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The Community Builder: Meet Dean Landy, founder One Heart Foundation

The Growth Faculty partners with One Heart in Kenya

"If you're going to dream, dream big, because it's going to cost you the same amount of time." Dean Landy, CEO, One Heart Foundation. 

I met Dean Landy when I joined a group of entrepreneurs on a trip to Kenya last year and was instantly drawn to the work of the Melbourne architect and the registered charity he founded, One Heart Foundation

One Heart Foundation transforms the lives of orphaned and abandoned children living in Kenya, by providing them with an education, a home, and a loving “family” community. A series of homes, a primary school, a high school and an income generating farm make up the village he’s building, with more infrastructure, including a medical clinic on the way.

Inspired by his vision of building sustainable communities with education at its core, The Growth Faculty is supporting One Heart's Teacher for Change Program.

Meet Dean Landy….

Dean, how does a partner in an architect firm find himself building a village in Kenya?

The journey for me has been going on for most of my career as an architect, because I did an exchange program while I was studying in Deakin University. I got myself over to Nottingham University, and in my third year, I volunteered in the Himalayan region of India to do maintenance on a hospital. I got a love for India, and I went back there repeatedly over a number of years, and ended up spending about seven months in India, but I had a real passion to do something in Africa.

I started to create this idea in my mind about creating sustainable communities, (and) I ended up in Kenya.

At the start it  seemed like two different tangents, my work and volunteering in community development, and my architecture, but now it's really just blurred into one space, given my job now is designing whole new towns and cities and communities. I just say it's either in Africa or Australia, just a different context. But it's all around people. So when you just focus on the people, it doesn't really matter what context you're in, just the needs are a little bit different, that's all.

Sure. Why Africa? You spent a lot of time in India, so what was the drive, or what inspired you about Africa?

It's hard to say really, just a passion towards it. I just felt drawn to it. I guess you could say I had a sense of calling to that place; I really wanted to be able to contribute in these areas where I had read about, and seen the effects of such extreme poverty in the lives of young children.

What's the picture that stays in your head from your early visits to Kenya?

Well, the first visit I went there in 2007, I ended up taking a team of 12 people with me on my very first trip. If you're going to do it, go large.

I should say, there are two images that stick in my mind. The first one is this undercurrent of bubbling tension that's often faced in Africa. I got to see it first hand; we landed the day before some of the worst election violence in Kenya's history broke out. I got stuck right in the middle of it. It got fairly intense, to the point that we were nearly evacuated by the Australian embassy.

I saw Africa at its worst, and how people can turn on people. Keeping that in mind, I went straight back six months later, and a lot of people said "You've seen it at its worst, and you've come back, why?" 

It actually opened a lot of doors for us as an organisation, because they realised we were there to help and make an impact, and motivated by love to be able to go and help the children that were orphaned through these political clashes (as they’re known).

I'm more confident nowadays to be taking teams over there, the constitution has changed, the government has changed, and there's been a real growth in Africa, in Kenya.

The second image that stays in my mind is one of the images that really continues to motivate me. Once we started to implement this vision of creating sustainable child-focused villages, we rented our first properties and we started to build a reputation of being able to care for the most vulnerable children. But you can't just randomly take kids in, they need to go through a court process and so on, to come into our care.
But there was a little girl that used to sleep at our gate, and we were aware that she was being raped and abused in the local community by drunkards in these backyard breweries. I was able to take our social workers and talk with this little girl, she was only about five or six years old. I was just able to hold her hand and tell her she was going to be safe in our care. That memory still motivates me today, remembering the feeling that, "This isn't right, and I'm going to do something about it, no matter what."
I still take that seed of a thought and apply it to any and every child we can come in contact with to be able to help. Now five years on she's prospering. She is excelling in school, and is just an amazing little girl. It’s inspiring to me knowing that if we didn't step in, she would probably be one of those statistics we just read about, where 22,000 children a day are dying before the age of five, from the effects of poverty. So that image sticks with me and continues to motivate me.

