Lessons in leadership and humanitarian design

Monday 19 August 2019

Engineering Student Laura Taylor travelled to Fiji and Timor Leste to take part in the Project Everest Ventures internships.

When I first sat debating with myself whether I should choose an EWB summit, or go off the beaten track and try out a Project Everest Ventures internship, I never thought I’d get so entangled in Project Everest that I couldn’t wait to get back overseas. But here I am, already mapping out my summer to make sure I can return.

Project Everest Ventures (PEV) is a social enterprise. This means that they use a business model to create socially beneficial, sustainable products and services to solve issues in local communities. PEV operates across four countries – Malawi, Timor-Leste, India and Fiji – and eleven different projects ranging from microfinance to biomass fuels. They offer 4, 8 or 12 weeklong internships to Australian uni students over the winter and summer breaks.

As a “trekker” with PEV, I flew into Fiji the day before project started, and was in awed by the crystal blue, Moana-like waters of the tropical island country. Stepping into the airport I was charmed to find a couple of Fijian men playing the ukulele and singing a song of welcome. I took a shuttle to my hostel where I then immediately started the very important business of getting to know everyone (all 35 students) before the project started.

On the first day of the project, all of the trekkers piled into a bus that would take us on the hour long journey to Sigatoka – our home for the coming month. There we had a day full of presentations and workshops that would equip us for the four weeks ahead. From that point forwards it was on us in our teams to decide how the month would unfold.

My project in Fiji was FarmEd. This project was using a mobile application developed by uni students to provide farmers with real-time, tailored advice about their farms. In a team of six, I was working to build partnerships with businesses and organisations who could help distribute the app to a wider audience as well as provide us (PEV) with greater knowledge on pests and diseases specific to Fiji.

This included going to local markets to find middlemen with a large networks of farmers, meeting with major hotels and resorts to discuss their methods of sourcing local produce, talking to the national university about a potential internship program and even visiting and pitching our project to officials from Fiji’s Ministry of Agriculture.

It constantly struck me just how much responsibility I was being entrusted with – I was making tangible decisions for a real world business. Working in an inter-disciplinary team I learnt so much about business best practice, effective sales techniques, and work documentation whilst still being able to apply my own project management skills and engineering thinking to a wide range of tasks.

On weekends I hung out with more than thirty of the coolest people Australia has to offer, as we learnt about Fiji and lay on beautiful beaches drinking coconuts and soaking up the island vibes. There was no better way to refresh before another busy week of work.

At the end of the month, I knew I wanted more. Not only had I met some incredibly inspiring people, I’d become invested in PEV’s projects and hooked on their culture of self-development. So, I applied and was accepted for Team Leadership Training (TLT).

TLT was without doubt the hardest but most rewarding week of my life. In the course of a week I learnt to manage a team, mentor and counsel an individual, respond to a wide variety of crises and the basics of how to build a business from nothing. This was largely done in a simulated foreign country, which forced me to adapt, persist and respond effectively in very high pressure scenarios. Everything I learnt from this training I took with me into Timor Leste in July, to lead a group of seven as they did exactly what I had done as a trekker in Fiji.

Arriving in Timor, the stark differences were a clear reminder that I was heading into a very different experience. Rather than the crystal blue waters of Fiji, it was the dry, almost Australian, landscape that most caught my attention from the plane window. The people on the flight were also from a vastly different world.

In Fiji, almost everyone had been a tourist, but this plane’s passengers mostly consisted of middle-aged expats with quirky clothes and an aloof air. Walking into the airport there was no charming locals to greet me but rather the smallest baggage carousel I’d ever seen - it fit about 12 bags before it became too full and needed to be unloaded onto the floor.

As a leader my first day wasn’t spent making friends with the other students, but was instead spent learning about Dili, the capital of Timor, and preparing for the trekkers to arrive.

From there it was all about the leading. Being a Team Leader rather than a trekker demanded a lot more business knowledge, planning and emotional intelligence. I was responsible for making a team of seven shy engineers become friends in less than a month.

I had to motivate them to keep going out and talking to people even when it was 35°C and they were wearing the sweatiest pair of jeans. I led the team as they made decisions on exactly what the Fuel Sustainability project should look like - two weeks, four months, and even five years from now.

I learnt to be confident, self-aware and lead with vulnerability. As a leader, I was put in a unique perspective to actively watch the development of all the trekkers throughout their month in Timor.

Whilst I knew I had learnt a lot from my first month trekking in Fiji, I found it so much easier to clearly track the development of others as I was looking out for them. It was an honour to watch my team grow in confidence, become smarter at making commercially sound decisions and make a family of their fellow trekkers.

Watching the group throw themselves into nightly card games, weekend adventures and the much loved Thoughtful Thursday (where you are responsible for making someone else have the best possible day ever) gave me so much joy.

The other leaders I spent my month with quickly became like family. They taught me so much about business, engineering skills and how to be a better person. They inspired me every day. I can’t wait to get back overseas for the summer working with a whole new, wonderful team. Hopefully I’ll see some of you there!

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Updated:  10 August 2021/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing