How a former banker is changing the lives of Australia’s indigenous youth

Jun 30, 2016

CLSA interviews Andrew Penfold AM, Founder, Australian Indigenous Education Foundation


The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) empowers Indigenous children in financial need to build a future through quality education and careers. Since 2011, CLSA’s Chairman’s Trust has provided funding to AIEF for high school scholarships for female Indigenous students to attend Loreto Normanhurst School in Sydney.

My father died when I was 6 years old and I grew up running around Sydney’s inner western suburbs as a teenager without much structure or supervision. My Mum did the best she could as a Uni student, with no career or money when my father died, working and looking after two young kids. I remember Mum taking me and my sister to demonstrations and marches, protesting for equality and fairness. Growing up in a family where social justice was important had a big influence on me. As a child running around with Aboriginal kids in the suburbs at that time, I had noticed the difference between the opportunities they had and what I had myself, despite living in the same area, playing in the same parks and going to the same primary schools.

A turning point for me was when I had the opportunity to go to a really good school. We didn’t have much in those days, but Mum always stressed the importance of getting the best education possible. School life is pretty much a factory for building self-esteem; how to take those learning experiences of teamwork, optimism and enthusiasm and bring them into the workplace. If you have a good education you don’t need to make any one big decision. Being in in a very structured environment with good teachers and reliable mentors, having tutors, people interested in your results, helping with homework and getting three meals a day, just naturally transforms other areas of your life.
I played rugby, made new friends and started doing better in class. Sport was really important in helping improve my self-esteem and it made me want to succeed academically as well.

My grades were not good enough to get into the law school I had in mind. Fortunately, I had a school that didn’t only look at grades, they looked at people too. It was my passion for social justice that got me into law school and that’s when I started to work really, really hard.

After graduating, I worked in corporate law in Australia and London for a few years and then moved to Hong Kong, where I worked with a big law firm on an infrastructure project for the new Hong Kong airport. After that two-year project finished, Nomura asked me to join them. Things were going really well for me in Hong Kong. I had a fantastic job, a wonderful family and we travelled often. I even played rugby for the Hong Kong Football Club (HKFC). Growing up in Sydney I had never imagined that my life could be as good as this.

Then, in 2002 most of my rugby team was killed in the Bali bombing. These were my closest mates who virtually represented my entire social life in Hong Kong. The only way I could ever hope to recover from that was to go out and actually do something. So, with a few friends and the HKFC we set up a foundation for the surviving wives and children in Hong Kong, as well as the Indonesian kids who had lost their parents in the tragedy.

Prior to this I had been reading an article in which Wayne Goss (a past and now deceased Queensland Premier) had been quoted saying that ideally people should change careers every ten-years. I thought it sounded like a good way to approach life. By this time I’d spent 10-years as a lawyer and 10-years as a banker. I decided I wanted to spend the next 10-years doing something different.
Setting up the foundation for the Bali Bombings made me realise that I had the skills and passion necessary to run some kind of charitable organization. So why not use those skills to help other people?

The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) was absolutely 100% accidental. I have long thought that one of the biggest challenges confronting Australia is the enormous gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. We all know that education changes your life and empowers you to take control of the future; yet many Aboriginal kids don’t have any choice about where they go to school. We seem to just shove them into the worst schools, where other people don’t want their kids to go. And I thought why don’t these Indigenous children have the same opportunities as my kids?

Then I heard about one top tier boarding school in Sydney that had started enrolling Aboriginal kids and I was so inspired by what they were doing that I went to visit them. The first thing I asked was why only four or five kids, why not 50? The school said it was purely a lack of funding available to support more scholarships. So in 2003/4 I started volunteering, asking people to support Indigenous education. It just grew and grew until I found I was spending my entire life talking to people and trying to get funds, and I ended up working from my dining room table as a full time volunteer for five years!

To make such a difference in someone’s life is really inspiring and this work has changed me in a really positive way. It has given me so much more enthusiasm, passion and direction in my life. I originally aimed to get A$5million into a trust fund, to help educate more Aboriginal kids. I had started by setting up one foundation in one school, and then the momentum built as I kept talking to more and more business people. AIEF is now helping 500-600 kids a year and our corporate supporters mentor the students as well.

One of the defining moments for AIEF was in early 2008, when the Hon. Kevin Rudd, Australia’s newly elected Prime Minister at the time, invited me to his office. We had a two-hour conversation and then Rudd committed A$20 million to the fund. I was delighted, of course, but also daunted because I now had to create a matching fund for another $20 million! Rudd made this very public during his inaugural speech as PM of Australia to the Business Council of Australia, announcing that he had made a $20 million investment into Indigenous education with AIEF. By pointing me out in a ballroom packed to the brim with Australia’s top business influencers, our PM had laid down a challenge. I found myself in a position where I had to drop everything to go out and try to match the PM’s $20 million with another $20 million from the private sector. My reputation and pride were on the line!

In 2011 the CLSA Chairman’s Trust invested in a five-year scholarship for Indigenous girls. Now, five years later, there are still lots of CLSA people mentoring the kids. They don’t just fund, they have built a relationship with the students, helping and supporting them. So it’s not only about covering the school fees. Personal relationships help the students on their journey. Also, because CLSA has a brand that is well-known, having them support us helps AIEF engage other people and other companies to support us too.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is around relationships. When I was a banker/lawyer it was much more transactional. In this sector, you can’t think about it as an individual transaction, it’s all about relationship building, getting the right people, creating a dynamic culture and then piecing everything together.

I had found that with most charities there was enormous enthusiasm, empathy and kindness, but when it came down to a sustainable business strategy, this was most often lacking. For AIEF to achieve our A$20 million target, we had to bring more business acumen into the charity and find a balance. One of the hardest challenges was to transition from volunteers working from home, into a more sustainable programme, created and structured in a very professional way.

The next step for AIEF is to make the organisation stand on its own feet over time, without having the founder involved every day. Eventually I’d like to see AIEF evolveto an organisation with a sustainable future where I’m not needed in the day to day. I’m not sure what’s next for me personally. I still don’t have any big plans. All my goal has ever been is to succeed at what I’m doing by putting everything I have into it. I do like the Wayne Goss model of 10-years in each job, so the next 10-years will be interesting…

The CLSA Chairman’s Trust has funded AIEF since 2011.

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