Anna Robson CEO of Refugee Talent
In the first ever Pop Perceptions podcast launched on International Women's Day 2018 we #PushforProgress highlighting the stories of amazing women over the next 5 weeks, because you can be what you can see. In our first episode we interview Anna Robson, CEO of Refugee Talent. Anna is a pleasure to talk to, her passion to help refugees lights up every aspect of her work. Providing refugees with employment opportunities is one of the most important social levers for migrants through facilitating a community connection, a sense of belonging, role modelling in the family and feeling valued by delivering value through your work. While Anna is literally changing lives everyday with her co-founder Niari, the platform Refugee Talent has over 250 employers on the books providing paid employment. As CEO she juggles business development, strategic and financial planning, recruitment, sales and the occasional marketing brochure, all in a days work. Anna's relaxed approach belies the steely determination of someone hell bent to change the world. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did. It's the story one women and a refugee changing the world, one job at a time.
Podcast Transcript Episode 1
Welcome to Pop Perceptions, we are here today with the fabulous CEO of Refugee Talent, Anna Robson. We will be talking about your career and how it has grown….from little things big things grow. Let’s take it right back to the start where did you grow up and what was it like growing up as a child in the area you came from?
Anna Robson: I was born in country Victoria, Australia in Sale and a few years later moved to Melbourne. Went to school for a few years there and then my family moved to Brisbane. So I really grew up in Brisbane. It was a great place to grow up. Lot’s of outdoors and sports. Mainly sport was the main thing I did growing up. I really loved team sports: hockey, soccer and volleyball. I pretty much played every sport at high school and that was my life.
Bec McIntosh: Awesome, so team building skills right from the start. Was it just you and you family or did you have any brothers or sisters?
Anna Robson: I had a sister and my parents divorced when I was about 12 or 13 years old, as many people have experienced. In can be a turbulent time. It really makes you mature and I felt I was quite mature as a kid. I was good at chatting to adults and good at chatting to people older than myself through that experience. And no I have 4 step brothers as well but we didn’t really grow up together, but we have a big extended family now.
Bec McIntosh: So Christmas’s are big at your house?
Anna Robson: Two lot’s of Christmas’s
Bec McIntosh: Primary School to High School. 12 was when your parents split up as you were moving into high school. Tricky time for all kids when they are making that big step up. What was high school like for you? Did you have a good time and kept on playing team sports?
Anna Robson: Yes I think I threw myself into study and sports and I think I just had a packed schedule. Every afternoon you have something and on the weekend, play sport. I think like everyone you feel like you didn’t fit in and you are finding that place where you fit. But I enjoyed it. I played hockey, basketball. I just loved it, I enjoyed being part of a team and that’s where I thrived the most.
Bec McIntosh: Did you take that love of sports into your subjects? What kind of subjects did you do in Grade 11 and 12.
Anna Robson: P.E (physical education) was my favourite subject and I studied legal studies and business. I took the easiest Maths I could because it wasn’t my forte. Really sports and business where the ones I loved the most in Grade 11 and 12.
Bec McIntosh: In Grade 11 and 12 where you doing any community work at that stage or where you chockers with a full sports schedule?
Anna Robson: I didn’t really do any community work, just sports and study. I was a bit more quiet at school, I just kept to myself. I wasn’t an, ‘out there’ leader. I didn’t have the confidence then. People at school would probably say I was quiet and kept to myself.
Bec McIntosh: Coming into Grade’s 11 and 12 what were your thoughts about where you wanted to go and where the future path would lead for you?
Anna Robson: My goals at that time was to be a professional sports player.
Bec McIntosh: Woah, awesome! Was there any particular sports?
Anna Robson: Hockey or tennis were my favourites but then I finished school and started playing rugby. I made it to the high levels there and that was my goal. I made it to sevens at one point.
Bec McIntosh: Awesome, geez you must have been pretty quick that is a fast game.
Anna Robson: Yes Sevens is fast but I had too many injuries. I had a knee reconstruction and a shoulder reconstruction
Bec McIntosh: And what age was that?
Anna Robson: I had a knee one at 19 and the shoulder at 21 so that kinda killed my sporting ambition and career so I still had a love of sports so I studied sports at uni.
Bec McIntosh: With your sports degree you also did business, the subject from high school.
Anna Robson: Yes, I did a double degree. Initially it was human movement and business specialising in Accounting and while I was at uni I worked for an Accountant. I was like, I definitely don’t want to do that for the rest of my life! My course was anatomy and that side, but then I moved to Canberra and found a Sports Coaching and Sports Management degree, so a little bit more of a sports focus.
Bec McIntosh: With the degree and the influences you had in your course were you thinking about doing sports management or thinking about elite coaching?
