Louise: Welcome to the Advisor Insights interviews. I’m here today with Oli Percovich. Welcome, Oli.
Oliver Percovich: Thank you for having me.
Louise: Now, I’m very excited to be here with you today with the Advisor Insights interviews. It’s hearing about stories on the ground around advisory boards. And I really like hearing about your story in particular, Oli. About the purpose of what you’re doing with Skakeistan. So perhaps we can start there and tell us a bit about yourself and Skaeistan?
Oliver: So I’m from Australia, from Melbourne, and I found myself in 2007 in Kabul, Afghanistan. And being a skateboarder all of my life from around the age of five, I naturally brought my skateboard with me to Kabul. And there I was, actually looking for a job. My girlfriend at the time had a job in Kabul with a research job.
I’d worked in research before. I used to work at RMIT University in Australia as a researcher. And I was fascinated by being in Afghanistan. I thought it was a great opportunity to go there and have a look. And I connected with people through just going out onto the street and skateboarding. And these were young children, a lot of them working to support their family from a very young age.
And what’s interesting about Afghanistan is that the half of the population is under the age of 15. So this was just the most important demographic to connect with, and I realised that I was doing that with my skateboard. And I started to run little skateboarding sessions. What was very interesting as well was that children from all ethnicities and also all different socioeconomic backgrounds were taking part in these sessions. And this was something that you just didn’t see outside of sport perhaps. Because I noticed that it was with a bronze medal in the Taekwondo, a Hazara man, who won that medal had the whole of Afghanistan behind him. And that sort of support from a different ethnicity to another in Afghanistan was just so rare. And I thought, well, maybe there’s something there with these little skateboarding sessions that I’m running. And what was just really special was that girls could take part. And we saw it was literally a loophole because skateboarding was just so new. And it was an activity that girls were allowed to do.
They weren’t told not to do it, whereas they were told not to play soccer or told not to fly kites or ride a bicycle. So that was the beginnings. And I didn’t have any background in international development. But I was bold enough to try to start an organisation on the ground in Afghanistan. And I realised very fast that I couldn’t do it by myself. I needed lots and lots of support from lots of different types of people.
And I sought about getting that support, so getting different governments on board, so, the Norwegian ambassador to Afghanistan was a really big fan of what I was doing on the ground and got behind. He then helped to get the German government and the Danish government, also behind us, I managed to connect to lots of people across the skateboard industry to support us with gear. Nike came on board and helped as well. And so it was a very broad range of stakeholders, including Afghan ones. I worked together with the president of the Olympic Committee in Afghanistan to get a piece of land and build an indoor sports and education facility that was the largest in the country for children.
And I just saw that as the most important thing that could actually be done, bringing people together, creating, building trust between Afghans and the international community, building trust between different Afghan ethnicities and giving opportunities for children to learn and to also play.
So this was to be able to engage with all of these different stakeholders. I also needed inside people that understood how to navigate working with a corporate, working with a government, working with understanding how to do things in the international development space.
And very quickly, I brought on different personal advisors to help me navigate the skateboard industry, to navigate the government types of support, how to do different aspects of international development. And I mean, I literally started Sakeistan with $1,000. That was all of the money that I went to Afghanistan with. And it was a big volunteer effort and people were excited about what was happening and wanted to be involved. But advisors started very, very early.
Louise: So When did you actually start Skateistan as a Not For Profit?
Oliver: I first went to Afghanistan in 2007 and Skateistan started in 2008.
Louise: That’s fantastic. And then when did you actually start building out your advisory board structure around Skateistan? How long did that take you to do that? And I guess it’s quite different now, but what was that beginning piece when was it around 2008 as well that you started to build those advisors around you?
Oliver: We had an Afghan NGO entity that had a board and it wasn’t formalised in terms that was a formal board of directors for the Afghan entity. We then established entities in other countries. So in the US to be a non-profit, a 501C3 organization to be able to receive donations and for people to be able to take it off their taxes.
So these were then the first boards that were set up with these entities. And then in 2012, we moved our headquarters from Kabul to Berlin, Germany. And with that move, we also created a not-for-profit corporation in Germany that had shareholders.
And I really just didn’t think that that was everything that we needed. So we actually put it specifically into the bylaws that we wanted to have an advisory board structure as part of our overall umbrella entity.
So that was in 2012. So actually four years down the road that we formalized that advisory structure. And by that time, we’d been able to, we were lucky enough to have a lot of international press. We’d been able to get the attention of a lot of very influential people. And the most influential person in skateboarding is Tony Hawk. And he was the first person that I asked to be part of our advisory board. And it was very nerve-racking sending off that email request. And I can still remember reading the email response saying that he had joined sitting in the back of our minivan in northern Afghanistan at Mazar-e-Sharif on an afternoon where not many things were going right. So that gave me a really big boost. Now we’re going to be able to also attract a lot of other really amazing people to this board.
And that’s what I said about doing who has, we brought on Dr. Simon Adams who was working with responsibility to protect that was set up by Kofi Annan after the Rwandan genocide. And he had a lot of experience across Africa. So he was my go-to for that.
