SA’s chief entrepreneur helps new talent take flight

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By Belinda Willis

An early career as an elite air force fighter pilot led to the state’s Chief Entrepreneur building a global defence company with 700 employees, now he is helping the state’s next generation find their wings.

“If young people want to see themselves having a high-flying career they can go and work for a really large company,” Jim Whalley says. “Or they can create their own careers and their own companies from here that hopefully will go global.”

The chair and co-founder of defence company Nova Systems believes the state is the ideal training ground for young South Australians to choose the career path that involves building their own businesses. This, he says, is a state founded on a spirit of entrepreneurship along with social and religious freedom.

“Look at the Smith brothers for example, they flew from London to Australia (in 1919) but had to find their own finance, source their own aircraft, it was entrepreneurship to get the aircraft here but also to get support for the project,” Jim says.

“I think if you look at the number of Nobel Laureates per capita in SA, if we were a country we’d sit somewhere between Sweden and Switzerland, we’re somewhere in the top 10%. This is just the sort of spirit that we want, we’ve got the capability, the technical support.”

And Jim says there is strong financial support from the State Government.

SA’s Chief Entrepreneur Jim Whalley says the state has strong support for start-ups, entrepreneurs and innovation.

Budding entrepreneurs have access to funding for start-ups, space innovation, there is an export accelerator and venture capital fund along with precincts being created across Adelaide for start-ups that help accelerate them to commercialisation.

The new Lot Fourteen precinct on the former Royal Adelaide Hospital site in the city for example is leading the way as it is transformed into a neighbourhood entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Jim says the idea is to support innovative ideas and develop a state that is resilient.

“I’m a big believer in chaos creating an opportunity, the more change there is the more opportunity for companies that can think on their feet and enforce development and change.”

He believes jobs of the future “will be unpredictable” with a strong digital focus and the next generation is likely to change their employment paths more regularly.

“Coding for example will, I think, be something everyone will need to understand, it will be part of the curriculum like other languages,” he says. “Those who think and perform well in the future will need to be comfortable with high levels of uncertainty, to be able to think disruptively and think differently and think entrepreneurially.”

His own company Nova Systems started in SA as a defence company and now also has three offices in the United Kingdom, one in Singapore, Norway and Ireland. It has contracts working on Future Submarines, the Air Warfare Destroyers, and Joint Strike Fighter project but also in other industries including oil, gas and mining projects.

Jim Whalley is a former air force fighter pilot and test pilot.

Jim says he stepped down as CEO a few years ago after asking staff member Greg Hume “do you want to have a go at running the company?”

“It sent a very clear message to the middle management team that they could be CEO one day and whilst the company was a private company you didn’t have to be a member of the family to be a senior manager. We’ve got about 700 staff members now and I would like to reach the 1000 mark in the next two to three years.”

Jim was made the state’s first Chief Entrepreneur last year, and in his role is supporting a $6.3 million pilot program for the state’s public high schools that was created by the Entrepreneurship Commercialisation and Innovation Centre at the University of Adelaide.

It involves creating five specialist entrepreneurial high schools with State Government backing and “is about kids that have a little bit of entrepreneurial spirit getting a little bit of a leg up”.

“Basically it’s about giving them a bit of freedom to start businesses through courses, experimentation, to go and write a business plan and complete some leadership courses, to have a financial understanding about the things you need to know,” he says.

“It’s about coming up with an idea and knowing how to act on it.”

Jim thinks the environment is right for the state to continue building on its commitment to a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem that will support a dynamic economy.

“We live in one of the best countries and best states in the world. We want for very little and and we have people who are more than capable of operating on a world stage,” he adds.

Industry in focus: Careers of the Future

Throughout the months of May and June, future careers in South Australia will be explored as part of I Choose SA.

Embracing innovation, creativity and an understanding of building quality partnerships with technology is key to ensuring career opportunities in the future. SA is taking necessary steps to equip future generations with the skills for future careers and current workforces to transition to the future industries.

Read more Careers of the Future stories here.

Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.

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