In July 2010 I was liberated from my role in Malaysia with the University of Melbourne, free to explore new opportunities and chart my own path. Alluring. Exhilarating. Terrifying.
In the previous six months while serving out my contract and setting up to handover, I had been giving thought to what was next, and returning to cold Melbourne never appeared to be an option. I had made my life in KL, totally changed it in fact, through exercise and sport, and engagement with NGO’s and advocacy organisations, and the people who had welcomed me so warmly and included me whole heartedly in the community I inhabited. I had met so many people from all walks of life and cultures; I had grown so much personally and professionally that it would have been impossible to squeeze back into the now misshapen life I had left behind. Living in a city that never sleeps, as a local and not an expat, surrounded by so many (often quite young) entrepreneurs and change makers, having negotiated and accepted a culture that was not only multi-racial and multi-religious, but a myriad of sub-cultures, I had embraced Malaysia as my home. Melbourne just wouldn’t cut it for the work, and the lifestyle, I wanted.
Obviously I needed to set up my own business. However I had no previous experience in doing so. I drew upon all my experiences over the years, the various jobs that I had grown with and learnt from, the people I had met and admired who I felt might provide advice, and I bought books. Lots of them. Starting a Business for Dummies. Business Plans for Dummies. Business startup 2010. What No one Ever Tells You About Starting Your Own Business. A Woman’s Guide to Starting a Business. Among many others. Through my membership of the Malaysia Australia Business Council I sought out the people who could assist with the mechanics of starting a business in Malaysia, and could navigate the incredibly muddy waters of Australia Malaysia taxation law. And I spoke to people, all the time, wherever I was. I talked of my somewhat vague plans for a business, perhaps in marketing and recruiting, definitely in consulting, perhaps assisting with navigating cross-cultural differences. And I never panicked. I knew that something would come up – I trusted that the experiences I had accumulated and the networks I had developed would lead me to whatever it was I was trying to do.
And so when I awoke on July 1st 2010, I was somewhat prepared, and I began the process of constructing the rest of my working life. This time it was up to me and not beholden to the processes and practices of someone else’s business. I was free. I made sure that each day I did something that helped me reach my goal of business owner. I had no money to speak of, and I didn’t want to borrow. I had a computer and a mobile phone, and a desk in my spare room. In promoting the new, free me, I found people began to seek me out. Support came from all quarters, including the then Austrade Senior Trade Commissioner, Paul Martin, who sat me down for an hour and taught me how to cost projects. I still have those pieces of paper with those precious scribblings. Monash Malaysia came calling and I came ridiculously close to accepting a position with them. However one morning I woke and pictured myself driving all the way to Sunway each day to sit behind a desk and manage teams of people. I saw clearly that I would never get out from behind that desk, and that I would hate it. So instead of the security that role provided, I chose the still somewhat unclear dream of doing something that I felt would make more of a difference – to whom still yet to be determined.
Small things started to happen. One university contracted me to assist with the development of their marketing and recruitment strategy for SE Asia. Another had me develop and deliver a training module for recruitment staff new to the region – how to navigate the business culture, the recruitment environment in different countries and the importance of relationships in Asia. A local business had me deliver an introduction to the Malaysian business culture for temporary employees/consultants from overseas. Austrade asked me to assist in the review of the Study in Australia expo, allowing me valuable access to universities who may not have been aware I was still in-country. Little by little I was finding work, and slowly working through the paper trail for the business registration, but when the business was registered on January 31 2011, I was still no closer to realizing what that business would ultimately be.
Everything changed in 2011 with three major events impacting my work and personal life. I landed my first large consulting project for Australian Education International (AEI) who contracted me to develop their 2011 Internship Directory. This was my first opportunity to work for and with AEI Counsellor Louise McSorley who has continued to be a major support and mentor. The project gave me access to some key businesses in KL, but also allowed me to look at the impact of internships on Australian students, with the view to showcasing these experiences and promoting these international opportunities.
