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Changing Lives Through the Dignity of Work


Monday, 9th July 2018 at 7:40 am
Luke Michael, Journalist
Julia Cambage is CEO of TRY Australia, a social purpose organisation operating since 1883. She is this week’s Changemaker.


Monday, 9th July 2018
at 7:40 am
Luke Michael, Journalist


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Changing Lives Through the Dignity of Work
Monday, 9th July 2018 at 7:40 am

Julia Cambage is CEO of TRY Australia, a social purpose organisation operating since 1883. She is this week’s Changemaker.

TRY Australia gives young people chances to change their lives through the dignity of work, delivering learning, mentoring, training and employment for vulnerable people. It runs a range of social enterprises.

Cambage is one of its more than 400 employees. She’s been CEO since 2013.

In this week’s Changemaker, Cambage tells us how she arrived in the not-for-profit sector, reveals TRY’s secret to longevity, and explains how she keeps her ear to the ground of such a diverse organisation. 

How did you become involved in the not-for-profit sector?

I came back from working in London and moved to Coffs Harbour. I had a small child and needed to work. The work I’d been doing in the UK was running one of the largest exhibition centres in Europe, and I had a fairly high level of hospitality management skills, [but] I found it very difficult to find work. Then I was offered a role at TAFE, teaching event management and I found that really interesting. I’d always worked in the hotel trade prior to that.

Then I also picked up another piece of work, working for a not for profit that provided hospitality training to long-term unemployed people, and that was my entry point to the not-for-profit space. And I continued down that path. I found it very rewarding and I enjoyed helping people find a career path, do work they found meaningful and understand the dignity of work.

Operating since 1883, what is TRY Australia’s secret to longevity?

The organisation’s ability to interpret current trends and stay relevant to the communities in which they work. Without relevance, the organisation wouldn’t have survived. So I think TRY has been very clever in actually being able to be true to its original work ethic and focus and vision, and made sure they were able to work in the marketplace they’d always chosen.

Why do you think social enterprises are so important to the organisation?

An entrepreneurial spirit has run through TRY from day one. Its founder William Mark Forster had a strong entrepreneurial focus, working with young people encouraging them into trades, assisting them to start their own businesses. He also believed “what you don’t pay for isn’t valued”. So very early on, when we ran our youth centres young people paid to enter. It didn’t matter if it was only a small amount, it helped young people understand that if you paid for it you valued it.

That approach was an important part of the way forward, even if we’re not really committed as hard and fast to it these days. It helped the organisation develop a platform to move forward for the next 135 years.

In the early days we had gymnasiums and youth centres. We taught the trades, like boot making, and had a large dairy farm based at Harkaway on Melbourne’s outskirts. Young men worked there and learnt farm trades. We earned a farm income so we could continue to teach these trades.

How will you ensure TRY Australia keeps up with trends and stays relevant?

One of the current trends is around social procurement, and I’m a big believer.

So this particular piece around social procurement and encouraging large organisations engaged in infrastructure projects to utilise the actual products and services of social enterprise in order to achieve an outcome is really where shareholder returns and community values converge.

And I think we’re able, through the work that we do, to engage young people excluded from the labour market and take them down a path enabling them to enter the workforce in a sustainable way.

Whereas if you pick someone up who maybe has never actually been in the workforce and then just drop them into a normal organisation they probably won’t survive. Because they need to take the time to understand what it is to work and what’s required of you in the workplace. And sometimes for some people that can take up to a year.

We know that quite often those young people don’t work as hard or as fast, sometimes they do, but sometimes it takes them some time to understand what’s actually needed of them. So we’re not driven by profit in order to enable that person to become a contributor. And that’s I guess the difference.

So the reality around social enterprises is it’s important for all people who are excluded from the labour force, that they find a path and potentially that is through social enterprise to enable them to become contributors in their community.

What’s a typical day as CEO?

We have a large and diverse range of enterprises we operate. We have about 40 childcare centres and kindergartens. We have three factories manufacturing and converting shipping containers into all sorts of amazing high purpose units, including social housing, and we have a workforce of around 400. So the complexity of my day can be significant.

On some days it can be quite calm. But generally my day will involve meeting with my PA. We’ll have a look at the diary and make sure that there’s nothing different that’s come up. Then I’ll work through the series of scheduled meetings. I may go and make an impromptu visit to a factory site or drop into a kinder. Or it might be that I have a meeting in the city. We’re based in Glen Waverley, so there’s a bit of travel backwards and forwards. Our factories are in Dandenong South, and our kinders and childcare centres are all over Melbourne. So it’s not easy, some of it is complex, but in general terms a lot of my day is basically spent in an office environment doing the day-to-day work. It’s not as exciting as it looks.

Running a large organisation, how do you keep an ear to the ground and stay across everything that’s going on?

Fortunately I have a great team. The executive team at TRY Australia are fantastic and they spend a lot of time talking down their line as well. I have a range of meetings that I attend with other organisations who are leaders in this space, so I don’t just spend my time at TRY. And there’s all sorts of different things that I do, but in general I walk and I talk.

I guess it comes from my hotel background, that I spend an awful lot of time walking. And I chat to people. I chat to them in the kitchen and I chat to them all over the place. The more you speak to the people that you work with the more you come to understand them, and what drives them. You will take note if there’s a change in how they’re operating. And then you can have a conversation with them around how they’re feeling.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Well I have a fabulous boxer dog called “Lola”, though it’s “Naughty Lola” most of the time. She’s a constant joy. I walk with her pretty much every day and I also have a big garden that I spend some time in. I have a great partner as well who I sail with and that’s about it. By the time I get to the garden etc. there’s not a lot left.

Is there anything you’re reading, watching or listening to at the moment?

I voraciously read everything. I listen to a bunch of different stuff, things from Harvard around innovation and other things like that. I have been watching, like the rest of the world, The Handmaid’s Tale. I also just read a book called The Silent Wife, which was kind of a little bit similar in approach to Gone Girl. 


Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.


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