Lives with Purpose – Alumni Profile

Seeing first-hand the pitfalls and politics rife in charitable organisations overseas, Weh sought to challenge the status quo, and use his international experience and Master of Development Studies to design more effective ways to support those in need.

Valuable lessons learned at UNSW

Before going overseas to work in a direct capacity in the development sector, I wanted to study the discipline of development itself, and found that UNSW had the program best suited to my area of interest.

I really valued the peer relationships that I formed whilst studying, and the advice given by my lecturer at the time, which was to prioritise those exact relationships. I remember I had a decision to make at a particular point during my course: whether to pursue a development or policy area of focus. My lecturer told me to think about which group of people I had the most in common with, because it would be those same people that I would spend the rest of my career working with. It turned out to be a great piece of advice because I’ve loved meeting more and more of them along the way through my work and travels.

Loving what you do – a career with purpose

For me, getting out of bed in the morning is not difficult, and that’s because I can tangibly see what a difference we’re making in people’s lives. I think it would be completely different for me if I was simply part of a big piece of machinery and had no influence on why or how we did our work.

I have experience being in that position, and never felt comfortable within organisations that explained processes by saying ‘that’s just the way it is’. I always wanted to understand why things were that way and to challenge them if I did not think that made sense. There is so much that is right about the ways in which we help people in this world, but equally, there is so much that is wrong. Moving beyond this paradox requires the development of lots of new ways of thinking, and I am glad to be an integral part of teams that are tackling this.

Highlights on the career journey

Like most people, I have had anything but a linear career journey. I started out as a physiotherapist, then took two years off to travel and study in China, unpaid. I spent around thirty thousand dollars of my own savings, but I still say that from a personal standpoint, it was less costly and more impactful than an MBA would have been. I learnt about how much of the world lived and I realised that I wanted to understand how we could better help people.

I then came back to Australia, worked in a small charity, and studied my Master of Development at UNSW on a part-time basis. After graduating, I secured a job in China working with a large charity, and it quickly became evident that the theory of development and the practice were entirely different. It seemed that many charities, including the one that I was working for, were more interested in self perpetuation than completely solving a problem and moving on.

With this experience in mind, I moved to Cambodia and discovered that there was not one single Cambodian speech therapist in the country, despite over half a million people needing the service. So, I started OIC Cambodia, a charity to establish speech therapy as a profession. When I started OIC Cambodia, I had two principles in mind. Firstly, the charity had to, as soon as possible, be led by a Cambodian person. Secondly, the charity had to have a defined end point, whereby support must exit the country. After four years we achieved the first objective, and the charity is now working towards the second.

Since returning to Australia in 2018, I co-founded Umbo, a social enterprise helping people in rural communities to gain access to speech and occupational therapy support. Often these people are waiting up to eighteen months to get the services locally, and we have been able to cut wait times down to as little as one week for hundreds of families.

Problem solving at work

I really align with the idea that where obstacles exist, opportunities do as well. I see problems as needing to be solved, and the more intractable those problems are, the more interested I am. I also feel that critical discourse is essential to unpacking problems and instigating change.

In 2019 I gave a sixteen-minute TED talk at TEDxHaymarket. The topic: Why international charities need to make themselves redundant. Within 48 hours, it had over 30,000 views. It addressed the idea that through better recognition of the difference between addressing symptoms and solving problems, international charities can in fact create the environment for local people to craft solutions to their own problems. This concept, however, requires a complete rethink of the purpose of international charities. Is their objective to perpetuate their own existence, or to successfully exit the community they are inhabiting?

Building resilience

Resilience comes from understanding that my identity and ego are not tied to my work, and that while things may go well or poorly day to day, in the big scheme of things, work is only one facet of my life. The quicker you learn to take your ego out of the equation, the easier everything will become in your career. People will find it so much easier to collaborate with you, for one, and that’s crucial in any industry.

Proudest achievements

I think handing over leadership to OIC Cambodia, within 4 years of starting, was a major achievement. I am also extremely proud of what the team in Cambodia, and myself in my current role at Umbo have been able to achieve. It is really a joy to see people working so effectively in their roles and changing so many lives for the better.

Advice for current UNSW students?

One of my favourite quotes of all time (and apologies that it was written in such a gendered way at the time!) is:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” - (George Bernard Shaw)

There have been so many moments in my career when I have been told that I was being unreasonable, because I questioned the status quo which was set up to favour those already in positions of power. To me, this is a clear sign that you are onto something worthwhile, so keep going!

Weh Yeoh is currently CEO and Co-Founder of Umbo, Founder OIC Cambodia and Adjunct Senior Lecturer at University of Sydney.

Degree and year of graduation: Master of Development Studies, 2010.