Why Henry Adamson steered away from a finance career and found a job in Kenya

By Mark Daffey (freelance)

Henry Adamson had expected to follow in his father’s footsteps until a detour at university opened his eyes to the greater good.

Henry Adamson

The thought of shifting interstate, straight out of school, would frighten most young adults who are used to the comforts of home.

Not Henry Adamson, though.

After completing Year 12 at Scots College in Bellevue Hill, he made the move from Sydney’s leafy eastern suburbs to Trinity College in 2016 so he could commence a Bachelor of Commerce at Melbourne University.

‘I’d never been to Melbourne before, but moving there was a change that I looked forward to,’ he says. ‘The worst-case scenario was that I’d get a good degree.’

It’s a positive mindset that’s at least partially attributed to his schooling at Scots.

‘The number of opportunities you get given at that school is so unfair compared to the rest of the world. I think that has led me to see opportunities that have come up in my life, like going to Trinity, that have made me think: Why not do it?’

Of course, it helped that his older sister had boarded at Trinity a year earlier while studying her Bachelor of Environments degree. Long before that, the siblings’ father Rob had blazed a trail down the Hume Highway to study finance at Melbourne, and he too had spent his formative years at Trinity. So, from a distance, you’d almost think Henry’s path through life might have been preordained.

But that’s where the similarities end because, unlike his father, Henry opted to steer away from a career in finance. The catalyst for this dramatic career switch was an eye-opening two-week internship at Nasdaq, the high-tech stock exchange company headquartered in San Francisco.

‘That was the nail in the coffin for me,’ says Henry. ‘I didn’t like the culture. I didn’t see one older person working in finance and think: I want to be you.’

When he finished his internship and continued his studies in Melbourne, where he’d embraced college life as treasurer of the Trinity Film Society and playing in a social AFL team, Henry saw opportunities to broaden his knowledge base through the University of Melbourne’s ‘breadth’ subjects. Looking back now, he credits those Melbourne Model elective subjects for tuning him into career paths that he’d never previously considered.

‘The best thing about Melbourne Uni was the breadth subjects,’ he explains. ‘I did one called Food for the Healthy Planet that focused on sustainability and the economic impact of malnutrition.’

This subject proved useful when Henry embarked on a paid internship in Kenya with UN-Habitat, a United Nations affiliate focusing on urban sustainability, upon completing his university studies in 2018.

Based in the western city of Kisumu, on the banks of Lake Victoria, Henry worked on trying to create a fairer municipal tax system. But years of ingrained practices at the top end of town proved too big an obstacle, and rather than succeed in unravelling the puzzle, he grew disillusioned over time.

‘I came out with more questions than answers,’ he says, preferring not to elaborate.

When the coronavirus scare swept through Africa in March 2020, Henry jumped on a flight back to Australia, where he was able to work remotely until his contract ended. But his mind was made up by then. During his time in Kenya, he’d met other UN workers who had persuaded him to enrol in a Master of Development Studies course at the prestigious London School of Economics.

‘Working in Kenya made me realise that I was making enough money and any more would have been a waste,’ he says. ‘I was more motivated by impact. I started to see problems that I could have fun trying to solve for the next 10 to 20 years.’

During the coming decade or so, Henry envisions himself working in the field of international transparency, rooting out corruption. He has his heart set on somewhere in French-speaking Africa, listing the Democratic Republic of Congo as his top priority.

‘With China giving so much financial aid away now, it’s like it’s a race to the bottom among the big global players. The next 20 years will be very interesting.’

You can say that again. But with people like Henry at the helm, there is at least hope that things might improve

By Mark Daffey

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05 Nov 2020