As I look back on 2019, one of the absolute highlights was collaborating with the masterfully creative Adam Ferrier and CJ Holden to produce s p a c e – a gathering of unlike minds. The three-day event was an Australian first, built on a framework of peer-to-peer learning, with no speakers and no spectators. The event attracted a community of disruptive leaders -affectionately named our inaugural s p a c e cadets – to Byron Bay to disconnect, collaborate, and create in one of the most inspiring locations on earth.
s p a c e was built on a few big ideas:
We need to have more
In an age of intensifying digital echo chambers, breaking from routine thinking and giving ourselves over to unconventional collaborative experiences is paramount to creativity, critical thinking and empathy. s p a c e is designed to deliberately interrupt our norms, give us pause to reveal assumptions and seek out new thinking. Curiosity and play supersede self-consciousness. With no fear and no formal agenda, we are able to step up and own the collective experience. We give each other permission to be ourselves, rather than our job titles.
No passengers allowed.
There are intentionally no
official speakers or themes at s p a c e, the content is designed and led by
our attendees. In this way, a spirit of generosity runs through s p a c e, with
each attendee contributing something of their
choosing to the fully immersive and participatory program. This manifests in
the form of talks, workshops, skills sessions or whatever can be creatively
concocted! In fact, our participants’ creative interpretation of the brief (on
top of the wide array of interests and passions of the content itself) was one
of the standouts of s p a c e.
You do you. But make sure you ‘do’!
We know life-long learning is critical and cross-pollination of ideas extremely valuable, yet in an age where people fly for hours to attend a conference in person, practically every conference, festival or event retains a one-size-fits all, cookie-cutter approach. We want to shake up leadership in Australia by challenging the way we convene our leaders. The s p a c e format is a facilitated smorgasbord, allowing everyone to navigate the three-day experience in choose-your-own-adventure style. From sunrise Friday until well past sunset on Saturday, participants had the opportunity to attend as many different sessions as they liked, each led by peers. Often there were as many as ten different sessions running at once!
We designed the event specifically to ensure our s p a c e cadets were compelled not only to do as they pleased, but more importantly, to ‘do’. s p a c e has a real focus on turning conversation into action with ‘do-tanks’ providing the opportunity for attendees to pitch ideas and build a team of helpers to pursue their aspiration. This year, s p a c e do-tanks spurred 10 post-s p a c e projects covering everything from education to indigenous leadership development and urban evolution.
Our overarching goal was
to play a part in building a more ambitious Australia through shared ideas and
collaboration. What stands in the way of such collaboration? Australia does
seem to habour a few parochial handicaps. We think it’s time we kicked tall
poppy syndrome to the kerb and supercharged our country’s ambition. It’s time
we united the people who believe in constructively trying to solve problems versus
destructively denigrating the attempts of others on social media.
We believe, as Einstein put it, that the definition of insanity is thinking we can keep doing things the same way and get a different result. We hoped to create the conditions for new conversations and collaborations to flourish- the space to be challenged, to explore, to think deeply and to, after three short days, find yourself with scores of new friends, colleagues and potential partners-in-impact. And we were truly humbled by the reaction of the community who participated in round one… the letters, emails and calls we received in the weeks following s p a c e conveying the positive impact and emboldened focus of participants was awe-inspiring. This groundswell has energised us to take s p a c e into new territory in 2020- creating more immersive experiences, working on diversifying our community even further and taking do-tanks to another level.
Barack Obama, Richard Branson and three PMs have personally requested her skills. Oh, and she’s 29.
“I hadn’t met a leader who energetically presented the way he did. Others tend to be intense – like they’re trying to convince you of something. There’s a real calmness to Obama and an extraordinary security in how he fills his own skin. He knows what he stands for.”
I’m speaking with Holly Ransom, the Perth born, 29-year-old Australian businesswoman personally requested by Barack Obama to moderate his only Australian talk when the former President visited last year. As we chat, however, I realise that descriptor is just as fitting for Holly herself, a woman who is both incredibly calm and secure in her purpose.
A year shy of her 30th birthday, she’s one of the world’s most respected thought leaders, asking the tough questions to reveal the emerging trends and challenges affecting businesses and professionals today. In short, she’s an extraordinary human.
When I’m researching her for our whimn.com.au Power Women series, I’m struck by the sheer number of her achievements – more in three decades than most of us tick off in a lifetime.
