Connecting kids at home and afar
1 March 2021 at 12:58 pm
Jack Growden is the CEO and founder of LiteHaus International, a charity connecting disadvantaged kids in Australia and overseas with the technology to help them thrive. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
Most Australian 20-year-olds are mid-way through figuring out their lives. This wasn’t the case for Growden.
After a university field trip to the Western Highlands in Papua New Guinea (PNG), he was inspired to find a way to resource the local primary school with a computer lab. He donated his own personal laptop and made a promise to return with 11 more, a pledge that found its way into the national media.
A year and several fundraising campaigns later, and Growden came good on his promise, establishing the first computer lab in a Papua New Guinean primary school.
LiteHaus International has now grown to a point where it is removing barriers to education in Uganda and Pakistan as well. During COVID-19, when international travel was off the cards, the organisation pivoted to address the digital divide facing school students in Queensland.
In recognition of his work with LiteHaus, Growden was named Queensland’s Emerging Philanthropist of the Year in 2020 and was named as one of the Top 10 Inspiring Queenslanders of the Year by the Courier-Mail.
He was also named as one of the AMP Foundation’s Tomorrow Makers.
In this week’s Changemaker, Growden discusses the challenges and triumphs of starting a charity, the importance of pivoting when the need arises, and why anyone can make a difference if they have the right attitude.
What was the inspiration behind starting LiteHaus International?
I was at James Cook University as an honors student and I got the opportunity to travel to PNG on a field trip in 2016, which was an absolutely incredible experience. I went back a year later for my thesis, studying the constraints to human development and the difficulty accessing services such as education, health, and livelihoods that were experienced by the local community. I was particularly interested in visiting schools because education is a big passion of mine. I visited one of the local primary schools where I saw that it had pretty well everything that I had growing up here in Queensland – demountable classrooms, whiteboards, blackboards, books, teachers, pens, everything like that, except there was no technology.
And I just thought that in today’s world, quality education can only be a digital education. I couldn’t quite work out how we could sit here and accept that these students, which constitute the generation of Papua New Guineans, were receiving a quality education when it’s not a digital one.
So I donated my own personal laptop to the school and then promised that I would come back and build an actual computer lab, so I’d bring 11 more digital devices up there and create a computer lab at the school. That promise was then put in the national newspapers. So I had a bit of a contract there with the people of PNG and I came home formed LiteHaus International, rallied up support, managed to gather 12 devices, and in March, we managed to establish the first-ever functional primary school computer lab in the country.
How did your organisation pivot during COVID?
By that stage, we established computer labs that were providing about 8,500 students in PNG with access to digital education. When COVID struck I was actually in PNG and I remember seeing Scott Morrison closing the borders and so I raced home. It was a great time of uncertainty in the world, and I wasn’t sure what we were going to be doing and what would happen to LiteHaus.
We started thinking more locally, around whether or not we thought there was a digital divide in Queensland. Two days later, we put a call-out on Facebook for schools, families, teachers, students, [saying] that if they wanted a digital device to get them through this period of time where learning was going online, to apply and we’d give out a free digital device within 48 hours. We had 1,400 applications come through off the one post.
So we subsequently found out that that was a huge problem right across Queensland. In some schools, the digital device ownership rate at home was less than one per cent before we intervened, and we’ve been able to take that to about 37 percent.
What challenges have you faced getting to where you are now and how did you overcome them?
I think a lot of people want to fund the happy stuff, the fun end, the kids with the devices, and whatnot. That’s been a very popular thing amongst our donors, which is great. But we had to make a really big push this year to get me into a full-time professional role because before 11 January this year, I was a volunteer executive director doing all of this on top of full-time work and it just wasn’t sustainable.
Now I’m our only paid staff member. And so we had to try and replicate the wage that I was on in my full-time work and make sure that we could sustain that. So there was a huge push from a fundraising perspective. I think that in this industry so many people think that our work is building computer labs and that magical fairy pixies go and build them. But in reality, it requires staff to run a business that’s turning over at present, around half a million dollars and managing assets. We’re a business at the end of the day in the impact industry, and so we have to try and build that business.
I guess another challenge is that I am 23 and the full-time CEO of an international NGO. That is not easy and it requires constant professional development. I can’t just learn in the role, I have to learn ahead of the role because we’re increasing our revenue by about 300 per cent. And so managing an organisation that is turning out half a million dollars versus one that’s turning over $3 million requires a completely different skill set.
And what advice do you have for others trying to make an impact on the local community or even the international community?
So on our board today, we have founding board members who are diesel fitters and university dropouts, and just people whose only thing they could offer was their energy and passion and their willingness to make a difference. I don’t believe that you need anything else aside from those three things to make a difference in the world. And the beautiful thing is that those things don’t require us to be born with an oversized brain or oversized budget. Anyone can do that. What I need to sustain every single day when I go to work are energy and passion. If I don’t bring those, everything falls down. So I think my advice to anyone that’s looking to start an organisation or get involved in an organisation is to just remember that your most valuable commodity is your energy and your passion. And you have to make sure that whatever it is that you’re trying to make a difference in, you have to be passionate about it and the rest takes care of itself.
What do you like to do in your spare time to recharge and make sure you can run the organisation effectively?
If you had asked me 12 months ago, I would have said playing footy with my mates, going out to the pub and travelling heaps. But I realised the other day I’ve become a bit boring because I spend time at LiteHaus and then I spend time with my partner, Chloe Grace, who is a wonderful supporter of mine. But I really love the work that I do. It’s a six and a half-day a week job but it doesn’t feel like a job, it still feels like a passion. But I do love to travel and I just love seeing the impact in the world – I think we’ve got a limited amount of time on the planet and that’s what we’re here to do.