Danny Almagor was sitting in an aerospace engineering class when he had a life-changing moment.
The university student, more interested in the side of engineering that directly affected people, found his course had drifted almost solely towards technology.
Entrepreneur Secrets - Danny Almagor
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Entrepreneur Secrets - Danny Almagor
At 35, Danny Almagor has already crammed in a lifetime of business experience - from setting up Engineers Without Borders to running a suite of eco-friendly sustainable enterprises.
''By the third year I was just like, 'why am I doing this?','' says the now 35-year-old.
''I had this epiphany moment. I wrote down all the things I was passionate about.'' Among the list were travel, the outdoors, adventure, buildings, the environment and tackling poverty.
Almagor decided the answer was to take a year off to travel. He asked a lecturer for ideas on where to volunteer his engineering skills overseas, but says ''there was just nothing''.
A rough plan began to take shape, but it wasn't until he had come back to Australia, finished his degree, and spent time working as an outdoor instructor that he returned to it.
And so, in 2003, with the help of seven university mates, Almagor registered the Australian arm of Engineers Without Borders (EWB).
By that time, other EWBs had formed overseas, but there was nothing like it in Australia. Almagor describes the movement as a good idea whose time had come.
Before getting stuck into it, Almagor won a Churchill Fellowship that allowed him to visit and learn from other Engineers Without Borders overseas and explore possible projects in Nepal and India. He also got busy networking in Australia.
''It was difficult to set up. Engineering is a very respected profession. The more time you spend in there, the more kudos you have,'' says Almagor.
''They'd look at me and I was mid-20s and say 'you've got no experience, what are you trying to do? Go and work for 30 years and then do what you want to do.'
''So that was kind of hard but the idea spoke for itself.''
Almost a decade later, the Australian arm has undertaken more than 100 projects in about eight countries including India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia and Australia - providing developments such as clean drinking water, smokeless stoves and electricity to entire villages. Almagor's efforts won him the Social Entrepreneur of the Year award in the southern region of this year's Ernst & Young awards.
Some of his proudest moments include the organisation's work teaching biomechanics at a Cambodian centre of prosthetics and orthotics, which helped victims of landmines or polio.
The aim was for those students to become teachers. After six or seven years, EWB received a phone call saying their help was no longer needed. ''So that was like the ultimate success,'' he says.
Another magic moment came in east Bali where water pipes to a village ended a two-hour walk each way for clean drinking water.
While running the not-for-profit Engineers Without Borders, Almagor had also started his own commercial flu vaccination business Medivax, and saw the opportunity for a business that could combine the best of both approaches.
He stepped back as chief executive of Engineers Without Borders in 2010 to focus on his current project, a ''family of businesses'' based in Melbourne, under the banner of Small Giants. ''Quite simply, we're an investment house that invests in businesses we think are changing the world,'' says Almagor.
Partnerships have so far been formed with eco-friendly tampon business TOM Organic, an eight-star eco-development in Brunswick, a magazine called Dumbo Feather and social enterprise STREAT, among others.
When deciding what to invest in, Almagor says he and wife Berry Liberman, his co-founder, first ask themselves: “is it good for people, is it good for the environment; is it the world we want to live in?”
Small Giants is funded through a large inheritance – Liberman’s father died when she was a teenager – and money that Almagor made selling Medivax.
Almagor says he’s not shy about where much of the money came from, but believes there is also a certain responsibility in being well off.
“Plenty of people can be wealthy and do nothing with it and become Paris Hilton, go on holidays, invest it in fast companies that make a lot of money,” he says.
Instead the couple have decided to invest their money in ideas that will have a positive impact on the world.
“Often we spend our lives wearing one hat at work and another hat at home,” Almagor says. “We kind of turned around and said ‘that’s ridiculous, let’s merge the two’.”
He says the mission for Small Giants is not dissimilar to that of their magazine, Dumbo Feather : “to inspire people to live with passion and meaning”.
“I kind of think that’s the whole point. How do we get people just to wake up and say ‘what am I excited about, how can I be useful in the world?’ and then pursue that journey, whatever that is?’
Danny Almagor’s five secret tips for entrepreneurs
1. Never give up I think persistence is much more important than smarts, even a good idea. Persistence will beat a good idea. If you have both, you are on a winner.
2. Comparison is the death of happiness There will always be people who are faster than you, better than you, richer than you. Don’t compete with them - just find your path and go on it.
3. Business is about relationships It is all about people. Treat them right and they will generally treat you right too.
4. Cover your downside We don’t expect planes to crash, but we still make sure that every seat has a life vest. Make sure you have yours.
5. Be happy and useful A recent Dalai Lama tweet. I love it!