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Social Enterprise Inspiration Week 3: Michael Combs and CareerTrackers

The “Big Friday of Social Entrepreneurship” was hosted by the Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) this February and I was invited to participate as a GLP ambassador at the event. Throughout the day, five inspirational speakers who all work in or around Australia’s social enterprise industry ran the audience through their projects and insights. Over the coming weeks I will be recounting what I learnt from these speakers in short, digestible posts. So far, I have discussed Susan Black, the director of projects for Social Ventures Australia (SVA), whose organization funds, mentors and partners with social enterprises in Australia as well as Bec Scott who owns and runs STREAT – a social enterprise who provide work experience and mentoring for homeless youth and youth at risk of homelessness.

The third speaker at today’s “Big Friday of Social Entrepreneurship” is –DRUMROLL please – Michael Combs! He is the creator and owner of CareerTrackers, a national organisation which arranges paid internships for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students. Having already been familiar with the work of CareerTrackers I was really looking forward to seeing how the organisation had originally started and what motivated the CEO, Michael Combs, to start this organisation.

Michael Combs, CEO of CareerTrackers

Originally from America, Michael was working for HP (Hewlett Packard) who then sent him to work on a project in Australia. He grew frustrated at the fact that HP, who at that time had 7000 employees in Australia alone, didn’t have a single Indigenous person working for them. This led him to start CareerTrackers. This organisation is modelled after the Inroads program in America, which focuses on providing internship opportunities to African-American, Hispanic and Native-American youth and which Michael had previously been a part of.

In CareerTrackers’ first year of operation (which was 2005), they had 18 students and 9 companies on board. Today, they have 637 students, are fully financially independent, have offices in every major city in Australia, and work with some of the biggest companies in Australia. Their end goal or “social mission” is to increase the number of Indigenous university students in private sector companies in order to develop career paths and create the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders of tomorrow.

CareerTrackers is a real social enterprise success story; in a reasonably short period of time they have grown exponentially from a start-up company to a nationally recognised organisation. So, when Michael starts talking about how he got CareerTrackers to this point I pay extra attention. Like Bec Scott from STREAT, Michael was selective with his funding, stressing that there are many other options to government funding which can sometimes be a better option for start-up social entrepreneurs. As I mentioned in my last post here, budding social entrepreneurs may consider getting funding from philanthropic individuals and charitable foundations which are more likely to reinvest any money made back into the business. One of Michael’s key lessons is “Don’t be afraid to ask the big questions.” CareerTrackers work with some of the biggest companies and organisations in Australia, such as QANTAS, NAB, and Lleyton Hewitt. They got here by aiming high and by being brave enough and confident enough in their business model and their social mission to approach high-profile CEO’s, CFO’S and other business leaders.

What is it that Michael feels is most important for anyone wanting to be a social entrepreneur? Thinking differently is key. You need to think differently in order to make a positive difference to the social injustices present in our society. By seeing an issue in Australia today (lack of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in high-level, private sector companies and organisations) Michael was able to create a business which was able to support him as well as doing something to make Australia a little better at the same time. We can all learn something from his story.

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