Anna Robson: Well, lucky Canberra is a smaller town and I got an internship with the Canberra Raiders. So my next goal was working in elite sport and went on and did a sports science internship with them and more doing altitude training. Getting the GPS information and analysing the data of the activity they did each week which I was really interested in at the time. But then working in that elite sports environment, I just didn’t find it as rewarding as it could be so I thought lets not fight why I thought. I sort of travelled a lot overseas when I finished school and that was pulling me a lot to go back. I loved meeting people, experiencing different cultures and I wanted to learn more about the world and do something there.
Bec McIntosh: So when you went overseas you went to Korea and you were in the U.S for a little bit.
Anna Robson: Yeah.
Bec McIntosh: They sounds like two very different experiences.
Anna Robson: Yeah, well I first went overseas when I finished school. I backpacked Europe with my boyfriend at the time for about 2 months and I think that really opened my eyes to the world and then when I was at uni I backpacked Asia and I met people there that were backpacking full time. It was a different way of life and living that I hadn’t seen before and I thought, now that’s cool. And then when I finished you I just kinda wanted to throw myself up in the air without a plan because up until that point there was always study and sports and I always thought my life was so structured and planned so I just wanted that freedom. So I decided I wanted to go to India. I felt something was telling me to go to India. So I decided to go to India by myself for 3 months which, was awesome experience and I just did so many different things there. I rode motorbikes, I travelled with random people. I stayed in this little down called Dharamsala
where the Dali Lama lives and then I had the chance to have this beautiful experience where I got to teach these young Tibetan kids English and Sports. And really meeting them, they were 8 or 9 years old just living there together but by themselves. They treated each other like family and just grateful for life and they had great dreams, dreams to give back to their community. Seeing people in that situation, in such a hard situation. Wanting to do something so positive with their lives I think, really gave me inspiration and from that then I had this plan to Canada and teach sports there but didn’t have much money left so I had a friend in South Korea I met in uni. I had also met a few people in India who said that teaching English in South Korea was quite a good job and good experience. I thought, oh, that sounds interesting, I might just go there. And it’s not far away so I can afford to fly there. So I just turned up and stayed with my friend, who luckily put me up for the month and then I found this cool jobs at a camp teaching English and Sport which, was a really good fit for me. And there I kind of bloomed and found ‘my people’ who were other expats looking for random things. I had a lot of fun there and played expat rugby there. I taught English and taught sports and really enjoyed my time in Korea.
Bec McIntosh: And then after Korea was that the point where you went to work in a startup?
Anna Robson: Actually then, after that I did travel South America. I did travel up the coast and was there for a few months and thought, I’d better go home and see my family as I did miss them.
Bec McIntosh: You should touch base so they remember what I look like;)
Anna Robson: Yes, so then I got a job working in a hostel doing night shifts.
Bec McIntosh: That is quite possibly the toughest and worst job in the world.
Anna Robson: It is very tough staying awake in a job from 11:00pm to 7:00am every morning for your full time work but I kinda just had the travel bug and just wanted to stay attached to it. But I kept thinking, I just need to get back to sports. What I am good at doing and is positive. Then I saw this job on Naru in a detention centre with Save the Children and it was sports and working with vulnerable people and I just thought, hey, that’s kind of something that I want to do. So I applied and got the job and ended up on Naru for about a year in the detention centre.
Bec McIntosh: And that must have been an interesting experience from day 1.
Anna Robson: It’s so tough and nothing can prepare you for that. People living in tents, on rocks in 35 degree heat every day, locked up behind fences. When you ask someone their name they tell you their boat number back because they are used to being treated like an animal or worse. Really just use sports or activities just to get people through the day and just learn about them, their life and their culture and just share that between two human beings. And that’s all I saw it was just two human beings and I wouldn’t want my family, friends or anyone going through that and couldn’t believe this was happening. Yeah, one guy and his son, just beautiful people, just so kind, and they just want to contribute to the world and we were stopping that and that’s just so tough to see people go through that.
Bec McIntosh: It must have been difficult for you to do that over a long period. That stuff gets you, it gets into your head. Especially if you are feeling it and you are travelling the path and spending day to day with them. That wasn’t something you could do, long term.
Anna Robson: Definitely, not. I was only there a year but people work there for many years and the impact on people who did work there over the years was enormous and really we did have each other because we were trying to support someone in detention and you are trying to hold yourself up to support them in the best way possible. We were lucky we had each other and alcohol.
Bec McIntosh: Self Medicating.
Anna Robson: Yes, that’s exactly what we did but a lot of us ended up not well ourselves. Certainly nothing compared to what the people had been though. It was a tough situation that either of us shouldn’t had to be in that position.
Bec McIntosh: You came back to the mainland. Back to Australia. That would have felt a bit weird?
