At sixteen-years-old, Nathaniel Diong started his company Future Minds Network based on a simple question: ‘What if?’
Fast forward four years, Nathaniel is now an award-winning Gen-Z educator that, along with his team at Future Minds, has helped over 11,000 young people worldwide launch their own not-for-profits and land offers at Yale, TEDx and more.
Nathaniel is just one of the speakers at the Future State Youth Symposium on Wednesday, 9th June at the Pioneer Theatre, Castle Hill. The event will also include stalls, prizes, food and a chance to network and hear from other influential young people and how they turned their dreams into a reality.
Focus sat down with Nathaniel to discuss the secrets behind his success, the impact young people can have on the world and the advice he’d give to his younger self.
Q: Why did you start Future Minds Network and what were the first steps you took to make this happen?
A: Wanting to make a difference has always been in my DNA. When I was 10, I would cry myself to sleep because I didn’t understand suffering. I didn’t understand why fresh water, food and a roof over your head was a given for some, but a luxury for others. I felt helpless.
Future Minds started from an idea of ‘what if’. What if young people could create solutions to the problems they saw in the world? It started with a conference of 100 young people. Now we teach entrepreneurship programs across the world. I can vividly remember the moment our first ever conference ended. I let out a sigh of disappointment of all the things that went wrong. Not only did we move venue three times, have an entire school rock up without telling us in advance, but we even had a guest speaker who flew in from Zimbabwe that had to leave because we were so behind time. It was a disaster. A few months later reading the feedback, this was the comment I saw, “This was one of my favourite experiences in all of Year 10”. It changed me.
So often we hold ourselves back because we think we’re not good, smart or innovative enough to change the world. The truth is, young people have endless creativity to turn one simple idea into reality. It’s been much the same for our students, who have built everything from 3D printed face shields to coffee carts tackling homelessness across Australia, UK, US, Estonia and Finland. They’ve created non-for-profits like Letters Against Iso (LAISO), which has now sent 10,000 encouragement letters to tackle loneliness for the elderly. And that’s just the beginning.
Q: What do you think is the key to a successful start-up?
A: I don’t think there is a golden key to success per se, but for young people interested in entrepreneurship, I have three pieces of advice:
- Get on the field – If you want to play soccer, you don’t sit on the bench and just watch. You get on the field, learn drills, lose games, and train again and again. You’ll learn more in one hour of training than you will in one month of watching games. The same goes with entrepreneurship.
- The customer is royalty – A good product or service lies in the problem that you’re solving. Take your time to listen, question and learn. Remember – behind every project is a problem, behind every problem is a person, and behind every person is a learning that will help you succeed. That learning is key. It comes back to being human first.
- There is no time limit on success – Rye bread takes two hours to make. Whole-grain takes four. No one will ask you to bake whole-grain in two hours (unless you’re on Masterchef). If you rush, the bread won’t have time to rest and rise. The same goes for your journey. If you try to rush, the bread won’t rise and at the end of it, you’ll have nothing left to serve.
Q: Students from more than 50 cultural groups across the world have completed your programs – how did you and your team create and maintain a connection with students overseas, especially in the face of COVID-19?
A: For us, it’s all about meeting people where they’re at. Before 2020, it was impossible to imagine 10,000 people sitting behind their laptops for an online event. But we changed that. It was all about embracing creativity and being conscious of the energy we brought into the space. We ran massive networking nights with rotating breakout rooms and trivia. We ran hackathons teaching young people to prototype apps from the comfort of their homes. We ran workshops with dance parties and music. It was amazing to see how we could bring life through a screen and reimagine projects.
Q: As well as being the CEO of Future Minds Network and studying a Bachelor of Commerce/ Global Studies at Monash, you’re also an international start-up mentor, sit on eight boards of not-for-profits and represent the UN Conference for Trade and Development as Vice-Coordinator for Australia. How do you manage your time? Do you have any tips for others?
A: It’s important to remember that I didn’t achieve this all at once. My day one started the night I cried in my room – frustrated at the state of the world. That was ten years ago now. For the next six years, I didn’t get up to much.
For me, managing time has always been about following my heart. I continued Future Minds Network because I saw the power of entrepreneurship in teaching me critical skills for the future. I learnt everything from creativity to confidence when pitching to investors, and it helped me land multiple jobs. I started mentoring startups because businesses told me my advice helped them grow and scale. I became a Vice-Coordinator for the UN Conference for Trade and Development, because it was my dream as a kid.
When you first experiment, try as many things as you can. Stay curious and use every experience to learn. You’ll eventually find yourself working in similar industries again and again. These are your focus areas. For me that was startups, social impact and young people. Now everything I do falls into one of those three pillars. Even though I love STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] and medicine, I’ve realised I have the rest of my life to explore those things too.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve received and still live by?
A: When I was growing up, my dad would always use these two phrases again and again: ‘follow your heart’ and ‘just do it’. Life is short so if you want to learn a new sport, instrument, or hobby, don’t overthink it. If you want it, go get it. If you never try, you’ll never discover your true potential. The only time you truly lose in life is when you stop believing in yourself.
Q: Do you have a mentor? If so, how have they helped you?
A: I’ve been lucky to have many mentors in all walks of life from sport to business and life in general. Often when we hear the word ‘mentor’, the image of an older person comes to mind. But a mentor is anyone you can learn from. It can be a teacher who champions you at school, a friend who keeps you accountable at work or a recent grad in your industry who is helping you achieve your career goals.
My mentors have had my back when I’ve fundraised for the company. They’ve introduced me to amazing people in the industry, and have acted as a sounding board when making difficult decisions. There are all different kinds of mentoring relationships, but in all of them, there’s one common thread: connection on a human level first.
Q: How important is it to have a mentor? Do you have any advice on how to find a mentor?
A: It definitely helps to have a mentor, even if it’s just someone to bounce ideas off or keep you accountable.
Mentorship is a two-way street – it’s about connecting as humans – not a transaction. My advice would be to do your research before you meet, ask deeper questions and have clear expectations. If it’s easy to find answers to your questions on the internet, think about how you can take it to a greater depth. For example:
Instead of asking them: “What inspired you to start?”
You could ask: “I read in 9News that your work was inspired by Nelson Mandela. When was the last time you felt so challenged that you lost all inspiration? How did you get around it?”
In the first meeting, the purpose of the call may be to understand who they are, what they care about and offer help wherever you can. From there, you can ask for another catchup and even for them to be a mentor, formally or informally.
Q: Why do you think events like the Future State Youth Symposium are important?
A: Because I’ll be there! Just kidding. To hear from challenging perspectives, learn and unlock your own potential. The biggest takeaway I want everyone to know is that your age, background, and grades don’t define you. Your actions do.
We’ll dig deep and understand how to unlock our inner creativity with a pizza party. For those who are worried about the future, we’ll also be covering what skills you’ll need for the future, the cool jobs that are coming and how to prepare yourselves for them. We’ll have amazing young people there and time to answer all your burning questions on exciting industries like startups, tech and social impact.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self before you started Future Minds Network?
A: As a young person, there’s so much pressure to be “successful” by your 20s. In reality, success looks different for everyone. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that the only way to succeed is to follow conventional paths. You have your whole life ahead of you to explore a meaningful life. Take lots of chances, try new things and learn as much as you can. Know that age is just a label, and it doesn’t stop you from changing the world.
Unlock your potential and learn what it takes to be an entrepreneur. For more information about the Future State Youth Symposium and to register for the event, click here.