Down Under, Executive MBA Students ‘Put Their Money Where Their Heart Is’

By Tom van der Voort

“It was an entire family of people dedicated to helping these boys succeed. And the heart attached to it was just incredible.
—Katelyn Sloan, Class of 2023


Katelyn Sloan headshot clontarf foundation

Katelyn Sloan

When University of Virginia Darden School of Business Executive MBA students reached Australia with Professor Shane Dikolli, they knew intellectually about the challenges indigenous Australians — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — faced. But data on poverty, educational attainment and incarceration rates only came to life when they understood what one organization was doing about it.

That organization was the Clontarf Foundation.

“We understood factually,” said Katelyn Sloan (Class of 2023), “but to see it was a totally different experience. They just completely wrapped these boys up into this support system.”

Shane Dikolli headshot clontarf foundation

Professor Shane Dikolli

Clontarf exists to help young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men access the paths to success so long denied to them in Australian society. Dikolli, passionate like so many Australians about his native land, saw the powerful impact Clontarf was having on the lives of the boys. And he saw a nation increasingly committed to making his nation whole by including its original inhabitants. It was a perfect learning opportunity for his students.

"Australia is starting to show leadership in how to embrace the indigenous people and learn from their culture and bring their voices to the challenges the country faces."
Professor Shane Dikolli

Clontarf Foundation, smiling boy holds rugby ball.

From Little Things, Big Things Grow

Clontarf foundation logoA teacher, Clontarf founder Gerard Neesham based his program on a simple insight. Indigenous Australian boys had a high propensity to drop out of school, radically diminishing their chances for a secure and fulfilling life. But an academy purpose-built to serve them could offer the foundation for the reverse: exponentially increasing life’s opportunities. Gathering committed adults, including Dikolli’s childhood friend Marcus Harrold, to the task, Neesham built his first academy in Waterford, Western Australia, for 25 students, connecting it to the existing school system.

Today, there are 148 Clontarf Academies. More than 560 staff serve more than 11,500 participants all over the country. Graduation rates for these boys have skyrocketed, and success has become the norm, rather than the exception.

Clontarf foundation academies map

Clontarf Academies now cover much of Australia


“It really does give this population, which has been neglected in the past, a real opportunity to shine. And they embrace it. The alums who have graduated from the program — and the kids in it now — say it’s completely changed their lives,” says Dikolli.

Clontarf’s Ben Jones told Darden students the story, but not alone. With him were three of the boys in the program offering a first-person account. Inspired, Sloan and her EMBA classmates were so moved by the work being done that they arranged a simple fundraising campaign to provide the yearly tuition for one Australian boy, likely changing his life forever.

“We knew it would be a great legacy to leave for Shane — and for us, as visitors to Australia,” says Sloan.

“With the support of Clontarf, these boys have a great chance to overcome many hurdles, enter the workforce, and represent the indigenous community,” adds Sloan’s classmate Jack Elsea (Class of 2023). “Those voices will be extremely valuable not only in the business sector, but also in the political sphere to help shape legislation — and certainly as role models to future generations facing some of the same obstacles.”

A Message From Founder Gerard Neesham

“I Saw the Realization on Their Faces”

For Darden students, Clontarf was a lesson in awareness, commitment, and leadership: Awareness of the complete Australia and the value of all its people; commitment to a clear purpose; and the leadership required to build something meaningful.

Dikolli received a different benefit: to see Australia anew, through the eyes of his students. “This trip is about showcasing culture in Australia and how it affects what businesses do. The way the students embraced Australia, how much they engaged with Australia, it was beautiful.”

Clontarf foundation rugby on the beach

Darden Executive MBA students join Clontarf Academy students for a game of rugby on the beach. It was unclear whether League or Union rules were in use.

“Clontarf was, for me, the biggest moment of the trip — when I saw the realization on their faces that this was really impactful. That was the moment I knew the whole trip was worth it. They ran on the beach. They played rugby with the boys. They opened their hearts, so they opened their minds, and they learned a lot.”

“It was a small taste of the impact we can have as leaders,” says Sloan, “to see true leadership and true heart in action.”

“But Shane is the bridge to this,” she adds. “The only reason this was possible was because of his passion. He’s the type of professor that lives and breathes leadership and connection.”

Lessons From Clontarf

Darden Executive MBA students reflect on their visit.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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