Anna Robson: Every time you came back to Australia, you feel like you are leaving them behind. It felt hard to enjoy it and won’t enjoy it. I felt like you won’t forget them but I decided that once I had finished on Naru I decided to go overseas and travel and get away for a little bit. I just went to America and ended up randomly working for a startup and kind of just fell into it. That experience was quite good and made a difference but I certainly hadn’t forgotten about them. It stuck with me and will always be stuck with everyone. I felt that if these people (in the startup could do it) I certainly could too.
Bec McIntosh: Back in Australia you took that with you and were drawn to events like Refugee Hackathon.
Anna Robson: I sort of decided to randomly learn coding and fro doing that I heard about these hackathons and hackathons are a two day event over the weekend where you come up with solution, using technology to solve a problem. And this one, Techfugees was to solve refugee problems and I thought that’s where I want to be, I want to go to that.
Bec McIntosh: On the day, there are a whole bunch of people in the room, you have no idea who they are. What were the circumstances that lead up to you meeting your now co-founder of Refugee Talent?
Anna Robson: I went there with just my Naru experience and no real idea what I would build that weekend or come up with. I just thought I’d join a team and add to it and there I heard Niari Dacho speak and maybe 10 other refugees talk about their experience in Australia. My co-founder Niari had a Masters in IT, has 10 years experience in the field, perfect English, had applied for 100 jobs since arriving here from Syria. He couldn’t get a job even after applying on SEEK for an entry level role despite being a lecturer and having a Masters and I thought, this is crazy. Other refugees were saying the same thing. I was just on Naru where people were locked up and here even when you’ve got to Australia you couldn’t use your skills. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Everyone had the same idea that we should work on the idea of employment so will all joined together.
Bec McIntosh: That would have been a pretty awesome experience, the highs of a hackathon, that intensity, that fun. And then back to reality. How did you move on? Did you say, yeah, this has maybe got legs?
Anna Robson: We had over 10 people in the team that weekend, we didn’t win but we had some businesses say this is a good idea. And then me and Niari and a couple of other people were like, yeah, we’ll meet up next week and keep going and really once you see an idea that doesn’t exist already it is your duty to do this, so me and Niari just kept going and lots of people dropped aside for various reasons but at that point I was an Uber driver so I had the flexibility to work on it and just felt I had to this.
Bec McIntosh: And at the startup when you were I the early stages of building your startup did you decide. I’m going to prototype this thing up? Or I am just going to contact a lot of people and see if it will fly with them? Did you do down a technical prototyping route, did you do a bit of business development route, gathering the champions, or did all those things happen at the same time?
Anna Robson: We really didn’t have a clue, we were just tyring to figure out the next step to take. Luckily Niari has an IT background so he was building the MVP. (Minimum Viable Product). I reached out to refugee organisations at the hackathon and organised a meeting with them. People give you a business card and you organise a meeting and you just do the nest thing that came up in front of you. You register your business number, register your domain name and next thing you really have a business and there are next steps to take. One thing leads to the next thing and you get another meeting and then someone introduces you. Then there was a little business program through the refugee program to help us write our marketing plan and then you think, oh yeah. marketing plan. It would be good to have one of those, business plan. Oh yeah and we have to think of this. And it keep you moving along and doing the next thing.
Bec McIntosh: When did it feel like a real business? Was it a keystone client? Or the amount of refugees you brought onto the platform? What was the point where you went, woah, wait a second?
Anna Robson: I have to say we met in November, we had our website up by the February. March/April we had about 50 refugees on the platform. Then one of our mentors Vito, who you know, he met and arranged meeting with Commonwealth Bank and Macquarie Bank and we felt like such frauds going into those meetings. In May we got some coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age and then suddenly it launched us out there and we looked like we were really huge. So probably that article we really felt it was real. But I really feel that once you have business cards and a t-shirt and a website you can really can say you have a business.
Bec McIntosh: That is light to hustlers around the world
Anna Robson: But probably this first real client was the ATO they employed 25 people off us and we really felt we are a business now.
Bec McIntosh: You have built this out of a problem that you wanted to see solved. Did you want to be an activist or was it a conscious decision that you wanted to see changed created in a different way?
Anna Robson: No I don’t think it was a conscious decision, although I did attend a few protests about Naru obviously after working there and then founding Refugee Talent this was my chance to create change and show refugees in a positive light and be able to use this as a way forward to change this problem
Bec McIntosh: And it seem like you have actually tapped into something that businesses were actually looking for? But people didn’t know the doorway to open.
Anna Robson: Exactly, there is so much business support out there and they want to hire highly skilled people and if they can hire a refugee that is a double win. By having this technology platform where it is so easy for people to find you, that’s why we have been so successful. It’s easy for businesses to find us and even in the early days Niari appeared on Lateline to talk about this refugee problem and 10 businesses contacted Lateline wanting to work with us and help and the business support has been tremendous and it really shows you that they have sent he refugee crisis on the news and thought, how can I help and what can I do? This is a real that can tangibly help a refugees’ life and tangibly help other people’s lives.
