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Aun Ngo
Portrait of Aun Ngo
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in February 2023

Aun Ngo is Chinese-Australian with Hokkien and Hainanese heritage. He moved to Melbourne from Malaysia when he was 6 years old, and grew up in Box Hill North. Aun is currently the Community Lead for StartSpace, a free business support service at State Library Victoria for new and early stage founders. StartSpace provides inspiration, information and practical guidance to help new businesses (from startups to traditional small businesses) grow from concept to reality. He is also the father of two young sons.

Before joining StartSpace, Aun worked at the Foundation for Young Australians, supporting youth-led social enterprises. Aun also co-founded Meld Community, a Melbourne-based not-for-profit dedicated to facilitating the development of a healthy international student community in Australia. He has also worked abroad, at a social enterprise in the Philippines through AusAID and a non-profit nursing home in Singapore. For Aun, it’s always been about people – running programs, supporting volunteers and working with partners.
Aun has spent a large portion of his life supporting others, running programs and growing communities - with a focus on underrepresented communities from international students to youth to individuals from marginalised communities that may not get as many opportunities as the average individual.

Over the course of more actively embedding myself in certain communities - for example the startup space, and the Asian Australian community - I have felt the immense power of belonging and sense of safety from being in them, and getting the chance to befriend like-minded people. As such, I wanted to highlight all the amazing work that Aun has been doing, which I know would have been so impactful for all the people who have found these communities, that he helped create and run.

I hope Aun’s story inspires you as much as it did, me.
From your experience at Meld, FYA, StartSpace and other places, what do you enjoy the most about building communities and facilitating their growth?
The process in itself is enjoyable - each time I do it, I ultimately don’t know what the outcome could be. Building communities involves intentionally opening up spaces. Part of the process is figuring out what barriers might currently exist, busting your assumptions about things and providing people opportunities to join these communities. Then when you create that space, and people feel comfortable coming in, and the community starts growing - that's where some amazing things can happen. People start to make connections when they begin working on things together, collaborate or just, go on the journey together.  For whatever reason I've been given the opportunity to do just that professionally, and I love it.
Why do you think belonging to communities is so important?
I think we're just innately communal. Life happens. So having people around you, be it family and friends and peers, is vitally important - not only for the celebrations but for the rough times too. That's why it's important to actively build communities, find them, defend them and be a part of them.

I've had the privilege of being in a lot of amazing communities over my life. My family got the opportunity to migrate to Australia when I was quite young. And then growing up there was always the Chinese-Malaysian, Southeast Asian diaspora surrounding us, and that eventually ended up opening up opportunities for me working in the international student space. For migrants and international students, under the intense pressure of leaving all you know, and entering a new environment, I’ve found that it's vitally important to have a good support network around you. From there, it’s so much easier to navigate life together. Speaking from my experience at Meld and growing the international student community despite not innately belonging to it - I think there's a responsibility for Australians, not just migrants and former international students, to really support the international student community. The way I frame it is when these international students come, there's two outcomes - they're either going to stay and become future Australians, or they're going to leave and then almost become ambassadors of Australia, reflecting on their time here. Either way, it's vitally important to support them and leverage that opportunity to learn from them too.

Then through a few professional roles, I've had the opportunity to work in both the social enterprise and the startup community where people are trying to start a business be it for profit, for purpose, or a social enterprise. It’s scary and daunting. But having people around you that might be going through the same thing, or are a little bit ahead is so comforting. It’s so incredibly important to find peers or others that may understand what you're going through, listen and  offer timely advice, or help with warm introductions and their networks. 

Another community that I've had the absolute privilege of getting to know since I was in university is through volunteering on a weekly soup van. On face value it’s about providing food to people who may be experiencing homelessness - but it’s not just about the food. For the individuals, it’s about having some semblance of a community - when they’re waiting for the van to arrive, and get to just chat about the day, current events or sports. Community is about sharing your life with people.
How do you ensure that StartSpace reaches individuals belonging to diverse communities traditionally underrepresented in the start up and small and medium-sized businesses?
So StartSpace is a part of the State Library Victoria, and it's a business support service for early stage founders and people with any kind of business idea. State Library Victoria has all these services, programs and spaces- we want to afford this opportunity of starting something, to all members of the community. And more importantly, people don’t get to work alone and in isolation, but get to work alongside other amazing groups of people from diverse backgrounds doing something similar.

One issue in the current startup ecosystem is that very low levels of funding are given to female founders and founders from culturally diverse backgrounds. What we seek to do is partner with organisations that are already doing amazing work with their communities, support them and leverage those relationships. I can’t speak highly enough of Usman Iftikhar and his work at Catalysr, a pre-accelerator that empowers Migrapreneurs (migrant and refugee startup founders) in Australia to create a better future for themselves and Australia. There’s also amazing female founder communities out there like One Roof founded by Sheree Rubinstein and The Creative-Cooperative founded by Priyanka Ashraf. There’s also SENVIC which connects, supports and develops a thriving social enterprise community in Victoria. It's finding these groups that are already engaged with their communities, and then working in conjunction with them to connect and support where possible.

What are some new initiatives that StartSpace is working on that you are excited about?
I think what excites me most about the StartSpace initiative is that it takes advantage of a civic institution such as the library, and converts it into a doorway into business and entrepreneurship. It takes away loaded words, and the mystique around the startup culture, and just provides a space that is intrinsically community-focussed, and creates opportunities for people to have a go.

