10 Oct 2018
Building Paths to Success
Michael Traill (MBA 1987), cofounder of Social Ventures Australia, has helped provide better opportunities for thousands of children.by Jill RadskenTopics:
Photo by Anna Kucera
Michael Traill’s (MBA 1987) change-of-life moment came early one sleepless Saturday morning in 2001. He found himself staring at the clock, which read 5:56 a.m., unable to sleep, too troubled by the plight of a boy he was coaching on his son’s Aussie Rules football team.
“I kept thinking about this kid. He was struggling at school, but he loved his football and it gave him the self-esteem and confidence that he missed at school. So I decided to make him captain for the day,” Traill says. “He really stepped up and played well, and it made me feel good that I could have some positive influence.”
That small act led to an epiphany for Traill, who set out on a mission to create venture philanthropy that could back social entrepreneurs with strategy and guidance to support young people. A year later, he founded Social Ventures Australia (SVA), where he served as CEO from 2002 to 2014.
Now a team with 100 people, SVA partnered last year with 17 nonprofits focused on reducing economic and educational disadvantage among Australia’s neediest populations. Traill, who details his personal transformation and SVA’s rise in his new book, Jumping Ship, was able to make a profound impact immediately. Responding to a newspaper article about the bankrupt ABC Learning child-care chain, Traill led to SVA to buy its nearly 700 centers, many in low socioeconomic areas, with an alliance of four nonprofits passionate about early education.
“It was a pretty challenging task to raise the funding because traditional sources wanted a commercial return, and they all had different objectives,” says Traill, who now serves as chair of Goodstart Early Learning, as the acquiring syndicate was named. “We acquired the business for $95 million, with the help of dozens of individuals, foundations, and charities. The federal government contributed as well. SVA offered 12 percent return. Wind the clock forward eight years, and we met and exceeded our targets. We repaid the debt two years before expected, and there’s better quality early learning.”
Traill grew up in Morwell, a small, poor town in southeast Australia, with supportive, attentive parents who created opportunities for success. His dad was the first in four generations to attend college and he worked as the high school principal.
“We were very involved in the local sports organizations and in the community fabric,” Traill recalls. “For me, there was a lot of love and support around education.”
But when he returned home in 2001 for a family funeral and saw an old high school friend, Traill started to reconsider what he had achieved—and how he had done it.
“He was the grave digger at the funeral. When we were in school, he was the math whiz,” Traill says. “I thought he had all the capacity to be an engineer, but his environment didn’t give him the opportunity to make the most of his gifts.”
Traill recalls his arrival at HBS as a dramatic culture shift and one that helped him recognize the path necessary for success. He took a finance course with David Mullins in his first year, one that would eventually set his career course toward Macquarie Bank, Australia’s largest investment group. When he became an impact investor after 14 years in the banking world, Tralll set out to provide the same possibilities for tens of thousands of children in his native country. He went on fact-finding missions, acquiring intel from Vanessa Kirsch, CEO of New Profit, a Boston-based venture philanthropy fund supported by the Monitor Group and HBS professor Michael Porter; from Paul Shoemaker, founding director of the Seattle-based Social Venture Partners International; and, closer to home, from Jan Owen, a well-known Australian social entrepreneur who joined SVA just after it was formed.
“The experiences and content those people shared with me was invaluable. In particular, Jan’s presence as a key partner was a powerful symbol for me that we could combine business and nonprofit and make one plus one equal more than two,” he says. “Seventy percent of what I was doing in my private equity and business life was extremely relevant; but in the other 30 percent, there was a steep learning curve, and I had to learn how a different sector works.” Traill says. “In nonprofits, it’s important to have the conversation. They don’t care what you know; they want to know that you care. That resonated with me.”
The financing of ABC Learning proved to be the large-scale impact investment story that Traill and SVA had been seeking, with impact both measurable and extraordinary.
“When we initially invested, we only had 160 university-educated teachers. Now, there are more than 1,000 high-quality educators. This is one part of the solution, but it’s a critical part,” he says. “Being able to support children at three, four, or five so they are ready for the school system—you see the difference it makes on their lives and their families’ lives. It’s inspiring.”
Class of MBA 1987, Section G