A Different Approach


ELLIOT COSTELLO

CO FOUNDER — YGAP

Reading Time: 7 minutes
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here’s never been a single moment in my life when I can remember sitting down and thinking this is what I wanted to do. I haven’t had that light bulb moment many entrepreneurs speak about. For me, I guess it was more of a long journey of unique and differing life experiences that led me to where I am today.

My father, Tim Costello, was a Baptist Minister while we were growing up in St. Kilda – a multicultural  inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia. St.Kilda was known for many things, including being home to many of the most marginalized and vulnerable members of Melbourne society like the homeless, street prostitutes and drug addicts. My dad’s pastoral care and position as Mayor of St.Kilda meant that I was exposed to so many diverse and different people in my childhood.  

Throughout my formative years I learned that, at their core, these people were no different from those born into material wealth or a loving home. I gained a deep education in social advocacy from a young age.

I didn’t jump straight into the social sector when given the chance. I studied Commerce and Arts at University. While I had a deep interest in humanities, I went on to work in the private sector, working at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) as part of their Resources, Services and Government team. I was given the opportunity to work on some of the leading mining and resources companies during Australia’s mining sector boom. 

Although auditing was not the right job for me, I look back positively on my time at PWC. The professional development invested in me and the networks gained for emerging leaders is world class. I’ve often said that starting your career with a big firm that can invest time and resources into your learning is a powerful foundation to help you grow.

After working in the finance sector with PPB Advisory, I was conscious that my work lacked purpose.  Concurrently to working in the private sector, I was building a youth-run organized called YGAP.

The early days of YGAP were greatthey were the best years of our lives because we were filled with such optimism in the work we were doing. We were deeply passionate and very green-eyed. I often think how crazy some of our early supporters (specifically those from the corporate sector) must have thought we were. Here were a group of young Australians who had never even been to Africa, selling a vision on community development.

Our goal was simple in its premise: enable the communities of developing nations to be self-sufficient through the creation of impact ventures such as healthcare, education, housing, sanitation and job creation. We also wanted to give the younger generation of Australians the chance to have their voices and ideas heardrather than be ignored by the more traditional heads of charities.  

We gave everything a shot. We had relentless energy. I remember writing a list of nearly 20 different initiatives and fundraising projects we tried in our early years. It was all done with minimal to no budget, and nothing but our spare time and a real belief that it would work. We never really followed a procedure or had a specific way of doing things, which meant we were able to navigate our own path and try just about all the crazy ideas which came to our heads. If it didn’t work, we would analyze it, absorb the lessons, and move on.

We were proud of having a diverse range of people from a number of different backgrounds and walks of life that allowed this type of “creative” environment to really flourish. We were a group of people who truly may not have had our voices heard if it weren’t for an organization like YGAP.

I know many people may say this of their own organizations, but it’s definitely true for us. Our team had a unique point of difference and never allowed ourselves to fall into group think. We constantly challenged each other, learned from each other, and grew together. There was an “x factor” that transformed into a contagious energy which only further fueled the interest of our supporters. Those early years were the great years and, if I’m being honest, I’ve struggled a slightly to adjust to all the changes as we’ve grown and matured as a business, and stopped taking so many risks.

Despite the vibrancy of our team in the early days, there were many moments when we all thought this crazy idea to change the world may not work. We never expected (or really thought) about being a multi-national organization ten years later. We just aimed to achieve our initial goals and see what comes next. The flipside to us operating with such freedom and creativity meant we never really had a deeply focused strategy on where we would be in 5, 10, or 20 years. There have been all sorts of challenges and disputes, but they’re just all battle scars in a wonderful war that we’ve been able to wage together and one that has allowed us to achieve all of the many remarkable deeds we have to date.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long to have our first taste of success. Within our first two months, our fundraising efforts allowed us to begin working hands-on with local partnerships in Africa. We set up development programs in places like Malawi, Ghana, and Rwanda, where our volunteers (myself included) funded their own travels to go work with these communities first-hand. It was decided that we would be very integrated with our programs and the people we were supporting, but it would be a very different sort of integration.

There are a number of things I’ve learned along the way with YGAPbut it became very apparent to us early in our journey the traditional method of trying to impose “the solution” in these emerging countries is completely wrong. The best thing we can do is provide some early stage of support, getting behind the local leaders (impact entrepreneurs) who are much better placed to solve their own local problems. We did not need to be on the ground or have volunteers in Ghana, Cambodia, or wherever we were running programs. We put the power back in the hands of local staff and emerging leaders, simply supporting them and providing them with the right tools to solve their community’s problems.  

This isn’t an approach many others have taken in the past, but there is an awakening of sorts happening globally. Some of the larger organizations are now realizing this too and, while these changes may be slow and well overdue, at least we can find some comfort knowing the conversation has begun.

When asked about my travels in some of the countries we work with, I like to respond by challenging the West’s common misconception. There is a pervasive belief that Africa is riddled with disease, starvation and suffering. Yes, there are challenges and obstacles which many communities face made more complex and difficult by being trapped out of the global economic system – however, we ignore the incredible zest for life, love of dance, deep faith and the power of the community right across Africa. A place where they care for their elders and their young, where there is a strong connectivity between all members of the community, and a clear sense of purpose. For some, it’s a matter of survival. For others, it’s a matter of progress.

I have benefited from walking into these communities, and have been able to experience and see the true sense of community. It makes me realize how divided so many communities have become in the West  and how we continue to build barriers which only serve to separate us further.

I gain a lot more than I can ever give when I step into all of these communities.

“Every entrepreneur lives with frustrations, thinking they could have done things better. I most definitely do”

But instead of reflecting with vein, there is more value focusing on what we have achieved.

To be able to run an organization like YGAP, one has to have a great team behind you. It is no secret that I have been surrounded by some of the most remarkable and capable minds. I am just one of many custodians of this organizationand there is no way we could be where we are today without the input of every single person who has donated their time, energy and ideas to our mission.

Our most important legacy is the impact work we have collectively achieved. We have been able to build a world-class entrepreneurship program that truly works. Ten years on, I’m proud to say our work has significantly and measurably improved the lives of over 580,000 people who are living in poverty through providing access to education, healthcare, housing, and job creation. There’s a lot of pride in that.

Ten years from now will be the best measure of our hard work. It’s what I sometimes refer to as YGAP 2.0 -the young and emerging blood that will carry our vision forward. I’m looking forward to seeing them improve the lives of millions of people over the next 5-10 years.

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  • Elliot Costello

    Co Founder YGAP

    Elliot Costello left a job in the corporate sector knowing there was much more he could be doing to help others. Along with a few friends, YGAP was born. Ten years later, YGAP has become one of the fastest growing, International Development not-for-profit focused on taking innovative approaches to poverty alleviation.

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