and we always need more! Sponsors find it a very rewarding experience, because they can see they’re making a tangible difference to that young person’s life. We also rely heavily on more than 8000 volunteers each year who give their time, skills and energy to support our work.

Where do you see the future of philanthropy?

Measuring effectiveness is key. We have an obligation to the children and families we support to provide effective programs, and to our supporters to ensure the money they donate is spent on programs that actually make a difference. Strategic partnerships are also important. These are complex social problems, so we need to work across different sectors and all levels of government to solve them.

One example is our recent partnership with the Business Council of Australia, whose member companies are providing more than 50 tertiary students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the opportunity to do paid work experience during their studies.

The Smith Family’s student2student program helps children improve their reading

The Smith Family’s student2student program helps children improve their reading.

What are some of your proudest achievements and the biggest lessons you’ve learned along the way?

Raising my two children, which I largely did on my own, is certainly my proudest achievement. Another is being able to lead a wonderful organisation like the Smith Family – and knowing that what we do actually works. Winning the recent SIMNA Award for Excellence in Social Impact Measurement was testament to this.

I’m also really proud to have worked in leadership roles across all three sectors – public, commercial and not-for-profit. It’s given me a broad base of experience to draw on, which helps me prepare for the unexpected.

What I’ve learned is that the toughest things in life tend to happen outside of the workplace – the loss of a loved one, the breakdown of a relationship – and that’s always helped me keep perspective. While work can be challenging, it’s not usually a matter of life or death.

What’s your vision for the Smith Family over the next five to 10 years?

We are very clearly focused on our mission to provide long-term education support for young Australians in need so they can create a better future for themselves. We are just commencing our new five-year strategy, which has a focus on growth and innovation.

We want to vastly scale up the number of disadvantaged children and young people reached by our proven education support programs.

For those children we cannot reach directly, we plan to increase our advocacy efforts to address the more systemic issues they face.

Critical for us as we go through this massive growth is to maintain the effectiveness of what we do and continue to be innovative in our thinking.


Harnessing the power of technology across sectors

Manufacturing, digital solutions, online marketplaces.

Jan Pacas (EMBA ’13) played an integral role in the ongoing local success of power tools company Hilti Australia while he was CEO and managing director from 2009 to 2015. During this time, he discovered a passion for new business models and digital innovation and co-founded Australia’s largest pet sitting marketplace, Mad Paws. In 2016, he co-founded a second successful start-up, the all-in-one digital HR platform Flare, of which he is now managing director.

Flare HR launch

Flare HR launch

Your career has taken you around the world, from Australia to Europe, the United States, China and Hong Kong. What are some of the most significant changes you’re seeing in business, and particularly in global organisations today, and how are they set to impact society?

We are approaching the fourth industrial revolution, and I think what we see at the moment is really only the beginning of change that will accelerate much faster in the years to come.

In this fourth revolution, we face new technologies that combine the physical, digital and biological worlds. These new technologies will impact all industries and economies around the globe. It will even challenge our ideas about what it means to be human. And I dare to say almost every industry will be challenged.

Some of the forces well underway already today include artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, the sharing economy, self-driving vehicles and human genome editing.

If managed well, these trends have an amazing potential to bring lots of efficiencies to the global population, but undoubtedly they also have many risks. Consider the millions of jobs that could cease to exist, and the impact on society of a world where all societies are ageing and birth rates declining.

Another challenge I see is the rise of inequality. We see a lot of ‘winner takes it all’ business models in the new economy, and while this is great for the very capable (and lucky) ones, it poses an enormous social challenge. Last year was the first time that the top one percent of the global population owned more than the other 99 percent. Is that not a crazy idea to grasp?

When you were appointed CEO and managing director of Hilti Australia, you were the youngest country head for the Hilti Group globally. What were some of the greatest challenges, as well as your greatest lessons learned?

There were many challenges! I started in the middle of the GFC, and had to do a restructure of the business and turn around its financial position. We also didn’t have amazing customer and employee feedback. I learned that it all starts with building a really strong executive leadership team that shares the vision and ambition level. As CEO, you don’t have a chance to make it happen alone, so alignment and a shared goal was critical to our success.

We then defined a really ambitious vision and strategy, and ‘overinvested’ in communication to all employees. Think of how much time you spend strategising but then forget to spend the same amount of time with your team. Having people buy in is important.

Lastly, passion and fun is important too. If people do what they are passionate about and feel that they are empowered, amazing things can happen.

While many people really worked hard during this transition, satisfaction levels were high, as we all felt part of something special.

You’re also a co-founder of Mad Paws and a co-founder of Flare. What inspired you to launch these new ventures, and how do you balance running a company while remaining at the forefront of digital innovation?

As my next step I clearly wanted to be in the technology sector, as I can see technology touching and profoundly changing so many industries. I knew I needed to better understand it from the ground rather than from 10,000 feet. I was lucky to find great co-founders, and I picked areas I am personally passionate about. Mad Paws is Australia’s largest pet sitting market place – think of it like Airbnb for pets. As a dog owner myself, I would not choose to put my dog, Zoe, into a kennel when going away. Mad Paws is a much better solution. The business has been growing very fast. We have done over 120,000 nights already. Alexis Soulopoulos (MMgt (CEMS) ’14), my CEO and another University of Sydney graduate, is doing a fantastic job.

In my other business, Flare, we built an all-in-one digital HR platform – think of it as Xero for HR. It provides all HR and benefits solutions to small and medium businesses, and replaces a lot of paperwork. Every employee has access to all their HR needs, and we simplify the choice of superannuation. It always surprises me how many people are disengaged with the superannuation industry. We aim to change that by simplifying complex industry jargon to put people in charge of their choices.