Transforming Business and Education: An Interview with Stefan Kazakis from Business Benchmark Group

Stefan Kazakis cuts the ribbon at a new school built with funds from Business Benchmark Group.

At Classroom of Hope, we are deeply fortunate to have a number of major donors and corporate partners dedicated to creating purposeful change by our side. Whether sponsoring an entire school, fundraising to build classrooms, or supporting us by matching employee contributions, these invaluable partnerships are crucial in our journey towards making a sustainable and positive impact.

One of our amazing corporate partners making a huge impact is Business Benchmark Group, a leading business coaching and consulting firm in Australia that empowers small business owners to achieve continuous success in business and in life. Headed by Stefan Kazakis, Business Benchmark Group supports Classroom of Hope by funding the construction of Block Schools in Lombok and encouraging their community to get involved through various fundraising and donation programs.

In fact, just this spring, we finished the construction of Business Benchmark Group’s THIRD new Block School in Lombok, Selengen 2 Primary School. A few weeks ago, we were thrilled to welcome 17 people from Business Benchmark Group’s “Mission Impact” team for a visit to Lombok to witness the impact of their contributions firsthand.

Last week, our Co-Founder & Creative Director, Nicola Courtin, had the opportunity to sit down with Stefan, the founder of Business Benchmark Group, to discuss their journey with Classroom of Hope, how this partnership aligns with the company’s values and mission, and their vision for the future. Read below for the full interview!

Interview with Stefan Kazakis, Founder of Business Benchmark Group

Nicola: Stefan, can you share how Business Benchmark Group first became involved with Classroom of Hope and what inspired this partnership?

Stefan: It was through a mutual connection, Anthony Phillips, who I’ve known for a very long time. I was motivated by his philanthropic activities, and I’ve always had a dream of building schools. Education was my “thing” – as it relates to giving back – and children’s education even more so at a younger age.

So, I was always speaking to him about the possibility of that happening, and when the time had come, I reached out to him and he goes, “Oh, you won’t believe it – we recently just met with an organisation called Classroom of Hope. They’re based out of Bali, Indonesia and they’re building schools in North Lombok, which was affected by earthquakes in 2018.” And then he said, “Not only that, but they’re also building these schools out of recycled plastic.”

So, education was always my thing, but the fact that it was also incorporating the environment and recycled materials were being used for the construction materials – that certainly inspired me to accelerate my commitment to building our first school, and then our second, and now our third. 

You know, we’re a very influential voice as it relates to our community. We help them build better businesses and make better decisions, and when that happens, then there’s a time when they have an opportunity to give back.

So, being a leader that helps people to practise better businesses and then be in a position where they can give back was definitely the inspiration to continuously be upping our game as to how we give back. Classroom of Hope was definitely one of our inspirations in doing that.

Nicola: How does supporting Classroom of Hope align with Business Benchmark Group’s values and mission, and what motivates you to continue this support year after year?

Stefan: Our mission at Business Benchmark Group is, simply put, “We empower continuous business and life success” and there’s no two ways about it. Our clients are small business owners and trades and construction-based businesses where, you know, being the best electrician or the best plumber has a certain place, and then being the best owner of a plumbing contracting business has a very different space, and that’s our job. But when our clients are on that journey for continuous business and life success, at some point, they have an opportunity to give back, to contribute to society.

One of our key values at Business Benchmark Group is the ability to be in a position to be constantly improving. So, if we’re constantly improving and looking after our own space, we now have an opportunity to contribute to others and improve other places as it relates to their space. 

So, Classroom of Hope makes a significant brand, value, and community alignment with Business Benchmark Group, because we’re educating young children – and that can be so impactful for so many generations to come – through the building of new classrooms and new schools. But also, the environmental piece that we are also aligned with – to make the world a better place – from that perspective, it’s also absolutely something that aligns Business Benchmark Group (our community, our clients, and more importantly our values) with Classroom of Hope. I just see it as a very hand-in-glove relationship. 

