Western Australians making waves here and abroad

Affirmed Foundation

David Wirrpanda

Football fame aside, David Wirrpanda is a man with a plan, working hard with the Wirrpanda Foundation to create long-term social change in Australia.

A successful 13-year stint with the West Coast Eagles, including being part of the premiership team in 2006, was not enough for David Wirrpanda. He admits footy was always the vehicle for something deeper – and in 2005, he achieved his dream of starting the Wirrpanda Foundation, which reaches out to thousands of Aboriginal people across the country every year. 

Inherently politically minded, David also made a foray into federal politics when he ran as the National Party’s candidate for Senate in 2013.
“I wasn’t drawn to politics, I was born to it,” he says. When David was still young, his mum gave him the advice, “The best political statement you can make is by getting into footy – everyone’s watching you. Then you can convince everyone.” Which is just what he did. “That’s why it was important for me to get a kick.”

David says the foundation was already “a little dream of mine” at age 15, when he moved away from his community in Victoria to Perth, to play for the Eagles. He became their youngest ever debutant, starting at just 16 years old.

Winner of the 2009 Young Australian of the Year, WA Finalist for Citizen of the Year 2012, and NAIDOC Person of the Year 2012 are just a few of the accolades that give testament to his character, but they’re accolades David says he doesn’t have much time to consider: “I’m too busy doing stuff! I don’t pay a lot of attention to them, because I know it’s a team effort from all of us.”

The foundation’s programs focus on education, health, employment, and women, which David says are the biggest issues Australian Aboriginals face. On top of this, he has just launched a small pilot program for corrective services, to mentor young Aboriginal people in prison, and get them into workplaces. David says this section will have the biggest impact, and “potentially could be the biggest program in Australia”.

David has big plans for his foundation, and says “I want people in ten years to be able to look at it and go, ‘Gee, that started out as a charity’.” The future for that charity is for it to be turned into a self-sustaining company that will create jobs. “If we create a well-oiled machine and do everything internally, we don’t really need funding.”

It’s hard to imagine where he found the time, but some might remember when David also appeared for a short stint on TV’s Dancing With The Stars in 2010. While he admits he thoroughly enjoyed his ballroom dancing (in particular, the Viennese Waltz), he took his place on the show mainly to help publicise his foundation. “When I retired, I thought, ‘I’ve got to keep myself out there, I’ve got to keep my name on everybody’s tongue’.”

Happily married, with two young sons, David says his priorities lie with his family and foundation. Still, he says, “If you ask me, 10 years from now, I could be in Canberra, or I could still be sitting
here doing all this. This is the best way for me to make any kind of political statement.”


High Volume

Dave Thompson

Tech entrepreneur Dave Thompson is rubbing shoulders with superstars, thanks to his new innovation.

Few can say they’ve cut a business deal in Vegas – fewer can boast a deal with a Grammy-winning DJ mega-star. But for Dave it’s just the latest step in a meteoritic career rise, from mobile-phone accessories buyer to founder of award-winning headphone design and manufacturing company, Audiofly. The world-renowned DJ and business partner in question is Tiësto, who’s worked with the likes of Kanye West and Katy Perry. “Our relationship with Tiësto is a little more collaborative than most, as he reached out to us,” says Dave. Endorsement deals between DJs and headphone companies are common, but more unusual is the creative connection Dave describes as having with Tiësto. “I think we both just appreciated what hard work and passion can yield when you’re pursuing something creative,” he says. “He has huge interest in mentoring and opening up doors of opportunity to younger artists, and in a way that’s what his relationship is like with Audiofly.” Though Dave says the collaboration validates the work Audiofly is doing, and creates opportunities, it would be incorrect to say it’s the only thing driving the company’s growth. In just its second year of operation, Audiofly won a prestigious award from the Consumer Electronics Society of North America for its hybrid headphones, which have multiple speakers inside them to create a natural, detailed sound. “Our headphones are proving to be very popular with performing musicians who can relate to the more natural sound that they provide,” says Dave. As well as the Tiësto partnership, Audiofly has a new range of Overhead headphones due to ship this autumn to its King Street store. 


X appeal

Sydnee Carter

At the tender age of 16, Sydnee Carter captured national attention
through her X Factor success. Now 17, she is set to stay in the spotlight with the release of her first EP.

After years of auditioning for The X Factor, the Perth-born singer-songwriter gave it a final shot in 2014 – and it’s a good thing she did. Sydnee made it through the rounds to the show’s live audition stage, where she received a standing ovation for her now-famous cover of Youth by Daughter. Ashton Kutcher posted a video of the full audition to his Facebook page, and tweeted, “Sydnee Carter I’m a fan of #Australia
but you just took it up a notch. #beautiful.” Sydnee advanced through the show, securing a place in the top six girls under 25, and travelling to New York to be mentored by Ronan Keating and perform in front of international recording artist John Legend. One of 13 acts in the live shows, aired twice a week, Sydnee survived through five weeks.

Since then, she has teamed up with one of the music producers from the show to record her first EP at Final Mix Post at Fox Studios in Sydney.

