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Nathaniel Diong
Portrait of Nathaniel Diong
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in March 2023

Nathaniel Diong is a proud Malaysian-Australian. Born in Sitiawan in Malaysia, Nathaniel came to Australia when he was around 4 years old. Nathaniel is currently the founder and CEO of Future Minds Network (FMN), an award-winning youth engagement and training organisation that he started at age 16. 

Schools, councils and government bodies engage with FMN to run youth programs (from workshops to build-a-thons to youth business markets), designed to open an expanse of employment and learning opportunities for the participants. Over the past 5 years, FMN has helped more than 10,000 youth learn 21st century skills, build businesses for good and explore careers in emerging industries in over 10 countries. Now Nathaniel is also tackling the issues of the future of work and youth unemployment from the stakeholder perspective, and actively training up governments, corporations and companies to better support young people.

For his work at FMN Nathaniel has been listed in Forbes 30 under 30 - Asia - Social Impact in 2022 and was a 2021 Finalist for Young Australian of the Year. 
Nathaniel always cites how he started FMN because he felt so helpless in making a difference in the world as a young person. I am well-acquainted with this feeling. Instead of feeling like I could make a difference on a systemic level from a young age, I bought into the dominant narrative that I needed to bide my time, build up coveted skills, and be exposed to a variety of things before I could properly make any impact. This is a well-trodden path and an extremely fair narrative - you can only make real change when you have real skills and experience to bring to the table. 

For the past 5 years since the age of 16, Nathaniel has been tackling this problem of being able to create their own life pathway and be the difference they want to see in the world ‘make a difference as a young person’ from a systemic lens. He has been scaling this very path that I’ve gone down, to as many young people as possible by running the programs that he does with FMN. Coming from a low socioeconomic background, Nathaniel was extremely aware that skills-building and employment opportunities were not equally distributed, especially for more diverse communities and students. 

Nathaniel’s insatiable desire to create scalable impact and his experience in successfully doing so from a young age, has caused me to reflect, and opened up the sea of opportunities that are available to me as a young person. 

I hope Nathaniel’s story inspires you as much as it did, me.
Future minds wasn’t always an organisation running worldwide programs upskilling students and young people. Could you take me through the journey of its evolution from 2016 when FMN was originally a conference, to where it is now?
So Future Minds was actually a shower idea. I thought - what would happen if we brought 100 young people into one room and discussed how young people could create social change, and tangibly  build solutions for their local community? The first initiative we ever ran turned out to be a conference, a series of masterclasses and a hackathon all in one. 

So students from around 5 schools came to the conference, centered around social change. The main goal was to inspire young people and help them realise that they could also create social change. For the first day, we formed groups and got students to discuss specific, localised issues within the sustainable development goals (SDGs). 

In the following days, we held masterclasses with experts from various industries to help students build skills and see how they could take these ideas that they had brainstormed before, to the next level. This involved design thinking workshops, pitching classes, understanding marketing and business models. 

Afterwards, we ran a mini hackathon. Before that, we brought in thought leaders like the founder of Crimson Education and the CEO of World Vision, to provide mentorship and advice to the students. I listened to the most amazing ideas on the final pitch night - one involved a riverside cleanup in the Yarra, another was using ‘ugly’ fruit and turning those into cosmetic face products, another involved building a network-based composting system for local cafes, and there was one that created a peer mentoring app and platform that linked disadvantaged young people to students.

This ended up being an end-to-end funnel: I wanted to inspire young people to believe they could make change, help them learn about and deeply understand a set of problems facing society before jumping into solutions, but also facilitate and grow their confidence in actually believing they could build these solutions.

We got really positive feedback after running the conference, so we did it again the next year. 

The evolution came about after I started thinking more about what I could do in this space. Not all young people wanted to build solutions for the local community, but a lot of young people did face anxiety for their future - not knowing where to go next, and how to get there. We transitioned into supporting young people in terms of the employability and skills-based space. Over time, we developed new future of work and upskilling programmes - we approached schools, universities and the government to fund these opportunities and run these programmes for the young people in these institutions. 