The second event was not as positive, far more challenging but equally impactful. In April I was attacked and beaten by two young men in a park in KL in broad daylight on a Sunday morning. I had been out and about taking photos for use in the website I was developing for my fledging business, and engrossed in my activity, I walked unexpectedly into a situation that left me with physical damage that included broken bones in my right hand requiring surgery, and emotional damage including a sense of anxiety that took many months to overcome. Flee or stay? Despite temporary exhortations from my family to return to Melbourne, there was never a question that I would not remain and continue to build my business. Instead I chose to try and learn something from the experience about who I was as a privileged white woman who could still be a victim, as someone who still had something important to inspire, or offer others including forgiveness, and most all the feeling of vulnerability that led to a deepening of my spiritual sense of self, my relationships and my engagement with my adoptive country. Through the many months of recovery while living alone with my right hand in a cast, I learned that challenges are just learning experiences (and we always have another hand), something I try to bring to every program I now develop. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?
The third event was the most spectacular and involved my colleague Ursula Lorentzen from Deakin (who I now call a good friend.) During a skype meeting one afternoon where she had been explaining Deakin’s inaugural Global Citizens program, she happened to mention that they had some money left in the budget from the pilot and were thinking of further ways to spend it, perhaps in further rewards for the newly minted global citizens. In jest I suggested she send them to me to “do something” international, and from that conversation we developed our first Volunteer Project involving an indigenous group outside of Kota Kinabalu Sabah. We set to work developing a program in consultation with the Lotud people from Tuaran. In another first I realized I needed a whole bunch of knowledge about risk management, logistics and communications, which was learnt through the engagement with Deakin. In February 2012, our Deakin Global Citizen Linangkat Cultural Village building project took place with seven female students who also fundraised for the “Kangaroo Learning Centre” they built. This is still my favorite program, not just because of what I learnt and achieved in developing the program, but because of what I learnt from those students, how I had been able to relive my own experience and sense of wonder as an exchange student in Bangkok through their eyes. From the completion of that program I knew I had uncovered my true passion, in providing these experiences for students.
I realized then that “consulting”, while interesting and paying the bills, was never going to be enough, and I decided to set up another website to showcase this initial program, but with a more interesting name that might be attractive to students and faculty alike. I set about developing something that would entice students to consider an off-shore experience but also to show faculties how we could help them move students off-shore. I tossed around a lot of ideas for a catchy name, and I can’t even remember how, (which is very disappointing to my daughter) but The Global Student was born. Perhaps because Global Citizen was already taken by Deakin, or perhaps as a nod to that inaugural program I ran with them?
And it just snowballed from there. The “Australia in the Asian Century” White paper had been followed closely by the announcement of Asiabound funding – grants totalling $37million to entice students to undertake an Asian experience. Deakin offered me other programs, and other universities were referred as they sought to take advantage of this brave new world in student mobility. AEI asked me to run the Global Education program following the successful pilot. Swinburne sought my assistance with programs on their Sarawak Campus. We constantly learnt from anyone who would share. We reviewed, evaluated and improved. Little by little we grew, adding staff, and interns as required, until we are about to add our fifth full-time team member in March to assist with the volume of work we have lined up for 2018. And still we work from a home office, utilizing every available technology we can to facilitate processes and programs.
There are so many people who have been integral to The Global Student’s growth and acceptance as a trusted brand in mobility programs. If I began to thank them all I would leave someone out, but a couple of guys who have been supportive of us as they have been growing their own businesses are Brad Dorahy from CIS Australia, and Jack McNaught from International Internships. These partners, and competitors, have been a huge support in the development of our internship programs and provision of on-shore support, and through their sharing of their experiences, we have been able to grow together. My colleagues at Deakin, too numerous to name who have been a major endorser and referee of our programs; Colleagues from within IEAA and the Learning Abroad SIG; and of course my in-country colleagues from the Australian Government over the past eight years. And I still get that same little flutter of excitement when someone asks if we can do “something”. As I always tell my students, and I think I am paraphrasing Richard Branson, but just say yes, and work out the detail later.