How One Woman’s Return To Uni Led To Her Dream Job

She describes the moment she came up with her new business as, “a turning point in my life”.

Returning to study is a big decision – and not without challenges. But the long-term benefits – from career satisfaction and following your dream, to financial rewards, networking with like-minded people and experts in the field, and being at the ‘knowledge’ forefront of the industry you’re passionate about – can be well worth it. 

For Zoe Black, deciding to do an MBA was all that and more – a total mindset shift, but one that would support a complete career change. Zoe was working in a demanding job in the construction industry but had a deep desire to be doing a career that aligned with her personal values.  

That decision would then go on to support her in achieving her dream career – helping others.

With over one million people in Australia experiencing social isolation or exclusion every year, and over 124,000 animals at the RSPCA alone waiting to be adopted, Zoe decided she was going to start helping people and animals with the magic of the human-animal bond.

While some would see large-scale social challenges as too overwhelming to tackle, Zoe launched Happy Paws Happy Hearts (HPHH) to bring animals that need new homes, together with people suffering from social exclusion.

“I started HPHH because I’d seen first-hand two large social challenges that needed addressing,” she says. “On the one hand, we know there is a growing number of Australians experiencing social isolation or deep social exclusion, and on the other, there are tens of thousands of rescue animals waiting in shelters for their new homes. The opportunity was to bring the two together for enriching experiences.” 

The turning point

Zoe says the idea for HPHH came to her while she was studying for her MBA (Master of Business Administration) at The University of Queensland (UQ), a program she describes as “a turning point in my life”.

“It was the MBA that introduced me to the concept of a social enterprise,” she says. “This struck a chord with me because it means I can use my commercial mind and social heart to create incredible outcomes.” Zoe says the connections she established during her studies have been invaluable as she embraced the world of entrepreneurship.

A business (for good) is born

HPHH brings socially isolated people out to visit rescue animals that are waiting to find homes. The animals have a relaxing effect, helping to release endorphins, a natural pain suppressor.  HPHH programs, such as animal care for youth at risk and intensive training courses for transitioning Veterans and First Responders, provide pathways for participants to overcome physical and emotional isolation.

woman and dog
Zoe Black was inspired to completely change careers while undertaking her MBA at The University of Queensland. Armed with the skills she needed, she created her dream job bringing together people and pets in need.

It’s this type of work that Zoe says she finds rewarding and purposeful.

“The animals are on their own recovery journey and rebuilding their trust in humans,” she says.

“This echoes the experience of our human participants who are often processing their own traumas.”

group of people sitting with a dog
Happy Paws Happy Hearts pairs pets in need with people experiencing social isolation and exclusion.

“It was absolutely beyond my expectations and provided a network I still leverage today,” she says. “Whenever I need a fresh perspective on my organisation or hit challenges, I turn to my MBA lecturers and networks.”

Zoe says flexibility was crucial to her eventual success in changing careers and stepping into a senior leadership role as the CEO of HPHH.

“I took full advantage of the flexible study options available as part of the UQ program,” she says. “I even hit pause while I worked in Dubai and Abu Dhabi for a year. I maintained a very intense career, with weekly travel, while completing my MBA.

“It took a lot of grit, but it was possible with the flexibility of weekends or weeknight courses and understanding lecturers. I didn’t have young children at the time, but I know plenty of my cohort did, and they were also able to get through by using the MBA’s flexible options.”

woman holding turtle
Zoe came up with the brainwave for Happy Paws Happy Hearts while undertaking her MBA at The University of Queensland.

Growth mindset

As for what’s next for HPHH, Zoe says she is in scale-up mode to bring the program to more people and animals. “We operate eight locations now, but we’re looking into over 30 rescue locations across the country that will enable us to reach thousands of people and animals. 

“Each day, I get to see the warm connection that can grow between humans and animals. There’s laughter, and I see friendships forming and people taking on new life directions. Nothing makes me prouder than having created this happy space.”

Brought to you by The University of Queensland.

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