The business of helping others: finding a career with purpose
Published 22 Mar, 2022 · 8-minute read
When he started his Bachelor of Business Management degree at UQ, Zachary Fook wanted to become the next Richard Branson. But then he took a social entrepreneurship class, and everything changed. The focus shifted to finding a career with purpose and creating real change in the world around him.
Now the founder and executive producer at TheraPlay.TV and founder and CEO of Active Eight, Zac began his social entrepreneurship journey during his studies, when he co-founded The Tippy Toe Co., Australia's first social enterprise ballet school for young people of all abilities.
What do all these businesses have in common, apart from their founder? Their mission: to make the world more inclusive, accessible, and fun (for everyone).
Here’s how Zac went about finding a career with purpose, how he got started as a social entrepreneur, and why he’s so passionate about creating a more ethical future for all.
Why did you choose to study the Bachelor of Business Management?
When I finished high school, I didn't really know what my career path would look like. But I was always interested in things like economics, legal studies, business and accounting. I've always had an interest in understanding why people make purchasing decisions and behave the way they do. Every time I drive past a business around town, I wonder who their customers are, what's their business model and what makes them different.
So, it was natural that I gravitated towards business at university.
How did this program help launch your entrepreneurial career?
I actually found my way into social entrepreneurship by chance.
I thought I wanted to become the next Richard Branson, so I wanted to focus my studies on for-profit entrepreneurship. But because of a scheduling conflict (I was working full time while studying), I ended up taking a social entrepreneurship class instead.
During this class, we had an assignment to create our own social enterprise from scratch and take it to market. It was quite an intensive course where you really got hands-on experience of what it's like to create a business. Doing it in my final year of university was great because I’d already completed all the foundational courses and was able to apply what I’d learned into the business.
How did you come up with your startup business idea for this class?
My mum actually identified that there was a gap in the market for inclusive extra-curricular activities for children with disabilities. While a lot of kids would spend the weekend playing sport, there’s a significant number who don’t have that opportunity because most clubs aren’t set up to support their needs and coaches receive very little training in the way of inclusive practice.
The startup idea we had back in 2013 was to create a ballet school for children of all abilities, holding lessons every Saturday morning. From here, The Tippy Toe Co. was born.
Nowadays, the allied health industry is booming and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) employs about 1 in 5 jobs in Australia. About 95% of our clients come through the NDIS funding model, which means we must be competitive in our offering. Branching out from ballet, we repositioned ourselves as Active Eight and have grown to become a leading provider of paediatric therapy and programs currently occupying a 1000sqm state-of-the-art centre in the heart of Toowong (with plans to grow across the east coast over the next 5 years).
Image credit: Active Eight
How did this social entrepreneurship experience change your career trajectory?
Sometimes we can feel torn between pursuing a career that is driven by our own self-interest and the pursuit of money or titles, versus one that is driven by our intrinsic desire to make the world a better place (i.e. finding a career with purpose). While I had set myself up to pursue a corporate career, once I experienced the profit-for-purpose sector, I realised this is where both desires can be fulfilled.
After I graduated from the Bachelor of Business Management in 2014, I worked for Youngcare in the not-for-profit sector as part of the philanthropic partnerships team that connects corporate giving to Youngcare’s supported disability accommodation projects. Our purpose was to build accessible housing for young people with disabilities, so they didn’t have to live in aged care. I worked there for a few years and then took up a role as an innovation management consultant working with a portfolio of universities in Australia and the UK to deliver projects that increased student satisfaction, improved graduate outcomes, and widened participation.
These opportunities and the mentors I met along the way really developed a confidence within me to pursue my side project, The Tippy Toe Co., on a full-time basis. Then, 8 years after Tippy Toe Co.’s inception, the project I started during a uni assignment became my full-time role. We now have 17 full-time staff and 33 casuals providing over 17,500 allied health services and programs annually. As well as that, we have recently developed a new type of service delivery in TheraPlay.TV, which we’ve dubbed as a new genre blending therapy and entertainment: ‘Thera-tainment’. This has enabled us to take our Brisbane-based programs and deliver them to a global audience.
Image credit: Active Eight
What made you decide to leave the corporate world and further develop The Tippy Toe Co.?
It didn’t happen overnight. While I was still working in a corporate role, I remained committed to fostering these incredibly meaningful connections with the community on the weekend, volunteering in the ballet school. This meant I could earn a living, hone my professional skills, but also fulfil a deep-seeded need to genuinely give back and be part of a group leading change in the local community.
Before I made the leap, I was working for 2 amazing bosses who backed me during the transition phase, paying me my weekly wage but giving me the time and flexibility to put in place a strategy and roadmap to take the ballet school to its next phase. Looking back, perhaps it was a reward of sorts for over-delivering on several of our university projects. They could probably also see that I had this itch I needed to scratch that I just couldn’t in my 9-to-5 work.
It was a rare arrangement at the time in the corporate sector, but nowadays it’s far more commonplace for companies to invest in their employees’ side projects and offer that flexibility. This personal experience has certainly positively impacted how I support my employees today in their work and side project endeavours.
Financially it was a big pay cut for the first 6 months, but I felt that I didn’t have the option of failing.
Would you recommend other young aspiring entrepreneurs study this program?
In my experience, those who have studied or been exposed to business are likely to be more successful at starting a business than those who just wing it or go by gut feel. There's so much merit to studying entrepreneurial theory, evidence-based frameworks, and tried and tested methodologies. That's why entrepreneurship programs like those in the Bachelor of Business Management exist. When I hear my mates namedropping the extremely successful businesspeople who don’t have a university or college degree, I remind them that they’re referring to nearly one in a hundred million.
While studying a business degree, I challenged myself to go out of my way to connect with students from other disciplines and degrees. Being able to use the university campus experience to gain an appreciation and insight into how innovation and value is derived in other fields is invaluable. In discussion with other disciplines, it’s within our scope as students of business to contribute to shaping an entrepreneurial idea into a business model or plan. That might mean exploring the value proposition to consumers, understanding the value chains and market (the five forces, or even a rudimentary financial modelling). Going one layer deeper, we might even assist in finding a greater sense of meaning behind the idea and answering the question of profit for what purpose? That’s where things can really get interesting,
It’s unfortunate that a lot of the ideas explored in a university course might not make it beyond the classroom. This is why I see enormous value in the entrepreneurship course, which has been designed to teach the process of birthing an idea into existence and then nurturing it through the vital early stages of life. The process and methodology taught is transferable to any idea or industry. The entrepreneurship course could be at home in any degree as a capstone project; it’s just that valuable.
What’s your advice for other startup founders and young entrepreneurs?
Dream your customers’ dreams: It might be obvious, but your customers’ dreams should match up with your product or service roadmap. With Tippy Toe Co., for example, our foundation clients all expressed a similar dream of one day being able to access psychology, physio, martial arts, yoga (and much more) all under the one roof.
(Broadly) map out your life’s work*: Open a note on your phone and put into simple words what you want to dedicate your life’s work to. I personally have several pillars including (1) inclusive communities, (2) healthy tech, (3) the morning routine, and (4) greener places. Everything I do career-wise and entrepreneurship-wise will contribute to one of these pillars. If you can’t think of what your pillars should be, it’s time to hit the float tank!
Be someone who others want to invest in: The first person who invested in me did so because they believed in me as a person, not just the merit of my idea. Authenticity, empathy and logic are timeless traits of good leaders and investible professionals.