• Dr Nikki James

A Journey of Happenstance

I was going through some old files the other day and found this essay. It's an essay I wrote five years ago while applying to grad school. I didn't get into the program I was applying for but I can honestly say the journey I have taken has been much better. I've always been told I should write my story... so here is a snap shot of it written through the eyes of my 30 year old self!


Musings of my younger self...


My academic and professional background follows my fundamental belief that life is a journey, not a destination. At first glance, it appears to represent a confused person who is unsure of who she is and what she wants. But, when coupled with the narrative of my journey of self-discovery that led to the understanding of who I am, what makes me come alive, and the contribution I want to make, the clarity comes.


At the age of 16, I found myself in the unique position of having to choose a university major. At this time, I was overseas on exchange isolated from mentors, teachers and family who would generally be present when a life-altering decision like this is made. My choice came down to two things:


  1. I had a deep desire to help people

  2. I loved being physically active


The outcome: A Bachelor of Exercise Science, followed by a two-year career as an Exercise Physiologist helping people achieve their fitness and health goals. During this time, I spent much of my personal time as a youth leader and mentor in my local church. This volunteer work coupled with my professional life led to a transition from fitness to not for profit; working with young girls suffering the effects of eating disorders, self-harm and other debilitating mental health issues. This experience led me to the realisation that my desire to help people went beyond physical needs to emotional and psychological needs. While in this role, I was approached by a large charity in Australia to fill an interim position as their Youth Coordinator while they found a permanent solution.



A three-month contract turned into three years as the Youth & Young Adults Department Manager and an almost complete MBA. The MBA was undertaken in an attempt to be taken seriously by my fellow managers who were all 50+ ex-corporate executives who called me 'the crazy little one'. As I worked through my MBA, I became increasingly aware of my natural ability to innovate and lead change and my passion for learning. Simultaneously, I became acutely aware that the way I was wired was not conducive to a life of battling the bureaucracy found in large humanitarian organisations. Problematic considering the organisation I was working for.


A bored afternoon at my desk and a rabbit trail of Google searches led to the fascinating discovery of the term Social Entrepreneur and better yet a school designed to train them. Not one to procrastinate when life offered me a window I applied for the school on the spot, was called for an interview two days later and within a week was accepted, on a full scholarship, into the first student cohort of the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) in Australia.


In parallel, I learned about and became facinated by outdoor education company a friend had founded in China. In particular, his desire to start incorporating humanitarian service initiatives into their trips. A phone conversation about the frustrations of setting up an international philanthropic initiative lead to me accepting the challenge of pioneering this project as part of my SSE Fellowship and found me country hoping between China and Australia for the next 15 months.



Starting the SSE program was a fascinating experience. The school was a government and corporately funded program. Our first day of class could have easily been confused with a press conference or a political rally. Still, it was on that day I found my people. A community of people who were passionate about using business acumen, innovation and leadership skills for social change.

I used to do well in school and university but had always seen study as something to check off the list so that I could get back out into the real world. I never really set ambitious academic goals or engaged beyond the coursework. This was different. I was learning something tangible that could help me help people in a way that suited my learning style, and I thrived. So much so, I was offered a scholarship to represent the school at the World Social Enterprise Forum in 2009 and ended up co-presenting a session with both our Australian & Global CEO's.


After fifteen months of living a somewhat crazy existence, I was exhausted. I was living between two countries, facing the challenges of my first start-up while in a culture I did not understand. I was finishing my MBA while trying to find reputable sources living under China's net-nanny. I was participating in the SSE training that at times felt more like a group therapy session and was emotionally taxing. And, not to mention, in severe financial dire straits.


I needed to stabilise my life and ultimately myself. I handed the project in China over to the Chinese staff. I started looking for a job that would enable me to regroup emotionally, physically and practically. The main thoughts guiding my job search were founded in a question from a wise man and serial entrepreneur during my SSE interview. "How are you going to focus on your project and not spend all your time helping others with theirs?"


Out of all the questions I answered in that interview, this was the one that left me speechless primarily because I knew it was true. Yes, I managed to get the project in China off the ground. However, my motivation for going to class was to hear how my fellow students were doing. I was continually giving encouragement when needed and using my skills to help them along with their projects. Even in China, the project was not mine I was using my skills to serve someone else's vision.



My desire to help people remained but a new dimension was added. I didn't just want to help people in need. I wanted to help people, help people. So, I took a job working in Student Development at the University of New South Wales. I spent my days mentoring and coaching university students who were running volunteer programs, clubs and societies on campus. And, I was responsible for building new volunteering programs. I was in my sweet spot. I found a stable income doing a job where I was using my innovative and entrepreneurial skills and my learning and development skills at the same time.


During that time, I was working with a student to start a program called the Volunteer Army. The Volunteer Army was designed to connect not for profit organisations with a database of eager volunteers. The program grew beyond our wildest expectations. Not to mention developed a reputation amongst other universities as a program they wanted on their campus. Two years in it was named the Australia & New Zealand Student Development Program of the Year!


Although this was an exciting role that I enjoyed, I was increasingly aware of its limiting factors. I did

not just want to help students from one university in one country to help people. I wanted to travel and help lots of different people help people. I was also refreshed and ready to jump into my next start-up. After attending a leadership program in January 2011, I resigned this job to launch out again into the world of social enterprise. I didn't know what I wanted to do. Still, I knew that I needed a baseline income that gave me the freedom and time I needed to discover what was next for me. I found that in a Lecturer role within the Business Faculty of APM Business College. It did not take me long to discover how much I loved teaching. It had the added bonus of flexibility that enabled me to branch out into the not for profit world and help people, help people. I spent some time helping friends in the USA, got back involved in what was happening in China and helped organisations in Australia with their marketing, communications and fundraising.


This birthed my next start-up. Primarily because I was being offered to much work than I could handle myself, so I needed to employ people to help me. I spent the next two years teaching both face to face and online in two different business schools while running The Epicentre a communications agency. The Epicentre supported not for profit and social enterprises with their marketing, communications and fundraising. And at the same time, allowed young creative people to use their skills in design, video editing and art to help people. The pinnacle of this experience was in June 2012 when I took a team of young people to Tanzania to create resources that would help Kigamboni Community Centre (KCC) tell their story and raise support and funds for their program.



I was captivated by the work of KCC and with The Epicentre running well I wanted to do something more to help KCC from back in Australia. I gathered a group of like-minded young people together and we envisioned a project that would later be called Timbre Café; a not for profit café that acted as a training program for homeless young people while raising funds to support the work of KCC. Timbre Café opened its doors in September 2012. I spent the next nine months working on this project to make it sustainable before handing it over to a manager in June 2013.


Since that time, I have focused on my role as an academic and invested my time in mentoring and coaching young people through the Transformational Leadership Program I attended in 2011.


This journey has taught me many things about myself, life and the world.

  1. The role of education in unlocking human potential!

  2. How few people around the globe have access to it!

  3. I want to invest my life opening up access to education for EVERYONE.

#livingthedream #LTD #purpose

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