Article
Yael Stone

Yael Stone says Goodbye Hollywood, Hi Neighbour.

14 August 2023 Read time: 6 min

Yael Stone is the Australian creative and actor best known for her portrayal of beloved character, Lorna Morello, on Orange is the New Black. During the 2019 Black Summer bushfires, however, Yael found herself living in NYC and at an existential crossroads.

“I was horrified by the destruction,” says Yael, “and I publicly announced I would be abandoning my Green Card, returning home to Australia as a symbol of my commitment to reducing CO2 emissions and working for positive climate action.”

Her next step was the big one: trading in her green card for a new, green career and fine-tuning her (frankly, brilliant) idea for a climate non-profit with immediate impact.

Fast forward to today and Yael’s vision has become a reality with Hi Neighbour.

On the face, acting to activism seems quite the pivot. So, we sat down to chat with Yael about her charitable roots planted during ‘Orange’ (as she affectionately calls it), how Hi Neighbour is cleverly addressing climate change and how Kearney Group is helping behind the scenes as Finance Partner.

Yael Stone Orange New Black Oitnb
Yael Stone in prison garb as Lorna Morello in Orange is the New Black.

From acting to activism.

 

Yael is lauded for her portrayal of Lorna Morello – an inmate who’s serving time for stalking a man that she bumped into in the post office (and then conflated an entire love story between them). Lorna is an eternal optimist and hopeless romantic. She’s known for her Boston-meets-Brooklyn accent and equally, her distinctive bold red lip. She is loving and empathetic. And by the same token, a convicted criminal. 

Through Orange, Yael and her castmates did something truly spectacular: they successfully shone a light on the multidimensional people in prison and the brokenness of the system – all while keeping us wildly entertained.

It was also on Orange that Yael got her first taste of activism while teaching yoga and meditation to inmates at Rikers Island.

“That was my first experience of volunteerism, change-making and putting a vision out for what could be better,” says Yael.

“Obviously prison is a very ripe place to understand how race intersects with poverty and systematic oppression. It was a really massive learning curve for me… [and] I wanted to have a positive impact beyond the stories that I was telling on screen.”

I wanted to have a positive impact beyond the stories that I was telling on screen.

Yael Stone
Actor, Founder of Hi Neighbour

Even so, as a middle-class, white Australian, Yael couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t the right ‘voice’ for criminal justice reform efforts in the US.

“I was flying back and forth and working on these issues in another country,” says Yael.

Meanwhile, the Black Summer fires were raging. Her friends and family were “living at the frontline of climate change in Australia.” Yael recalls thinking: “That’s my home and if any human has a right to speak on a topic, we can all speak to climate change.”

And it was during this period that idea of Hi Neighbour was born.

 

Oh, Hi Neighbour!

 

Thinking globally, acting locally.

Back in Australia, Yael set to work – splitting her time between re-cementing her acting career in Australia (you may have since seen her in Bay of Fires, Netflix’s Wellmania, Firebite, Blaze, and the soon to be released, One Night), and searching for local solutions to the global problem of climate change.

For Yael, taking climate action became a way to channel her eco-anxiety. It also became an offering of hope – a path forward for young people, including her children.

“I want to be able to look our children in the eye when they say ‘what are we doing [about climate change]?’. And I want to be able to say ‘we’re doing this. You can join us on this mission.’”

So what is this mission exactly? Yael explains her ‘local solution’:

“The main meal of what we do at Hi Neighbour is give out scholarships to local people to train for low-carbon technology jobs.

“We want to make sure that local people are included in the low-carbon revolution that’s headed for our region. And we want to make sure that money stays in our local economy.

“Here on the Coal Coast in NSW, we are an area that’s been defined by coal mining and steel-working. And we don’t want those workers cut out in any way. We want to welcome everybody into this next energy transformation.”

Beyond the training scholarships themselves, Hi Neighbour’s scholarship funding model is also incredibly clever. Specifically, it offers the immediate CO2 reduction impact Yael was seeking and offers “cumulative and compounding change” as well. Here’s how…

 

How Yael Stone’s Hi Neighbour works.

 

A brilliant, circular concept.

The mechanism behind Hi Neighbour is fascinating. It’s fresh, clever and quite simple when you break it down (like all excellent ideas, really).

“At Hi Neighbour, we lend money to local businesses who want to invest in a sustainability journey,” Yael explains. “We give them money to put solar on their rooftop and they pay us back. The interest from those repayments goes into our scholarship fund and then the principal repayments go into a fund for the next solar rooftop.”

“We can say with hand on heart, this is great for the local business because they’re saving money on their bills, they get a scholarship named after them, we’re also helping them with their sustainability journey” and of course, people are being retrained for jobs that are urgently needed for our energy transition.

