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The surreal and life-changing experience that was ADR’s 30UNDER30 retreat

The surreal and life-changing experience that was ADR’s 30UNDER30 retreat


Taking place at Potato Head Resort, Bali, Australian Design Review’s second annual 30UNDER30 creativity and high-performance leadership retreat was nothing short of remarkable. Over three action-packed days, from Friday 31 May to Sunday 2 June, 30 complete strangers came together to explore what it takes to be truly innovative, brave and values-driven architects, becoming lifelong friends in the process. 

As our bus swept down Potato Head’s long winding driveway, the mid-morning sun glinting off the seemingly endless array of shiny reflective surfaces, billboards, motorbikes and scooters, the sense of anticipation and excitement became more and more palpable. Stepping off, out of the air-conditioned comfort and into the syrupy Balinese heat – a heat even the locals said was more intense than usual – the surreality of the weekend ahead enveloped us all. 

Just 24 hours ago, this group of 52 young architects, content creators, mentors and sponsor representatives had all been in their respective Australian offices, grinding away to meet deadlines, rugged up against the chill of winter. Now, here we all were, at a seven-star, architecturally designed and fully sustainable luxury retreat in Bali. ‘Surreal’ became the word of the weekend. 

Day one: Getting acquainted 

With the official 30UNDER30 welcome event not kicking off until 5.30pm, the cohort made the most of the magical location. After settling into their rooms, some took part in a sustainability tour, learning about Potato Head’s plastic recycling initiatives, which include onsite soft plastic processing to design and produce a range of products, from rainbow-coloured chairs, soap dispensers and other essentials, all of which are found in the hotel rooms. 

Others chose to soak up some vitamin D beside the pool, taking in the inexorable beauty and zen-like energy of the resort. 

When the sun began to set, everyone gathered at the pool-side deck for the first official event of the weekend  – the welcome cocktails and canapes. Con Papadakis, managing director, Oceania, of Neolith, the major sponsor of 30UNDER30 took centre stage. With the panorama of the Indian Ocean, as his backdrop, he gave a rousing speech that truly set the tone for the days ahead. “Take advantage of the opportunity,” Papadakis said. “Make the most of this unique moment. Take advantage of the mentors. Aspire to be them and soak up all that they have to offer you through their sharing what they have learned through their journey.” 

Con Papadakis, Managing Director Oceania, Neolith welcoming the cohort.

Niche Media publisher Paul Lidgerwood gave the group three tasks. “Task one, relax. You’re in high-pressure roles, so take the opportunity to chill,” he said. “Second task, network. Every single person here has something to teach you. Take the time to meet everyone here and connect. Thirdly, it’s a reward. You deserve to be here, there is no imposter syndrome here!”

Niche’s head of commercial partnerships Elizabeth Distefano concluded the welcome, thanking all the sponsors, including Neolith, Tongue and Groove, Interface and Miele, and the practice partners: BVN, BLP, SJB, Richards Stanisich, Williams Burton Leopardi and HDR. She encouraged the cohort to connect with the representatives to better understand their specifying needs and receive career support.

As the cocktails continued to flow and the sky continued to collapse into the lavender haze of the horizon, any remaining walls of personal resistance or hesitation dissolved. We all knew that the weekend ahead, while likely demanding on a personal growth level, was also going to be incredibly rewarding. 

Day two: The future of leadership and vision, and the secrets to stress management with Tegan Wallis

After a leisurely morning and delicious breakfast by the pool, the cohort gathered in the Potato Head library for the first of two high-performance coaching sessions. The first session was hosted by Tegan Wallis of Griffith Consulting. Wallis is a highly sought-after leadership coach, meditation teacher and holistic health practitioner. Blending ancient wisdom with modern research to prioritise holistic wellbeing for personal and professional growth, her approach fosters emotional intelligence, self-awareness, resilience and clarity.

Tegan Wallis

“This whole creative retreat is about giving you time and space to think differently, to reflect and plan for the future you want to create,” Wallis said.

Over the next three hours, Wallis guided the cohort on a journey through the conscious and subconscious mind. Through her authentic and engaging style, the entire cohort was utterly captivated, even those who had had more than a few cocktails the night before! 

While some retreat programs of this nature only scratch the surface, Wallis dove in deep straight away, outlining the three pillars of the Griffith Consulting program – authenticity, integrity and no-judgement. She also explored the four intelligences, outlining a whole person model that encompasses heart, mind and brain, values, and physical body intelligence. 

What was perhaps the most impactful part of the session was not Wallis’s words, but her actions. After completing a self-assessment on personal stress levels, she asked the cohort to turn to the person sitting next to them and share what they’d written. There is nothing quite like being vulnerable with a relative stranger to dissolve barriers and open oneself up to change. 

Concluding with alternate nostril breathing, an ancient breathwork technique proven to calm the central nervous system, everyone in the room left the session with a fresh perspective and a new sense of self-awareness. 

A VIP position at Erykah Badu 

No, you didn’t misread that. After a delicious dinner on a private balcony overlooking the iconic Beach Club at Potato Head, the 30UNDER30 retreat became even more surreal. The one-and-only Erykah Badu performed a 90-minute set of her greatest hits, backed by one of the tightest and most dynamic bands out there. 

