What do Liam Hemsworth, Chris Hemsworth and Zac Efron have in common? They’re all part of the YGAP initiative @polishedman to end violence against children and I’m thrilled to share this interview with it’s co-founder and social entrepreneur Elliot Costello.
YGAP finds and supports impact entrepreneurs changing lives in some of the world’s toughest communities because they believe local leaders have the solutions to local problems. To date, YGAP has significantly and measurably impacted the lives of 139,529 people living in poverty and aims to back 1,000 entrepreneurs and impact 1 million lives by 2018.
YGAP raises funds through an entrepreneurial approach, owning and running profitable social ventures and fundraising campaigns to fund their work in the field. Elliot has been invited to speak at the United Nations (UN) in New York and at several UN and leading social enterprise conferences across the Middle East and Asia. He is a leading voice on youth issues, social entrepreneurship and innovative fundraising in Australia.
Read on to discover the story behind YGAP, his unusual childhood and 3 things you should think about before embarking on your own Legacy Project.
Tell us what inspired you to co-found YGAP? In particular, what was the feeling behind your intention?
The feeling was frustration. In 2008, myself and a group of friends wanted to combine our two loves of travel and volunteering, but we suddenly faced the obstacle of the exorbitant fees associated with most volunteer programs. We were frustrated and disillusioned so we decided to cut out the middleman and fundraised within our own communities, before packing our bags and flying to Africa to help build classrooms for schools in need.
What initially inspired you to become a Volunteer? Growing up with Tim Costello as your Father must have created an extraordinary childhood environment for you and your siblings?
I certainly had high exposure to different members of the community through Dad’s work as a local Minister and Lawyer in St Kilda. We had some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people in the community coming to our kitchen table. Prostitutes, Drug Addicts and others from that socio-economic demographic were regulars and I grew up learning that it’s important to serve others.
There’s no doubt that my childhood was different to the average child. However, in addition to these experiences, I also had exposure to a few volunteer experiences in the Middle East and India. These combined gave me the appetite and interest to be involved in the volunteering sector.
Was there a particular incident or event that occurred while you were overseas volunteering that served as a specific catalyst for the work you do today?
When I was 20 I travelled through India to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan where I experienced the tragedy of child labour. I was taken into communities where children as young as 5 were forced to work and sold for USD $40 – $50 and trafficked across the country to make a living. These children were sold to pay off debts or dowries. (In India, a dowry is the payment in cash or gifts given to a bridegroom’s family along with the bride.) These young children were forced to work 15 – 16 hour days in hazardous conditions. I was deeply challenged and confronted by this. These kids were being denied their freedom as children and it profoundly affected me.
How does YGAP bring your unique skills and talents to life?
It plays to a lot of my strengths. One thing we’re focused on is providing an ‘equal opportunity’ for others to use their skills to help change the world. Our mission is to help local entrepreneurs improve the lives of people living in poverty. So we focus on poverty alleviation. For us, YGAP is a great expression of that. Irrespective of age you can use your skill set to help make a profound impact on other people. That’s something I’m very proud of.
How does YGAP build on your sense of personal purpose and fulfilment?
YGAP has shaped my identity and has formed the essence of who I am today. It took five years of building YGAP on the side while working full time before I was able to quit my full-time role. I’ve since spent the last three years running the business full time and it’s incredibly fulfilling when you get to wake up every day and invest all your time and energy into something that provides people the fundamentals to live a basic life. There’s no greater purpose than to wake up every day and invest time and skills into supporting another human being as opposed to making your boss more money to buy an extension on their home!
What gives you the drive to keep going?
The inner knowing that I get the chance to go out and impact regularly and spend time in the field. To sit and learn and work with the entrepreneurs and ventures that are critically changing the lives of people. Our model is on finding and backing ventures that are locally driven. For us that’s the imperative and it’s this model that gives me the drive to keep going.
What’s been a highlight of the journey so far?
There have been many highlights from Rwanda, Malawi and Kenya. But I’ve just come back from a remarkable experience with one of our impact entrepreneurs in South Africa. I met with this particular entrepreneurial woman in her community 2.5hrs north of Johannesburg where she runs one of the nation’s best domestic violence programs. Thousands of lives depend on her program and she operates in a province where 7 out of 10 women suffer from abuse.
