28 September 2021
28 September 2021
What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question posed from childhood, repeated with increasing urgency as we approach ‘the real world’.
But the professional landscape has never been more complicated, and the pace of technological innovation and size of social and generational shifts means the topography we see today may well be gone tomorrow.
It’s a complex world to navigate, but one brimming with potential. Predictions about technology causing the obsolescence of human capital look increasingly overblown, with the Business Council finding that technological advancements cause more task change than job loss. More Australians and New Zealanders are employed now than at nearly any time throughout history. It’s simply that the skills expected of them are in constant flux.
In this paradigm, every advance generates new careers. New skills evolve and become commonplace; social movements move from fringe to mainstream; new tech emerges and is then replaced. And always, there’s the people staying a step ahead.
To attempt to uncover the secret to thriving in the modern workforce, we sat down with six professionals at the forefront of their respective fields.
Our subjects range from entrepreneurs to engineers to design experts but all share a fearlessness in the face of change. Unafraid to blur the lines between industries, they embrace a cross-disciplinary approach to problems that puts human need at its heart. And the outcomes have the potential to change the world.
The femtech founder
Social change can be a great disruptor, as falling barriers inject fresh talent into old industries. Such pressure is helping challenge medicine’s gender bias, which has systemically excluded women from trials and studies (and medical professions themselves). FemTech, technology focused on women’s health, is helping restore balance.
Kin founder Nicole Liu is a local FemTech pioneer. “FemTech plays a role in really shining a light on what are very deep, very personal, very specific conditions in women's health,” she says.
Kin made its name as Australia’s first contraceptive pill subscription service but is expanding to support women’s entire reproductive journey – from fertility consults to pre-natal and postpartum care. Nicole is no medical expert; instead the Australian entrepreneur drew on her experience as an “average patient”.
At 24, Nicole was misdiagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome by her GP, who incorrectly told her she was likely infertile. After a specialist corrected the diagnosis, Nicole consulted her friends, and was shocked to find many had similar stories. “That's what started me on this journey, because I was like, ‘One in 10 women have this condition – it should be relatively common knowledge for doctors’,” she says.
“Kin was really born out of wanting to fill that education gap and have these conversations more openly and in a more empowered way … You basically don't know that there's this whole community of women going through this exact same thing until you share your own story.”
Firstly, Nicole says, Kin offers convenience. “Being able to access health information from your fingertips or from your home basically moves people from either not getting help or not getting help fast enough to being able to access that so quickly and safely.” Secondly, it fosters dialogue with doctors. “You can have this ongoing live conversation with your doctor whenever you want. And that's what we're providing our patients – with unlimited access to doctors.”
Kin is a successful TeleHealth solution. But a mentor’s suggestion to focus 10 per cent on the solution and 90 per cent on the human problem stayed with Nicole. “I think when you get deep enough into the problem and really understand the emotional desires ... that's when the solution becomes a lot more obvious.”
The collaborative designer
Sometimes the most compelling futurist ideas are informed by history. For Woiwurrung and Maneroo man Christian Hampson, his emerging field has its roots firmly planted centuries in the past.
Yerrabingin – a collaborative design company informed by Indigenous wisdom – started as Christian’s “side hustle” with a fellow graduate from the Bachelor of Business Administration at University of Technology, Sydney, a course that is only offered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As a designer, Christian applies his understanding of Country in urban contexts, drawing on 23 years in cultural heritage conservation in national parks.
Yerrabingin secured its highest-profile project, the South Eveleigh Native Rooftop Farm, while essentially still a start-up. This Australian-first Sydney farm, commissioned by Mirvac, catapulted Christian’s labour of love into a full-time business. “I always say … I got so busy with the company I had to give up my day job,” he says.
Yerrabingin straddles two growing fields – urban environmental design and Indigenous consultation. Recently, Christian has seen corporate and government engagement with Indigenous knowledge custodians mature beyond tokenism – such as the NSW government’s Connecting with Country, which is “embedding Indigenous design knowledge in legislation”.
Christian says our design industry tends to borrow from international practices and “Australianise” them, but First Nations collaborative design could “give Australia its own design identity”.
He and other Aboriginal Australian entrepreneurs offer insight into areas such as climate resilience and landscape management, plus access to an “oral tradition that shares and stores knowledge in a totally different way to written languages”.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are, after all, Australia’s first farmers. “We were hunter gatherers in many ways, but then there are other aspects of land management that were much more complex and faceted than people understood,” Christian says. Urbanisation and climate concerns are giving this ancient knowledge new urgency, bolstered by post-pandemic cravings for green spaces.
“The great thing for young Indigenous entrepreneurs is that we have a different type of social capital … something that is actually of value to investors and developers,” Christian says. “Everyone's ideas need to have that point of difference, that unique value. Indigenous people offer a unique value.”
The NFT curator
Sitting at the intersection of finance, art and technology, NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are the latest fintech phenomenon. NFTs use blockchain technology, but while cryptocurrency like bitcoins are ‘fungible’ (identical and interchangeable), ‘non-fungible’ NFTs are irreplaceable, and therefore unique. And according to philosopher, publisher and NFT curator, Antonia Case, NFTs will upend the art world.
