Changemaker spotlight: Alison Carter

Alison Carter didn’t move to Myanmar in 2014 with dreams of starting a social enterprise, but soon her curiosity and eagerness to contribute to the local community saw her pivot to a new challenge.

Though her career in foreign affairs had seen her travel extensively, including work in China and Timor-Leste, in this instance she was accompanying her husband as he took on a new position.

For the first year, Alison worked voluntarily as a country director in an NGO, but soon her attention turned towards towards domestic workers.

She had observed among the expat community a disconnect between their expectations of domestic workers and the training and expertise of the staff they were employing.

Concerned by the lack of understanding, she established Three Good Spoons , an organisation that offers free training to domestic workers in Myanmar - building capacity and practical skills - while advocating for decent work and fair conditions for these workers.

“I've always been very curious about the resilience and the tenacity that women show by working in people's homes in the most intimate of settings,” explains Alison, who grew up with domestic workers in her childhood home in South Africa.

“I wanted to build the capacity amongst the many women who are really trying to do their best, but don't necessarily have the training to be able to apply their skills or knowledge in a meaningful way."

Five years on and Alison says Three Good Spoons has trained around 300 domestic workers through affordable short classes and a free 100-hour curriculum that includes cooking and nutrition, home hygiene, financial literacy, self-defence, and first aid.

The social enterprise has supported those workers through an ethical job matching program, practical guidance for household employers, and advocating for legislation and formal protections for domestic workers.

Studying social impact

Ready to expand her skills and knowledge to take on her next challenge, Alison is currently completing an MBAX (Social Impact) with the Centre for Social Impact and AGSM at UNSW.

“I didn't really want to have to give up my work to study full time and the MBA Social Impact was so attractive to me because it helped me specialise in social impact through a dedicated centre of learning like CSI,” Alison explains.

“When I started Three Good Spoons I hadn't had any practical experience or formal training in business. I was looking to study something that would help me acquire a theoretical basis for what I was seeking to do every day, but also some practical tools that would make sure that what I was seeking to do would become sustainable."

Already the course has offered Alison concepts and theories applicable to her work, as well as allowing her to tackle the 'decent work dilemma' more strategically.

“The biggest revelation for me has been that wicked problems can at best be mitigated rather than solved. And while that might sound a bit depressing or defeatist, actually it's really helped build my resilience as the founder and managing director of a social enterprise, and it's helped me stay very focused on helping to motivate our team because of course we're going to encounter challenges.”

While Alison has gained knowledge from the coursework, she’s also learnt a great deal from her fellow students - finding inspiration in their shared interest in social impact.

“By participating in the online forums, my understanding is so much richer and deeper through learning alongside students who are also sharing their views and experiences, from very different walks of life and from all over the world,” says Alison.

“Studying social impact has built my resolve to contribute in future, more to the body of theory and knowledge of social impact practice."

That word - practice - has become an important part of Alison’s vocabulary since she started studying, shifting the way she approaches her work. She says that by referring to the social impact work she does as ‘practice’, she can remind herself that it is ok to experiment and test things out to see how they work, and that this shift in language also offers comfort to team members.

“Perhaps if they're making a suggestion, they're not going to be so concerned about the consequences if it doesn't work as intended,” she explains.

This attitude, both a trial and error approach and an empathetic consideration for her team, is essential when working in a different context or culture, she believes.

“I've learned that it is beneficial to maintain a curious mindset. Often when you arrive in a new country or in a new role, particularly if you're a leader, you can feel the pressure to come up with the solutions or to instigate change or new systems that you think are going to improve things, but that can often derail the team spirit that's already in place. Now, I focus on asking more questions.”

“I also try to stay true to my core values. I have a set of personal values that I try to take to my work life and that helps me remain true to myself. I believe in credibility through hard work and through practical experience, but I also work very hard to show compassion for other team members and colleagues who might be building skills that I already have or skills that I don't have.”

Alison's next step

Alison is now back in Australia and transitioning Three Good Spoons to a Yangon-based couple who bring combined skills that will see the training materials and tools applied in new ways, including in digital settings.

Alison plans to apply her social entrepreneur experience and and learning through the MBA within a larger for-purpose team:

“Building and leading Three Good Spoons has been incredibly rewarding, but also involved many hours of solitary work. I aim to shift to a role within an organisation where I can learn from, and work alongside, others to keep tackling adaptive challenges.”