At a glance
By Jessica Mudditt
Natalie Kyriacou OAM is living proof that passion projects are worth pursuing. In 2013, she was doing her masters in international relations in Melbourne after completing an undergraduate degree in journalism. The 25-year-old was focused on becoming an investigative journalist covering environmental crime and human rights abuses.
Kyriacou began working on a side project, My Green World, after she hit upon the idea of using youth-focused education and technology to inspire curiosity in wildlife and environmental conservation.
She launched a mobile app called World of the Wild. She believes it was the first app to encourage virtual wildlife conservation through gaming.
“It essentially gamified the concept of saving wildlife,” she says.
She also developed an online classroom platform, Kids Corner, which provided educational resources on wildlife and the environment and involved game-based, video learning.
Kyriacou never envisaged her passion project becoming an organisation. Yet the app took off, and her life began to change course.
“Following the launch of the program, we had over a million people visit our website and 5000 subscriber sign-ups, plus 100,000 app users,” she says.
Advocate for female participation
Following a stint as a volunteer for an orangutan rehabilitation project in Borneo, Kyriacou continued with her work back in Melbourne, which also included engaging with key government and corporate figures on policy advice and environmental education.
However, it was a time when there weren’t many young females in the tech start-up world, and she occasionally encountered sexist attitudes.
“Sometimes I’d tell people that my focus was on the environment, and they would roll their eyes and call me a ‘tree hugger’ or ‘the environmental girl.’ Or I’d be at a start-up event and someone would ask me what my boyfriend's company did, when it was actually my company. It was challenging.”
Over time she learnt to value her worth and refused to let anyone diminish her endeavours. Today, she is an advocate for increasing female participation in science, technology and leadership roles.
“I hope that other young women recognise their own worth in a shorter timeframe than it took me,” she says.
Kyriacou’s determination to succeed has paid off.
In 2018 she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for her services to wildlife and environmental conservation.
That same year she was announced as a United Nations Environment Programme Young Champions of the Earth finalist and a Forbes 30 Under 30 honouree in recognition of her social entrepreneurship.
Today she is focused on developing a real-time data platform about the state of wildlife and the environment in Australia. She is also PwC’s ESG business development lead and a board committee member at CARE Australia.
Kyriacou’s passion for her work and field of study has been driven by a longstanding conviction that there is an urgent need to protect threatened species from extinction.
It is this conviction that pushed her to persevere, despite a steep learning curve and exhausting days balancing studies, her new company and a part-time role in corporate social responsibility. Yet there was one moment – an emotional encounter with an orphaned orangutan in Borneo – that cemented her commitment to the cause.
“I had just arrived at my accommodation and was being taken on a tour of the facilities,” she recalls.
“I remember standing on the edge of the jungle and chatting to one of the rangers when all of a sudden, I felt something grasp my hand.”
She looked down and saw a young orangutan gazing up at her. Its mother had been killed during deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations. It was unable to be rehabilitated into the wild because it had become too accustomed to human contact. It was standing on its two hind legs, like a human, and had lost all its fur.
“Even today, it's the most bittersweet experience I've ever had in my life,” she says. “I was selfishly thinking how much I loved having an orangutan hold my hand – but I also knew that this is not the behaviour of a healthy, thriving, wild orangutan. It was not-quite-human, not-quite animal. It was awful.”
Decade of change
In the 10 years since Kyriacou started My Green World, attitudes toward climate change and habitat protection have changed significantly in Australia, she says.
“The environment is now a core part of all conversations across Australia's corporate and political landscape,” she says.
Her advice on successfully advocating for a social cause is to begin any conversation aware that everyone is shaped by different contexts, biases and experiences.
“Always approach all conversations with curiosity and kindness – and, as I like to say, a sense of adventure,” she says.
“Make sure you know your facts, but also use stories to bring them to life. I don't think you can force somebody to care, but you can inspire them with your passion. And facts. Always use facts.”