Advocating for Australia's youth

30 Jan 2015

Author: Jane Albert

Photography: Provided by FYA

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Meet Jan Owen, chief executive of the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) and tireless campaigner for Australia's young people. Jan's work with FYA is gaining international interest because of her determination to focus on the positives and redefine youth investment across corporate and government industries.
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On the face of it, Jan Owen’s early life looks a little inauspicious. The self-described ‘disruptive' teenager was a maverick, trying to find her place in the world. Her entrepreneurial streak emerged at a young age, albeit misguided, beginning with a lemonade stand in her outer suburban Brisbane street which was lucky to see two cars a day. Lemonade was later replaced by toads, when she and her three younger brothers would trap the pests and sell them to the local university veterinary department. She would be 'asked to leave' three high schools, her strong will and spirited nature an uneasy companion for uncompromising rules.

It could have all ended there, with toads, lemonade and a school drop out. Instead, Owen found herself mentored by a teacher and youth leader who recognised her entrepreneurism and channeled her into leadership roles to engage her innovative and whip-smart mind. Today, she is the chief executive of the Foundation for Young Australians, which is dedicated to investing in the future of Australia's young people.

Owen’s accolades are many and varied. In 2000 she was made a member of the Order of Australia for services to children and young people and in recognition of the numerous organisations she founded in support of young people. In 2002 she joined new start up, Social Ventures Australia with Michael Traill from Macquarie Bank. SVA pioneered the idea of venture philanthropy and social investment in the corporate and social sectors. Owen was instrumental in growing SVA including backing 100 new social ventures & enterprises and bringing the School for Social Entrepreneurs and the Social Enterprise World Forum to Australia. In 2012 she was named Australia's inaugural Woman of Influence by The Australian Financial Review and Westpac Group. The list goes on.

Perhaps most important is the legacy and the opportunities she is creating through FYA for the generation that will lead Australia, and the global community, into the future. But first to Owen herself. An adopted child with a debilitating stutter, she had a determined approach to life, tackling her speech disorder through challenging activities such as debating and acting. 

Owen grew up in a loving, supportive environment raised by parents whose social conscience was strong. She was exposed to myriad walks of life by her parents, who helped established Lifeline in Queensland. The family home was often opened up to society’s struggling and maligned, teaching Owen the strength of the human spirit and the capacity to begin over given the right support. “From an early age, three things coalesced for me,” she says. “I had an entrepreneurial skill set, a heart for social justice and a capacity for leadership. I’m really fortunate that people backed me in those three things. Even though I was a pretty troublesome child and teenager, I was identified as a leader early on.”

By age 19, Owen was working in drug and alcohol education with children and young people, displaying ‘guerrilla-style entrepreneurism’ commandeering empty petrol stations and shopping centres to set up youth centres, without waiting for approval. Within a few years she was a national leader in youth affairs helping the  Hawke / Keating government craft the nation's first youth policy and youth traineeship programs. Owen went on to establish the CREATE Foundation to support the 20,000-plus children in foster care. Today she and husband David have four children including a foster daughter.

She identifies the key things that have shaped her life: growing up exposed to, and mentored by, pioneering women breaking new ground in many fields of endeavour;  traveling opened her eyes not only to other cultures and the work entrepreneurs were doing in countries like America, but the possibilities afforded by her own country;  and crucially, work experiences which exposed her to different expertise and worldviews.

She was recently awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Sydney. Owen, a serial university drop-out, sees the irony. 

“I’ve had an incredible education but it’s not formal,” she says. “I genuinely believe I wouldn’t have had the diverse experiences I’ve had if I’d been in formal education. The ability to craft your own further education and life long learning journey is a very recent idea and development.”
In 2010 Owen took over at FYA, an organisation she lobbied to have established as a 23 year old. FYA is the only national independent non-profit dedicated to all young Australians.  Its innovative model, led and championed by Owen, contributes to the International Youth Foundation, an alliance of 175 organisations. 

“This alliance is incredibly important because the issues mostly facing young people are global. FYA is part of a global movement which works across sectorslooking for innovative solutions both for, and from young people themselves,” Owen explains.

According to Owen, what sets FYA apart from other youth-orientated organisations is its determination to focus on the positives and redefine youth investment across corporate and government industries.

“FYA is one of the few non-profits with a large number of corporate partnerships,” says Owen. “We are an example of how non-profits can partner with leading, global businesses to create shared value. It’s a totally different model of community investment.”

Propeller, an online video library about ordinary young people doing great things in their communities, is an example of such partnerships. It is one of two collaborations between FYA and Samsung contributing to increasing interest in FYA from South Korea.

Inspired by the wave of young entrepreneurs she sees through her work at FYA, Owen captured a handful of their stories in the recently released book, The Future Chasers. The 15 profiles contained therein are as inspiring as they are diverse; the book directly informed Australia Unlimited’s Future Chasers campaign released to celebrate Australia Day this year.

“When I started out, I stuffed envelopes in my garage to reach out to 20,000 young people. This generation have the tools to start a movement overnight; it’s a remarkable difference,” says Owen, a proud and vocal champion of the oft-maligned Generation Y. “I wanted to showcase this generation and the ones coming behind them. Young changemakers in Australia who see a world without borders and seamlessly combine and move between business, community and politics. They’re passionate about wanting to effect social change.”

“Australia has an extraordinary opportunity to be a laboratory for a raft of different innovations, to bring people together in a place that’s considered very safe, very diverse and has an interest and imperative to engage with the region,” Owen says. 

'Testament to its international impact, Owen was recently invited to speak in South Korea to key players of BASF, one of the world’s leading chemical companies, about FYA’s approach and work with Gen Y. Owen represented one of just five non-profits in the region selected to present to the group, including members of the board who had travelled from Germany, who were meeting to consider BASF’s environment and community footprint.

"We need to help our young people gain the confidence to back themselves and provide the investment and support to unleash their creativity and potential" says Owen, "from there the opportunities are boundless."

More information on the Foundation for Young Australians and Jan's book 'Future Chasers'