Bec McIntosh And there is a very interesting impact that would have seen in employers working with refugees and the average Australian day to day doesn’t get to actually talk to a refugee to spend time with them and learn from them.
Anna Robson: Exactly I can speak form my own experience of working with Niari. I have learnt so much about Syria. He is from Assyrian background they have such amazing history and the food and the culture there. We teach each other words. I teach Niari slang words and he is teaching me Arabic and all those things. And why wouldn’t people want to learn something different, something interesting, it’s fascinating. We both gain something so it is really rewarding for the refugees and the businesses we help. It’s a win/win for both parties.
Bec McIntosh: And I think it has an ongoing effect ripple effect in terms of the culture of the organisation but also the staff and employers working together as a teams.
Anna Robson: It’s very engaged. And even society as a whole to be honest they are more aware where different people are coming from, different cultures, different religions. And also about understanding each other as human beings.
Bec McIntosh: In terms of you as CEO and Founder you are in a small group, when you look around there are not that many female founders out there. When we run our accelerators there is only 1/4 of applicants are female.
Anna Robson: I think that it’s good that they see female founders visible and those role models and having those female founder days where they can come and try and be really comfortable. And often girls don’t have the confidence to say that they can do it and 1. Having female founders more visible and giving them a way to trail it so they can see, yes, that person is doing and I could do that too.
Bec McIntosh: In terms of your personality, I’ve had the luck of catching up with you a few times now so in every interaction I have had you are so humble. You are running a business with 300 customers, your traditional skill set has not been your CEO C-suite skill set so how has your background and influences helped you get where you are today?
Anna Robson: I think that all my life experiences have culminated into this role. It’s a juggling act so I can look back at my schooling and say my busy schedule always helped me to CEO and run many different aspects of the business. My coaching background and always working with people and being part of a team and those kind of things and my sporting background and those kind of things. And then just humanity, from travelling and learning about people and wanting to help people if they’re not in a good situation have all come together and then just believing in something. You know it’s your duty to do something when you see that there is a problem to continue it forward and do your best. And obviously my experience on Maru and working there and seeing that this could be a way to change the world. All these experiences have put me in the opportunity to do this and yeah, I have the duty to carry it forward.
Bec McIntosh: When it’s comes to where Refugee Talent is, where will the next few years take you? You have really good traction and you are making an imprint on Australia, what do the Australian operations look like and where’s next?
Anna Robson: So currently we work nationally across Australia but for the future we are expanding to New Zealand early next year. We have also won a seed funding grant to work in the Asia Pacific with our partner Host to make to help match up refugees stuck in the Asia region, match them up with employment there. We are also working an international refugee recruitment program in Australia at the moment which is really exciting, it’s a world first. Where an employer can hire a refugee straight out of a camp, say, in Lebanon or Syria with our partners there, Talent Beyond Boundaries. And we are also looking to work with another organisation, Chapter 2 in Spain so we are really just using the platform that we have built and we really want to replicate that anywhere in the world that needs it and really help those 65 million people displaced in the world, if we can help put a dent in that and match people with opportunities, that’s the future.
Bec McIntosh: Most startup founders have a purpose, but to have something thats linked to a real social problem, that’s a huge driver and research suggests that employment really is a key differentiator, to people’s sense of well-being, their contribution to society, the impacts on their family. Of all the things to be able to pick out and say I want to impact that, employment is a huge catalyst. You must feel good going to sleep at night?
Anna Robson: I get to sleep easily
Bec McIntosh: Advice to others coming through. A teenager who is a little bit lost, right into their sport not really what they are doing with a strong sense of purpose in terms of things they want to contribute to the world but can’t really find their way.
Anna Robson: I would just say to follow your heart and sometimes things just tell you do do something. Things just tell you to do that and follow that and try different things, a lot of things I didn’t enjoy but they were a good experience and I learnt something from that. And often the hardest experiences you always gain something. So really try new things, travel the world, meet different people see what’s out there and find your place and your thing that will drive you forward and can have an impact.
Bec McIntosh: And if we go right back to the start of those teenage years playing sport, slightly competitive. A key factor we have overlooked and is in every elite sports person. What advice would you give to yourself, would you do anything differently? What would you say to your teenage self?
Anna Robson: Have confidence in yourself. I didn’t have the confidence back then and felt a bit different and now it all makes sense. Even now even though I don’t fit into something but now I am more ok and understand why I didn’t fit in there, I didn’t fit in there. I kept trying new things because I wanted to, and I tried to fit in and didn’t, but that’s ok. Keep finding things you are good at and things where you can do good in the world.
Bec McIntosh: Well, thank you for your time Anna, we really really appreciate it and we look forward to talking to you in the future when you will conquer the world.