What's your vision for One Heart?

The bigger vision of One Heart is always focused on breaking the poverty cycle, but to do it in a holistic, sustainable and entrepreneurial way. What I mean by this is we don't just want to do a short-term ‘band-aid’ fix, or a little intervention here or there that is totally dependent on foreign aid.  We're going in with a vision to provide this holistic approach to the most disadvantaged children. Meaning, we treat them like our own kids, we bring them into our home, we cover their education, their medical, their day to day living expenses. They're our own kids, basically. It's their physical, mental, social health, spiritual well being, is all part of raising a child.

That's our first key pillar. The second is around this sustainable approach. To be able to set this village up so that it runs itself. Not just environmental sustainability, but social and financial sustainability, so within a couple of years, within our village, we have all these different income generating projects, from bakeries, fisheries, dairy, poultry. They will start to generate more income, which will offset our monthly costs of caring for our 100 children in our primary care. The other, soon to be 600 kids in our school, will be made up of fee paying students that are benefiting from our high standards of education, and others that are on One Heart scholarships. 
That model then closes out so that each village can be self-sufficient, and then we replicate that over and over. So we've already got part one for three villages, but our longer-term vision is for each community that we're working in, we will have a direct impact on 5000 lives, per annum, per village. That's through our medical clinics, our schools, our skills training, and so on.

So our focus by 2030, is to be able to continue to create the new villages in different countries through East Africa, potentially even Asia, that we would be impacting 100,000 lives direct, per year, in a sustainable, self-funding way.

Wow. What are the roadblocks you see to reaching your goals?

At first, I probably wasn't communicating a big enough vision, and people would think that it was just this one little project, just a bit of an ongoing money pit to fund. So I've learned that the roadblock is to communicate a bigger vision - that was number one.

It's really partnering up with like-minded, passionate people, that it's not just about how much I can take on, but how can we connect with passionate people that can take a certain piece and run with it themselves.

That's how we start to get more of a movement, as opposed to "Who can help me fulfil my idea?" It's not that at all. So a challenge is finding those passionate, inspired, intelligent people that can not just suggest an idea, but have the capacity to run with it. It's the first hurdle.

The second one, of course, is the funding part. Always trying to find ways to be creative how we raise funds, rather than just sit back thinking people owe it to us to donate money. We've never had that mentality. It's about how can we creatively find ways to raise funds, but add value to those businesses or people that are connecting with us on this journey, so we're doing it together, and sharing the satisfaction, I guess, of making this impact.

So in short, the two roadblocks are finding the right people, and finance, but we continue to work through those and we're scaling up as we go.

What else do you see as essential for running One Heart, outside of your authenticity and transparency and obviously having a clear vision around what you're looking to achieve?

It really comes down to passion and compassion for people. We're not doing any of this for our own benefit or our own recognition.

I often say I don't care if no-one knows my involvement and what I'm doing in One Heart, so it's finding those qualities in people that are genuinely doing it out of a love for others, and a passion to serve, and to be able to realise that in Australia or in Melbourne or in Africa, in Kenya, that they're people. We're all people, and humanity, we're one big community.

Absolutely, and I'd like to circle back to building the template for one village and then being able to create other villages around that. Do you think the time frame to get to that level of self-sustainability will shorten with every village?  

Yes. We see a bit of an exponential curve, so our first village we're really looking at more as a prototype…an MVP (Minimum Viable Product), where we've tested some ideas.

We're doing quite a bit of work on different funding mechanisms, really entrepreneurial ways in Australia about investing in cattle and selling recycled computers, and all these sorts of things.

It means that we can start to compound that time frame, and then we'd be expecting to be able to create a new village every year.

That's impressive. You're also the author of Creating Vibrant Communities and you're the founder of the Tribus community app. Where did your passion for community come from?