Completely self-taught – she has formal training in neither voice nor guitar – Sydnee started early on the path to her chosen career. “We were at the shops one day when I was six, and I saw this mini red electric guitar, and I was like, ‘I want it, I need it for my birthday’,” she says. “That was the first step.”

With many young girls now looking up to her, thanks to The X Factor and her popular YouTube channel, Sydnee says she feels very comfortable as a role model, and is determined to stay grounded.

“I think they admire me because I’m not a person that has come from resources – I’ve done it purely from being a bedroom singer and a busker,” she says. “I think young girls aspire to that because it makes it all the more real that it can actually come true.”

Admitting she felt pressure on the show to be “something I’m not”, Sydnee is determined to remain an individual in the music industry. “I’m not like what is in the market and media these days, I don’t follow the way you have to look.”

Sydnee’s voice certainly stood out from the others on the show – something that may not have won her the winning title, but of which she is clearly proud. “In this day and age in the music industry, now especially, it’s important to have something that sets you apart,” she says. “Otherwise everyone’s going to be just downloading the same music in the same style.”

Drawing inspiration in her younger days from Michael Jackson (admitting she would regularly pretend to be him), Sydnee says these days she’s all about Ed Sheeran. The biggest thing she respects about
Ed is his humility. “He inspires me to be humble, even if I do go big and it works out. I still want to be myself and not turn into a diva.”

While her current mission is to finish Year 12, sound engineering is the next step in her independent music journey, so she can produce her own music. From there, she’s prepared to do whatever it takes to boost her career. With a move to America or England on the cards, she says she’ll always return to Perth. We’re pretty happy with that!


One true love

Karys McEwen

Karys McEwen has collected stories of romance and heartbreak from all over the globe for her first book, inspired by a heartbreak of her own.

“We were high-school sweethearts in the most Judy Blume sense of the phrase.” That’s how author Karys describes her relationship with her first boyfriend, which inspired her new book project. “We left notes for each other in our lockers, snuck kisses at the bus stop after school, and vowed we’d be together forever.”
But it didn’t quite work out like that – after four years, they grew apart and the boyfriend moved abroad, breaking Karys’s heart. She made her own international move – to London – where she grieved for the relationship and tried to forget,
with little success. “I just couldn’t shake the memories we shared and the impact he’d had on my life,” she says. “Eventually I decided I needed a new approach. Rather than trying to forget, I would reach out to other people and see if they had similar experiences with their own first love.” Thinking she surely couldn’t be the only one so deeply affected by a break-up, Karys made a list of creative people she admired, and asked for their contributions to her first-love project. In just a few weeks she collected more than a hundred stories, and compiled the best in a blog titled The Something Fine Project – taken from a lyric in a Bob Dylan song her first boyfriend played for her. “I was worried that people would think I was crazy,” she admits. “But creating the blog and receiving so many submissions made me realise I wasn’t the only one traumatised by the loss of my first love. It also gave me the strength to consider moving on.” Her new book, also titled The Something Fine Project, honours and preserves those stories. It was funded by the Melbourne Writers Festival and Blurb in their Blog-to-Book Challenge, and came with the opportunity to speak at the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival. And this story has a happy ending – yep, she and her boyfriend reconciled while they were both in London, and they’ve been living together ever since. “He’s incredibly supportive of the project,” Karys says. “And we’re both better off for the time we had apart.”


Get your motor running

Daniel Ricciardo

He won his first F1 championship last year, now Daniel Ricciardo is looking ahead for an exciting 2015 as Red Bull’s newly appointed number one driver.

“A little bit of a pay rise,” is the unassuming way in which Red Bull’s new lead driver described his bumped-up fee. He’s right – if you consider $2 million per year, up from 2014’s $1 million, as “little”. But there’s good reason for it – Daniel, who was announced as the new number one driver in Formula 1 team Infiniti Red Bull Racing’s stable after the departure of Sebastian Vettel, is one of the sport’s most exciting drivers. “I’m living the dream,” Daniel says of the promotion – though he’s quick to acknowledge the work of the entire Red Bull team. “With Seb leaving this year, we lose some experience, but I think it’s going to be a good year and it’s up to us as a team to have another good season and work hard together,” he says. “It’s my second year with Red Bull this year, and I feel my responsibility within the team is a bit more than what I had coming in last year.” To Daniel, that means working closely with the team’s engineers, giving and receiving feedback, and trying to build on a successful 2014, which saw him on the podium eight times – including three wins. “I’m very pleased with how 2014 went,” says Daniel. “It was probably a season I’ll look back on for my whole career. It was a year I can be proud of.” But he won’t rest on that in the 2015 season, which started in March. “I come in with a bit of confidence,” he says. “I don’t like the term ‘expectations’, but I think for this year it’s just to build on everything I learnt in 2014 and get better; to carry that into this season and get a few more wins. That’s the plan. I want to prove to myself that I can go that next step, and that’s to fight for the World Championship.”


Pushing against poverty

Michael Sheldrick

Global Poverty Project Head of Campaigns Michael Sheldrick has just launched the organisation’s new 15-year plan from his New York base – a strategy the UWA graduate believes will end polio forever.

