One Quarter Journal


Small giants, big changes


Danny Almagor


Founder of Engineers Without Borders and Small Giants

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is a non-profit organisation that works to create systemic change through engineering with a humanitarian focus. They utilise engineering skills to address a lack of access to basic human needs like clean water, sanitation and hygiene, energy, basic infrastructure and waste systems.

Small Giants is a Corporation founded to create, support, nurture and empower businesses with a socially equitable and environmentally sustainable focus. Its portfolio includes Dumbo Feather magazine, The School of Life, StrEAT and Hub Melbourne, among others.

Danny completed exactly one hour of Law School before he dropped out to travel. On his return he enrolled in Aerospace Engineering, his reasoning being he wanted to become an Astronaut. Space travel was all the rage in 1995, and he assumed with all the talk of Y2K, the world's population inevitably leaving earth and space hotels opening, he could be captain of a starship by 35.

Danny is now 35. Space travel didn't quite take off as he imagined, but having founded Engineers without Borders and Small Giants he now feels like he's the Captain of his very own starship.

How did the idea of Engineers without Borders come to you, and what were your motivations in starting it?

While I was studying, I became quite disillusioned with Engineering, in particular with Aerospace Engineering – I realised I wasn't going to be an Astronaut, and didn't even like flying, actually. I was really frustrated as the course was all on the technical aspects of engineering. I'm a people person - for me, engineering was all about the interface between people and technology. I love technology, but I'm interested in the relationship between technology and people, and I think that's the role of engineers.

So I began to think about how I could connect with the people side of engineering.

International development seemed like the obvious answer. We've got a billion people who don't have clean water. I had friends who were studying Medicine and they were going on placements to Alice Springs, working with Aboriginal communities, Doctors Without Borders – all this cool stuff – and I kept thinking, 'why don't we have Programs like that? It's ridiculous, we're Engineers'.

People think health is a Medical issue. The medical conversation is actually at the acute end of health. Health is access to sanitation, water and food and good mental health. Having roads, communication, and food to grow is vital and that's all Engineering. If they had all these systems in place, we'd avoid all these problems in the first place.

Why aren't we engaged in that? Why don't we have an Engineers Without Borders? Why don't we go into Aboriginal communities, and build a swimming pool? Because you know with a swimming pool and chlorine, you're actually curing scabies because you don't have to send in a doctor afterwards. That's just one really simple example, but there are all these things. There are more than 100,000 engineers in Australia and they weren't focusing their skills on these projects.

It was a Friday afternoon, in November, almost at the end of the year and I was in a propulsion lecture. Propulsion is bad for anyone, let alone for someone who doesn't want to be there. I'm basically copying from the board. I just had a panic attack, and I hadn't really experienced that before. 'Why am I here? What am I doing?' I was going down a path in life that wasn't leading me to anything meaningful. I started writing and letting it out – things like, 'Fuck, what's going on? Am I just fitting in to society and doing what everyone expects?' Then I started writing down what I was passionate about. The page was full of words like travel, adventure, people, love and sustainability, and education, teaching, learning and mentoring - all these beautiful words. They all fit very similarly in some kind of informal journey of knowing yourself. It was all through the outdoors, and through practical learning. I was thinking, 'Where were the places I learnt the most?' And it was always when I was out of my comfort zone, and usually when I was traveling - to India, to China, to Cambodia. In places like this you have to open up, or you don't survive. You just have to connect with what's going on, you can't be distracted and have to be in the moment.

And that's what kind of led to Small Giants as well. Just like that divide between technology and people, I think there's a divide right now between business and society. For most businesses, consumers are an opportunity for purchase, for profit – not an opportunity to add value.

EWB is about bringing engineering back into balance, Small Giants is about bringing business into balance.

So, Small Giants, how did that come about?

The short story is that we wanted to bring together investing, donating, business and non-profit. The name came from a book my wife and I found in a bookshop Hong Kong. The book is about companies that choose to be great instead of big. Great being defined by how much money you make, but how much value you add to the world, and yourself. Reading this book, we realized there were other people who think of business in the same way – the role of business is not to make money, it's to add value. I think most people understand that money is just a proxy for value, it's not value itself.

I think when you come to that realization, there's a profound shift. I could earn $200k a year, never see my kids and spend two weeks skiing in Courchevel in ultimate luxury. Or I can accept it, and earn $60k doing something I love, where every day of the year is a joy, and my holidays may have to be camping in the Victorian Alps instead. You have to think, from a value perspective, what gets more value? I see my kids every night, I get weekends, I go camping – I feel connected. I don't think you smile any less if you go camping in the Bogong or if you're skiing in Courchevel.

Not to say that skiing is bad, skiing is really great. But so is sleeping in a tent with your kids on a mountain! But we get this sense of value that is different. Sure, money allows you to buy an experience, but you have to think, is that experience worth that much investment?

One of the things we've done through Small Giants is The School of Life – as well as Dumbo Feather. At The School of Life talking about purpose and meaning and value and all those things, trying to do it from a philosophical perspective. We ask, how do we make this an everyday conversation rather than leaving it up to the philosophers? Dumbo Feather is sort of the same – to tell stories of people who live by passion and meaning. Be happy and useful. Rather than what we're doing every day through billboards and posters – which is all about consuming more, and race to the top...there's no race. There's no winner or loser. Bill Gates doesn't win anything. He doesn't get a prize at the end of it. He gets to do a lot of cool stuff – but really, what does he win at the end of the day?

What are some lessons you've learnt along the way?

You can't win. You'll never be the smartest, or the prettiest, or the strongest, or the richest. And even if you are, for a moment, everyone else is trying to beat you, so you'll lose it soon anyway. It's like deciding to compete with something you cannot possibly win. Find your own path. Don't look for others, don't compare, don't compete in this world. Be a great Artist, and be a great Engineer, but not for competing.

You just have to step up and do it. Nike nailed it. That's the best motto, ever. I haven't met anyone who doesn't have a dream. Just do it, find a way. Even if it means you're just doing it on the weekends, or ring somebody who inspires you to find out how they did it so you can do it – if you can't afford to, then find ways around that – volunteer at a place. People are too afraid of failing, or succeeding, I don't know. It doesn't have to be perfect, just get out there.

You think, if no one else has done it, maybe there's something wrong and I shouldn't. It's like they see this beautiful hanging plum on the tree and think – if no one else has picked it, maybe I'm not allowed. And there's no rule book in life. No one told you you're not allowed to pick that plum. Pick it!

Take your dreams off the shelf. Don't compare, and just get out and do it.