Talking courage with a Chief Impact Officer

(7 minute read)

PY IPete Yao started at Thankyou as a volunteer in the organisation’s early years and went on to become one of the organisation’s very first full-time employees in 2012.  With experience in youth social work and a genuine heart for helping others, Pete’s studies in international development opened his eyes to poverty on a wider scale and the importance of addressing current issues of injustice affecting communities globally. 

Pete is now Thankyou’s Chief Impact Officer and carries the responsibility of overseeing the development and implementation of projects worldwide as well as overseeing the social enterprise’s innovative Track Your Impact system. Having completed a Bachelor of Commerce and Arts majoring in Human Resource Management and International Studies, Pete’s knowledge of development and passion for the developing world enables him to lead the Impact team in ensuring that the projects Thankyou funds are sustainable, impactful and committed to empowering local communities.

I was moved to connect with Thankyou after reading Chapter One– which I encourage everyone to read for its vision and inspiration.  I learnt that Thankyou is an organisation that has demonstrated remarkable courage at every turn … driven and emboldened by its purpose which is Empowering humanity to choose a world without poverty.

In connecting with Thankyou I had the opportunity to meet Genevieve Kerin and Daniel Flynn; to be shown around their amazing space in Collingwood (where I witnessed some great dance moves by a couple of team members!); and to interview Pete (who, by the way, gave up his time even though he was travelling to Nepal the next day).  It is so apparent that Pete is clear on what his purpose is, and this is so aligned with his work.  My interview with Pete left me buoyant and heartened; his enthusiasm, positivity and hope was contagious.  I am grateful for the work that Pete and the team at Thankyou do.  I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.

Fortunate and friends, Zimbabwe, 2015 (WASH)

What does courage mean to you?

For me, courage is about acting on a set of beliefs, principles and purpose in the face of obstacles, overwhelming odds and fear.  I believe that the most courageous decisions take place in the face of fear, and that fear is a natural response to a situation when you face adversity.

Pete, do you think it might be courageous not to act?

Certainly.  As we have matured as an organisation, we realise that not acting can be courageous. In the last 12 months, we made the tough decision to let go of our food range.  It was one of our biggest decision to date and was based on our principles and convictions. Daniel Flynn (our co-founder and MD) wrote an open letter to our community to share the heart behind our decision.

What drove that decision?

When we launched the Thankyou food range in 2013, our goal was to create market-leading muesli, cereal and bars to help get food aid to people in need. We had a great product, but we learnt that sometimes great isn’t good enough and we started losing shelf space in store. By 2017, we’d been fighting for three years in the food category and had not won. At the same time, other Thankyou products had reached market leading positions, we needed to focus on growing them. It was a tough call but we wanted to give our all in areas where we could make the greatest impact, so we made the decision to stop producing food.

So what keeps you going?

A few things.  Firstly, knowing my purpose and what I am doing on earth.  I am with a great company.

I wake up in the morning and feel connected to what I am doing, knowing that I am making a difference.  My work satisfies a core purpose in life which is eradicating global poverty.

It’s fascinating just how critical purpose is and yet we don’t explore it at school or university.  We have a generation that, anecdotally, are grappling with purpose and exploring questions like:

  • What does having a 9-5 job really mean and add?
  • What makes me wake up passionate about what I do?
  • What do I do that is fulfilling something greater than myself?

For me, I’m working towards something that I passionately believe in; something that is core to me – my purpose.

Yes it’s hard work and it’s tough, but I believe in the adage, “Nothing good comes easy.”  My work keeps me grounded; it also makes me resilient.

What does courage look like in your workplace?

Our core purpose is the guiding light of making decisions here. Everything we do – from the people we employ, to decisions on margins, to choosing suppliers, to how we portray the wonderful people that we serve – is based on our purpose.

There have been times when we have had to make courageous decisions in light of achieving our purpose.

The possibility exists to get lost in the business of the day, to be on autopilot, but we have our core principles – including integrity, honour, pioneering, solutions focus and teamwork – to guide how we achieve our purpose.  For example, you can give away as much money as possible but not do it with integrity.  Our core principles guide us when making tough decisions.

What have been some of those tough decisions?

Over our journey, we’ve been told things like “you can’t start a bottled water business with only $1,000” but made the decision to try anyway. We’ve been told “you shouldn’t take on the supermarket giants” but we try it anyway. We have run campaigns that have challenged the essence of FMCGs.  We have put it all on the line.

