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From The Coast Of Colombia To The Classrooms Of Australia

A person with shoulder-length blonde hair smiles at the camera. They are wearing a colorful shirt with various patterns and colors, including yellow and blue. The background features a vibrant, multi-colored wall with abstract designs, representing the creativity often found in women in business.

Margaret O’ Brien

Young Change Agents

The Business
Young Change Agents
The Founder
Margaret OBrien, Co-founder, 2016
The Concept
A national schools-based social enterprise helping young people see problems as opportunities through social entrepreneurship
What’s Next
Getting school principals’ buy-in to co-create a vision for entrepreneurial education, giving every child access
If I Could I’d Change The Attitude Towards
The focus on female entrepreneurship in Australia being ‘mumpreneurs’. There’s a lot of savvy businesswomen who can run really large businesses, scale businesses, take on investment, create a global tech company – or run a bakery. That’s our choice.

A Non-entrepreneurial Upbringing

Like so many women before her, Margaret O’Brien, the CEO and co-founder of the respected social enterprise Young Change Agents (YCA), did not grow up in an entrepreneurial environment. Quite the opposite: her mother was a teacher and father in the military and she was expected to do well at school, go to university and find a traditional job.

Nevertheless the marketing jobs she took on after university were for companies with an entrepreneurial bent, whether it was the large UK-based engineering and facilities management company that encouraged employees to create new business units; or the tech business in Sydney where O’Brien was general manager of sales.

“I tried to find interesting jobs where I could see myself being creative but also at the table, not six people down from the boss … I was really attracted to entrepreneurial endeavours,” O’Brien says.
So when she decided to volunteer in Colombia for six weeks and ended up staying three years, running programs there that would seed the ideas for YCA in Australia, it wasn’t such a surprise.
A group presentation in progress at an event showcases innovative business ideas for women. Four individuals stand on stage with microphones, screens behind them displaying slides. Four seated panelists, with a fifth individual also seated at a distance, observe. An audience watches attentively.

Women Are As Smart As Men

Prior to running her first start-up O’Brien had always worked for men.

“I came to realise they didn’t necessarily know more than me. Business was a process not rocket science whether you were running a NFP or a commercial enterprise: you have a team, you have finance, you have your product, you have your customers. So I became confident that once I came up with problems I wanted to solve and was passionate about, I could give it a go.”

Give it a go she did and in 2008 she founded Sydney-based club 02, an ‘outdoor gym membership’ where members could enjoy kayaking, tennis, hiking, events and activities.

“In the end it didn’t lose money but it wasn’t making money,” says O’Brien, who closed the business in 2011. “It really cut my teeth on entrepreneurship.”

The aforementioned South American stint began with O’Brien teaching wounded soldiers English before evolving into establishing philanthropic-funded literacy programs to help encourage kids back to school. Noticing how smart and innovative many of the volunteer teenagers were, she began running leadership programs in 2014, introducing them to environmentalists, journalists and mentors who exposed them to big picture thinking and problem solving.

“That was the beginning of Young Change Agents, in the dirt, with no devices in a suburb of Colombia in 2014.”

After returning to Australia in 2015 she worked with Social Traders, a not for profit that aims to eradicate social inequality by encouraging business and government to buy from social enterprises.

“I was exposed to all these areas of disadvantage and realised it’s a global issue, that our young people also need these skills and the growth mindset that entrepreneurship brings. But more important is the concept of social entrepreneurship – how they could reframe as opportunities the problems they see in the world, making a difference using the power of the market, business. I thought if I could empower a generation of young people to solve problems it will give them the skills to get jobs and [hopefully] go on to create businesses.”

By early 2016 O’Brien and her co-founder had launched YCA, a national schools-based social enterprise helping young people see problems as opportunities through social entrepreneurship. Seven years later they’ve worked with more than 1,200 schools, reaching 120,000 young people with the goal of 1.5 million. A hybrid model, it’s funded both by corporate grants (including the Telstra foundation and Ecstra Foundation) and philanthropy (Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation) in addition to fee-for-service contracts.

Three people are engaged in conversation indoors. Two young women in business, wearing large badges, stand facing a woman with blonde hair. The young woman on the right is speaking and gesturing with her hand, while the other listens attentively. Other people can be seen in the background.
A group of young individuals, wearing matching dark blue uniforms and name badges on lanyards, stands together smiling and laughing. Among them are several women in business, each holding a document or program in their hands, appearing to be at an event or ceremony.

The Key To Beginning

Before starting it’s crucial to establish the problem that needs solving and whether your solution will really solve it and – just as crucially – will customers value and pay for it?

Do you have product market fit? While you may have a big vision you need to start small and test the market with a pilot before fully launching. YCA began with two youth group and two school pilots

My Best Advice Is


Be as lean as you can, establish what you need to spend money on versus what you can get free. “The off-the-shelf software and tools available now from technology companies like Canva have saved us hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars


A bookkeeper is a game changer.


Take small, calculated risks. Sometimes you have to hire ahead of what you can afford or you won’t grow.


Be ruthless. Keep asking yourself, ‘is this actually working?'

Finally, O’Brien says mistakes will happen. Learn from them. She initially named her first start-up ‘Oxygym’, building a website around the business name without checking the trademark. “I didn’t [secure] the trademark and there was a company in WA who had. They’re kick yourself errors,” O’Brien says. “But it taught me a lot and I’ve come to be proud of it.”


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