Moving fast, with patience

Wednesday, 01 May 2013

Zilla Efrat  photo
Zilla Efrat

    From property development and consulting on IP, to hosting Australia’s first conference on youth philanthropy and promoting trade with Moldova, Dr Aron Ping D’Souza has a diverse portfolio of interests. Zilla Efrat reports.

    At the age of 14, Dr Aron Ping D’Souza MAICD took up his first board position.

    "I was on the multicultural commission of my local city council and was the youngest member by at least 20 years," he recalls. "I was asked to join because I had been volunteer organiser of a community multicultural celebration. It was humbling to be asked and a great educational opportunity."

    Since then, D’Souza, now aged 28, has managed to pack many more opportunities into his time (even though he believes patience is life’s greatest virtue).

    After a flourishing start in academia, he is now a director of the privately held property development firm, Untitled Australia, which recently upgraded the landmark Stawell Chambers in Melbourne. Originally built in 1887, Stawell houses barrister’s offices opposite Victoria’s Supreme Court.

    He is also a board member of the Henley Club, a private social club for young change-makers and thought-leaders in Melbourne, the chairman of Nexus Australia, a member of the Nexus global leadership committee and the head of mission at the Moldovan Consulate in Australia. In addition to this, he is also a consultant on technical and strategic matters, particularly on copyright and patent law, and he is an avid investor in property.

    "I became involved in property development to diversify my assets and explore new opportunities in creating social value," he says. "I believe giving people a place to live, or building an attractive place for individuals to work, creates tremendous social good. Using urban land efficiently is central to building a productive Australian society."

    And, if his portfolio wasn’t diverse enough, D’Souza is also the associate editor of The Journal of Applied Economy, the foundation editor of The Journal Jurisprudence, and the author of three books.

    Asked what benefits younger people can bring to a board, he says: "They have intrinsically longer time horizons. It is unsurprising that few Australian companies have 20- or 50-year strategies when their boards are dominated by directors who are just a few years away from retirement. Young people are uniquely placed to see a very long-term strategy through to completion.

    "I think it is important to balance between this risk-taking, long-term approach that young people can bring and the more conservative approach that experienced directors have. Boards should pay careful attention to their age composition, in the same way that boards are more aware of gender composition now."

    D’Souza has experienced challenges as a younger director. "Frequently being the youngest director on any board I have served on, the challenge has been authenticity and qualification. It is easy to dismiss young people as being unqualified for corporate governance.

    "I am pleased that these issues are less relevant now, particularly since I received a PhD and read law at Oxford. Many people dismiss ‘paper’ qualifications today, but these were very important to me to minimise the perception of being unqualified for a director’s position at a relatively young age."

    So what is D’Souza’s advice to younger people on how to get their first board position?

    "I believe in the power of asking," he says. "I think too many people expect that because they are qualified and talented, they will be asked to join a board. I believe the better strategy is to directly approach boards and see if they require new directors."

    As a very young boy, Melbourne-based D’Souza wanted to be an airline pilot. But his career took a different turn when he entered the world of academia.

    He obtained two undergraduate degrees from Monash University, where he was a tutor at age 21. He then wrote a PhD on the jurisprudence of intellectual property law at the University of Melbourne, where he taught political science and economics. Feeling the need to find new intellectual challenges, he then moved to the UK to study law at Oxford University.

    "At that stage, I was convinced I would be a law professor and spend my life in the ivory tower," says D’Souza. But he was soon attracted to other challenges.

    One was becoming the Honorary Consul for Australia for Moldova, an Eastern European country that was once a Soviet republic.

    "Oxford has a special magnetism about it and attracts amazing speakers on a daily basis," recalls D’Souza. "I became involved in the international relations society, which hosts ambassadors and political leaders to lecture about international issues. During that time, I became acquainted with numerous diplomats in London, particularly the Moldovan ambassador to the UK. When I left Oxford to return to Melbourne, the Moldovan Government asked me to be its Honorary Consul for Australia."

    Commenting on trade relations, D’Souza says Moldova is most known for its production of fine wines. "Moldovan wine is popular throughout the former Soviet Union and is highly regarded by prominent wine critics. Moldova has some of the oldest vineyards in the world and has a similar climate to Bordeaux. A small amount is currently imported into Australia, but the Consulate is working to open the Australian market to this exciting product."

    He adds: "Australian exporters have been received well in Moldova, particularly those making medical devices. I’ve worked with some prominent Australian companies to get their medical equipment certified for use in Moldova, which opens doors to other Eastern European countries."

    Asked about other business opportunities in Moldova, D’Souza says: "As a primarily agricultural economy, Moldova can also benefit Australia’s advance agricultural technologies. Australia is a true innovator in this space and we, as a nation, can do more to advance the adoption of these technologies in growing markets.

