Louise Nobes: Australian startup ecosystem needs to be brave enough to “think untraditionally”
Louise Nobes is the founder and CEO of KIK Innovation, an organisation that aims to end youth unemployment through enterprise. Louise is also the founder of 42 Adelaide, an Australian branch of the global educational organisation founded in France, which provides tuition free IT training that aims to be open to anyone regardless of background. In her conversation with Adam, Louise discusses how her previous career as a social worker helped shape her approach to entrepreneurship, and her belief that the Australian startup ecosystem needs to be brave enough to “think untraditionally”.
KIK Innovation: https://www.kik.org.au/
42 Adelaide: https://www.42adel.org.au/
Louise on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/louise-vidal-nobes-68a95374
Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer, and Welcome to Day One, the podcast that spotlights Australian startups, founders, and the organizations that empower Australian entrepreneurship. We go back to the beginning to tell a story of Australia’s most inspiring founders and how they built their companies. You’re listening to a special interview series as part of a documentary W2D1 one is producing about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. On the episode today, we have-
Louise Nobes: I’m Louise Nobes. I am the founder and CEO of Kick Innovation and 42 Adelaide.
Adam Spencer: Yeah, can you tell me a little bit about Kick Innovation and 42 Adelaide?
Louise Nobes: Of course. So Kick Innovation is a social innovation organization that looks at solving the complex issue of youth unemployment. I started that organization six years ago and it was purely because I was a frustrated social worker, to be honest. I felt over the 15 years of my career, I just became a glorified admin person and really was struggling with the big question around complex social issues, and I didn’t feel like I was doing anything that was really pursuing the plight that I wanted to do and change really big systems in our world. So 42 Adelaide is our new baby. It’s 100% software engineering degree that we’ve licensed from France, and we are currently 28 days of operations. So the organization I founded has brought in that license exclusively into Australia. So a really exciting time for us.
Adam Spencer: You’ve done so much. When was the first time that you really… When was the first year that you would comfortably call yourself an entrepreneur?
Louise Nobes: Oh, comfortably. I don’t even know if I’m at that year at this point, but I think I really disrupted myself and chose to become really uncomfortable in my own career, and I think that that’s a turning point for any entrepreneur, was probably 2015. That’s when I really started feeling that if I didn’t make a shift or if I didn’t try something that I felt was going to be more aligned to my values and solving complex social problems, I would just become stuck and bitter and a very frustrated social worker. So definitely it was 2015 that I started my journey as an entrepreneur.
Adam Spencer: You had a pretty good career at Life Without Barriers. Making that jump from social worker to quote unquote entrepreneur, A, was that kind of freeing for you or was it scary? What was the biggest challenge for you making that transition, that jump from secure job to going out on your own?
Louise Nobes: I think the biggest challenge was actually holding myself back. When you start feeling like you’re free falling, which that’s what I felt… I did not complete school. Well, the first time around I actually failed. So when I made a decision to go back and do year 12 and become a social worker, I did that because I always felt that our system was injust and that I wanted to do something to change the world. So as I became a social worker and traditionally went through child protection, worked in the welfare system, and then not for profits, over those years, this compounding frustration that, “Hang on a minute, what I’m doing, supporting these amazing communities and individuals, but they’re so disconnected from business innovation.”
Louise Nobes: And our job was to keep them well within this bubble of disadvantage. So I felt I was free falling, really, and that probably happened over 2013 to 2015. I just couldn’t accept that this was what my life was to be. So when people say how did you make that jump, I kind of felt like if I didn’t make that jump, there was no meaning or there was no purpose to my life
Adam Spencer: Back in 2015 or thereabouts, when you did make that jump, what did the startup community look like back six years ago in Adelaide? What support was around for you?
Louise Nobes: I love this question because this was very much part of my journey. Imagine being a social worker and always being in the community bubble and working to support people to live well and through mental health, disability, homelessness. And then there was this other emerging community and it was called business, and entrepreneurship became sexy again. And there was this start of a startup ecosystem going on in Adelaide, and I was looking at that community going, “Well hang on a minute, how is this significant part of the community that I’m involved in every day not connected to that?” So I was watching it very enviously and thinking that the two have to emerge.
Louise Nobes: But you are really correct. It was very new, and for a lot of people, they didn’t even like using the word entrepreneur. It usually meant a high risk taker, a high roller, someone that was really crazy and potentially didn’t have good business sense. But to me, it demonstrated everything that the community that I was working with every day could access hope, could access a new way of unlocking new solutions to these really complex problems. So it was a really emergence for me of time, and I found moving into that space really interesting. I want to say a little bit easy. I know that… But when I’m so naive and I had no background history, everything I was exploring every day was forging new pathways. So it was a really exciting time for me.
