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Image credit: United Nations Women Taskforce for Youth and Gender

Jacob Thomas: Using opportunities

Jacob Thomas: Using opportunities

“I am constantly questioning the process now, re-humanising the concept of leadership.”

Image above: Jacob at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations Headquarters in New York

Jacob Thomas won his Queen’s Young Leaders award for reducing the rate of suicide in the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community in Australia. This presented new opportunites which Jacob has used to change attitudes and thinking.

As a non-binary person, Jacob uses the pronoun “they”.

Early one morning, Jacob woke up to a Skype call.

“You are a winner” said a voice on the other side of the world.

Their reaction? “It’s 6.00 am here, so I don’t know what the world looks like at the moment, but it’s a really good day.”

Only when Jacob was fully awake did they wonder whether they might have come across as a little dismissive. “I didn’t realise it was being recorded,” they say.

Increased profile

Jacob also woke up to find a world of increased interest in themself and their work. “The first impact was I got thousands of follows on social media. My profile increased.”

At the time, they were working in a “big job” at Monash University, as Senior Project Officer of the Warwick Monash Alliance.

“They were very supportive and helped get the word out,” says Jacob, which led to a lot of press coverage in Melbourne, including in the Star Observer, Buzzfeed and Shepparton News. These articles also highlighted the work they do and the human rights issues that go along with it.

Overcoming problems

Opportunities came by stealth through the Queen's Young Leaders Mentoring Programme. The Programme matched Jacob with Rich Celm, a small business and start-up mentor living in Melbourne, Australia, who has also tutored on the Leading Change course and contributed to the website. Rich has a military background.

“On paper, we are almost like opposites,” says Jacob, “but Frances said, ‘see how it goes’.”

Rich gave Jacob business advice for an app-based project which the latter was forced to abandon very suddenly. “While I was in the UK I discovered that my business idea had been stolen,” says Jacob, who arrived back in Australia “really deflated”.

This was of course a terrible blow, but Rich asked to work as a diversity consultant for him on a social enterprise he was starting up. “Rich recognises that he doesn’t have that skillset,” says Jacob, and now we are working together.

Being “almost like opposites meant the two complemented each other.  

United Nations

Rich wasn't the only one who needed expertise on diversity, and because Jacob had become better known and better connected, opportunities arose.

One such opportunity was to work with Caitlin Figueiredo, one of Australia's most influential young woman leaders. 

“Caitlin is one of the United Nations Task Force members on youth development and gender equality. She wanted more expertise on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression (SOGIGE), which was where I could help.”

This led to a chance in March 2017 to talk at the Youth Forum, as part of the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW61) at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

Jacob gave a presentation on sustainable development goal (SDG) 5, “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.

Jacob stands among a group of people in a hall

Jacob at CSW61 at the UN Headquarters in New York

“Issues around LGBTQI+ equality need a massive boost because so many people are routinely demonised and face discrimination, so you use opportunities,” explains Jacob.

“The Youth Forum is only in its second year and I was able to persuade them to recognise a non-binary gender concept. The Head of United Nations Women acknowledged that transgender women are women.”


Jacob believes there's a need for "tough, uncomfortable conversations" in the world. They have mixed feelings about the Commonwealth and feels that the culture they grew up in taught them to “look down” on others.

“I’m a white Australian, and that confers a level of privilege," says Jacob. "I grew up with a lot.”

They believe this privilege continues to exist. “A lot of people were drastically hurt by imperialism – people of colour, indigenous and first nations people. I acknowledge there’s a past.” 

And this consciousness has influenced Jacob's leadership style. “I am constantly questioning the process now, re-humanising the concept of leadership.”

After meeting politicians and ambassadors in New York at CSW61, Jacob felt that all their previous work  helping to set up the Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network (CYGEN) and work with other civil society organisations  was leading them in a certain direction.

“I'm starting to look at moving into diplomacy. Whether this is as a diplomat, an ambassador or otherwise, it's something that I think I could achieve in the near to mid-future.”

Jacob is now looking to develop this interest. “I'm looking at opportunities and casting my net widely for any opportunities that arise.”