And then just looking at all of those different aspects of what we’re doing, we need somebody that is a financial expert. We need all of these different parts that make up our operations and how can we have really high-level advice in each of those spaces?
Tony Hawk, for example, was with 20 million followers on social media, was a marketing guru. And that really helped us a lot as well because we were very early adopters of social media and we were really doing very, very well with a ragtag bunch of volunteers, but with very good advice.
Louise: It’s really interesting, it’s fascinating what you’re doing, Ollie and really appreciate the work that you are doing and achieving worldeide. I was introduced to you by the fabulous Peter Williams who’s obviously a very big fan of what you do. It’s interesting the growth of advisory boards both in the sporting sector, but also in the not-for-profit space as well. I’m interested in your structure. Why did you, back in 2012, include the advisory board into the bylaws? Like, you know, mostly we’ll say it’s discretionary. It’ll come and go as we need. Why did you feel it was so important to have an advisory board actually written in the bylaws in the first place, Ollie?”
Oliver: That had a lot to do with transparency of decision making and to be as attractive as possible to donors to support us as an NGO. When we first established, I was the 100% shareholder and that just didn’t look good to have a 100% shareholder as well as being the executive director and founder. Where are the other people? Who else is actually making sure that this is as solid as possible? Over time we changed that and there are now five shareholders, but they play a much more minor role than our advisory board. Our advisory board are specifically there to guide the organisation. And we feel that that is the best possible structure that we can have.
Louise: And it’s really in line with where the market is. And you’re years ahead of where the market is, where it’s starting to really focus on that credibility and stakeholder engagement, and the use of advisory boards to really demonstrate that independence and ethics in the way that the organization operates. So that’s great. So where are you now and what are your future plans for Skateistan, Ollie?
Oliver: I’m based out of Berlin, Germany, and we’re working on a partnership model. So we’re still working in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule in three different locations. We’ve got our skate schools in Cambodia and South Africa and a project in Jordan that’s been ongoing for a while. But last year we expanded out a lot with other partners. And so we added on projects in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Kenya, in Bolivia, and we want to expand that out to 50 locations over the next three years.
So it’s a big expansion piece. And the way that we’re going to do it is to utilize our knowledge sharing network.
So four years ago, we established the Good Push Alliance and the Good Push Alliance was us sharing everything that we know about what we do and how to do it as well as possible with other social skateboard projects. And so we wanted to share our secret source, how we do anything and everything, just to really have as much social impact as possible.
Because we don’t need to be the only ones doing this work. It’s possible for lots of other organisations to also do that. That has really just, I mean, it’s a very different model to not many organizations want to share everything that they know with everybody else. So that is our approach. And that grew really fast. And now we’ve got 834 social skateboard projects in over 100 countries that are part of this knowledge sharing network. And that knowledge sharing network is then the next base for us to be able to then expand out in terms of where we’re also active and in being able to enter into partnerships with those organizations that are part of our network and do more with them.
Instead of just sharing how to do things, also doing it a little bit more hands on and as well, giving those organizations money. So there’s a big fundraising drive attempting to put together $10 million, which is a very large amount for this sport for development sector. But it’s a very broad reach across the world and that’s across multi years to build that out really effectively. So that’s where we are right now. We’re going to launch a campaign at the end of the year and it’s going to run up until the Paris 2024 Olympics. So skateboarding is growing around the world and we really want to make sure that that also includes girls that includes children with disabilities that includes opportunities for everybody to be involved and benefit from the growth of the sport.
I think it’s only going to get bigger after Paris 2024. There’s LA 2028 Olympics and then Brisbane 2032. And I’ve got no doubt that skateboarding is going to grow and we’ve got to ride that wave to create social outcomes and impact for children around the world.
Louise: Very exciting. And I guess your advisory structure will evolve as well over time to meet your changing needs for your mission.”
Oliver: Absolutely. It’s something that we’ve just added three different members in the last three months. And this is based on our shift in direction from just focusing in on our skate schools to focusing to this new model and what are the skills that we need to be able to do it. It’s a structure that can be fast moving and we are operating in a fast moving world. And so we need then the support structures to fit that. If you’ve only got 70 year old people that have been on the board for 25 years, the board of directors and this is not the world that we live in any anymore. And we’re very, very interested in involving youth in our advisory board structure and getting ideas from lots of different places because that’s also been the recipe for success for Skateistan
Louise: Well, you’ve got a fan base here, Ollie, so whatever we can do to support you, you’ve got our global community and I’m sure, you know, we’ll have opportunities to really support you in your really valuable mission and it’s changing people’s lives and it’s just so good to see the good work that you’re doing, Ollie. And thank you for using advisory boards. I’m probably the most biased person in the market about advisory boards because I live it and I eat it and I breathe it. But hearing how it’s supporting you with your changing needs and being able to evolve with you as well, I think that’s just really… That’s really where advisory boards really add value.
Oliver: Thanks, thanks so much. I’m really thrilled to be able to share from a little bit of what our experience has been so far.
Louise: That’s terrific, and we will no doubt hear extra chapters along the way. So, thank you Olli and thank you everyone for listening today.