Profile: My Pathway CEO on running a business with a mission for social good
When it comes to developing economic independence in remote and regional communities, Cairns-based My Pathway is a national leader.
One thing is abundantly clear when you first meet Paul Synnott: he is passionate about facilitating long-term pathways to economic independence for people from all walks of life.
It’s no surprise, then, that his life’s work led him on a circuitous journey from Melbourne to Alice Springs and back again, before making the great leap north to his current role of CEO at My Pathway in Cairns.
Many in the Cairns business community may not be aware of the scope and scale of My Pathway’s work.
Headquartered in Cairns, this multi-faceted organisation employs around 1000 staff from 33 cultures with a footprint stretching from the Torres Strait to Tasmania and the Northern Territory.
As a provider of education, training and employment services, its mission is aimed at creating economic independence for individuals and communities in remote, rural and regional Australia.
My Pathway’s mission and strategic vision is a perfect fit for Paul. While his career has taken him from the metropolis of Melbourne to the outback and rainforests of Northern Australia, the genesis of his journey to this point stretches back even further, right back to his grandmother.
The story of his passion for helping others is an inspiring tale.
“I think my journey has a lot to do with my grandmother, who had this real sense of helping people,” Paul told Tropic. “She was faced with some significant trauma when she was a young lady when the whole family was in a car accident and her husband – my mum’s father - died.
"My nan was suddenly by herself raising three girls under ten. And my nan always spoke to me about the importance of being there for people and that there'll always be someone who's worse off than you. And that's why you’ve always got to try to make a difference. That has stuck with me throughout my career in the social services sector.”
KITCHEN TABLE TO BOARDROOM TABLE
The journey of My Pathway itself is also remarkable. Paul describes it as a classic example of a business going from “the kitchen table to the boardroom table”.
“We class ourselves as a social and economic development company,” Paul said. “In a sense we're a large social enterprise, even though we are a private business. We are all about finding the best way to work with communities to create jobs for people.
"We are constantly asking ourselves how we develop, connect and grow people. That's the way we see our vision and it's all driven by the passion of creating economic independence.”
Central to the My Pathway mission of creating meaningful jobs and economic opportunity is working alongside entrepreneurs to support and develop their business, whether it’s just an idea or the startup phase, or a sole trader looking to expand.
“We have a not-for-profit company called Community Owned Enterprises and that operates like an accelerator/incubator for businesses,” Paul said. “It's something we've made significant investment in with the aim of supporting people, predominately Indigenous people, to become business owners.
"There wasn’t a shortage of people with ideas or the technical skills to deliver a service, but people did need help with the business side of things, the operational running of a business, which can be very hard for anyone starting out in their business. It requires a whole other skill set apart from delivering the actual service or product.
"Community Owned Enterprises was born from the idea of being able to help people identify business opportunities, then help them create the ownership opportunity and providing support with running the back end of the business, such as accounting or payroll. For me, the biggest gap in the market is mentoring and that’s something we are continuing to develop and grow as a service.”
PARTNERSHIPS AND OPPORTUNITIES
Paul shared the story of local Indigenous entrepreneur Carl Fourmile, who launched a cultural consultation business from scratch with the support of My Pathway.
“Carl Fourmile’s business is a really good case study,” Paul told Tropic. “A couple of years ago, Carl came to our office for a NAIDOC Week event. It was the very first time Carl and his family had performed in front of an audience.
"Two years later, he's now set up his business and he’s now earning revenue. With that particular company, we've become like a booking agent for him, so we're going out and finding him gigs and he’s working with councils and schools on various projects. So that's the type of work we do in that mentoring and incubator space.”
Paul is also excited about the potential for larger, mainstream businesses to engage in joint venture partnerships with smaller Indigenous businesses. “You look at some of the businesses operating in the Torres Strait around landscaping and construction,” he said. “They are small operations, in some cases sole traders, who really need a partner that's got experience so they can tender as a JV on larger projects.”
My Pathway currently reflects this partnership model across several regional and remote communities in joint ventures with traditional owner groups, community organisations and industry.
There are also immense opportunities for My Pathway to partner with large corporations across Australia to help meet targets set by Reconciliation Action Plans. Given the 50% Indigenous employment ratio achieved by My Pathway, large corporates are keen to utilise the organisation’s expertise in attracting and retaining Indigenous staff. Potential opportunities like that are key to My Pathway’s future.
The shifting sands of government funding means the organisation has had to develop a diverse business model capable of sustaining itself beyond the whims of grants and funding programs. Further diversification strategies include the expansion of a facility management company owned by My Pathway, with this subsidiary already a significant employer of over 350 people across Queensland.
Above all, though, My Pathway is focused on positive outcomes beyond the bottom line. Apart from its remarkable rate of Indigenous employment, the organisation is one of 120 nationally to receive the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s citation for workplace gender equality, and has achieved one of the nation’s highest gender pay ratios, with the gap for female pay closing from an already low 4% a few years ago to just 1.6% today.
“The thing about My Pathway is we’re not about being a huge money-making machine,” Paul said. “We are driven to provide opportunity for people to build stronger communities. We’re talking the talk and, most importantly, walking the walk.”