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.
Audette sits down with Thread Publishing to talk about how she made the leap from the world of banking to the world of global development, and how it wasn’t such a leap after all.
The opportunities I had when I was the Managing Director of the Bermuda Commercial Bank (BCB) were amazing. It was a privilege and an enormous experience. I was responsible for a publicly traded balance sheet, and I feel so grateful for that experience. It gave me the skills to think, and to see the things that I needed to think about when I began to move onto a more entrepreneurial stage in my life.
I loved my life as the managing director of BCB. But the thing that’s really amazing about running Adara as a business for purpose is that at BCB I used to advantage those who were already advantaged; now, I advantage those who are disadvantaged. And I use the exact same skill set to do it. It’s impossible to put into words how much fun I’ve had being able to do that.
Use your toolkit
I use the same toolkit as I used at the BCB. I still move around as a CEO on a daily basis, but now I have that sense of an inspiring outcome.
I run a business at a standard of excellence but I know, as I do it, that I’m supporting tens of thousands of women and children worldwide. I’m sharing knowledge and research with them and about them, worldwide. It’s the greatest kick you can possibly imagine.
About eighteen months ago we closed a deal and made a really nice fee, a couple of million dollars. There was this huge celebration in the organisation all over the world. Uganda, Nepal, America, Bermuda, Australia – our business teams, our development teams, all celebrated together, knowing the impact this fee would have. And to have this sense of purpose at the centre of what you do, it’s been wonderful. It is wonderful.
Working at BCB laid the foundation for me to be able to take the step I did into Adara. There is no comparison in terms of what your life is like when you run a great business with purpose at its heart, compared to running a great business without there being a centralised purpose. At least not for me. The journey has just been fantastic, I feel so grateful for it.
Travelling the long road
There’s been a lot of mistakes along the way. I really try to be honest about that. Now at seventeen years into the journey, I sometimes think people look from the outside and think we’re all wizards somehow. But we’re not. We’re just a bunch of ordinary people with a passion to do something, to work for social justice. I’ve made so many mistakes along the way, it’s staggering.
But out of all of the mistakes I’ve made, I’ve made them alone. Yet all of my successes have been team successes. I still walk in the office every single day and I look around and I cannot believe where we are. Not only did we make it, but here we are touching the lives of tens of thousands of people. It’s been a journey of joy and tears but there’s such a positive feeling, every day.
I could not recommend running a business for purpose more highly. Whenever I talk to CEOs and business people, I’m always saying that it’s like taking your life to a different level. A life with purpose is deeply meaningful.
Even in the worst times, the scariest times, it is always worth it. Given we’re a financial services firm, we’ve lived through major crises, like the horrors of 9/11 and what that did to the markets, and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. But we’ve also lived through ten years of civil war in Nepal, Ebola outbreaks in Uganda. We’ve gone through some pretty dark stuff at Adara – the world of child trafficking; working with people living with HIV; and we’ve had to face some of the terrible events that are happening on the planet.
But I tell you, there has never been a day when I did not want to get out of bed, get into Adara and throw myself at it. I want it, every day, that life.
It’s meaningful, and so much fun – and a hell of a challenge.
Written by Thread Publishing (threadpublishing.com). Connecting the world one story at a time to bring humanity back into business. © 2015