Years of youth leadership and campaigning experience, including a role as the coordinator of the End of Polio Concert in 2011, set Michael up for a chat with then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard. From that came the West Australian of the Year Award in 2013 and, more recently, a position heading the Global Poverty Project’s policy and advocacy team from his base in New York. Yet Michael is just a down-to-earth, hard-working Kinross guy, who by his own admission doesn’t know how he ended up like this. “When I was in Year Eight, I remember my mum on the phone saying she couldn’t imagine me going to university,” Michael told ABC Radio in a 2013 interview. But a writing assignment from a teacher at Clarkson was the tipping point for Michael’s ambition. Applying himself to work for the first time, Michael received an award as one of the top five students. He asked if he could, with more work, be number one and, by the end of the year, his hard work was rewarded. School also provided Michael with a sense of gratitude that fuels his work fighting polio. “When I was at school doing really well, I was never convinced it was because I was exceptionally talented or intelligent, it was just because I had these opportunities before me. Great healthcare, great education system, and it just worked. So many children around the world and in Australia, because they don’t have access to affordable healthcare, affordable education, can’t make their dreams a reality, no matter how hard they work.” His campaigning work has seen a $120 million commitment to fighting polio from international governments after the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – which only had the issue on its agenda after Michael’s meeting with Ms Gillard. He’s also met with the Gates Foundation (yep, those Gates) and Bono, and just last month launched the Global Poverty Project’s 15-year plan with Chris Martin from Coldplay.


The eyes have it

Yogesan Kanagasingam

Professor Yogesan Kanagasingam wears the badge of serial inventor well, as the first in the world to develop an eye test for Alzheimer’s disease – and is now on to finding the cure. 

Yogi, as he prefers to be called, says, “Within five years, people will be able to come to a pharmacy and get their eyes tested, to see how at risk they are with the disease.”

It was the creation of this test that placed Yogi as a 2015 State Finalist for The Australian of The Year – which he says was a big surprise. “When I got the email from Canberra – I though it was a scam,” he admits. Yogi’s test involves patients eating curcumin, found in turmeric, which binds to beta-amyloid receptors in the eye, revealing the amount of beta-amyloid present. This correlates to amyloid plaque formation found in the brain – a sign of Alzheimer’s. The test can predict the disease up to 15 years in advance. The next phase of study is to see whether curcumin can actually remove the plaque. “If this works, this could be a cure,” says Yogi.

Yogi moved to Perth after finishing his studies in Norway in 1996, to take up a research position at the University of Western Australia. He is now Research Director at CSIRO, where he works to change the way eye care is delivered around the world.

On top of his Alzheimer’s research, he has initiated mass eye-screening technologies in rural areas of India, Indonesia and China, as well as in rural Australia. “My ultimate goal is to use these technologies to prevent blindness and other chronic diseases around the world,” he says. “In Indonesia, three million people are blind because of cataracts – you don’t need to be blind because of cataracts, you can prevent that.”

While he was previously involved in cancer research, Yogi says these days it’s definitely eyes that excite him. “They are a window to the body,” he says. “We can make a big difference and see what is happening to the blood – what is happening in the whole body – by assessing the eyes.”


Headline act

Sarah Alice Burns

After two world tours as backup dancer to Beyoncé, former Beechboro local Sarah Alice Burns is taking centre stage with creative projects of her own. 

You couldn’t visit a primary school performing arts class without tripping over a wannabe famous performer. It’s so much less common to find someone who’s realised the dream. But that’s the case for Sarah, a former Lockridge Senior High School student turned professional dancer. She’s now based in LA and has worked with some of the industry’s biggest stars in her short career – including, of course, Queen B. “I literally screamed out loud,” says Sarah of finding out her audition for the superstar’s 2012 Back to Business tour was successful. “The audition process was hard – a couple of callbacks, but mostly days and weeks of waiting to hear back. You couldn’t imagine my overwhelming happiness when I actually booked the job.” From there, she performed at Beyoncé’s 2013 Superbowl halftime show, which famously blew the stadium’s lights, and then joined her Mrs Carter world tour, which Sarah describes as a dream come true. But she’s not finished. “I had the most amazing time on tour with Beyoncé, and then this year I was asked to tour with her and Jay Z on their On the Run tour,” she says. “We finished that tour in Paris – how can I ever top that?” It’s a fair question, but for a girl who spent every lunchtime at school honing her craft, you know she’s not done yet. “Now that I’m back in LA, I’m open to new adventures,” Sarah says. “I haven’t yet hung up the dancing shoes, but I am interested in developing some other outlets behind the camera.” With plans for movement coaching, creative art direction, and opening an exercise rehabilitation facility, Sarah has a busy year ahead, but her time with Beyoncé has held her in good stead. “For two years, I watched before my eyes the sacrifices, the energy, talent and perseverance of an artist at that level to really step up and succeed,” she says. “Beyoncé is beyond talented.” You can’t help but wonder how long it will be before another young Australian girl says the same
thing about Sarah. 


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