Ahead of the launch of diversity focused masterclass ‘RARE’, which will be part of the D&AD Festival, one of the program’s Creative Leaders and trainers, Oliver Percovich talks to Ogilvy’ & Mather's art director, Ran Stallard about the challenges of starting an organisation in a war-torn country, mentors as ‘secret weapons’, and the importance of asking for help when you need it.
Oliver Percovich is the founder of Skateistan, an award-winning international non-profit organization that empowers children and youth through skateboarding and education, aiming to develop leaders for a better world. Oliver first founded the organisation after moving from Australia to Kabul back in 2007. When local teenagers saw him on his skateboard and wanted to join in, he began bringing more boards into the country for his new friends.
Skating provided an outlet for the youth of all socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities and genders. With Oliver’s support and passion, a blossoming community emerged that overcame social divisions. The project grew and today, Skateistan has more than 50 employees worldwide, with programs running in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa that offer both skating and general education classes to over a thousand girls and boys every week.
What has being a 'rare' creative meant to you?
I'm really humbled to be seen as a creative person! I think being a rare creative means that you utilise knowledge and experience from vastly different fields and combine it in a new and innovative way to produce an outcome. Those outcomes need to take into account cultural, social and environmental factors.
To be invited to be among some of the brightest creative minds on the planet is a huge honour. I'm really looking forward to coming to the event and sharing my story of using skateboarding to advance educational opportunities for children all over the world, especially girls in Afghanistan.
What kind of challenges have you had?
Overall, I think that challenges are simply a forced way to learn to deal with something new. The biggest challenges at any point of time is simply something you haven't learnt to deal with yet. I have had staff and students blown up by suicide bombers, as well as personal death threats. I’ve been told by everyone involved that they don't want to work with me anymore (in the very early days), and been physically assaulted by former staff. All terrible things to deal with, but all potential learning experiences.
Any stories from the 'frontline'?
I was sitting around the table having breakfast with a whole lot of the former most senior Mujahideen commanders in Afghanistan when the news came over a television in the corner that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. Since the Mujahideen were the ones that drove the Taliban out of most Afghan cities, I expected them to at least look cheerful. Not one person at the table gave a reaction or said a word. Slowly in twos and threes they left the table to have discreet meetings with each other. I was pretty much left at the breakfast table by myself.
How have you found your own way? Any mentors?
I definitely did not find my own way. It was mostly about motivating others behind a general idea. Everything that Skateistan achieved was done as a group. The ideas that drove us forward came from so many different people. Those others included the students, the staff, the parents of the students, the communities with who we worked, our donors, our corporate partners, different forms of government. I needed to create the "space" or the meeting point where all those ideas could come together.
I had many different mentors and I relied very heavily on them. I think I was clever enough to ask for help when I needed it and to admit what I knew or didn't know - at least most of the time! I needed to learn new skills quickly in many cases to keep up with the growth of Skateistan. I relied on different mentors over the years that I would do monthly check ins with to ready me or help deal with any fresh challenges. They were also a really important sounding board for new ideas. As a founder and director, it was not always possible or appropriate to get emotional support from co-workers. Many times I felt very alone in my work and out of my depth. Mentors often provided me with the confidence to take on new challenges. Mentors are a secret weapon that will always make you look smarter than what you are, if you are good at listening and don't talk too much in your meetings with them.
What defines your style and your work?
Collaborative, flexible, adaptive, quality over quantity. Inconsistent yet reliable. I love to work with a very wide range of partners and people and I continuously search for what I can learn from everyone I meet.
What stories do you like to tell?
I like telling stories that will inspire others to look inside themselves and ask "what is the unique thing that I have to offer humanity or even just those around me? Every human has something unique to offer.
Who do you like to work with?
I like to work with those people that enjoy working with me. I think that work should also be fun. I especially like working with reliable people that have different skill sets to me because you can then get a whole lot done.
Any advice to those who are rare creatives?
Always stay true to yourself and be proud of who you are.
Find out more about the event through the Rare website.