    "Additionally, company directors need to appreciate that there are dynamic opportunities available in non-traditional markets. One speaks of a ‘European Financial Crisis’, but in 2011, the Moldovan economy grew by 6.5 per cent while other European economies were contracting."

    In addition to promoting trade opportunities with Moldova, D’Souza has also been busy spearheading the organisation of the Nexus Global Youth Summit – a conference on youth philanthropy and impact investing – to be held in Australia later this year.

    The flagship Nexus conference in New York attracts more than 700 young people with a combined net worth in excess of $150 billion dollars. By engaging with next generation of wealth holders, it aims to create a platform for dialogue focused on increasing social impact through philanthropy.

    In 2011, D’Souza was invited to the second Nexus summit hosted in London. "I was immediately impressed by how effective the movement is at engaging young wealth holders to think about philanthropy and innovative ways to deploy capital," he says.

    "I knew this was highly relevant to Australia, particularly given our large cultural and educational institutions have an ageing donor base. In partnership with the Foundation for Young Australians, Nexus will host its first Australian summit in Sydney from 20-22 October 2013." 

    D’Souza believes Australian directors would benefit from attending Nexus because it will connect them with the most influential group of young philanthropists in the world.

    "One third of the delegates at the Sydney summit will be from overseas, representing prominent philanthropic families and important foundations," he says. "It will be the first time that such a group will gather in Australia and will thus provide an important opportunity to share knowledge and experience. I would encourage directors, not just those of not-for-profits, but also those of for-profit companies to attend, particularly those who have an interest in empowering young people. The summit is by application and is free to attend."

    So what worries D’Souza about Australia’s level of philanthropy and how could it be improved?

    He says: "Australians, particularly working and middle-class families, are very generous both financially and in terms of giving their time to charities. However, I find it concerning that our wealthiest families (with a few notable exceptions) aren’t involved in philanthropy in the same way that US or European families are.

    "Philanthropy is the venture capital of social innovations – philanthropic investments allow charities to explore new models of delivering social value, often in a way that governments could never fund. The greatest cultural institutions, like the Metropolitan Opera or the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and the most important education institutions, like Harvard or Oxford, are all primarily funded by philanthropy. As a consequence, they can be less risk-averse and push boundaries in a way that government-funded institutions cannot."

    Turning to his consulting work, D’Souza says: "Australian companies, particularly those outside of the technology sector, tend to view intellectual property (IP) protection as the final step in the R&D process. Frequently, they spend millions on developing a product and then consider the IP angle. Unsurprisingly, they find that they are in breach of someone’s patent or are unable to get a patent.

    "Additionally, Australian companies tend to export heavily to the US. Most companies I have worked with in Australia are unaware of the major changes occurring in US patent law at this very moment. The US congress has passed the America Invents Act, which fundamentally overhauls the patent system. Companies that rely upon IP protections in the US need to be aware of this and change their strategies accordingly."

    His advice to directors on how to better manage their organisations’ IP is to find IP advisers who understand both the technical and legal side of their businesses.

    "IP lawyers know the law, but frequently don’t understand the underlying business of the organisation they are advising," says D’Souza. "Finding an IP adviser who is part management consultant, part technical analyst and part lawyer is ideal. These types of IP advisers can help a business grow, develop new products and generate the highest quality IP. However, it is rare to find this mix of skills since most lawyers know very little about business. The challenge for directors is to identify this talent and nurture it, either internally or externally."

    D’Souza says he is deeply inspired by the possibilities for Australia in 2013. "With the highest rate of savings in the world and the fifth highest GDP per capita, Australia is in a better financial position than almost every other nation in the world," he says. "By some measures, we are the richest society in the world per capita. This is an extraordinary time in our history and one that we, as a society, should utilise to secure the promise of peace and prosperity for future generations. If we do not, we risk squandering this once in a lifetime opportunity to build Australia into the most prosperous, equitable and productive nation in the world."

    When he’s not in the boardroom, D’Souza enjoys playing sports, particularly rock climbing and cycling. He also loves spending time with his grandmother, who he says has always been a great inspiration to him.

    He has also been inspired by a range of other mentors and supporters during his life, but says the most important would have to be Sir Zelman Cowen, the former Governor-General of Australia. "I read Sir Zelman’s biography and wrote him a letter. Being a gracious gentleman, he invited me to tea at his office and so began a relationship that lasted until his death in 2011. He encouraged me to study at Oxford and contribute to building a better society," he says.

    "I wake up each morning thankful for the opportunities I have had in my life and for the support that friends, family and strangers have given. I am driven to honour these opportunities, realising that today, like every day, is a special chance to improve oneself and the world at large," he adds.

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