Allan and Tessa English have been Opportunity supporters for 20 years. Allan is the founder of SilverChef*, a company that provides hospitality equipment finance. Opportunity’s Veronika Peters talked with Allan about the state of the world, his journey as an entrepreneur and his passion to empower other entrepreneurs.
Veronika Peters: How has isolation changed your day-to-day life?
ALLAN ENGLISH: My diary has shifted from a lot of ‘doing’ to ‘being.’ I am enjoying the change of pace and it has given me the opportunity to think through the challenges ahead.
VP: As a global thought leader what are some of the big challenges you see looking ahead?
AE: There is a growing movement that wants to see change – the general theme is around sustainability and social equity. I am particularly worried about the 70 million refugees around the world and the people that Opportunity serves. 50 per cent of the global population is earning less than $5.50 a day. They don’t have the infrastructure to deal with a major pandemic and we could see millions of lives lost – getting through the next 12 months will be tough.
VP: What will it take for Australians to look beyond their borders and create change?
AE: We have a political infrastructure where large power sits with politicians. We need to look at innovative new ways with public participation; we need to discuss ideas around the BBQ, to think about what the future should look like.
VP: Your life’s journey has involved supporting entrepreneurs. How so?
AE: I had my first business when I was 17 – my friend was an artist and we sold his posters. I learnt that unless you had capital, you didn’t have a chance as a young entrepreneur. I promised myself that if I made it, I would help young entrepreneurs get their start.
VP: Who or what inspired you to become a philanthropist?
AE: I took a course once a week for five years studying philosophy. Many of the great thinkers said that if you wanted to be happy you had to love and be loved and do something for others. That’s when I wanted my profits to have a bigger purpose. My first donation was significant for me. Once I had made the commitment I got fired up and this was a turning point in my life.
VP: There are many good causes. Why did you choose Opportunity?
AE: I was thoughtful about the selection process and developed a model around ‘depth’ and ‘span’ to assess funding opportunities. Depth refers to the degree of transformation in an individual, family, community or even a country. Span refers to the number of times the donation can have an impact. With Opportunity, if you take a $200 loan, for example, it helps a disadvantaged entrepreneur, their family and their community. That is generational change. But that money gets paid back and recycled into another loan and put to use for maybe 50 more years – that is massive impact for your buck.
Allan English (far right) visiting programs in India with SilverChef staff in 2018.
VP: What impacted you most when you visited Opportunity’s programs?
AE: I visited many slums and met a lot of entrepreneurs. I remember meeting a lady named Suman, a grandmother who used her loan to plant a spice garden and use proper irrigation. It allowed her to raise, feed and educate her grandchildren. She had such self-belief and confidence. She challenged me by saying she had many more friends who also needed a loan and asked me if I had more friends who could help.
VP: How did you inspire others to come along on the philanthropy journey?
AE: In 2010 our SilverChef leadership team came up with a ten-year vision of what we wanted the company to look like by 2020. We asked ourselves what social impacts we could create, and I worked with Opportunity and set a goal of how many people we could reach. Our employees got passionate and contributed in so many ways. They then decided to raise that target by 50 per cent. It has been a key part of our corporate culture and we attracted incredible talent as a result. People want to work for a company that has impact.
Next, we wrote letters to our customers and we ended up with 8,000 customers who gave one dollar each week on an ongoing basis. We also set up an annual scholarship program for staff to visit the programs we support overseas and that was key in shaping our corporate culture. Achieving our goal has been a very rewarding collective effort.
VP: What key life lessons have you learnt?
AE: Living your life for others. I spent 50 per cent of my time on products and services, and 50 per cent reflecting on us as humans, helping people feel fully whole at work and at home. We should all be able to be the full version of ourselves.
VP: What has been your biggest challenge?
AE: Managing the external environments. The world is dishing us up all sort of challenges and it is easier to see life through the rear-view mirror. The fear and uncertainty of the unknown can be overwhelming, so I came up with ‘the rule of three’: every time you have a problem or get knocked back, get back up and try again, and then try a third time. It’s a creative process to come up with new solutions but it is also helpful to know when to let go and move on.
VP: Final thoughts?
AE: I believe in this next generation – give them an outlet and they will bring about change. The world has enough resources to end poverty. Do something each day. Just bring a smile to someone’s face.
*SilverChef was voted among the best places to work by BRW and Allan was listed by the Financial Review as one of 21 leaders who make Australia a better place. He received the Order of Australia for Philanthropic Services last year and has served as an Opportunity International Australia Council member for the last eight years. SilverChef is a key corporate partner of Opportunity International Australia.