For creating a startup accelerator that’s spreading entrepreneurial know-how
Having grown up in different countries, Nathaniel Diong was always curious about how the world worked. He struggled to wrap his mind around why fresh water, food and shelter were luxuries for 1 in 10 people but taken for granted by the other 9. “I felt helpless,” he says.
A chance opportunity as a teenager to compete in a hackathon with professionals twice his age helped everything click into place: Diong realized that entrepreneurship offered a path to making a positive social impact while building future skills and self-confidence along the way. He created SmartPax, a pill box that reminds patients with chronic illnesses to take their medication. By 16, he had prototyped his device and pitched it to investors at the EY Entrepreneur of the Year event. “I learned more in a few weeks than I did in two years of business management class,” Diong says.
Eager to connect other teens with life-changing opportunities, Diong in 2017 created Future Minds Network, an Australian entrepreneurship education program, while still in high school. So far, the nonprofit has helped more than 11,000 young people create their own businesses and gain the essential skills to excel in a rapidly changing job market.
“Our programs create a chain reaction of good—equipping young people with the tools to make long-term impact in their local communities,” Diong says. Future Minds Network students have tackled homelessness and built everything from 3D-printed face shields to coffee carts. They’ve even launched their own nonprofits like Letters Against Iso, which has sent almost 10,000 encouragement letters to combat loneliness among the elderly.
Beyond the satisfaction of creating impact, Future Minds alumni also gain invaluable project experience to equip them for an uncertain future.
“The harsh reality is young people today will have more than a dozen jobs in multiple industries across their lifetime—and most of the jobs that young people will have in 2030 don’t exist yet,” Diong says. “Although we can’t prepare youth for every career in their lifetime, we can ensure they have the skills they need to adapt to change.”
Q&A: Nathaniel Diong on futureproof skill sets and why generalists are the new normal
What’s the one must-have skill to succeed in The Project Economy?
The future belongs to generalists—individuals with diverse skills and experiences across different industries. They relish the chance to expand their knowledge on subjects and can switch gears to fit into different roles. Whilst employers value specialists, today they value problem-solvers who can learn and adapt quickly even more.
If you want to thrive in the future of work, diversify your experiences. Experimenting with careers like entrepreneurship is one of the best ways you can do that. It pushes you to learn about every different skill, from marketing to finance. Most of all, it gives you the freedom to pursue your passion.
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
Commercializing Future Minds Network showed the inherent value and impact that our programs had and was a very proud moment. Social enterprises are not immune to the challenges of revenue generation, and every day without income leads to the slow death of your company. More business meant that I could create more impact, and it validated that our time was valued.
What’s the biggest challenge facing young project leaders right now?
Value creation. The difference between a good and great project lies in understanding the problem you’re solving. Take your time to listen, question and learn. It comes back to the human approach—behind every project is a problem, behind every problem is a person and behind every person is knowledge that will help you succeed. Using a value-centric approach will help young project leaders meet clients where they’re at and deliver.
How did the pandemic change the way you manage projects?
It made me manage scope creep. During COVID-19, we subsidized over AU$100,000 in programs for disadvantaged schools. There were many opportunities and project change requests that we had to reject in order to stay focused. Ultimately these decisions were the best we ever made, because it helped us make meaningful impact in the areas we cared about the most.
It also led me to experiment with engagement. Before 2020, it was impossible to imagine 10,000 people sitting behind their laptops for an online event. But we changed. During the pandemic, we ran massive networking nights with rotating breakout rooms and trivia. We ran hackathons teaching young people to prototype apps from the comfort of their homes. We ran workshops with dance parties and music. It was amazing to see how we could bring life through a screen and reimagine projects.
What’s one way managing projects will change over the next decade?
We’re seeing a huge shift to the gig economy, with increasing remote working arrangements. One of the best ways we can prepare is by having clearer expectations in projects that allow for autonomy within teams. Building meaningful relationships quickly with your team is just as important as building a supportive culture that brings out the best in everyone. With more projects and more new people, understanding each of your employees as humans first is a must-have to thrive in the future of work.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give your peers?
Don’t fall into the trap of believing that the only way to succeed is to follow conventional paths. You have your whole life ahead of you to explore a meaningful life. Take lots of chances, try new things and learn as much as you can. Know that age is just a label, and it doesn’t stop you from changing the world.
Advice to My (Even) Younger Self
We asked the Future 50: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
Don’t fall into the trap of believing that the only way to succeed is to follow conventional paths. You have your whole life ahead of you to explore a meaningful life. Take lots of chances, try new things and learn as much as you can. Know that age is just a label, and it doesn’t stop you from changing the world. —Nathaniel Diong