In making these tough decisions, we have left our fear of failure behind.  We ask ourselves, “Are we acting in light of fear of failure or in light of our purpose?” We haven’t necessarily lost of our feeling of potential failure, but we have left our fear of failure behind.  That’s part of our DNA.

WASH in Bacau, Timor Leste , children laughing (Partner - Red Cross)

Please describe 1or 2 examples of times in which you have been courageous.  What did you do?  Who/what enabled you to be courageous?  What was the outcome?  

Thankyou works with the most vulnerable populations to reduce world poverty.  It is the responsibility of my role and that of my team to measure the impact of the projects we implement.  For example, we measure whether a grant makes a community better in terms of health, nutrition, education. If we gave $1 billion to end world poverty but it didn’t create long term, sustainable solutions then we have failed. That’s why our team is so focused on empowering communities to be part the change. To measure this impact we travel to some very remote and extreme places.

Amongst other places, I have travelled to the third largest refugee camp on the border of South Sudan and Kenya where we have implemented food programs.  I have travelled to Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

As these places are remote, at times, it has meant travelling in a jeep for 11 hours over sheer cliffs.  As these places are extreme, it has meant being in places where rioting has occurred; it has meant hearing stories of children being shot at, as they make their way to refugee camps which are safe havens.

To what degree do you call on your courage to hear and listen to the stories?

MSABI_Kibaoni_Primary-33For me, I’ve always had the ability to sit, listen and be present.  Whether that’s me being courageous, or just my nature, I’m not sure.  It certainly is how I was raised.  I was raised to know that everyone has the same value.

I do think I call on my courage in that one moment, when I am listening to mums and dads having lost their loved ones in pretty horrific ways.  I wonder how on earth we are still living in the 21st century and people are dying from water-borne diseases; when pregnancy should be joyous but so many mums pass away because can’t reach a health centre or because they’re delivering on their own because their culture dictates it.

It’s these moments that I call on my courage to hear and listen, and to keep working.  Everyone has a story and we have the responsibility for sharing the stories of others.

Another example in which I demonstrated courage but is lighter hearted and simple was during one of my first trips.  Although the people we were visiting were living in poverty, they offered us the best bread – roti and naan – and also chai.  I did a quick reckoning in my head – the milk in the chai came straight from the cow so it wasn’t pasteurised, and I saw the cow drinking the unsanitised water … I still made the decision to drink the chai.

Who are the people who enable your courage?

This sounds clichéd, but I really look up to the guys here.  People here are extremely courageous.  The cofounders – Daniel, Justine and Jarryd – put it all on the line.  I can’t imagine the sacrifices that they have had to make to see their ideas implemented.  For me, sacrifice is courageous and inspirational.  They are incredible people who are great in business and at developing ideas, and are also great parents and partners.  They keep me grounded and inspire me to make courageous decisions in spite of fear and obstacles.

Outside of work – again a cliché – my mum and dad are remarkable individuals who courageously moved the family due to their convictions and beliefs; I was born in Malaysia, and moved to New Zealand before then moving to Australia.   They introduced me to the notion of unconditional love; it’s a unique perspective that I got from them.

From your point of view, to what extent are Australia’s leaders leading with courage?

In my interactions, I find our charity partners – local and international – are the most inspiring individuals; they embody courage for me.  They are led by their convictions.  They make tough decisions and deal with adversity based on their deep beliefs.

I also believe that everyone can be a leader – a child, mum, dad, a school principal – who is motivated by core beliefs and principles.  Right now, in Australia, millions of actions are taking place in which people are leading courageously; they may be voicing an opinion or acting in line with their beliefs at the cost of people looking down at them, being ridiculed, or potentially being embarrassed.  My take is that, as a society, we all make decisions each day to act based upon our principles and core beliefs, to lead courageously.  There will always be things we can do better, that I can do better, that Australians can do better, but I think we are already acting with courage.

Pete Yao, playing in India.jpg


Photos:

  1. Pete Yao
  2. Fortunate and friends, Zimbabwe (WASH)
  3. WASH in Bacau, Timor Leste (Partner – Red Cross)
  4. MSABI, Kibaoni Primary
  5. Pete playing in India

 

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