ABCN: How It All Started

In 2005, a dozen CEOs created ABCN with the aim of inspiring business to collaborate on making a difference to the lives of young Australians in low socio-economic communities. ABCN has been creating joy ever since.
Michael Hawker
ABCN founding member Michael Hawker.

When Michael Hawker was CEO of insurance giant IAG, he started thinking about how big business could make a difference to kids facing poverty, violence or drugs. He and a few fellow CEOs – including KPMG’s Doug Jukes, Optus’s Paul O’Sullivan and The Ethics Centre’s Simon Longstaff – knew that education was crucial for lifting kids out of disadvantage.

‘We wanted to get big business closer to the community, not by spending on charities but by using our people instead of money,’ Michael recalls. ‘And we wanted it to be something that wasn’t at the whim of the CEO of the day, something that lasted for a long period of time.’

And so the not-for-profit Australian Business and Community Network was born, with the purpose of business collaborating to empower students to achieve more than they imagined possible in the future world of work. The network started with 12 companies providing mentors to students in two schools. Fast forward 15 years and the network comprises 43 companies and 203 schools.

Michael says one of the most surprising things he’s observed is how much employees, as well as students, got out of the programs. ‘Becoming a mentor gave them a whole new perspective on life, more enjoyment – it made them happier. And business got the benefit of that.

‘It was also surprising to see how pairing chief executives with head teachers went. When we launched the program Partners in Learning, we thought it would be CEOs mentoring principals as mentees. But it’s a bilateral relationship – both have challenges and both learn from each other.’

He says a personal highlight for him is seeing students’ families at ABCN’s end-of-year events. ‘Families tells us that our mentors were such an asset for their child. It’s an incredibly emotional time.’

Not shy of getting a bit emotional himself, Michael proclaims: ‘Founding ABCN is the best thing I did in my corporate career.’

Although he no longer sits on the ABCN board, Michael is chair of the ABCN Foundation, the scholarship arm of ABCN launched in 2013. Current ABCN CEO Allegra Spender recalls with fondness receiving a three-page, handwritten letter from him when she started in 2017, outlining the history of the organisation and wishing her well for the future. ‘That was really special,’ she says.

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