As co-publishers of New Philosopher and Womankind, Antonia and her partner Zan Boag have commissioned digital artists for years. “Digital artists have more tools at their disposal,” Antonia says. “They can draw in from ancient art and meld different concepts together. I find them so much more versatile.” But whenever Antonia and Zan suggested an exhibition, artists were incredulous: "Because no one values digital art," she says.
For Antonia, NFTs were an epiphany: “The first second I heard about NFTs, my heart missed a beat, because I thought, ‘This is it. This is the way digital artists are going to be remunerated in the future. This is revolutionary.’ I was jumping out of my skin.”
In mid-2021, in a gothic Hobart church, Antonia launched the Museum of Art & Philosophy (MAP) – the world’s second-ever physical NFT gallery, behind New York’s Superchief Gallery. Inside, digital artworks are rendered physical as one-off prints, for sale with their NFT. “Once purchased, that's it ... No one can buy it again,” Antonia explains.
By transforming artworks into assets, NFTs give digital artists economic clout in the art world, and entice a new generation of art lovers and collectors. Antonia points to Everydays, an NFT by the American digital artist known as Beeple, which sold at Christie’s for US$69 million. “NFTs have allowed digital artwork to be valued, in some ways, right alongside the great artists of our time. That's revolutionary,” she says. “I think it's a flame into the art world, which was potentially getting a little stodgy and boring.”
Antonia doesn’t agree that the tech age imperils human creativity – in fact, she argues, it’s quite the opposite. “In the era of automation, where a lot of functions are getting replaced by robots or computers or machines, creativity in some ways can't be … I think it's the era for creatives.”
The Formula 1 engineers
Only the fortunate few get to work at the coalface of innovation. But for vehicle dynamicist David Nelson and tyre and vehicle dynamics engineer Nick Trevorrow, however, it’s an average day on the Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS Formula 1 Team.
Innovation is a prerequisite at F1 – “the fastest R&D lab on Earth”. “I think the rate of development is so fast in Formula 1 because it's competition,” David says. “It's about developing a performance factory that can just churn out ideas and manifest them into physical reality on the car as quickly as possible.”
Performance car innovation has long filtered through to passenger vehicles – from carbon-fibre technology to hybrid engines – but new cost caps are necessitating wider collaboration. “Now, with the budget cap, they're starting to do external consulting … applying the processes and tools that we use on the cars to even non-automotive things,” Nick says.
David believes Formula 1 processes have as much value as its technology. “The environment itself is just so fertile for developing innovation, but without the processes behind that, your rate of developing innovation is less than your rival team.”
David and Nick specialise in simulation which, as Nick explains, lets them “efficiently and effectively represent what's going on in the real world”. This helps ensure that what they bring to the car, often at exorbitant cost, is right the first time and works as promised. “It's simulating performance offline,” David says.
However, they agree that freedom to fail in real life is essential. “Where we need to find a way forward or a solution … trial and error is often the best way,” Nick says. “As long as you learn from those [mistakes], as long as they're documented, everyone understands what happened, so they don't happen again.”
David says the industry he joined 17 years ago was highly risk averse. “It was very, ‘This is F1, we're the best, we don't make mistakes’, and it was intimidating,” he says. But at Mercedes-AMG, a modern culture of “no fear, no blame” supports innovation.
“It's this enormous challenge to sit on the cutting edge, to innovate, but remain reliable,” says David. “But that's actually the thing that stops it from being monotonous … because everything in there is changing so quickly and that makes it new all the time.”
The tech entrepreneur
Decades after Steve Jobs donned the black skivvy, entrepreneurialism is enjoying a new post-pandemic golden age. Ezel Kokcu is not yet 30, but the Wellington-based technological entrepreneur already has three software start-ups behind her.
At 18, Ezel left a computer science degree to launch STQRY – a storytelling app for museums, galleries and libraries. “The lessons I learned from starting a business at 18 have been invaluable. It wasn't easy, though – I would work 12 hours each day and spend my nights and weekends teaching myself how to do our accounting, hiring, business development, sales and everything else under the sun … Self-education is still a major part of my life.”
Over four years, Ezel raised $10 million capital, recruited 60 employees across New Zealand, Singapore and the US (including 30 engineers), and expanded into five countries and 450 institutions including The Smithsonian in Washington DC and Los Angeles’ Getty Center.
Her second venture, ticketing platform Non-Stop Tix, was bought out within a year, and her third, Passphere – “bespoke ticketing management with a correlating analytics system” – merged with established business iTICKET by 2019. Today, she is General Manager at Wayver, a closed-loop cashless payment system for events, facilitated by wearable tech.
As a tech entrepreneur, Ezel is unusual for targeting cultural spaces. “It's a highly untouched market but one with people who are dedicated to their craft, which is infectious,” she says.
Tech like Wayver has exciting applications for events, Ezel says, such as tailored loyalty systems. “For me it's also the security,” she adds. “A lot of our organisers run their events out of passion and if we can provide a safe means for them to do that where every dollar goes back to them, I know that we're making a difference.”
In entrepreneurial spirit, Ezel is sanguine about COVID-19’s impacts. “I got told really early on never to waste a good crisis and am definitely turning it into a positive now, with new tech and growth possibilities.”
By Krysia Bonkowski