It's interesting, because when you're studying architecture, you do tend to focus more on the buildings and the art of architecture and so on. But I guess I've just had an underlying personal motivation and passion around people and community. In my early career, it wasn't as clear as it is now, but I've had the benefit of growing up from about 14 years old in a local community church, which had a real focus around serving others and giving back. Being part of a community that not only shares a common faith, but is there to look out for others, and do life together, has been, and continues to be a real grounding element and fulfilling part of my life. 

So I guess that sort of personal experience then coupled up with my professional career in the commercial world, asking “how can I bring value to others?”.  So that's basically where the motivation comes from, a deeper understanding and faith, and the idea of being able to just serve other people, love others, and give back.
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So what has your school in Kenya taught you that can help make Australian communities more connected?

What I love seeing over there is the reality of that saying "It takes a community to raise a child". It is so tangible there, it's a bit of a saying here in Australia, but in our villages in Kenya, it's clear to see. What I love about it is that often people come over with us on these trips and think they're going over there to see communities of people that don't have what we have, and they don't have the money and the lifestyle and things, and what I find is that people come away from it realising that we're the ones that are lacking, not the communities in some places that we're working in Kenya.

Because it's not all about possessions, and it's not all about the latest iPad.

What the schools have and the kids have is a real genuine appreciation for education. There is a real sense of community and connectedness. They look out for each other, their brothers and sisters, and friends. Above that, the parents, the staff, the teachers, really understand that it takes this whole network of people to care and raise these children. I just love seeing that there, yet it's sometimes the opposite when I come back to Australia. I see what we're lacking. I don't meant this in a negative way, but there's a richness that we often miss out on in our busy communities here. 

Thanks Dean, and now we’d love your responses to the GREAT EIGHT, eight questions we ask all the authors and CEOs we interview at The Growth Faculty.

What's a book you'd recommend? One that hit me most, many years ago, which really set me on a bit of a journey was  Richard Branson's autobiography, Losing My Virginity. That was really inspiring to me. I read it 18, 20 years ago. Still stands out.

If you could co-author a book with anyone, who would it be and what would the book title be?
Something I would literally look to do in a number of years, would be sharing stories of some of the kids who have grown up in the One Heart communities. Because I've seen where they've come from, I'd love to be able to capture their stories and to share them. It would be Around My Journeys, or Seeds of Hope, but it would need a bit more thought. 
What's a great bit of advice you could share?
If you're going to dream, dream big, because it's going to cost you the same amount of time.

What's been your lowest moment and how did you recover?
In the first year or so, when we were setting up in Kenya, I put a lot of trust in someone over there, a manager, and it was only a small amount, but they used some of the funds we were sending, and that just, in the early days, made it really clear just how important integrity, honesty, and that team approach is. So it was pretty shattering at the start, when you're trying to set the foundation, but how you bounce back is just hold tight to the vision, and what I felt that we were called to do, and you just have to keep pushing forward and you learn from it, put policies and processes in place to ensure it doesn't happen again.

How do you relax?
With two small kids, it is hard to relax. But it's finding those little moments, trying to get into the gym when I can, otherwise I do a coffee run every morning to get a coffee for my wife, and it's those five minutes of being able to read the paper and have a quick coffee before the busy day starts.

What's a fun fact that's not widely known about you?
I auditioned for Australian Idol, around 15 years ago. More recently though, as I've never let that sort of musical side get known, I enjoyed performing in a stage production where I did a piece as Hugh Jackman from the Greatest Showman. It was actually good fun!

What's the secret of success?
For me, I think it's been creating a vision statement for my own life. We do vision statements for our businesses, but just taking that time to create a sentence that captures what your life is about, we rarely do. The statement helps me get through those more dry times when there's no buzz and energy around stuff. You just keep pushing forward because you've got this driving, written statement which is your life mission statement.

What's a prediction for 2025?
It's going to be around community, that all these elements in life are becoming more automated, social connections are becoming digitised, I think the prediction is that people will revert more and more to seek authentic connections in their local communities.

Thanks so much, Dean, I appreciate your time.

For more information on Dean's incredible work at the One Heart Foundation and their upcoming fund raiser Run for Poverty visit