“WE’RE enabling young people to reach their own pinnacle, be that in study, career, helping the community or their own life,” says Pippa Downes, a non-executive director of the Pinnacle Foundation.

“And what that looks like will be different for everyone.”

The foundation, which celebrates its sixth anniversary this year, provides scholarships and mentoring opportunities to young LGBTI people.

Downes says that while being LGBTI shouldn’t in itself be a barrier to success, members of the community can still suffer from marginalisation and disadvantage — particularly if cut off from family support.

“It’s providing financial assistance that enables our scholars’ education to be completed, which in today’s competitive workforce is critical,” Downes says.

“This assistance allows the students to work less and study more because you have to study hard to get superior grades and get yourself to the best position to be successful.”

Scholars, who receive between $2000 and $5000, can also call on the help of an LGBTI mentor to guide them through their courses and advise them on opportunities such as summer jobs or internships that might give them a leg up the career ladder.

“This guidance and more broader support and inspiration from seeing an older gay person being successful in their chosen field helps our scholars aim high,” Downes says.

Since 2009, the foundation has bequeathed almost $284,000 to LGBTI people between 16–24 years of age with a further 26 new scholarships awarded in February for students studying everything from architecture to fashion design.

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Much of the funding for Pinnacle comes from corporate sponsors, including the Commonwealth Bank, or from individual donors such as Paul Zahra, the former chief executive of department store David Jones.

He and his partner Duncan Peerman are so called “cornerstone members” of Pinnacle alongside late architect and painter Clark Walton, and John Douglass and Warren Stanborough.

“Paul and CBA — and indeed why I became involved is we want to enable others succeed and there is a huge need for this in our community,” Downes says.

It’s something Zahra, the son of Maltese immigrants whose first tentative step to the chief executive’s desk was on the shop floor at Target, says he would have benefited from in those early days.

“There were no openly-gay role models in business when I commenced my career nor was there much support either personal or financial,” he recalls.

“I am fortunate to have had a successful career in business despite adversity and personally understand the challenges for LGBTI youth in realising their dreams in the business world.

“Unfortunately, LGBTI youth today still face many challenges including discrimination from their own friends and family. 

“By supporting the Pinnacle Foundation as cornerstone benefactors we’re hoping we can make a difference to their lives.

This year’s recipient of the Paul Zahra scholarship is 20-year-old Bryan Banks from South Australia who is studying for a Bachelor of Science in space science and astrophysics at the University of Adelaide.

Zahra says he is looking forward to meeting the young Adelaidian: “Duncan and I had the privilege to meet some past and present Pinnacle scholars and their stories really resonated and inspired us.”

Downes says Pinnacle is on the lookout for more mentors, more supporters and more ways to help LGBTI youth particularly lesbians and trans* people who, she says, are underrepresented in corporate Australia.

“Success breeds success and we want to celebrate the successes in our community,” Downes says.

Asked what advice he would give to young LGBTI people looking to achieve their career ambitions, Zahra keeps it simple: “Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.”

Details: thepinnaclefoundation.org

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