Supporting the unaddressed issues
26 April 2021 at 5:52 pm
Weh Yeoh is the co-founder and CEO of Umbo, a social enterprise connecting speech and occupational therapists to families in need. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
Over 2 million Australians need speech and occupational therapy, yet thousands of families in rural and regional Australia are waiting up to 18 months for these services.
To address this problem, Weh Yeoh started Umbo, an online platform connecting allied health professionals with clients across the country to provide evidence-based, integrated supports to those in need.
Under his leadership, Umbo has grown from a team of four to 15, has seen a 5,800 per cent increase in demand for digital practice training, delivered 1,000 per cent more consultations compared to 2019, and helped hundreds of Australian families access therapy online.
As well as this, Yeoh is the founder of OIC Cambodia, an organisation helping Cambodians with communication and swallowing disabilities, and the co-founder of Happy Kids Clinic, a social enterprise which works in tandem with OIC Cambodia and donates 100 per cent of its profits back to OIC.
Yeoh has received a number of accolades recognising his work in the sector. These include being named as one of Pro Bono Australia’s Impact 25 award winners in 2021, the Third Sector 2019 social entrepreneur of the year, and one of the 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australians.
In this week’s Changemaker, he discusses the challenges of stepping into the unknown, the importance of addressing an underdog cause, and why people will be drawn to the right issues.
What are you trying to achieve through Umbo?
We’re trying to address the issue of the lack of speech and occupational therapy in rural and remote Australia, which means that kids are waiting up to 18 months to get this very basic service and, therefore, falling behind their peers when it comes to school life, home life and any kind of advancement socially and through the workforce. Statistics show that up to 60 per cent of juvenile offenders have some kind of communication difficulty. And this is really the outcome left for kids when we’re forcing them to wait that kind of length of time. So what we’ve been trying to do, the way we address the issue is we connect these families with our clinicians online and dotted all around Australia, and we try to cut these wait times down from 18 months to a week. So far, what we’ve been able to do has been to help hundreds of families get access much earlier and then also to, I guess, advocate for the needs of these families with them.
What have some of your major learnings been throughout your career?
I think one of them is that in order to do something that’s really valuable, you’re often doing something that no one else wants to do. And so, therefore, rather than joining in the movement of things that everybody is fighting for, you tend to isolate yourself to a cause that is less well known. You have to expect that it’s going to be very difficult and you have to expect that you will have to explain why this is a problem at every step of the way. And so that’s very much what we find with Umbo, that we’re not only trying to supply the service, but we’re also building the category at the same time, because the understanding of online delivery of speech and occupational therapy is very low.
The other thing is that once you really draw a line in the sand and say, we’re going to do this particular thing, people will come seemingly out of the woodwork to help you because it’s an issue they believe needs to be addressed. That’s one of the most satisfying things about doing this kind of work, that as much as it can sometimes feel like you’re alone, you realise that there are a whole bunch of people that want to do it as well and want to see things done in a better way. And I think with Umbo and the social enterprises and charities I started before, they’re quite unique in their approach. And that’s not something to brag about, but it is something that is really important, because if we’re going to actually address some of these problems at their core, rather than just addressing the symptoms, we have to think about new ways of fixing them. I guess that’s one of my bugbears about a lot of charity work, is that it lends itself to perpetuating the charity rather than addressing the need.
And what does your day look like as the CEO?
It’s a lot of meetings and a lot of working with our staff to make sure that they’re clear on what it is that they’re doing and how that contributes to the bigger picture. I think CEOs are really responsible for setting the tone and culture of the organisation and making sure that everyone is aligned. It’s a lot of talking to external advisers, we have a very excellent advisory committee from all different disciplines that helps us with what we’re wanting to do in our strategy, and also meeting with people in our network, including potential investors and partners, to further what we’re trying to do.
What do you love about working at Umbo?
I love working with the team. I think we have a really great team of very selfless and passionate people who are very committed to the cause and make it less about themselves than about solving something that is really pressing. And I think when you have that balance of passion, commitment, and skills, then you have something really beautiful where anything seems possible, even if it’s as big a challenge as the one we’re trying to address.
I think the other thing that I really love is that we’re doing something which is really needed. If I think about when I first started working in not for profits, I really wanted to do something that would help people but there are so many things in the world that you can do under that banner. What I think about our work is that it’s not only really needed, it’s also just really unaddressed. So if it was something that I think lots of people were solving en masse and the system of health care or the NDIS was set up to help without us existing, I’d probably feel in my heart a little bit like a fraud, like I wasn’t doing anything valuable. But I’m positive with Umbo that the challenge is actually doing something very useful.
And how has working in the social change side changed your outlook on the world?
Prior to working in social change, I had this idea that all causes are equal. And what I’ve learned over time is that not all causes are created equal. There are some causes that seem to garner more support than others. And then there are those, like what Umbo’s doing, that are very much underdog causes that are hidden, that equally require attention but don’t seem to get it from the places that other causes get attention from. So it became clear to me that it’s a lot more nuanced than what I had initially thought. And, therefore, if I was to spend my time doing anything in the sector, it would definitely be doing something that was an unaddressed issue to me.