StartSpace operates in a library, a place where most members of the community feel comfortable walking into. When I moved to Australia, I have fond memories as a kid going to the school holiday programs at the local library - because there’s a strong sense of belonging. We transform this public space and use it as a doorway into other programs, incubator programs or accelerator programs, which may then help founders and teams to go down the investment stage and further.

So, the most exciting thing has always been - how do we scale this? We've been running for a few years now at State Library Victoria. The next question has always been - how do we partner with other libraries around the state? How do we work across the 51 public library services in Victoria and their hundreds of branches? What does it look like for sites around the state where there is not only physical infrastructure, which is vitally important, but staff that know their community. How do we connect these libraries with this early stage business support service, so that Victorians no matter where they are geographically, could get a level of support from the library sector?

What is one of your favourite ideas and founders that StartSpace has supported?
I love the work of Shimroth John Thomas, who runs PhycoForms. Shimroth was a former international student who has been involved in a few of our programs that we run in partnership with Study Melbourne (a Victorian Government initiative that supports international students in their study journey in Melbourne). His work involves creating products made with a seaweed-based composite to address sustainability in the building industry. He operates in the space of thinking how we can use natural resources to change the face of the building industry. That’s just one of the many founders I’ve had the privilege of meeting over the years.

You’ve helped in facilitating so many founder journeys from the very early stage - around 800 people have gone through StartSpace so far. What do you think are some of the most potent barriers to entrepreneurship?
I think that there's a dominant narrative of what a startup founder looks like. For example there's a handful of individuals in the world that the majority of the world knows on a first name basis - and they may think - that’s what a startup founder looks like. There’s an identity piece where you question if you can be a founder and start a business - especially if there isn't the ability to include much risk in your life, be it financial or time-wise. So a combination of feeling impostor syndrome, as well as just not having enough resources to be afforded the opportunity to work on an idea.

So with StartSpace we’re really including, showcasing and finding founders from all walks of life. Anybody from the community can be a founder. And with the cost and time side of things, StartSpace is able to leverage the physical offerings of a library to give back to founders. Instead of mulling about an idea, chatting about it around the kitchen bench for years and years, people can surround themselves with other like-minded people working on their businesses, attend events and workshops, and try to move the dial on what they're working on. It may fail gloriously. But that's okay. What’s important is taking the first step in trying your hand in this idea you’ve had for so long, and seeing where it goes. Over time, whether the idea is commercially successful or otherwise, so much growth and learning experience will come from it.

on culture and identity
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
So I was born in Malaysia and moved here when I was quite young. I’ve got Chinese ancestry, but we only spoke English at home. Growing up I was always half looking at what the Asian American community was doing - with the larger population there and a lack of representation on traditional media platforms I came across the emerging Asian Americans who were creating content when platforms like YouTube arrived. That kind of media helped inform and shape my cultural identity. Then working with culturally diverse communities and the international student community, and getting the opportunity to move to Asia for a while was quite defining. For a time, I was working in Manila, and then in Singapore - certainly being based back in Asia as an adult helped deepen my understanding of my Asian culture a lot more, and allowed me to learn a little bit more about my Chinese identity and history. In Singapore, I was working at a non-profit nursing home - working with volunteers and partners, and suddenly found myself using my basic Hokkien linguistic skills at work. That was quite special.

More recently, now I have two young kids and I always think of what components of our Chinese culture we want to instill in our kids - I married into a Cantonese family. Our sons have two parents with zero Mandarin knowledge and only a basic grasp of their dialects so we speak English at home. The boys also can default to speaking English with their grandparents so I think teaching them Chinese will be challenging. I think ultimately I do want to instill in them the communal aspect of life and family - having family over, growing up with the cousins, celebrating important traditions like Lunar New Year together.
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
Being able to go visit my ancestral village was such a privilege. To not only know where our village is, but be able to make that trip with my grandma and parents. It’s such a privilege because this knowledge of the ancestral village is completely lost on my mum’s side and likely lost for so many Chinese families out there. I was the only cousin in my generation that was able to make the trip. So down the track if a cousin, my kids, nieces or nephews want to know where the family came from, I will be able to direct them along the right way.
What is your favourite food from your culture?
I’ll always have a soft spot for mum’s chicken curry, but aside from that one of my favourite foods to eat is the pork and prawn noodles from the Tiong Bahru markets in Singapore. I would go almost weekly to the same vendor for a couple of years whilst living there. Later when I had moved back to Australia and visited Singapore, the uncle who ran the store recognised me and blunty said two things. He said, “Australian! You’re back. And you got fat.” Then he proceeded to give me a free bowl of noodles. I was feeling the love from prawn noodle uncle.
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
One Asian Australian who I admire and look up to is Professor Kwong Lee Dow (former University Vice-Chancellor, a distinguished education scholar, and an active contributor to curriculum reforms). He was born in Melbourne, and had an entire career devoted to education which spanned decades at the University of Melbourne. There’s buildings and scholarships named after him. He’s someone who was a really good steward, and provided a lot of leadership in the world of academics and education. He’s really an exemplar of an Asian Australian who has given so much back to the community.

There’s also my friend in Sydney, Weh Yeoh who founded OIC Cambodia which established speech therapy as a universally accessible, locally led profession in Cambodia, and now runs Umbo, a social enterprise that connects allied health professionals with children in rural areas who have limited access to speech pathology. We have a similar cultural background and found ourselves working in international development. It was through international development that Weh really interrogated the role of international organisations and the need to make space for locals to create their own solutions. Now he’s back in Australia and supporting the work in Cambodia from a far as he focuses on his work with Umbo. An amazing Asian Australian creating positive impact out there in the community.