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Jon O'Sullivan | Ottawa | Foster Your Network

Throughout my work in Kenya, Sri Lanka, Canada, and around the globe, I have cultivated a passion and a deep sense of responsibility for promoting the role innovation and potentially disruptive solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. My passion for development first came during my teenage years as I volunteered each summer as youth sport counsellor in the Cree community of Mistissini in northern Quebec. This opened my eyes to long history of systemic marginalization faced by our indigenous communities. After graduating from the University of Ottawa with Bachelors in International Development and Globalization I worked in Sri Lanka with an established human rights NGO empowering women in the free trade garment sector in a post-war context. My time there impressed upon me the value of skill building, and the participatory process required when identifying and addressing community needs in a contextualized manner. In 2014, I had the opportunity to engage in high level policy work as a research member with the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa. There I assisted in designing an analytical framework on indigenous populations, land disputes and the prevention of mass atrocities for the UN Special Advisor on Prevention of Genocide. Both of these experiences forced me to think outside the box in developing policy and programs that foster lasting change.

While studying Social Innovation Management at The Amani Institute in 2015 and the UN University for Peace Centre for Executive Education in 2016, I was provided the opportunity to get an intensive experience of cross-cultural work and develop practical skills for engaging with public and private actors. These programs offered me tremendous insight into the personal and professional skills needed to create sustainable social enterprises, as well the political and economic conditions necessary for those ventures to thrive. While studying in Kenya I also worked with business accelerator Growth Africa on their USAID, DFID, and Nike Foundation funded SPRING Accelerator Initiative that supports businesses whose products and services transform the lives of adolescent girls living in poverty. This opportunity allowed me to gain firsthand experience with entrepreneurs working to empower women by means of user-centered design and a gendered analysis of the market. I further built upon my business prowess as I was asked by the Co-Founder to aid him in consultancy work for foreign firms primarily focusing on organizational strategy, project management, market evaluation and risk mitigation, as well as investor relations and finance for a variety of sectors in East Africa.

As a member of the Board of Directors with the I See Maasai Development Initiative in Kenya, I have been involved in a number of projects, and in 2015 I lead the implementation of a project called ‘Small Steps to Change’. The Maasai are an aboriginal people fighting to keep their traditions in the face of modernization and resource scarcity, while simultaneously searching for new ways of generating income. I was consistently challenged to develop a strategy that fostered community ownership, was adapted to the Maasai context, and leveraged the resources of ISMDI and the community to ensure the project was sustainable. Ultimately we worked with the community to form a cooperative of 50 Maasai women, providing them with training and creating partnerships with companies seeking last mile distribution representatives for ceramic water filters, as well as solar lamps and charging pads. In addition to the reselling of products, we also promoted entirely community owned solutions teaching the women how to make, package, and sell both liquid and bar eco-friendly soap for sale to tourists and use in the surrounding safari camps. Since then, I’ve assisted in the development of a business model for a Maasai cultural preservation center designed to bring together generations of Maasai to share and document their history, traditions, language, and cultural practices. It will also act as an educational center to diffuse knowledge, discuss challenges facing their communities, and learn new skills. We have also opened East Africa’s first indigenous owned and operated nature conservancy with 3000 acres where the Maasai live harmoniously as stewards of the environment, where we also provide workshops incorporating traditional indigenous knowledge with modern science to achieve the best ecological and development outcomes. The Nashulai Conservancy eventually won the 2020 UNDP Equator Prize for Biodiversity.

After Kenya I attended the #1 ranked Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex where I obtained my Masters in Globalization, Business and Development. I then took a position as a Social Impact Analyst for international media production company Transcendent Media Capital, I assisted in the research, design, and measurement of our social impact projects and corporate services. At TMC we worked with our field specialists and partner organizations across the public and private sector to create social and environmental impact projects. After TMC I ventured out to create my own business called AgroTech Food Security, whereby we were using our patented technology to transform the treatment and storage of both root and tuber crops in the pursuit of empowering smallholder farmers, and bolstering food security in the world's most vulnerable regions where drought and starvation persist. While this venture ultimately failed, it did engrain in me the entrepreneurial spirit after having a series of tremendous successes onboarding, governments, manufacturers, researchers and almost achieving our goal of taking the technology to market.

Since then, I have taken a position as the head of Business Development for Carbonbase, a climate fintech startup based out of Hong Kong. A key project I am heading up there is Project Ark, a carbon neutral marketplace using the power of digital collectibles known as NFTs to directly fund animal and environmental conservation. Project Ark is partnered with the World Wildlife Funds Panda Labs division which acts as their innovation arm.

What were the biggest initial hurdles and how did you overcome them?

Simply put, discipline. The single biggest hurdle I faced in my career was my own complacency, procrastination and belief that merely doing what was required was enough. Anyone who works in the international development space knows the sheer level of competition for roles, and the sheer complexity of the challenges we are trying to solve. Youth often begets a false sense of confidence that simply because we THINK we have the answers, which is by no means the actual case. It took a series of rejection letters, and further immersion into the field with people far stronger than I, to show me just how far I had to go before I was ever going to be in a position to create the kind of impact I wanted to achieve in my lifetime. It is in these series of setbacks that I began to reflect deeply on my own limitations, identify the gaps I could correct, and take actionable steps to improve them. Failure is the mother of success, only we so choose it to be.

What books are you currently reading?

One book I am finishing up is “Dark Money” by Jane Meyer which profiles the history of the Koch family’s political influence and the overall scourge of money in politics. This is a topic I feel strongly about, as corruption and secretive special interests are the antithesis to forging democracies that are truly representative of the needs of the people. Another book I’ve begun is “Can’t Hurt Me” by David Goggins, often referred to as the fittest man alive, the retired Navy SEAL chief is believed to be the only member of the armed forces to complete the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/s) course (including going through Hell Week three times), U.S. Army Ranger School and Air Force tactical air controller training. His unwavering drive and purpose driven ethos in life is something I have been seeking to engrain further into my own habits.

What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started?

I wish I had taken more risks with the opportunities presented to me in my earlier years. Your 20’s are the ultimate time to make mistakes, learn on the fly, and dive headfirst into the world. Often people have a strong sense of imposter syndrome, making the assumption that until we tick off every single requirement that we’re unable or undeserving of those opportunities. This is of course patently false, if everyone waited until they were 100% “ready” we would often never take the first step needed to find out what we are truly capable of.

What advice would you give to an upcoming youth or talents locally and internationally?

My number one piece of advice is to foster your network like your life depended upon it. Virtually every great opportunity in my life came from a fortuitous conversation and not from some fancy application. A rule I have based my career around is to try and never have lunch alone. Message that CEO, reach out to that industry leader who inspires you, get involved in all of the communities that consist of the people you want most to emulate. Because if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that nine times out of ten those people who we idolize are more than happy to share their knowledge with you and take 20 minutes to impart some wisdom to the up and coming generation. Once you establish that connection, do your best to learn from them and demonstrate value to them wherever possible. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it, and the underlying soft skills that you possess. Show those industry leaders that you have the foundation to be taught and excel if given the opportunity, and watch how often they’re willing to take a chance on you. Hard skills can be learnt on the job, soft skills are what make long lasting relationships and effective leaders in the long run.


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