Nicola: And has this sort of corporate social responsibility always been a core value, a core mission with Business Benchmark Group? 

Stefan: Not really. You know, “corporate responsibility”… the fact is that we always treat ourselves as a small business so we’ve never had that. This [Classroom of Hope] is our corporate responsibility piece, and it’s almost played out indirectly for us.

So when I look backwards as to where we are and the importance of this momentum year-on-year and in the commitment that we make, I guess, with organisations like Classroom of Hope and the impact that creates – it is playing out, but it’s playing out without really starting with a true plan. Like, “this is what we’re going to do as it relates to corporate responsibility”. 

Instead, it has just played out, and to me it just feels more authentic and more heartfelt as a small business doing what we do – and of course it fits into that criteria of corporate responsibility.

But more so than that, I just feel that at an individual, at a personal level, but also at a small business level, it has way more impact because if you can do that at a small business level it’s not corporate responsibility as far as I see it. I see it as a calling that is so fulfilling in many more ways.

Nicola: I love that differentiation, thanks!

Can you walk us through Business Benchmark Group’s fundraising strategies to support Classroom of Hope? How do you engage your team and clients in these efforts, and what feedback have you received from them regarding these philanthropic efforts?

Stefan: Look, the first time is always the hardest.. but someone needs to lead it and one of the hardest things you come to terms with is making what could be rejection your best friend. But in fairness, it’s not about the rejection, because people can contribute, whether it’s a $10 raffle ticket or it could be a $5,000 or a $10,000 or a $20,000 pledge to the overarching cause.

Our strategy has always been around what we call a very significant flip chart. And the flip chart has three points to it:

  • One is you’re moving away from bad things in life. That’s always the first phase of goal setting.
  • The second phase of goal setting is you’re moving towards because you have more confidence, you have more clarity and you’re starting to achieve things in your own space that are bigger and better than ever before.
  • And then the third phase is the giving back phase. So, it’s in that third phase that we educate and bring our community – from an educational but also an alignment of their own journey and where they are – as to what they could be doing, whether it’s a $10 raffle or a $10,000 pledge. And it’s that piece, through education, that’s been our journey to success, as it relates to having more of our clients and more of our community contributing as it relates to our fundraising efforts. 

 

Look, our fundraising efforts happen over a short period of time. Typically, like in 2023, it was at our conference that we raised over $150,000 in less than 48 hours, and more so at our gala dinner and our business excellence awards. But in order to make that a successful 48 hours, the conversations led by the leadership team (namely myself) have commenced at least one, two, three months earlier. I feel we’re heading into our third year of fundraising in 24/25 and it’s going to be easier than it was in 22/23 when we did it for the first time.

And that’s on the back of that we have social proof now. What we’re committing the funds to have actually transpired. It’s now material in terms of what’s occurred and the impact of many children and many plastic wastes being recycled into blocks. So our fundraising efforts are very relational but also educational as to how we do it. 

Nicola: You recently visited Lombok for the launch of the third Block School supported by your donations, and to see the Block Solutions factory where our building blocks are produced out of recycled plastic waste. Can you describe the experience and its significance for you and your team going into the field and seeing the impact?

Stefan: Yeah. So actually, for many of us, this is something that we’re invested in and for others, it’s like a brand new experience. So by virtue of being in the physical space where recycled pallets of plastic waste are now being produced in high standards facility into the building blocks that will be there for hundreds of years is a significant piece of – you know, I’m seeing it, I’m watching it, I’m now feeling it.

So – that association in the physical space of where the blocks are produced, and then seeing the launch of an actual school and connecting those two things is very powerful. I just encourage everyone who has the opportunity to come on a tour and experience from the ground up what it actually takes to not only build a school but how the school is built. It’s such a memorable and cathartic experience.

Nicola: I totally agree. Every time I go into the field, even though I’ve done it so many times, I still feel the exact same way.

