Interview with Andrew Penfold AM

Founder and Managing Director of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation and winner of the 2013 Chancellor's Award for Excellence.

If you'd seen Andrew Penfold when he was a Year 9 schoolboy, you'd agree with everyone else: he was going nowhere. Surely, that boy could never make a success of his life, let alone earn millions of dollars in the competitive world of Hong Kong banking?

Nor could anyone predict that, at 38, he'd quit the money trail to work for nothing to transform the lives of thousands of underprivileged Indigenous children. Or that it would lead to him founding the ground-breaking Australian Indigenous Education Foundation - an achievement that saw him honoured with a Member of the Order of Australia award in January 2014.

"I was wagging school, hanging around with the wrong crowd, spending my life in pin ball arcades," Penfold recalls of his 14 year old self. "I was getting into fights, getting into trouble, not doing my homework, getting terrible results."

His mother Alexandra had been widowed when Andrew was just six. Desperate to get her wayward son back on track, she persuaded St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill (Joeys), to take him as a boarder. Penfold hated it.

"I got into trouble, in detention, in fights. Then I'd run away." He was suspended, then given another chance. "At no time did I ever say, 'Now I'll buckle down'," Penfold explains. "But being in an environment like that has a profound effect. You're exercising, having regular meals, doing your homework, having a routine that's so busy you're always tired. And you stop rebelling, start learning."

Turning Point

The turning point was the day he was chosen to play five-eighth for the school's Year 10 A grade rugby team. "I had a great year on the field, started to feel confident, and began making friends. My results started improving and my confidence grew alongside my results. It becomes self-perpetuating."

By the end of Year 12, Penfold had won prizes for being first in maths, history and economics. But his HSC results weren't good enough to study law at university. "In those days, UTS had an interview system for those who wanted to study law, but whose HSC marks weren't good enough," he explains.

"I went for the interview and they gave me an opportunity. I started in 1986. That transformed my life. When I scored a place in the UTS law faculty I felt people were taking a punt on me. The course was full of people from diverse backgrounds: the police, courts, trade unions, law advocacy, business. We were close, we shared a lot of tough challenges together, balancing full time jobs. It was a really stimulating environment to study."

After Graduation

After graduating, Penfold moved to Hong Kong in 1995 as a commercial lawyer. The following year he made the career switch to investment banking, joining Nomura's Hong Kong office. He was making a fortune, "well beyond anything I'd dreamt of". But in 2002, another event transformed his life - the Bali bombing.

"I'd been playing rugby for the Hong Kong Football Club, and my team had entered the annual Bali 10s tournament," says Penfold. "But my wife Michelle had just had our second daughter, Tanami, and we were in Sydney when I heard the news. All my mates were in the Sari Club when the bomb went off. Twelve of them died." Penfold helped set up a Hong Kong trust fund for victims which raised over A$2 million in just six months.

Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AEIF)

A year later he was visiting Sydney when he heard Joeys had begun a scholarship program to take six Indigenous boys a year. Penfold's offer of help was accepted. He quit his job and moved back to Sydney. For the next five years, he and Michelle turned their dining room into a fundraising office. The target was $5 million. Instead they raised over $7 million, generating enough income for Joeys to offer up to 40 scholarships to Indigenous boys each year.

The idea of going national and setting up the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AEIF) came to fruition in 2009. Penfold's initial target was an ambitious $40 million, but in just five years the foundation has passed $85 million.

Each year, 450 indigenous students are granted AIEF scholarships at schools in NSW, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia. Around 150 have gone on to university. But Penfold is not resting: the 20 year business plan forsees the organisation raising $140 million, enough to provide scholarships for up to 7000 Indigenous youngsters by 2028.

"We're well on the way to achieving that," he says.

Words: Steve Meacham - February 2014