Chair of the G20 Youth Summit (where she was called on by three PMs – Gillard, Abbott and Rudd), co-author of a UN strategy paper, AFL board member, keynote speaker introducing the Dalai Lama, CoffeePods podcast host, Ironwoman, Richard Branson’s dream dinner guest, festival creator and fearless leader of a business whose clients have included Microsoft, the AIS and DFAT. That business is Emergent, of which Holly is CEO, a specialised consulting firm focused on building the capacity of organisations to execute change. If this was the early 2000s, we could call her a “disruptor.”
She’s precise, a clear communicator, an optimist. On the topic of what power is, Holly is eloquent: “I’ll take this in an optimistic view – an ability to successfully influence an outcome for the betterment. That is power, whether individually or collectively.”
The Power Of Asking Questions, Even If You Don’t Have The Answer
It’s this ability to see the ‘we’, alongside the ‘me,’ that’s shaped Holly’s life. “My grandmother is my biggest influence. She’s always told me, ‘Holly, if you walk past it, you show the world it’s okay’,” Holly says, adding, “That was an empowering sentence to be gifted with as a child.”
For Holly that meant bailing up her principal for a school fundraiser where they donated funds to a local homeless shelter after a chance encounter with a homeless man at her local shopping centre. Reflecting the thought leader says, “I could see the problem, and something I could do to equal a better outcome. But ultimately you want something self-generating, so people can help themselves. It started there and has been propelled by continually asking better questions and pursuing a better answer by virtue.”
The Power Of Mentors
One of those questions is as simple as asking someone out to coffee each week – a commitment Holly made at age 16 – and has continued ever since. She credits the practice with supercharging her learning and career.
“I heard a line, from a mentor of mine once, which said, ‘how long does it take to learn a lifetime experience? Coffee’. So every week I seek coffee conversation or learning conversation for one hour,” she says. Remarkably, Holly says her invitation has never been turned down, “I feel lucky to have grown up in WA because WA was a very flat community and I was a very curious kid full of questions”. She’s met with everyone from politicians to CEOs of our nation’s biggest sporting teams.
“People make fun of me because of the number of mentors, advocates and advisors I have in my life. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an army of advocates to raise a young woman. They give me multiple points of truth and challenge me,” she says.
The Power Of Collaboration
Her most recent challenge and foray into the unknown is as co-creator of s p a c e, Australia’s first festival-like event to champion peer-to-peer learning and cross-sectoral collaboration happening in Byron Bay next month (23-26 May, get your tickets here).
The idea came out of a wide-sweeping frustration, “from George St, Sydney to regional Australia,” with leadership changes in politics and a general dissolution and apathy, says Holly. Always the one with the questions, she posed this: How do we stop the whinging and make a positive contribution?
The answer, or at least her contribution, is s p a c e, explaining her vision for the festival.
“It will bring together 300 people who care passionately about the future of this country. It’s not a conference model and you won’t be a passenger. There’s not a distinction between speakers and non-speakers. Rather than a think tank, it will be a do tank, driving activity off the back of it, and starting relationships.”
The Unbelievable Power Of Sport
You get the feeling Holly sweats collaboration. In 2016, she became the youngest ever woman appointed to an AFL football club board, joining Port Adelaide. She was 26. Despite being kicked out of footy at age 10 because girls didn’t play, AFL has remained a personal passion of hers – and watching on as the women’s league explodes brings her immeasurable joy.
“Sport is the silent social worker in this country. You can tackle big issues. In two decades time, I believe we’ll marvel at what AFLW did for gender equality,” says Ransom.
And in two decades time, I believe Australia – and indeed the world – will marvel at Holly Ransom, by then, surely, a household name.
When I feel powerful: When I successfully influenced the G20 leaders declaration in 2013 with a policy document and advocacy campaign. It was an extraordinary movement of young people across the world. It’s my proudest moment.
When I feel powerless: In the same year I was diagnosed with clinical depression. It’s a scary experience and was a challenging 10 months working through it. It puts you on your arse because your body is dictating things. You feel out of control. You feel powerless. I’m fortunate I had support structures and got the right help.
How I’m using my power: I’m passionate about inclusion and the role of tech is where I am focused. In 40 years’ time, I’d like my legacy to be as a leader who is using tech for good, tech for outcomes like shared economic benefits and higher standards of living.