So, how do you see the dual impact of education and environmental sustainability reflected in the Block Schools, and why is it important for businesses to support such initiatives?

Stefan: Well, firstly, education. I mean, education at the youngest level is the absolute birth for greater prosperity anywhere in the world. So that is a non-negotiable as far as I’m concerned. Every child deserves education and continual education. 

Then you overlay that with the environmental impact of recycled plastic and the building of schools made of recycled plastic blocks is just a double whammy as it relates to impact, and it is surreal. So – when you actually see the physical structure of the schools and get to experience the temperature control of the rooms, the earthquake resistance that those blocks enable in this part of the world – in Indonesia and Lombok – and also to know that children of every gender are in a position of long-term education… Not only that, but to see the parents and the local inhabitants of where the schools are built, just knowing that we’re making such a difference and someone actually cares is also quite impactful.

Nicola: Amazing, thank you. I’ve got two more questions.

On a personal level, what does it mean to you to see the tangible results of BBG’s support in places like Lombok, and how do these experiences shape your approach to leading a business?

Stefan: Again, if I go back to my three points of goal-setting or three phases of goals:

One: you’re moving away from stuff. You’ve absolutely got to get your own backyard in order and shape. That has to be. Your own survival is very important.

Then you’re in a position where you have a little more control, a little more clarity, a little more conviction, a little more, I guess, consciousness as to, “now I can move ahead.”

Then, the third piece is about giving back. So when you enter that phase in life and in business, the giving back is, in my opinion, it’s not a one-stop shop, it’s a continuum. And every next project leads to the next project and so forth and so forth.

"So I guess success is a journey as is philanthropy, as is giving back. And it's not a, “I've done it, I've ticked the box. It's a bucket list item. It's done.” It's not that.

In my opinion, if you are moving into a continual contribution to society approach, pick your piece, research your piece, align your values with organizations that are doing it on the ground. You don't need to be everything, but you can be a very important little cog in a big wheel, and that makes a huge impact."

So, as the owner and founder of Business Benchmark Group and what I lead, this is definitely my next stage, as I call it, in business and as a community leader. The success of my business will be ongoing. There’s no two ways about that. 

But, our success will also be measured on how we are absolutely committing and continuously commit to organizations such as Classroom of Hope.

So it is pure. It is pure values alignment and it is pure educational alignment to what we teach our clients. We are a business that eats from our own cooking. So I’m a high standards individual. I call it the way it is and therefore aligning ourselves with organizations that are making such a massive impact such as Classroom of Hope is a big values alignment.

Nicola: What are Business Benchmark Group’s future plans for supporting Classroom of Hope? How do you envision this partnership evolving?

Stefan: You know, it’s quite interesting. Momentum for me is a dancer and the dance never stops. 

In 2023, we attended our first visit to Lombok to view our schools that we had contributed to, and there were seven [people] in that touring group. In May 2024, we recently just completed our second tour and we’ve actually named the tour as Mission Impact. So – we’ve actually named it and called it something. My vision is that this thing has momentum. You know, in years to come, I might not be here, but this thing has a life of its own. It’s not about me.

So in 2024, our Mission Impact tour number two had 17 people in the tour. And experiencing what we’ve just shared, as it relates to seeing it from the ground up, I truly believe the momentum of Mission Impact, and specifically the North Lombok and Classroom of Hope connection – I just see it being endless. I see it continuing.

You know, if there are needs to be met and there’s an opportunity to do that with Classroom of Hope, then we’re here. We will absolutely be committed to a school every year or a series of four to five classrooms every year. 

So, I can’t see this finishing and I see it being something way bigger than me, the individual. I see this has got legs, it’s got momentum and momentum is a dancer. As long as the music’s playing, we’re dancing.

Nicola: We’ll keep playing the music!

Stefan: That’s it! And if you think about that, the music is finding the locations that are needing the next level of help – and we are definitely committed to that.

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