By KARINA SCHULZ WHARWOOD
One of Australia’s youngest CEOs says the key to reaching a position of power is to find your “why”.
Sashenka Worsman, 24, is CEO of Oaktree, Australia’s largest youth-run organisation, which works to alleviate poverty.
“I knew from the very beginning that my ‘why’ was that I thought it was unacceptable that young people – or that individuals – have to live in poverty for no real reason except luck,” she says.
“And my why was that one day I wanted to see a world where that was different.”
With about 500 volunteers aged between 16 and 26, Oaktree is a not-for-profit multi-million dollar organisation that works largely in the Asia-Pacific region.
Ms Worsman grew up in war-torn Sri Lanka and was surrounded by poverty. Vishmi, one of her childhood friends, also lived in abject poverty. As they grew older, the difference in social class became more obvious, she says.
“I remember once, Vishmi and I sat down to colour and her colouring book was very old and her pencils short and used. Each time her book was filled, she would go back and erase the pages, they were so thin that they looked like they could break at any moment.
“I wondered why she couldn’t just get a new book and colouring pencils, when I realised that she and I had different lifestyles and it just broke my heart when I realised that she did not have the same privileges I did.”
After watching the terrible conditions some children had to live in, Ms Worsman realised her goal was to ensure people no longer had to live in such dire circumstances.
At 16, Ms Worsman moved to Australia with her family and began volunteering at the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and World Vision.
She spent three months in the east coast of Africa collecting information on Australian aid and its effectiveness. She later studied a Bachelor of Law and International studies at the University of Adelaide while volunteering up to 20 hours a week.
Ms Worsman joined Oaktree at the end of 2016 and immediately stepped into the role of CEO.
“I took on opportunities whenever they came up and put my heart and soul into this,” she said.
Given that the organisation is mostly volunteer run, there is a high turnover in staff, in addition to the process referred to as “aging out” which comes at the age of 27 when anyone working at the organisation is obligated to step down from their position.
“University is great because it gives you the foundation and knowledge that you need to start but what that looks like in practice and what that looks like to actually implement and operationalise everything that you have learnt, is very different.”
Monash University lecturer and expert in management and entrepreneurship Dr Nathan Eva says there is nothing in literature nor research that proves being a CEO in someone’s early 20s is any better or worse than someone above 30.
What makes a good leader and CEO is their ability to set compelling visions, motivate others, look after and build a team, Dr Eva says.
It is about high performance, and these qualities do not necessarily come with age, he says.
“The benefit that comes with it (Oaktree) being a youth-run organisation is that they have a board in place, checks and balances much like any other organisation,” he says.
Youth-run organisations are necessary, especially in the not-for-profit sector because while someone aged between 28 and 40 might have more experience, it is the younger generation that can really commit to this work, Dr Eva says.
“Older people might be thinking about mortgages, kids and their careers while someone aged 16 to 24 has more time to think about the impact they are having while trying to develop their skills. They have more time to give and are less afraid of failing, with more will to take risks”.
Dr Eva says students should not only apply for internships but also consider volunteering for a long period of time.
“Both develop different skills, whilst at an internship you might be working on a product or meeting clients and focusing on one or two specific skills, in a volunteer position you would develop the skillset of managing people, developing vision and delivering larger scale projects.”