Yep, Hi Neighbour (with a little help from some clever financial advisors) has gone and planned a micro circular-economy, where solar rooftops not only provide a finance stream, but are also a way to directly reduce carbon emissions from day-dot.

 

Reskilling people for the future.

Training scholarships awarded by Hi Neighbour are different for each round. More specifically, they’ll depend on the needs of the local community at any given time.

Right now, “electricians are needed in droves for this energy transformation,” says Yael.

“So our first round of scholarships is for electricians who want to do their solar design and install accreditations or battery design and install for solar rooftops. From our research, this was the strongest bet in terms of what the workforce needs.

“As a side note, there’s only 2% female employment for electricians. And if we are going to be successful in this energy transformation, we’re going to need to include the other half of the population. And spoiler alert: we’ve been quite successful with our female applicants,” Yael adds.

This whole scenario is impossible without Kearney Group, and that is not an exaggeration.

Yael Stone
On founding Hi Neighbour

Transforming with the community.

 

Working with Kearney Group.

For Hi Neighbour, leaning on Kearney Group as their finance partner has been transformational.

Yael says with certainty: “This whole scenario is impossible without Kearney Group, and that is not an exaggeration. I created the model for Hi Neighbour not knowing how I would action it.”

That’s all to say we’ve been working pretty closely with Yael over the past while.

Firstly, we got her set up as a non-profit. Then, we helped to her get across the basics of accounting and her reporting responsibilities. Next up, we took the deep dive and did all kinds of cashflow planning, and business and finance structure analysis together. Most recently, we got stuck into her longer-term business strategy, helping her imagine and decode what the next 3-5 year could look like. Serious business for seriously great outcomes.

It’s the everyday things, like “the practical kind of accounting and making sure we’re behaving to the letter of the law… opening up the right kind of bank accounts,” says Yael. And then, there are the things that have really helped to give Hi Neighbour wings.

“I was able to have really frank conversations about the deficits in my knowledge around business and our business plan,” she confesses.

“We were able to meaningfully speak to those places so we get a fuller understanding of what Hi Neighbour is and also what it can be.

The team’s flexibility and understanding has been incredible. And their willingness to collaborate… bringing my strategic, creative ideas and then filtering them through a financial prism and then, working together to make that a reality has been invaluable.”

And with this support and guidance, Yael officially launched Hi Neighbour in April 2023.

 

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Launch party for Hi Neighbour was held in April 2023.

We have a seven-year window. We are the first generation to feel the impacts of climate change and we are the last generation that will be able to do something about it.

Yael Stone
Hi Neighbour

How you can be neighbourly, too.

 

Throughout our conversation, Yael is earnest and open-minded. But there’s also a real sense of urgency to her laser-focused message.

“I think we all need to do as much as we can. We have a seven-year window and we are the first generation to feel the impacts of climate change and we are the last generation that will be able to do something about it.”

“It’s time to pull out all stops. If you are not giving your time, give money. If you’re not giving your money, give your expertise and experience. If you want to, give all three. This is a critical moment and if there is space to make change in your life, make that change. It’s not just recycling and thinking anymore. It’s moving and actually doing.”

Above all, Yael believes “action decreases anxiety. They work in reverse polarities. The more action you take, the less anxiety you’ll feel about climate change.”

As for businesses, there are unquestionably some important steps to take to become more climate-conscious.

Yael suggests learning “where your money is coming from. We need to be literate in terms of what is funding our business and our actions.”

Moreover, she’s also calling on business leaders to get comfortable with speaking up and standing for something… “As far as a social license to operate, we all need one,” she says. “It’s not the bad old days. It’s okay to care about something. In fact, your customers want you to stand for something. They want you to believe in something.”

 

So what’s next, neighbour?

 

Yael tells us that Hi Neighbour has just announced their first rooftop solar install.

It’s “a 99.9 kilowatt system on a leather tool belt workshop. They’re called Buckaroo and they export internationally. They’re very well-respected tool belts for coal miners and for tradespeople.” 

Beyond their solar roof and scholarship funding, Hi Neighbour’s work with Buckaroo has led to some other really meaningful action in their business. More specifically – they’re moving forward with plans to convert their whole fleet to electric vans and undertaking deeper environmental assessments.

In the next few weeks, Yael is also looking forward to revealing the first round of scholarship recipients.

From there, it’s onto planning for the next round of solar rooftops and scholarships… all of this whilst engaging the community, agitating for change and running a budding non-profit. Phew!

So we’ll be there, tagging along and helping in our small way as Yael and the Hi Neighbour team push the low-carbon movement ever-forward, protecting all our futures. And, we can’t wait to see what’s next.

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Above all, be neighbourly.


Want to follow along on Hi Neighbour’s journey, enquire about a solar rooftop for your business or sign up for a trainee scholarship?

You can get in touch here.

Speak to the team.