Adam Spencer: A slight side question. I’m just curious to understand what do you do… The new Flinders New Ventures Institute, your title is pracademic.
Louise Nobes: I’m not physically… Well, it might still be on my LinkedIn profile. I don’t do any pracademic work for them anymore, but I did for a couple of years, and it’s a really great emergence of saying practically you are very strong in your innovation and social business ideas, but you don’t come with the academic credits to be a lecturer or someone that trained to do that. So I was very lucky that I was asked to be a prac-academic at Flinders New Ventures Institute. And that was to run their pre-acceleration programs called Venture Dorm. But it was also to teach innovation for social impact under their business and entrepreneurship degree. So it was a really good opportunity for me to engage young people that were just starting in their own world of entrepreneurship, and I could provide that really lived experience and look at it through a social lens.
Adam Spencer: So over the last six years you’ve probably seen a lot, accomplished a lot. What are some of the biggest gaps? And you can talk to this either from a national perspective or from a South Australia/slash Adelaide perspective, but what are some of the biggest gaps in the ecosystem that you’ve come across?
Louise Nobes: It’s a really good question. I think some of the gaps is understanding that social innovation can be just as sexy and as exciting as some of the key industries that drive, or that people see that drive our largest job creations and economy forward. So coming from a social impact lens, everything that we do must ensure that we are supporting the most disadvantaged and lifting them up from all the barriers and pathway barriers that they have. So that for me is the most difficult part because for the normal ecosystem, and if we look at Adelaide, the high tech sector, that yes, we are now a part of, bringing a software engineering school here, it’s a very difficult thing for those two worlds to emerge. So I find that people really struggle to understand where we fit and whether that is from funding and an investment perspective, whether that’s from, “Hey, Louise, can you be a keynote speaker,” but I always get that fluffy… You get the fluffy speaking spot, you get the nice to have spot.
Louise Nobes: You’re sitting on the verge of there’s crazy, and then there’s crazy, crazy. So that’s how we feel. We feel like we don’t really belong anywhere. So I think that’s the biggest gap is how do we feel like we also belong? I think I work with people every day that have felt like they haven’t belonged all their life and I’m helping them to feel that, but there’s still this gap that social entrepreneurs don’t really feel like they belong.
Adam Spencer: And the flip side of that a little bit, what do you think, what do you see, what do you feel that we’re doing really well as a community, either again, South Australia or nationally?
Louise Nobes: Well all I can refer to is it’s actually only taken us two and a half years to bring 42 to market. So I think when we step back, everyone says, “Wow, only two and a half years.” That is incredible to bring such a disruptive education model that means everyone can participate in the skills of the future to Adelaide. So still quite what can be perceived as an undeveloped market in terms of the high tech sector and growing economy. So I think that’s what we do really well. We have been backed incredibly by the south Australian government that believed in us, obviously didn’t think we were too crazy, and it has left this big room for innovation and risk taking. So I think over the last 12 months there has just been this great opportunity where all things have come together at the right time. And I think that has also been part of, potentially because of COVID, the desire to take more risks has been there, and Kick Innovation, we saw that opportunity, so we grabbed hold of it and made sure that 42 was a part of that new story.
Adam Spencer: You mentioned that you brought 42… You got the licensing for Australia and you brought it out of France. How did you discover that? How did you discover that existed in France?
Louise Nobes: It does sound a bit crazy, doesn’t it? How does this social entrepreneur still finding her feet in Adelaide find the greatest education model in France? Well, it comes back, Adam, to the last question you asked me about Flinders New Ventures Institute. It was through a colleague there. I was talking to them and reflecting that I felt Kick Innovation was getting stuck as a company. While we were training disadvantaged kids in entrepreneurship innovation, we were pigeonholing, we believe, in retail and hospitality, and it wasn’t necessarily solving that big, complex social problem. It was doing great job in validating a range of business models in the ecosystem, but I was feeling personally really frustrated again. It’s a common theme, isn’t it?
Louise Nobes: So it was a colleague who said, “Have you heard of 42?” Because he knew that I wanted to find the best education model that focused on skills of the future to help us shift out of this hospitality and retail focus that Kick Innovation had previously had. So it just started then. And it was me Googling 42, 10:00 PM one night, and found it. And when I heard the words of the founder, Xavier Niel, that he believed great minds were everywhere and someone’s social status should not hinder them from learning, I was literally hooked. I felt like it took a part of my heart and I had to email them. I pursued, I think over the next few hours, it was the early hours of the morning, I emailed and said, “I’m this crazy social entrepreneur in Adelaide and I must have 42 in Australia.” And that’s how it started.
Adam Spencer: What’s the biggest learning that you have taken from your previous life, your previous career, as a social worker that you’ve applied to your new career as an entrepreneur?