Since youth unemployment is such a huge problem, FMN is also now at the point where we’re thinking about how we can upskill governments and schools to understand how to work better with young people and create the right environment for them to do so.
Growing up, you felt helpless to make a difference in the world as a young person. What was the catalyst that led you to take on this feeling, and start FMN?
An analogy I like to give is - it was like a pressure cooker for me. When you put something in the pressure cooker, there’s just the air, water and ingredients. After a couple of hours, when you try to open the pressure cooker, steam comes blasting out. I have distinct memories of feeling so helpless since age 10. And this idea of wanting to do something about it has been brewing for a long time. In this case, my ideas, passion and decision to start making a difference in the world just came out all at once, like the steam in the pressure cooker. But it’s always been there, brewing.  

I think I was so passionate about taking this problem on, because at the time I started FMN I was juggling a lot back at home. There was a lot of family illness and death around me. I was also struggling a lot with my mental health and my family was coping with a lot of financial stress.

Starting FMN gave me a sense of purpose to keep pushing and to keep trying. At that point in time, I felt helpless and completely not in control with everything else that was happening in my life, and FMN was the only thing I could control in some sense. And as a part of it, I could help other people. When I saw how much FMN impacted and inspired people, I definitely felt a greater sense of purpose and meaning, which kept on pushing me to do more.
How has your mental health journey shaped you and how you show up for the world now?
From a very young age, I’ve always struggled with self-worth. I had low self esteem, wasn’t very confident and I struggled to connect with people around me. This, combined with deaths and illnesses in my family, really affected my mental health going into high school. I started questioning the meaning of my own life and why I was here - especially if we were all going to die anyway. I started seeing a counselor when I was 15, was diagnosed with clinical depression shortly after, and was on meds when I was 16. 

I think a lot of people focus on how life has to have meaning for you to live it. I started seeing the beauty in life when I realised that there is no set meaning and that I get to dictate what that looks like for me. A key turning point was when I realised that nothing I do ultimately matters, so I might as well do something good for the world because I still care about people. This pushed me to start my social enterprise and help people where I can. 

What do you think are necessary skill sets that everyone should learn, adopt and cultivate, that aren't taught or focussed on enough in schools?
I do believe that schools can be great learning environments, and it teaches students the fundamentals as well as how to rote learn or memorise. But the most valuable skills are ones that require experiential learning - learning by doing - whether it’s creativity, communication or networking. And oftentimes, young people face a variety of different access barriers to cultivate these skills. And it’s often the onus of the parents to then teach or help their children gain these experiential skills - which I don’t think is fair at all. So FMN is really trying to equalise the opportunity for all young people to be able to learn these important skills, by bringing it to the institutions that young people are in. 

To answer your question, the necessary skills would be creativity, complex problem solving and communication in the form of conflict resolution.

By creativity, I mean the skill to be able to come up with different novel ideas, then know how to bring them into conversation, in order to challenge the way that we currently do things. It’s important to not be afraid to do things differently too. 

With complex problem solving, it’s being able to really understand an issue on all fronts and understand that part of solving a problem is to understand the stakeholders it affects and how valuable their lived experiences are. Schools often teach problem solving in the form of following a set method, in order to get to an answer. But how then do you deal with ambiguity, which is what the real world is full of? 

By communication, I don’t just mean gaining confidence in outward-facing public-speaking. I mean the ability to have difficult conversations and navigate through conflict. How do you negotiate with someone? How do you balance your needs in a team? People need to understand how to navigate conflict and disagreements, because that’s how the world operates. If we listen better, and combine the collective thoughts of everybody around us then we can make way more changes than if we were to rely on one person.
How do you make your programs and work as inclusive as possible, and ensure that your programs reach youth from underprivileged or marginalised backgrounds?
We put young people at the centre of everything that we do. There are two key ways that we do it in our programming. Firstly, all our facilitators are people from marginalised backgrounds who have experienced disadvantage before - we’re a team of migrants, international students, people of colour, from varying socio-economic backgrounds. Our programmes are led by people with these lived experiences. Secondly we purposefully create an inclusive environment for all young people to thrive in. We always acknowledge the lived experiences in the room, and give them the confidence that their ideas do matter and that they are valued for who they are.

