adrian appo oam

Gureng Gureng man Adrian Appo OAM was only 13 when his father, Percival, told him: “When I started out, I had nothing. I’ve given you a better start in life and I hope you can do better for your kids. Don’t let someone else steal your dreams.”

This down-to-earth advice motivates Appo’s work as an educator, mentor, board member and startup founder. It’s always been hard work. He says he sees many of the same challenges for young Indigenous Australians today he faced at high school in the 1970s.

“It’s quite accepted you can play sport, but very little else,” says Appo, who captained Christian Brothers College Bundaberg’s First XI cricket team, played in its rugby league First XIII and represented the region in athletics. “But society in general did not support or promote the concept of any Aboriginal person going on to uni, let alone boys. So I probably didn’t have an appreciation of what I could have achieved early on.”

In 1981, after completing year 12, Appo sought an electrical apprenticeship. Getting it approved was tricky. “I’d applied to work at (agricultural equipment manufacturer) Massey Ferguson in Queensland, and when the HR manager tried to register my apprenticeship the local member of the apprenticeship board declined it because I was Aboriginal,” says Appo. “He said I wouldn’t handle the conceptual ideas of electricity. The board also said Aboriginal people didn’t complete trades.”

Few Aboriginal people worked in trades at the time, but the company already had two Aboriginal staff. “Massey stood firm in its commitment to hiring me,” says Appo. “And my dad argued the case with the apprenticeship board to give me a go.”

Appo soon proved the machinery firm made the right decision, winning First Year Apprentice and Apprentice of the Year awards back-to-back in 1981 and 1982. Then he applied to be a data communications technician in the RAAF. The psychologist reviewing his case suggested Aboriginal people couldn’t handle conceptual ideas. “My statement to him was, ‘Mate, I can’t see how you can say that,’” recalls Appo. “I told him, ‘I’m an A Grade electrician registered in Queensland and NSW — I know you can’t see electricity, but believe me, you can certainly feel it.'”

During a six-year career with the RAAF, Appo enjoyed teaching young recruits the intricacies of ciphering and super encryption so much that in 1995, he finally went to university, studying adult vocational training at UTS. “Funnily enough, I did the bachelor in two years owing to my other qualifications.”

His work ethic and leadership was recognised in 2001 with an Australian Defence Medal, and the Centenary Medal in 2003, for works with Indigenous youth (his sister, Maxine, also received one). However, Appo wishes he’d gone to university earlier and launched social enterprises sooner. “I’ve been called a ‘social entrepreneur’ and didn’t know what that was until I googled it,” he says. “It says: ‘a person who is a disrupter of some of society’s greatest social problems, working around (or beyond) existing systems to make change’. I thought, ‘Yep, sounds like me.’”

Appo’s Advice for new directors

  1. Speak when you can add insight “I don’t see my role on a board as stating the obvious. It’s to bring a level of thinking that might not necessarily be at the table. Don’t just talk — listen and read the body language.”
  2. Everyone is equal “There will invariably be the lawyer, the accountant and other senior corporate members, but you can bring new perspectives on issues they haven’t experienced.”
  3. Don't get painted into a corner “I’m a board member first. If I sit on the board and they like the fact I’m Aboriginal, I’ll say, ‘Yes, I can bring special insights, but I’m not your cultural advisor — you all have a responsibility in that.’”
  4. Participate with purpose “You’ve got to be brave enough to ask the question, how well are we doing? Would the people we’re doing it for have that same answer?”
  5. Get to know your key staff “Take an interest in them as people, not just the roles they play. You’ll be amazed at how much more you get to know about the operations of the organisation.”

Closing the gap

Appo worked with government early in his career, at Commonwealth Employment Services in Shepparton, Victoria, consulting on employment and education programs. About 20 years ago, he began building a variety of private sector organisations. In 1997, he launched his first big venture, Ganbina, serving as CEO until 2013. Having helped more than 1000 Aboriginal people access further education and build careers, Ganbina continues to be Australia’s most successful Indigenous education-to-employment program.

“I suppose I’ve got a bit of a brand for doing things that are purposeful,” says Appo.

That’s an understatement. Appo is intensely focused on self-determination for all Indigenous Australians — and prepared to bypass as many roadblocks as necessary for people to get ahead. “Historically, there have been many programs to give Aboriginal people qualifications, but no career opportunities linked to that,” he says. My board at Ganbina always wanted me talking to government about funding and solutions for the Aboriginal sector. I said, ‘Let me loose and I’ll talk to other investors — corporates and philanthropy.’ So here’s an unknown from Shepparton travelling to Melbourne and Sydney, pulling in $1.5m every year to run a program for Aboriginal kids.”

Appo’s commitment to helping Indigenous youth through career planning, employment and training programs was recognised in 2011 with the Order of Australia Medal. When he handed Ganbina to the incoming CEO in 2013, the organisation had never received government funding and was already set up with working capital for the next three years.

“I have a philosophy of leaving things better than when you find them,” he says. “It’s about giving back — that’s part of what drives me to be on boards of social enterprises.”

Appo is a director of several boards committed to addressing social injustice and Indigenous career paths. Children’s Ground helps parents raise their kids “strong both ways”, drawing strength from the world’s longest living culture and developing skills to succeed. First Australians Capital develops Indigenous businesses and provides access to capital. It works with 60–100 businesses each year, reporting combined revenue of about $30m.

Appo’s new startup, Equity Health Solutions, delivers on-ground solutions for Aboriginal health issues. Equity’s work on a bulk dialysis storage solution for remote Cape York communities, for example, includes developing the solution, building the infrastructure and accessing funding.

“After leading national pieces of the school-to-work transition with Ganbina, and economic development with First Australians Capital, I’ve stepped into health to see if I can make an impact there,” says Appo. “My approach is: here’s a problem, how do you go about solving it? You gather evidence, listen to all points of view, then act — and stick to it.”

He says Equity Health Solutions will be profitable within 12 months, adding the real value is “introducing a new way of addressing health issues — no-one does the full-360 approach”.

Government aspirations for closing the gap can also be dampened by siloed efforts, he notes. When he talked to politicians and bureaucrats about Ganbina’s programs, the education department saw it as an employment issue; the employment department saw it as an education issue. “They don’t draw the line from engaging and performing well in education to developing life skills, to vocational training and leadership skills — all connecting to make it easier to hop into better employment and career opportunities. Yet that’s, to some extent, a model of my life journey.”