Audette Exel is the founder and Chair of the Adara Group, originally founded as the ISIS Group over seventeen years ago. Adara is a trailblazer in the world of business for purpose, drawing on its investment advisory service at its commercial end to pour 100% of profit into its development arm. This in turn provides support and essential services for communities living in poverty, from health to education to intervention in child trafficking.
Audette sits down with Thread Publishing to discuss the highs and low of Adara’s journey – and the power in revisiting your purpose.
The current underpinning economic assumption is that the role of a corporation is to do nothing more than make money for its shareholders. When you talk to people who were trained or grew up with business thinking in the last century, they may well say stuff like that. But there is a generational sea change happening around this stuff.
Those views are so last decade, so last century. This century’s generation understands that if you want to run a successful business, you have to build it from a multi-stakeholder model, where legitimisation comes from people – from working with and among people.
You have to do it that way in order to attract top talent and retain them. If you work together with the community, you will develop great relationships with consumer groups. You will develop great relationships with your regulators. When you embed multi-stakeholder models into corporations, it has a big impact on the bottom line – and it’s all positive.
Making it happen
People who see it as a zero-sum game know that all they need to do is watch the data. See what’s coming out of Harvard. Look at the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and see the correlation between the different corporations that embed a multi-stakeholder model and keep a connection to the community – then you see where we’re headed.
One thing I love about millennials and the younger generation is they’re not even debating it. There’s a brilliant TED Talk where Dan Pink talks about three things you need to run a successful business: purpose, mastery and autonomy. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t have purpose at the centre of your business, you just won’t do as well as those who do.
Another great talk is the Simon Sinek TED Talk on good leaders. You have to know why, how and what. And you have to start from the why. If you start at the what or the how, you’re not going to make it. You have to know the why before you go anywhere.
Getting the vote
My view is that the businesses that are deeply embedding purpose, which begin from purpose, these are going to be the great businesses of the century. When I started to build a business for purpose seventeen years ago, nobody was really talking about this stuff. Now the markets are awash with these concepts.
I think it’s generational. We are seeing a redefining of business and its effect on society. We’ve seen a huge pushback against the financial services sector post-GFC, and I don’t think the community will allow those organisations who are not seen as contributing members of the community to remain standing.
Whether it comes in the form of contributing resources, technology, time or money –organisations need to be active and respect their stakeholders in the wider community. So the consumer gets a vote, the staff get a vote, the stakeholders get a vote. Together, they vote for businesses that are doing great things, as well as providing great goods and running great services.
I could tell you a hundred stories of people who are still with me in my heart, some of whom we couldn’t save, and some of whom we have. Audette Exel
The light bulb moment
This isn’t always easy. About twelve months ago, I was getting a bit overwhelmed by the responsibility of it all. There is a huge responsibility in setting up an organisation like this. You’re intervening in the lives of a vulnerable client group.
I was in Uganda, where we’ve supported the development of a modern NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), and I was having a bad day. I felt it was all enormous, and too much, and I felt like I wasn’t doing enough, that we weren’t doing enough. How was I going to keep it going? I paced and worried all night, and as the sun was coming up, I suddenly knew what I had to do.
I went into the NICU, and that morning there were thirty-five babies – including five sets of twins – in there. I walked around chatting to all the nurses and mothers. They all know me because I’ve been in and out for seventeen years.
I walked around the unit and I thought, ‘You know what, every single one of these kids is alive because of this team – because of Adara and the amazing partnership with the hospital.’ I knew, then, that I could do it again. I could go on another day because I could see what we were doing, how we were making a difference in the world. The visit to NICU became the way I started and ended my days in Uganda.
The early turning point
The inspiration for the NICU project came about because, during a visit to Uganda, I met a woman with a jaundiced baby, and everyone was so afraid the baby would die. All she could do was put the baby on the window sill so it could soak up the sunlight – and hope.
I saw that baby die from jaundice, despite all the nurses working so desperately to save it. It died for lack of a phototherapy machine and its radiant heat. Jaundice is not in any way a life-threatening condition in the West. I’ll never forget that baby.
I could tell you a hundred stories of people who are still with me in my heart, some of whom we couldn’t save, and some of whom we have.
So, seventeen years on when I was feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility I just had to go back to the source, back to the purpose of why we do what we do. And it was there in the NICU that I had a first-hand perspective into the purpose of the business. For all the ups and downs, for all those overwhelming moments, all I need to do is touch the work and it just fills me up. That’s the amazing thing about running a business for purpose. You get to see the purpose. It’s not abstract. It’s real.
Audette Exel was the youngest woman worldwide to sit as the Managing Director and head of the Bermuda Commercial Bank. She was thirty at the time. In 1998, she founded the ISIS Group, now called the Adara Group, a unique model of business/non-profit partnership. These days, she personally heads the corporate finance arm of the organisation, which funds its development arm and provides support for communities living in poverty across the world.
Written by Thread Publishing (threadpublishing.com). Connecting the world one story at a time to bring humanity back into business. © 2015