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Career Spotlight: Elise Stephenson, Social Entrepreneur and PhD Candidate

In this Career Spotlight, we have the pleasure of speaking with Elise Stephenson, a Social Entrepreneur and PhD Candidate at Griffith University, about her career so far in academia, diplomacy and entrepreneurship.

Elise Stephenson is an award-winning researcher, strategist and entrepreneur. She is a regular contributor to TV, radio and various academic and non-academic publications, including the Lowy Institute, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Broad Agenda, and the Australian Journal of International Affairs.

Elise has led major programs for Australia's largest public diplomacy initiative, Australia Now, working in collaboration with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, plus embassies and high commissions across the region. In 2019 alone, she ran and organised almost 50 events with over 3000 individuals directly engaged on key topics of regional growth and collaboration, including: start-ups, social enterprise, climate change, the environment, sustainable fashion, LGBTI+, gender equality, mental health, and more.

She has worked across countries such as Laos, Brunei, Cambodia, Taiwan, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Morocco, Spain, and Turkey - making her a skilled communicator able to work with diverse audiences and stakeholders. She also has deep links with remote and regional Australia, having worked with communities across the Western Desert in the Northern Territory and 60,000kms around other locations in regional Australia in the past four years.

Elise is the co-founder of Australian strategic design agency, the Social Good Outpost, where she heads up business development and drives experimental and exciting international festivals and collaborations. She currently consults in the fields of foreign policy and public diplomacy; women's leadership; LGBTI inclusion; social enterprise; Asia Pacific enterprise; human rights campaigns; youth inclusion and strategies; and defence and national security.

Going back to the beginning of your career, what did you study at university? Did you have a set plan for pursuing a PhD early on in your studies?

I entered university in 2011 to study a dual Bachelor of Asian and International Studies / Bachelor of Communication. I had no idea that I would go on to study a PhD – in fact, I was pretty uncertain about life in general! In my last year in high school, I had acquired a bilateral hand disability which left me unable to do pretty much anything with my hands – including write, type or do anything useful for succeeding at university. Yet, I came to Griffith University under the support of Disability Services, and never looked back. My interest in what I studied led me to find that nothing was unachievable – it just had to be achieved differently.

The idea to pursue a PhD came as a natural second to this – I was really passionate about and engaged in Asia and the world, and took it as far as I could. My mentor gave me some great advice at the outset. I was passionate about gender equality, international affairs, LGBTI+ empowerment, and much more, and she said: do as much as you can to gain credibility in these fields, as this will be the key to your career. Pursuing being ‘Dr’ has been a big part of that, but equally, I’ve never just concentrated all my energy in one space, and I’ve found that to be particularly helpful in building not only a strong academic career, but a diverse experience base to draw on for the future (and particularly in times like these where there is great instability).

In addition to being Director of Social Impact at Social Good Outpost, you are also the co-founder of the organisation. What led you to found Social Good Outpost back in 2016?

I had been reading a number of influential books at the time – books like Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Essentialism by Greg McKeown and Letters from a Stoic by Seneca – and I developed this very strong perspective that whatever I would do in life, I needed to ensure it was ‘antifragile’. What I mean by that, is that I approached life with the perspective that there would be many challenges and stresses, and a lot of uncertainty, along the way – but that I needed to embrace this, and make this a point of strength rather than weakness. (If you want a really good definition of antifragile, Taleb defines it as things ‘that gain from disorder’). I looked around me and I saw that my generation was pitched to have many dozens of careers in different industries over their lifetime, and so the first thing that made sense to me was that I needed to pursue a number of strong paths concurrently in order to build my skills in flexibility and adaptability.

My sister was at a similar point in life, and so with her as a designer, and myself as a strategist/researcher/doer in international affairs, we co-founded Social Good Outpost as an Australian design strategy studio. Our bread and butter is working with different social enterprises and purpose-led organisations to create the best designs, websites, and digital worlds we can for them. However, we also do a lot of strategy and major international creative projects and events – in 2018 it was co-curating a week-long intersectional human rights festival in Hong Kong, and most recently, it has been partnering with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to run youth-led public diplomacy programs across Southeast Asia. Through Social Good Outpost and my research, I now consult a lot on all kinds of initiatives, from public diplomacy, to design strategy, gender equality, youth-engagement, LGBTI+, human rights, and more.

How did you become involved in DFAT’s public diplomacy initiative, Australia Now, and what has this experience entailed?

When I was approached to put forward a proposal to DFAT, there was an element of being in the right place at the right time, but truthfully, I had been developing a strong track-record of Asian engagement, research and capacity building for almost 10 years. I already had experience running international events, and had developed both theoretical and practical experience in international affairs, soft power and public diplomacy – through my research/studies and my business. As a result, when Australia now was launched in 2019 and one of the focuses – for the first time – was youth, I was perfectly positioned to be able to help.

Together with the support of embassies and high commissions across the region, as well as the brilliant soft power division of DFAT in Canberra, we developed a Youth Entrepreneurs and Leaders Speaker Series to bring the best and brightest young Australians to Southeast Asia to collaborate, share expertise, and build links for the future. This was particularly important, as our region has the largest youth population in the world and is key to Australia’s contemporary and future foreign affairs – something I have written about before for the Lowy Institute. In practice, the program had broad impact, as we tried to engage with as many of the 10 ASEAN nations as we could. I ran week-long delegations on all kinds of topics from AI and tech, to climate change and sustainable fashion, gender equality, LGBTI+, social enterprise and startups. We had young Australians of the year, global entrepreneurs and acclaimed activists all working together, and as you mentioned in the header, involved almost 50 events, with over 3000 people, across the region. This year, I’m honoured to do it all again, this time with the focus on Malaysia (post-COVID-19).

What has been your greatest professional achievement so far?

One of the best pieces I ever received was actually to do with love, and it goes: love isn’t just in the grand gestures, but in the little, everyday interactions. Similarly, my greatest professional achievement isn’t just one thing I have done, but I am very proud of the fact that I always strive to make impact, in little ways, every day.

However, if I had to name one great professional achievement, it would be all the brilliant interviews I conducted for my PhD research on women’s leadership in Australian international affairs. I interviewed over 80 people in total, all over the world, and was particularly honoured to be able to interview former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. I’m hoping that you will see my book on women in Australian international affairs on the shelves soon, once I am able to convert my PhD for publication!

Finally, what advice would you give to fellow students and young professionals looking to pursue a career in international affairs?

There are more opportunities for careers in international affairs than ever before, and they are not just in the places you might expect. For instance, I found it really fantastic to see all the various forms of Defence-led and police-led diplomacy in my research, and truthfully, we live in such a globalised world that there is immense potential for young professionals to develop international careers in almost any industry or agency. Seek out these opportunities, and if they don’t exist, create them. If you have a good idea, or an important idea that you believe needs to come to fruition – then take that on as your personal mantle. Chances are, if you don’t do it, no one else will. If it matters to you, have courage to do it yourself. Lastly, entrepreneurship, adaptability and flexibility are common threads that this world of ours needs… your path to international affairs might not look like anyone else’s, but increasingly, these different pathways and perspectives are what our international affairs needs.


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