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Imagine if …

Otago graduate – and CEO of the Inspiring Stories Trust – Guy Ryan is helping young New Zealanders change the world.

Young people are often full of revolutionary ideas about how to change the world for the better. However, most of them get a lot older before they feel they are in a position to turn those ideas into reality. And, by then, mortgages and family commitments tend to decrease the appetite for the risks involved with trying to save the planet.

Guy Ryan understands the problem and has come up with a solution. He's motivating young people to act on their ideas while they are still passionate about causes and unhampered by the fear of taking risks.

Ryan has done just that. Still in his 20s, he's rapidly acquiring a national reputation as an inspirational leader who gets things done.

While studying at Otago, he and fellow students produced award-winning short films, started a film production company and ran large community festivals. Now he's founder and CEO of the Inspiring Stories Trust, which helps other young people to act on their dreams and celebrates their leading of positive change.

It's not a bad record for a laid-back surfer who grew up in a small settlement on the West Coast, with the beach at the backyard and the bush across the road.

Moving to attend Buller High School in Westport – the big smoke by comparison – didn't make a lot of difference to Ryan's early academic aspirations. “I was more interested in surfing, going to the beach and partying.”

Surfing was one of the attractions of moving to Dunedin and joining friends already at Otago, where Ryan ended up studying design and marketing.

“I tried computer science, but couldn't see myself coding on a computer all day. I saw marketing as a way to getting into the commercial world and, as I'd always been interested in doing creative things, design seemed right.”

Design also gave Ryan access to cameras and the technology to make films about skateboarding and surfing. When the five-minute surfing movie First Light won an award for best New Zealand film at the New Zealand Mountain Film Festival, Ryan enrolled for a Master of Science Communication degree.

“What I loved about the master's was the amazing group of talented people it brought together, and the mandate to explore how science and creativity can better inform decision-making and action,” says Ryan.

In Ryan's final year he was inspired by a talk by visiting climate change campaigner Bill McKibben, who co-founded the movement with Dr James Hansen of NASA, one of the first scientists to raise broad awareness of the global warming issue.

As a response to McKibben's visit, Ryan and his friends launched two festivals to highlight things that affect our future and what can be done about them. In Dunedin they ran a Spring Food Festival and, on the West Coast, their “A Day at the Beach” adventure festival involved school students and communities working together to plant 5,000 native trees and remove six tonnes of rubbish from the local beaches.

“My social life became compulsive networking and figuring out how to make crazy ideas possible,” says Ryan.

“At Otago I had no idea what the future held. I was just following my passion. If you do what you love, and pair that with a purpose bigger than you, things seem to fall into place.”

For Ryan, the pivot point where things started to fall into place was the 25-minute film he and fellow student Nick Holmes made for their master's degree.

Carving the Future, which tells stories of motivated young people acting on their ideas for improving the world, started winning international awards. When it reached the finals for the BBC's Best Newcomer Award in the prestigious European Wildscreen film festival, Ryan was on his way to the UK to support it. After his first OE, his life was never going to be the same again.

“The festival was an amazing experience. I met filmmakers young and old, and got more intrigued by the power of film as a tool of change, but, to be honest, I found the industry scene a little depressing. I thought things could be done differently and came back to New Zealand full of ideas and energy.”

On Ryan's return, he learned he had won a World of Difference Scholarship from Vodafone to launch a new youth-focused project under the Inspiring Stories Trust organisation that he had recently founded.

He had a year and $80,000 to make a difference. “This was a mandate to dream and set up youth initiatives without having to worry about funding.”

The vision was to “imagine if every young New Zealander unleashed their potential to change the world and, if the stories of those young Kiwis could inspire others”, so it was a natural progression to run filmmaking workshops, a national film competition and screenings across the country.

Ryan realised that filmmaking and public narrative were just the beginning.

“There was a need for something else as well, so we came up with the Festival for the Future, looking for innovative young people and giving them a platform to share their passion, projects and vision for New Zealand.

“If young New Zealanders had ideas about how they might change the world, we wanted to help them take those ideas to the next level, so we brought in high-end industry expertise to run workshops in unpacking social change, entrepreneurship, start-ups, 21st century organising, marketing and much more.”

The first festival ran in Wellington in 2011 and 120 attendees aged between 16 and 30 came from all over the country. “The prototype festival was funded with the Vodafone scholarship and was a huge success, so we decided to make it an annual event,” says Ryan.

“The second festival in 2012 attracted major partners and publicity and sold out, with 320 people taking part at Te Papa.” The event was supported by a long list of organisations, including the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment; Leadership New Zealand; Wellington City Council; Careers New Zealand and the Ministry of Youth Development.

Now launching into year three as CEO of the Inspiring Stories Trust, Ryan and his team have developed a suite of self-reinforcing initiatives to increase the visibility, capability and confidence of young New Zealanders making a difference. They work with thousands of people each year and engage a global audience of millions through marketing and communications.

“It's crazy to think how far it's come. It's all well and good dreaming up crazy ideas, but you have to figure out how to resource them.

“We spent years networking and now people are starting to come to us. It's a big change when they say 'we love what you are doing, how can we work together?' It's really exciting.”

Ryan's still using techniques and skills he learned at Otago. “Design and marketing give you the skills to get ideas off the ground, give them a visual presence and build some momentum around them.” One of Ryan's old lecturers was a founding board member for the Inspiring Stories Trust.

“Being a charity still has value,” says Ryan. “You can still generate revenue – it just means it's reinvested into social impact rather than the pockets of shareholders. But being a charity is also a dangerous place to be because it's a very competitive landscape and you're largely at the mercy of public funding grants. You have to think like a business.

“The business landscape is changing too. If you are not adding social value to the community, then people are likely to spend their dollars elsewhere. The boundaries between business and charity are being increasingly blurred by the need to do good in the world.

“I'm really interested in social entrepreneurship and social enterprise. It's a big movement overseas, but only just emerging in New Zealand. I think we could be doing a lot more to support this here, especially among young people.

“When you're young with no family or mortgage, your ability to take risk is much higher. As a country, we need to find smarter ways to support young people, especially to align passion, purpose and risk-taking. New Zealand and the world will be better off for it.”


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