From Indigenous youth mentor and UN representative, to global financial inclusion advocate, Benson Saulo has always had his eyes fixed on the big picture
For most children, parental advice goes in one ear and out the other.
But when Benson Saulo’s dad told him, in no uncertain terms, “never think the world is not yours”, he listened.
Born to an Indigenous Australian mother and a Papua New Guinean father, Benson, now 31, grew up all too aware of the oppression faced by his ancestors – who were Wemba and Gunditjmara people – and the racial divisions that ran deep in his home town of Tamworth.
Head of Partnerships, Investments, Wealth and Capital Markets at Australian Unity, Benson is a former Australian youth representative to the United Nations and founder of the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy. He says his father’s message got through loud and clear.
“My father was the first person in his family to leave Papua New Guinea; he rocked up in Sydney as a 19-year-old to attend Bible college in shorts and a t-shirt in the middle of winter,” Benson says.
“Mum grew up in a tin shed with dirt floors just outside of Bordertown [in South Australia].
“But both my parents always pushed this idea of ‘never be defined by your situation’, and that there are opportunities there if you’re willing to take them.”
Growing up in Tamworth, New South Wales, where the Indigenous population is about three times higher than the national average, Benson says he can’t remember seeing an Aboriginal person working in any of the businesses in the main street.
That changed when he took on a school-based traineeship with the ANZ Bank at the age of 15.
“I knew I had a window of five minutes when I was serving a customer to leave them with something that might make them think differently about Aboriginal people,” he says.
Benson stayed on with ANZ for seven years, working his way up the ranks in business banking until, in 2011, he was appointed Australia’s youth representative to the 66th general assembly of the United Nations. He was the first Indigenous Australian selected for the position.
“I remember calling my mum to tell her and she just started crying,” he says.
“The thing is, she was 11 years old [at the time of the 1967 referendum for Aboriginal rights] before she was even classed as a citizen in Australia.”
“She said to me, ‘When I was young, they didn’t even want to know us, and now they’ve got my son representing them’ – and that was pretty powerful.”
The role took him around the country, talking to schools and youth organisations about their views, and then to New York, where he led negotiations for Australia on the rights of the child, and how the global financial crisis was affecting young people.
“It was an amazing experience, but also incredibly challenging trying to reach a consensus across all these nations that have very different approaches to young people,” he says.
Frustrated by the non-binding nature of the resolutions, Benson established the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy (NIYLA) in 2013, an organisation that empowers Indigenous young people to take action on issues they care about.
Over the next two years, the academy worked with young people from all over the country and launched 10 youth-led social action campaigns on issues including climate change and suicide prevention.
In 2014, Benson and wife, Kate O’Brien, also founded Mind Garden Projects, an organisation that provides literacy support for schools in Papua New Guinea.
He was working as a consultant for Good Shepherd Microfinance, advising corporations on how to apply international frameworks for financial inclusion at a local level, when he received an offer of employment from Australian Unity.
“I liked the fact that it is a mutual fund, I think it reflects this idea of being stronger together as a society, which often gets lost when you’re beholden to shareholders.”
During his two years with Australian Unity, Benson has implemented Australian Unity’s financial inclusion action program and its reconciliation action program, plus several mental health and disability programs.
As head of partnerships, his current focus is strengthening Australian Unity’s network of community-based organisations that affect social change and looking at opportunities to increase social impact investing.
“Our financial fiduciary duty is to get the best returns for our investors, but I’m more interested in this question of ‘what kind of world do our investors want to retire into?’”
Words: Jo Davy