She is also a past victim of domestic violence by her father and former husband and told me she was on the verge of giving up because of the country’s bureaucracy, corruption and daily threats she’d been receiving against her life. But she’d recently received an email from Kaitlin Tait our GM of Impact, outlining some of the funding she was receiving and it inspired her to keep going. That simple gesture reminded her she was supported, and it occurred at a time when she needed it most.
How does the work of YGAP serve a higher purpose?
We back impact entrepreneurs – or as we like to call them ‘local leaders’ – with solutions to local problems in some of the world’s toughest communities. Rather than imposing our perceived solutions on a foreign community, we support the local leaders who live there and have developed their own. We believe the best solutions are entrepreneurial, so we focus on early stage ventures that exist to improve access to education or healthcare, create jobs or build safer homes. We believe this is the most effective, sustainable means of tackling poverty because these local leaders understand the unique challenges of their communities. Our role is simply to help refine and scale their solutions.
We are entrepreneurs ourselves, and run profitable social ventures and fundraising efforts to fund our work. Our social ventures are wholly owned and operated by YGAP, i.e. Feast of Merit, 5 Cent, Polished Man. There are no impact investors, secret shareholders, or dividends paid to directors everything we do is invested in the outcome.
We’re so strong about who we are and the organization we’re building, the people we support. Without a doubt, the higher purpose is the heartbeat of the organization and the heartbeat of what we do.
Thinking back over your journey what has been the greatest lesson?
My greatest lesson came from my father who saw the pace and velocity of my life, and realised that it wasn’t sustainable and that something had to change. He coached me to slow down. At the time I was in my mid 20’s and I thought I was invincible.
His simple words were: “Elliot life is not a race, it’s a marathon”.
At the time I was getting lost in the pace of work. Everything was build, build, build, and go go go. It’s important advice that I’ve taken on board. Appreciating that life is a long journey. It’s important to look after myself, and the people around me to ensure we make an impact long term.
What is your vision for YGAP, what do you want to achieve in your lifetime?
We’re not one to set goals like eradicate poverty in X number of years. We’re very light with who we are, but we know we have the skill set to bring a million people out of poverty. We’ve set this big hairy audacious goal that by mid-2018, we can improve a million lives. And that’s a significant and measurable improvement.
There are four pillars that underpin this goal 1. Health Care, 2. Education, 3. Job Creation and 4. Housing. For us that means that a million people will have access to quality health care, education, a good job and a home. These are the pillars that give people strength to grow, live and sustain a decent life.
How will those metrics be measured?
Great question. We are signed up to International Impact Recording Standards, IRIS. We’re very strict with our data and we have it independently measured. We make it fully transparent and available on our website for anyone to see.
What three things do you think people should think about before creating their own Legacy Project?
- The first step is the most critical: Just get started. If you’re passionate about something get involved, do something about it. Push that first door and the second will reveal itself.
- Don’t try to find out what’s at the end of the hallway, just keep going.
- You don’t need a map, there’s no such thing as a perfect strategy.
How would you like to be remembered?
For the work that I do. What we do at YGAP is phenomenal. It’s creating such a positive impact and I would like to be remembered by the work that we collectively achieve.
If you give one piece of advice what would it be and why?
I got an amazing piece from one of our impact entrepreneurs Silay from Cape Town. He essentially said, “If you can’t find a miracle in life, be that miracle for others”.
A few of my favourite bonus questions with Elliot…
Who or what is your favourite?
- Musician? I have to say Michael Franti because not only is he a great musician but a wonderful activist.
- Author or Book? Earlier this year, I read this book by Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris called Islam and The Future of Tolerance. Brilliant book. I’m still raving about it.
- Breakfast? Haha. I’m a muesli man.
- Mantra or quote? Not particularly. But there are two words that skip around quite a bit: Just Be. It’s a great reminder to just check in and be who you are in the moment you’re living.
Find out more about YGAP:
So tell me, what is your Legacy Project going to be? Let’s learn from Elliot absorb his advice and create a world where the purpose of business is to serve a higher purpose. Let’s do this together by sharing with your friends and colleagues in the comments below. Tell me your ideas, your plans and thoughts to create a business that makes a difference – I can’t wait to hear them!
Live with purpose!