Louise Nobes: Oh, that’s such a great question. To hold onto hope and belief when no one else does. So one thing you are fundamentally taught as a social worker is the power of empowerment, but when people are so down and out and they might be in the worst shape that they feel, we always hold hope and we always hold the belief that they can be great citizens in life. So bringing that through, through everything we’ve done, but especially in 42, when you are seeing people that have never coded before, didn’t finish school, never had a job, and are now learning to code straight away. And how overwhelmingly difficult that is. Let’s be honest, software engineering is not an easy skill set to learn. We are holding that hope and belief the whole way through until we can see a little mind shift and we’ve transferred that. Once we transfer that hope and belief, just watching that shift is phenomenal and they grow so quickly. And then fast forward four weeks, they are at a place that is the same place that someone with more confidence and more privilege has.
Adam Spencer: What do you think we could be doing better? And we’ve touched on this. I think you’ve mentioned a few things, but what could we be doing better as a community?
Louise Nobes: That is such a big question. I mean, what can we be doing better as a community is a really difficult one to answer. I think if I was looking at it from a social lens, I think we have to really just be brave enough to think untraditionally and really think through all the systems that we create within our society does eliminate cohorts of people. So how can we ever really advance women, our First Nations people, neurodiverse, people from a refugee background. So when we look at the high tech sectors and defense and space areas, for example, there’s usually only one cookie cutter person that represents that model. So I think that’s what we need to do better. If we really want to advance society, we need to be brave enough. So that means we have to back more people.
Louise Nobes: Bringing this to market has probably been the hardest journey I’ve ever done in the last two and a half years, and it could have been made a little bit easier if for the first year no one just thought I was completely crazy, and they probably just believed in what I was trying to do and opened some more doors. Because that first year I think I just said the same story probably a million times. And while they went, “Yeah, look, Louise, you have some credibility. We know you’re just trying to do some things that are outside of the box.” But I think if they backed me and helped me, it would’ve been just interesting to see the difference in my journey.
Adam Spencer: Kind of probably drawing on that experience a little bit, if a brand new founder, or even yourself, given everything you’ve learned over the last six or so years, going back to brand new entrepreneur, what one piece of advice would you give yourself or that new entrepreneur?
Louise Nobes: Think bigger. I didn’t think big enough, I don’t think. Think bigger, act braver. Don’t hold yourself back. Yourself is your number one worst enemy, to be honest. If I know now what I do, I think it’s about don’t allow your own vision to have a glass ceiling. Just keep pushing. I think we put more limits on ourselves than I’ve definitely experienced, so I think that’s the biggest advice is just think bigger. I know that’s crazy to say six years on, but think bigger and really that helps you actually even step back and go, “Who do I need to talk to first?” If I think about my first few conversations, I should have been thinking a lot bigger.
Adam Spencer: The last question isn’t… That’s great advice. I’m creating this series and I’m interviewing 200 plus people and we’ve got 15 amazing sponsors on board, but I still want it to be bigger than it is. And this last question isn’t really a question it’s more of a… I want to open up the floor to you talk about something that is just top of mind, something that you’re thinking about, something that maybe keeps you up at night that you think people need to hear.
Louise Nobes: Wow, that’s another really great and open question.
Adam Spencer: Talk about whatever you want, but maybe to help with some direction, if you need help, you might already have something in mind, but think about the type of people that are going to listen to this series about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. The founders, policy makers, venture capitalists. If you wanted to change any one of those minds, what would, what would you want to change? What would you want to tell them?
Louise Nobes: That social impact is investible? I think we struggle the most to get investment. We’re always told investible models are potentially IPOs and there needs to be an exit. You don’t have to exit out of everything because fundamentally to make long-term change, systems change, you need to have people backing you the whole way. We can’t grow because we don’t have the traditional mechanisms to access. We don’t have a product that’s easily understood in the market because what we do is innovation. And we always talk about innovation, but I do believe that people are still seeing a tangible product because it’s easy for them to understand, it’s easy for them to invest in.
Louise Nobes: So for us, we’re only limited because our size of investment is almost non-existent compared to the size of investment based on other entrepreneurs, because their product is easier to understand. But I believe social innovation and social entrepreneurship is creating a platform that, if we get it right and we keep pursuing that we need everyone to be involved and everyone has great minds, it will then free us up to have many more people part of that ecosystem. More entrepreneurs, more investible ideas. So I think the struggle for us, and what I would love to say to people, is back the crazy ones. Back us and believe that we are really just trying to do things for the greatness of our society and our world, really.
Adam Spencer: I hope you enjoyed that interview. More interviews are on the way. Follow the podcast wherever you’re listening right now. Stay tuned for more interviews with many, many more amazing people from the Australian startup ecosystem. Thanks for listening and see you next time.