“There was this time I was doing some microfinance work in Kenya,” reveals Holly Ransom. What would be a somewhat unusual statement for most 20-somethings is just another day at the office for one of Australia’s fastest-rising young leaders.
“One day I spotted a brand new well, about 400 metres from where we were based, which surprised me because the local women were walking 2.5 km to get fresh water,” she continues. “It transpired that this nearby well had been dug on an ancient battle ground and was seen by the locals to have bad spirits rendering its water undrinkable. So, a well-known aid organisation had spent $20,000 digging this well that no-one used, because they had assumed that they could copy what had worked elsewhere. If it had been dug 250 metres down the road it would have been fine but because they hadn”t engaged the community they were serving, the impact hadn”t been achieved. I’ve always remembered that lesson.”
She certainly has. Ransom, who just turned 26, has already clocked up an impressive array of achievements ranging from personal entrepreneurial success to advising public and private organisations around the world to leading the 2014 Youth 20 (Y20) Summit in Australia and much more besides. But she’s not resting on any laurels.
In addition to starting up and leading Emergent, a company specialising in the development of high-performing intergenerational workforces, leadership and social outcomes, she can often be found at the UN headquarters in New York, where she is co-chairing its Women Entrepreneurs Coalition.
Having co-authored the UN’s strategy paper on youth entrepreneurship and unemployment for the Sustainable Development Goals agenda, Ransom has been able to hit the ground running in her new role. Although it’s still early days she only started work a couple of months ago her excitement is tangible.
“I feel so fortunate to get to be working in this space, working on how we can evolve this critical conversation about women”s empowerment,” she says. “It”s not about throwing the baby out with the bathwater but it is about ensuring we”re thinking intergenerationally on both the issues and who we”re engaging. How do you get the next generation engaged and fired up to receive the baton? And what issues are critical to their empowerment, that build on progress that”s been achieved in the last couple of decades, or perhaps weren”t relevant for previous generations to the degree they are for millennials? Importantly, my co-chair is from Africa, so we have both a developed and developing country perspective coming together.”
Ransom, whose style mixes down-to-earth Aussie banter with an uber-sense of professionalism, does not seem to be someone who would relish working in an organisation the size and scale of the UN. Can she get things done there? Are there not too many layers of management to penetrate to be able to make a difference?
“I get varying responses from people when I talk about working at the UN,” she concedes. “But I simply believe in working within existing public institutions where there isn”t currently any appetite to create new institutions that are going to play that role and it is a vitally important role. Could the UN play it better? Of course. But is it something we could do without? Absolutely not.”
Ransom believes that the primary task facing the UN’s leaders and myriad stakeholders around the world is to ensure that it stays flexible enough to be able to adapt to the challenges of today and tomorrow. “There are so many aspects of what the UN does,” she says. “The challenge for leaders moving forward is how the institution itself evolves alongside the developing challenges it will be expected to respond to. It remains a place that brings different countries together and encourages dialogue and relationships and this can only be a good thing given the incredibly unstable world we live in.”
Ransom’s attempts to navigate UN’s corridors of power will doubtless be boosted by her experiences chairing the Y20 Summit in Australia, the first to secure its policy demands from G20 leaders, where she sought to turn a four-day summit into a 12-month policy conversation. “The UN is similar to what we did at the G20,” she says. “You’re really only limited by the way you choose to set your sights within the arena that you’re working in, and how hard you’re prepared to work at pulling it off. One of the great things about the UN is that it provides a global platform, but the challenges of navigating the channels shouldn”t be understated.”
Ransom, though, is setting her sights high. “From my perspective, I’m really optimistic about our ability to make real progress on economic empowerment and have a positive impact,” she says. “I’m always optimistic about the ability of people who are passionate about an issue and have an openness to collaborate to have an impact. Sometimes there can be paralysis on issues just because they are deemed to be too big, but it’s important to get started on the journey and to realise that any progress, irrespective of size, is positive. Keeping that perspective is key – if you can build momentum you can make things happen.”
Ransom’s primary focus in her day-to-day business career is helping organisations address the complex intergenerational challenges that are only going to intensify in the coming years. “Over half the global population is aged under 30,” she points out. “But we more often than not don”t see young people given a voice or involved in decision-making. When I look back at the G20, I think of the power of young people when they come together and work towards the same goal. However, we only got that opportunity because, when I sat down and presented to the G20 Sherpas and pledged that we would be more strategic and outcomes-oriented than ever before, Sherpas and world leaders were prepared to give us a seat at the table and a chance to make our voices heard.”
She goes on to say, though, that gaining entry into the inner sanctum was just the start how to actually maximise that opportunity was a whole other challenge. “It was about understanding the audience you’re speaking to and the language you need to speak to them in,” she recalls. “I got some advice from some mentors early on that if I was going in and speaking to finance ministers and central bank governors then I needed to be talking numbers they would listen politely to broad passionate statements but we wouldn”t get traction without the right data to present.”
Such advice, she believes, resonates just as strongly when looking at how to engage and give voice to the billions of young people around the world. “If we don”t constructively engage this generation they will constructively disengage,” she says. “We need to be thinking about how to reach out and create those relationships and opportunities as soon as possible, as this window won’t be open forever I’d say we have about five years or so before we lose this opportunity to create better engagement.”
Doing so starts as early as possible a point that is just as important in microfinance projects in Kenya as in addressing global issues of empowerment at the UN. “Technology means that we now have the ability to involve people from the get-go,” she says, “and this helps entrepreneurs to iterate and develop a new product, and government leaders to design an effective policy solution. This is always the approach I have taken to public policy settings and situations who are we trying to engage? How do we get them around the table and engaging in our strategy from as early as possible?”
It’s an approach that has stood Ransom in good stead for her first 26 years. No doubt it will continue to do so, whatever path she chooses next.
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