Career16: Leading a new generation

By Dionne Christian

Young New Zealander of the Year 2015, Guy Ryan, chief executive of Inspiring Stories, a charitable trust which celebrates great things young people are doing in the community.
Young New Zealander of the Year 2015, Guy Ryan, chief executive of Inspiring Stories, a charitable trust which celebrates great things young people are doing in the community.

In a cafe on Auckland's Karangahape Rd, hipster baristas serve double shot espressos and soy lattes to tattooed girls in vintage dresses.

In the background, a song plays with the wistful lyrics "what you want stands just outside your reach".

Sitting at an inside table sipping green tea, the 2015 Young New Zealander of the Year, Guy Ryan, cuts an unassuming figure. But, if there's anyone in the room likely to help the young people around him ensure what they want is within reach, it's Ryan.

In 2011, he founded and became chief executive of Inspiring Stories, a charitable trust with social entrepreneurship at its heart and a vision to see every young New Zealander unleash their potential.

Inspiring Stories helps social entrepreneurs aged 18-30 develop ideas which will change their communities as well as the rest of the world. It's the think globally, act locally mantra writ large and Ryan believes young people have a major role to play in this.

In four years, 5000 have taken part in the trust's programmes and workshops, such as Festival for the Future and Live the Dream, which continue to grow and develop.

The first sees up to 400 young professionals, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, scientists and students gather for a weekend to share knowledge and ideas and learn more about putting their plans into action. Live the Dream is a nine-week intensive accelerator programme for the next generation of social entrepreneurs to hone their sense of purpose, foster connections and learn more about what social entrepreneurship involves. The latest initiative is The Future Fund, an endowment created by Inspiring Stories to provide tangible financial support to social entrepreneurs.

Receiving his award early in 2015 capped off a great month for Inspiring Stories; the week before Youth Minister Nikki Kaye announced a contribution of $500,000 so the trust could expand its core programmes and reach more young Kiwis. It was a much-needed fillip for Ryan and the team; just a couple of months before, financial pressures saw them downsizing and living off the generosity of friends and family.

"In any new enterprise, there are always risks and challenges and unknowns," Ryan says. "In 2014, a couple of things didn't quite pan out and we had our toughest quarter on record. We were 'red lining' and it was the closest I've come to walking away; we got by because of support from friends and family.

"Then things suddenly changed. Despite everything, we ran our biggest ever Festival for the Future event; the Ministry of Youth Development announced the $500,000 grant and I won Young New Zealander of the Year. It all happened within six months which goes to show you never know what's around the corner and one of the most important qualities you need in any enterprise is resilience."

As Ryan says, it starts with an idea. His were forged in the West Coast town of Granity where he lived with his two sisters and parents until they split up when he was about 10. He went to Granity Primary and Buller High School, played lots of sport -- he was a South Island judo champion -- and always had a part-time job. He mowed lawns, did a paper round and watched his mum, who was a nurse, work and save hard.

"If you want to make something happen, you have to be prepared to get off your arse and make it happen," he says. "Life isn't just handed to you on a plate; it's what you make it and the how you deal with the choices you have."

If his early years taught Ryan the value of money, it also made him think there might be more to life, so he went to the University of Otago and ended up making short films and studying marketing. In his final year, he heard a lecture by US climate change campaigner Bill McKibben about global warming and started to think deeply about the issues facing the world and its people.

"I became fascinated with the idea of social entrepreneurship and how such enterprises can make a profit at the same time as doing good," Ryan recalls. "I wanted to know who could I talk to do? I started doing the research to find out more but there was really nowhere to go.

"A lot of the stuff we've done as a trust started, and has developed, to fill a gap for young people who, like me, are interested in the intersection of business and creating social, environmental, cultural and community good."

He says sometimes a promising enterprise can flounder because there's no accessible and/or knowledgeable mentor-type figure to sit down with and discuss how to launch a new initiative. He acknowledges finding respected and successful individuals, organisations and businesses has been one of the biggest challenges Inspiring Stories has had to surmount in order to grow; he now appreciates a lot more the value of networking.

"It takes time to build relationships and people want to know that you are for real, that you're legitimate and can deliver on what you say you will. They need to check there's the right alignment of brands and businesses."

Inspiring Stories counts Leadership New Zealand, the Ministry of Youth Development, Kea -- New Zealand's global network, Kiwibank, the Akina Foundation and the One per cent Collective as key partners.

Ryan has strong thoughts on what those who hesitate to consider ideas from so-called Millennials -- those born from the early 1980s-2000s -- may miss out on.

He sees New Zealand's young as an untapped well of potential and, true to Inspiring Stories' motto, wants us all to reflect on how different the world may be if we imagine every young New Zealand unleashing their potential for positive global change.

He doesn't think the Government or our business, industry and enterprise boards are doing enough to foster and grow social entrepreneurship, which was reinforced when he attended the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) and the Youth Social Enterprise & Philanthropy Summit.

At the SEWF, Ryan sat on a panel with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and tried not to be overawed by Yunus and 800 delegates from 60 countries. He reckons New Zealand is nearly a decade behind many of those when it comes to recognising the importance of investing in and backing social entrepreneurship.

He points to places like Russia, which has invested in 18 innovation centres across the country to grow the social entrepreneurship initiatives; Scotland investing $40 million in developing the sector and Taiwan having an entire government ministry dedicated to it.

Global financial services firm J. P. Morgan predicts it will be a one-trillion-dollar industry by 2020; social entrepreneurship already contributes 5 per cent of the United Kingdom's GDP.

"There's a real danger that without adequate investment -- sooner rather than later -- and support from key people working together, we simply won't realise the potential of young New Zealanders," he says.

"They'll go offshore and take with them their ideas for businesses and industries which could generate millions of dollars for this country. But social enterprises are about more than lining the pockets of shareholders; it's about doing good for our communities and, by extension, the world.

"The set of far-reaching and complex challenges that the world faces are of great concern, particularly for young people. We have to be relentlessly optimistic for our young people and, more than that, we need to support them to develop ideas and plans and business opportunities which meet those challenges.

"Young people don't have all the answers -- nobody does -- but what they do have is energy, fresh ideas and approaches, drive and sound technical skills. Social media has lowered the barriers of what it can take to get an idea off the ground."

• On the web

www.inspiringstories.org.nz

- NZ Herald

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