Taking in Erykah Badu. From left: Zara Pasfield, Tope Adesina, two other cohort members and Jeremy McLeod of Breathe Architecture

This is the serendipity of the 30UNDER30 program. Of course, ADR can’t take credit for lining up one of the most influential RnB and hip hop artists of the 90s as the headline act. This magical moment of coincidence speaks to the power of being open to the opportunities that come from unexpected places. 

The cohort, enjoying dinner and and VIP view at Potato Head’s Beach Club

The conversations that take place during the retreat simply wouldn’t happen in the real world, without this program as a catalyst. These conversations are the sparks of the future. Perhaps the conversations result in nothing more than an intellectual exploration down a rabbit hole of design thinking worth falling into.  Maybe one of these conversations, held on a rooftop deck as we absorb the energy of a phenomenal artist performing with waves crashing onto the shore behind us, might be the genesis of a real solution to the housing crisis.

While some of the cohort were too young to know who Erykah Badu was, there was no denying that her powerhouse performance and phenomenal presence inspired each of them in infinite ways. 

Day three: Building an exceptional career with Dave Jackson

Waking up to another day in paradise, some with slightly more sore heads than others, the cohort once again gathered in the library for the second and final high-performance session. 

Dave Jackson

While the previous day focused on personal wellbeing, this session with ADR friend Dave Jackson, was all about career wellbeing. Jackson is a business mentor, advisor and investor who focuses on early-stage startups. He has built and sold two successful technology companies and now helps young founders achieve their business dreams. 

Jackson began with a personal story of when he had to make a really hard decision to take his dream job or stay with his current employer because he respected the CEO. Jackson took the cohort on a dynamic and divergent journey through the twists and turns of careers, peppering the conversation with sage wisdom and decision-making advice along the way. 

Ash Rollason and Darian Putland of Interface

“The top five factors in early career development are a great boss. Numbers one, two, three, four and five are a great boss,” Jackson told the cohort. “If you’re not learning from your manager, I think you should leave. Don’t sit there working for someone who is not inspiring you and teaching you to be your best. 

“Curate what you learn and absorb. Don’t take everything on board. Take the things that resonate with you and throw the rest away. Be brave. Put yourself out there.” 

Dave Jackson in action

These are just a few of the pearls of wisdom captured by our editor. Jackson’s ability to tell a story full of heart and healthy doses of humour, reminiscent of Basil Fawlty, resonated with the cohort. Once again, they left the library with minds bursting with visions of the future.

Mentor speed dating 

The mentor speed dating sessions presented the cohort with an opportunity to get to know what makes each of our six mentors tick. Ninotshka Titchkosky talked about whole systems thinking. Ara Salomone, director of State of Kin, spoke about building a business from a heartfelt and personal perspective. Jeremy McLeod, design director at Breathe Architecture, talked about sustainability within a business management context. Sally Wilson, director of Archaea, shared her perspective on being a practice owner, while Chi Melhem, director of Em Be Ce and Andrea Nixon, executive strategy and communications at Billart Leece Partnership, discussed the business of branding and design within the context of architecture. 

Harsha  Rajashekar, centre.

With minds full of visions of their future careers, each cohort member leaned into the mentor speed dating sessions. They soaked up everything the mentors had to share and asked probing questions at the panel discussion that followed. 

This was far from your usual panel discussion. The deep questions from the cohort came thick and fast and the answers they received were just as profound. When asked about the challenges of running a practice with having children, Melhem shared her story of being a solo mum while managing a relatively new and exceptionally busy architecture practice and  the demands of shuttling her kids between sports, dancing, and music lessons.

There was no sugarcoating. The resounding sentiment was the business and practice of architecture and design was not easy. To succeed you will inevitably invest almost all of yourself in your work. But, it is entirely worth it. When you’re doing what you’re passionate about, working from a place of value and integrity, and recharging yourself through solid time and energy management practices, you can do it all and thrive while doing it. 

The team from Niche Media, Miele and Neolith

AsTitchkosky observed, “There is no way I could have been as open as I was had we not spent the last three days getting to know each other outside the constructs of the real world.” This sentiment was shared by all 52 members of the group. 

A surreal end to a surreal weekend at The Iron Fairies 
Inside the magical The Iron Fairies

What better way to wrap up a magical weekend than descending into the immersive, intensely layered spectacle that is The Iron Fairies. “Ending on a high that surprises and delights is an important part of 30UNDER30”, Lidgerwood said. 

A final toast to the cohort, and Jeremy McLeod’s birthday

The concept for The Iron Fairies is based on a book written by Australian Ashley Sutton. Described by various members of the cohort as something out of a fairy tale or Harry Potter scene, it was the perfect place to share one last toast as a group. 

While this may have been farewell for the group at large, it is only the beginning of many new friendships, future creative collaborations, and the start of the cohort’s journey with their mentors. As everyone returns to the cold reality of winter in Australia and the daily grind, they will carry with them a new level of self-knowledge and be warmed by memories of an unforgettable weekend in Bali unlike any other. 

Sponsors, mentors and cohort members making the most of the last night in Bali

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