Some people get more averse to risk as the years go by. Not so Gail MacCallum, who at age 40 quit a secure job and left the city she had enjoyed her whole adult life in order to leap into the unknown. But she had to learn to be bold.
MacCallum moved quite a bit in childhood and spent her formative years outside Canberra in a farmhouse without electricity. She read the books of animal observer Gerald Durrell and relished the freedom of the natural world. In her teens she and her family moved into the heart of inner-city Sydney, and she found she adored that too. “I was 14 and it was the perfect time. I loved the excitement of the city.”
She continued to love it over the following decades as she moved through jobs including coffee-roaster and bookseller before finding her calling in book publishing and then magazines. In 2002 MacCallum and her then partner had a daughter, Amelia. They wanted to make sure that despite being a city kid Amelia had plenty of natural encounters so they sought out places to climb trees, watch lizards and spot turtles. But one day MacCallum realised her little girl was more at ease with busy streets than bushland. “When she was about seven, we were visiting a friend whose place had a beautiful lawn. Amelia called out to me from the verandah and said, ‘I can’t go into the wild!’ We decided we had to let her experience a wider world and two months later we were in a campervan heading off around Australia.”
MacCallum admits she felt daunted. “I thought we’d need to know things like how to whittle your own clutch plate. I didn’t know how much it would all cost or what we’d do about money. But I thought the worst thing that would happen is we’d have an adventure and a holiday. I figured if we only make it two weeks in, so be it.” As it happened, the van they’d bought broke down just 90 minutes into the trip. But after repairs they set off again and travelled the country for six months, during which Amelia became an avid adventurer adept at digging fire pits. They returned to the city purely because the money had run out. “That trip helped me understand that success doesn’t have to be assured,” MacCallum says. “I realised that you can start something and just work it out as you go along.”
Four years later she and her current partner Ian Connellan were on a brief holiday in Tasmania, enjoying the chance to get up close to wildlife including “the fluffiest wombats in the world”, when they ran into some friends-of-friends, soon to move interstate, who asked them to dinner. The next day, recalls MacCallum, “They said, ‘We think you should buy our house.’” With no intention of uprooting their lives she and Connellan thought this was “entirely ridiculous”, yet they got so excited talking about the possibilities such a move might present they missed their plane home. “We stayed at a hotel that night, woke up the next morning and said, ‘Let’s give it a go.’”
They resigned their publishing jobs and in January 2013 moved to Hobart to start not just a new life but a new business. Individually and together, both are intrepid, independent travellers who had spent time with scientists and conservationists working in various remote spots around the world, including Papua New Guinea and the Galapagos Islands. They wondered if they could make a living supporting such work by helping others to experience those unique places for themselves. The two decided to set up a company that specialised in organising trips to places where important scientific and environmental research was taking place.
Naming the new company Curious Traveller, they began taking paying customers to remote locations including Western Australia’s Kimberley region and islands off South America. “For us the travel business comes out of a love of science,” MacCallum explains. “It works brilliantly. Scientists get helpers and funding. Guests get to see what scientists do and how the world is changing because of it. They leave excited and inspired, having had an awesome experience in a place they otherwise might never have seen.”
Two-and-a-half years in, the pair still have to supplement their incomes with some freelance writing and editing, but the business is growing and within five years they hope to be helping fund half a dozen research projects. It’s a big task. “Some days we think it would be great to turn off and have making it all work become someone else’s problem,” MacCallum says, “but when we see the wonder on the face of a person who is experiencing somewhere like the Galapagos for the first time we know we’re living a fabulous, lucky life.”
The Expert View
The type of business MacCallum started, which aims to do good as well as provide a living, is known as social enterprise. Celia Hodson is CEO of an institution specially created to give such people the business savvy they’ll need to survive – the School for Social Entrepreneurs.
The desire to create a business with broader aims than just making money is gaining ground. “When we used to put a call-out for people who thought they had an amazing social enterprise idea we’d have maybe 20 applying.” says Hodson. “Now we get 120.” Some leap straight in, but most make the transition while establishing the business: “Typically they taper off their paid employment as their idea starts to gather speed.”
The rewards are great, but it’s important to be realistic. “We sometimes ask people who come to us, ‘Where in your cash-flow is your salary?’ They’ll say, ‘Oh I don’t need money.’ Yes, social impact is what it’s about but to make it sustainable you need to ask yourself, ‘Is it going to pay me a salary?’ And you need to think about how to measure the difference you’re hoping to make.”