Innovating and advocating to protect children – PBA – Pro Bono Australia

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Anna Bowden is the CEO of The International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, she has extensive past experience in impact investing, philanthropy and impact strategy.

With an emphasis on building new models for social impact across the globe, Anna’s affinity for the vital work of countering child sexual exploitation, combined with a natural connection to innovative solutions to the world’s wicked problems, makes her a passionate leader. Read on for our interview with Anna!

Describe your career trajectory and how you got to your current position.

My career has always been driven by a passion for making a positive social impact. Over the past 20 years, this has guided me to work with businesses and organisations on programs that integrate social impact with investment and business. 

I started my career in the back of a private equity office. This was where I first realised that the money, knowledge, and expertise I was surrounded by could be channelled towards positive social impact (an unusual take at the time). Looking back, this was a transformative moment in my career and a compass that guided me over the decades. 

In 2022, I joined ICMEC Australia as Head of the Child Protection Fund before becoming CEO later that year. At ICMEC Australia, we focus on improving the detection, reporting, and prevention of online child sexual abuse. Our work is targeted at helping industry professionals sharpen the tools they need to address child sexual abuse and make a tangible difference.

As a survivor of this kind of abuse myself, I feel a deep sense of purpose in applying my skills to combat one of the fastest-growing crimes in the world. My career has shown that we can make a real difference by combining business and financial expertise with a commitment to social good. Even after 20 years, my sense that we can do better to protect the most vulnerable has only grown.

Take us through a typical day of work for you.

My days are usually quite busy, so I like to start my morning by blowing off steam at the gym at the crack of dawn, which is quickly followed by the madness of getting myself and two young children ready for work and school.  

My days are typically split between meetings with our many stakeholders and our team,  attending industry events, and working on strategic projects and reporting.

All the travelling to meetings and events means I’m usually squeezing in emails, work, and calls as I travel to and from things as best I can. I try hard to set aside an hour or so to have an early dinner with my family at the end of the day, and then usually log back on to finish a few pressing things before winding down for the night. 

What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in your career, and how did you overcome it?

I’ve worked in several startups over the years, and it’s always both thrilling and challenging.  The intensity of that challenge is heightened when it’s a nonprofit startup. As is the case with many nonprofits, funding is an enormous hurdle, which requires me to make a lot of tough decisions that not only affect me but the entire team and organisation.

There was a time when our organisation was undergoing a significant restructure, and this really challenged me on a personal and professional level. Of course, I knew that avoiding it wasn’t an option and as hard as it would be, we needed to face it head-on as a team to continue our mission of making a difference.

I found the process very emotionally draining. From the very beginning, I promised myself and my team that I would operate with complete transparency. We have a very small, very dedicated team of tight-knit professionals, so there were questions about what this would mean about individual roles and what it meant for the organisation as a whole.

Being vulnerable, open, and honest with my team helped us navigate the restructure and come out stronger on the other side. It wasn’t easy, but it reinforced the importance of having a strong, aligned structure to support our mission. This situation taught me how even when times are tough, your purpose should be your path forward. Everything we do is for the benefit of detecting and preventing child sexual abuse, and sometimes that comes with difficult, confronting, or uncomfortable decisions. 

If you could go back in time, what piece of advice would you give yourself as you first embarked on your career?

I would remind myself that the mission always comes before your own comfort. I learned this many years ago when I took on a role thinking I was the right fit, only to find within a few days of starting that I wasn’t the best person for the job. I stayed for many months trying to make it work; partially because I didn’t want to leave the company in the lurch, but also because I was somewhat fearful of how such a short-lived role would look on my resume. I didn’t want future employers to think that I give up when the going gets tough.

Eventually, I realised that by staying in the role, I was hindering the organisation and its ability to fulfil its mission. While I was still concerned about how it would look professionally, I decided that I needed to check my ego and step away so someone better equipped for the role could step in. It was hard, but it’s something that I now look back on with gratitude because it taught me that when you work in the social impact space, you can never put your pride above the mission you’re working towards. I’d tell myself, this will hurt in the short term, but it will feel much better doing the right thing in the long term.

How do you unwind after work?

I won’t lie – learning to unwind is a work in progress for me. I have two young daughters and my passion for what we do at ICMEC Australia makes it very hard for me to switch off. I’m working on it, but I often battle with sending one more email or reviewing one more document instead of closing the laptop.

With that being said, I make an effort to disconnect from work and screens by 8 pm. As someone who has struggled with insomnia all my life, this gives me some time to clear my head before bed.

I’ve also recently started taking ‘quiet breaks’. I don’t think I could quite call it meditating – more like switching off all the stimuli and inputs for a bit. I’m a big believer in starting small – so I spend just five or 10 minutes a day calming my mind during a bit of silence. Hopefully I’ll get better at it as I go – maybe even enough to define it as meditating!

I also really enjoy reading and listening to podcasts, on a wide range of topics. I love learning. I don’t watch much television, but I’ll usually get through at least a couple of books a week. 

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