Where are they Now – Michael Shaw (OH 2002)
Your current role is Executive Manager and Consultant for Aktis Strategy. What does Atkis as an organisation aim to do and what specifically is your role at Atkis?
Three years ago I helped to start Aktis as a consultancy that works to improve security and justice for conflict-affected countries. Right now we are working in Syria and Iraq to help tackle the horrific “Islamic State” (IS), as well as to support the nascent Government of Somalia to offer a credible alternative compared to the terrorist organisation “Shabab”. We also work in Lebanon, Tunisia and Pakistan, to support the governments of those countries to help their communities deal with severe refugee situations and to counter the threat of terrorism.
Aktis has grown incredibly fast and we now have close to 70 staff around the world, but three years ago we were a total startup. For the first six months I was working from a shipping container in Afghanistan and we didn’t have a central office. When you start a small business I think you end up working on everything! I’ve been a field researcher and analyst about the threat from the Taliban in Afghanistan, a Trainer and Program Manager of a non-regime (rebel) police training project for Syria, the lead consultant on Denmark’s design of a counter-IS program for Syria and I’ve also worked back-office as website designer, HR Manager, General Manager and Interim Chief Operating Officer. I’m now working as a field consultant again – in Canberra for a few weeks at the moment – to help the Australian Government work on its strategy for Countering Violent Extremism.
How did you get started in this role/this line of work?
I knew nothing about international development consulting when I was at university, let alone when I was at high school! From Haileybury I went on to study law and creative arts at Melbourne Uni, but I enjoyed working more than study, so I decided to take 6 months off and studied part time. I picked up a job as a project manager for a small consultancy in the CBD. That company was bought a few years later by an Australian engineering firm called Coffey who were the number one contractors to AusAID – Australia’s government aid program. Coffey had projects all over the world and I was fascinated by some of the work they were doing. This motivated me to finish off the law degree. Eventually I graduated and Coffey offered me a role as a project manager and police trainer in Kabul. From there I haven’t looked back!
I think we feel all sorts of pressure at university to finish our degrees and get into the workforce. In my case it definitely paid off to take my time. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be a lawyer and through my work experience, I had a much broader idea of the sorts of jobs I might be interested in. By studying part time I think I was open to more opportunities and I definitely met more people – in the end I took a completely unexpected career pathway!
What’s your single biggest achievement/accomplishment in your professional life?
Ha! That’s a tough one. When you’re busy rushing from one project to another you don’t really stop and look back at what feels like an achievement! The work that made the biggest difference to my outlook on life was working for the Australian Army for 18 months in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. That experience brought me face to face with some of the toughest things I have witnessed in my life so far, but it was also incredibly rewarding and put all of the good times we take for granted in Australia and with our friends and family, into perspective. I am forever grateful to the soldiers and colleagues who helped to keep me safe. Not everyone was as fortunate to make it home. I think my greatest accomplishment was taking the opportunity to sponsor some of my Afghan colleagues from that time to come to Australia with their families. If they’d stayed in Uruzgan after our soldiers had left, they were at real risk of being killed by the Taliban. Now watching my Afghan friends in Melbourne completing their Masters at VU and Monash, and setting up new lives in Australia – that would be the achievement that makes me feel most proud.
Your role sounds like it has required you to travel a lot in the past. Do you enjoy this aspect of your role?
Absolutely! I’m mad for experiencing new places and cultures and I’ve been lucky to meet people from all over. From taking a dip at Lido Beach in Mogadishu to catching a sunset at Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, I gladly put up with the air miles to see more of the world. Most of Aktis’ funding comes from donor governments like Australia, the UK, USA and Denmark, so not all my travel is to war zones either.
How did your formative years at Haileybury prepare you for the various roles you have held in your life?
Haileybury definitely helped to set me up to seek new experiences and to challenge the status quo. Being at a school where students and teachers valued and recognised success means that I truly believe that hard work leads to achievement. Having tonnes of opportunities to try new sports, get into the arts studio, work on the stage, hit the bush at the old Camp Pelican; school encouraged me to challenge myself and to try everything at least once. Independent-minded teachers like Blake Meadows, John Cantwell, Rhonda Allen, Janet Strachan and Alma Tooke among others, also encouraged me to push the boundaries and to stand up for what I thought was the right thing to do, even if that sometimes meant not getting the top marks or earning some stern words from the Principal!
Do you still keep in touch with any of your mates from Haileybury?
Being away from Australia a lot makes it hard to stay in contact with everyone I’d like to, but absolutely I meet up with my mates wherever and whenever I can! I’m also really grateful to the OHA for putting on events in London and in different forums, to make it easier to stay in touch and to meet new people from the Haileybury community. Some of my school mates will, I hope, remain my closest and truest friends no matter what comes next!
So…What’s next for Michael Shaw?!
A good question! By the end of 2016 I think I’ll be keen to move on from full time work with Aktis, to pursue some new challenges in international development, and also to do some further study. In particular I’m keen to help locally-led NGOs and businesses in places like Tunisia and Afghanistan to win their own contracts and projects with donors in the UK, US and Australia, rather than working through a third party international consultancy. I’m also hoping to get back to Melbourne a bit more, to spend a bit more time with mates and with my niece and nephew. Perhaps I’ll even get to visit “Keysy” Campus to have a look at how the old school has grown!