FMN is largely driven by the community. Since we employ diverse young people who have first-hand experiences, they’re naturally in touch with their communities, and ensure that we reach youth from all sorts of diverse backgrounds.

There are times when it's difficult, especially when we work with different stakeholders and are sometimes restricted to the young people that they can bring. For example, we might do a youth strategy consultation with the government, who hand-pick a group of young people that should represent all of Victoria, but aren’t actually a complete representation. In that scenario, we really champion and voice the need to have more diverse young people included in these important discussions that are going to affect all young people moving forward. 
Now that you’ve recently graduated from university, where are you planning to take FMN in the future and in 2023?
The very ultimate goal is to build towards a world where young people regardless of their background, feel like they have an equal opportunity to have a good quality of life, have the agency to control their future and feel like they can stand up and influence social change. 

Along with employment programs, we’ve also lifted young people into positions of power such as board directorships, direct government advisory roles and integrating their voice in investment decisions etc. But even if we upskill young people to a critical point, we still need governments and organisations to acknowledge this and unlock the potential of young people - to give them a chance.

So this year, we’re much more focussed on stakeholders. We’re focusing on where governments, corporations and companies fit into the picture in supporting young people - especially because there’s a larger scale for impact. We’re currently working with governments across the world, to think about how we can empower young people to start their own thing, or be intrapreneurs in the workforce and in local businesses - where an intrapreneur is essentially someone with an entrepreneurial mindset, working for somebody else. 
on culture and identity
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
My relationship to my Asian Australian identity has been pretty complicated. Growing up, I always felt like I was caught between two worlds. As a child, I never wanted to be Asian. I just wanted to be a white Australian especially because my family and I have had quite a few experiences of racism and discrimination living here. The racism in Australia can also be quite covert and you sometimes feel like you’re being gaslit, but you’re not quite sure. So those kind of experiences influenced me, and made me not want to identify as Asian.

But over time I've leaned more into my Malaysian background - just from asking more questions and learning more about my history, culture and where my family came from. I think it’s really through the stories I’ve heard - like the stories of my parents growing up in Malaysia and how it was living there, that I’ve been able to interact with my Malaysian heritage. 

The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve also realised that I don't have to identify with one culture or the other. The duality is the beauty of it.  
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
In the past 2 or 3 years I’ve been learning to speak Hokkien. It came about super randomly. At the start I was just learning ‘bad words’ and by that I mean different types of animal poo, and saying that to my parents. Over time, I just started more actively listening in on my parents and their conversations. Asking them what certain words meant. Picking up the language, listening and repeating, essentially like a toddler. And now I’m at the stage where I’m able to completely understand what my parents say in their mother tongue. 

That’s been quite significant for me since I always felt like language was a barrier to accessing my culture. I felt like I was less qualified to be Malaysian if I couldn't speak all the dialects. In Malaysia, people usually speak one of Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, English as well as Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew and even more. Out of those, I only know English, a bit of Mandarin and now Hokkien. 
What is your favourite food from your culture?
I will always default to curry mee (spicy and rich Malaysian curry noodle soup, also known as laksa - but they’re slightly different). But the way I like to eat it is curry mee with yong tau foo (tofu filled with ground meat mixture or fish paste) and kon loh mee (slightly salty noodles with black sauce, which you usually eat with char siu and shallots) - which are all separate dishes. So in Malaysia, with yong tau foo you can pick anything that you want e.g. capsicum or eggplant stuffed tofu, and then the street vendor will fry it up for you to eat.

So there’s a bowl of curry mee. In separate bowls you have the guan no with the black sauce and the yong tau foo. What I like to do is eat the kon loh mee, drink some of the curry mee broth and then eat the yong tau foo.

Other dishes I love (because I can’t contain it to just one) is nasi lemak, all types of roti, pandan chiffon cake and egg tarts.
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
Honestly, I don’t follow people nowadays but I really like the Asian Australian movement happening right now. I can’t pick an individual, but I love how in the Asian Australian space we’re talking about family, home, mental health and identity-related topics a lot more now. I really look up to the movement, and am enjoying the organisations and podcasts popping up, like As I Am and Level Asian.