A few years back, I met Audette Exel at a Conscious Capitalism innovation conference.

Audette, an extremely successful banker in her own right, had pioneered a new model of social innovation: she connected investment bankers and not-for-profits under the same roof. The bankers could make a meaningful contribution to social causes they believed in while doing what they did best – make money. The not-for-profits, receiving a direct cut of the bankers’ earnings, didn’t carry the perennial cloud of insolvency over their heads.

In hindsight, the model seemed blindingly obvious. And indeed, the success of Audette’s Adara Group is testament to the fact this model works.

Wanting to catch up on the latest, I invited Audette to a podcast interview.  It went so well, I decided to transcribe the highlights of the radio show for readers.

Enjoy.

 

MS: Audette, before we launch into Adara and the innovative work you’re doing, give us a bit of background.

 AE: I began my career as a lawyer doing project finance work, then went into corporate finance advisory work, and finally ran one of three publicly traded banks in Bermuda. Through that I chaired the Bermuda Stock Exchange. I actually signed the $5 note in Bermuda, which my social activist family found completely astonishing and quite hilarious.

From my earliest times as a thinking adult, I was always thinking about disparity, injustice and social justice. I kept that passion as my career wound along a path through business, law and banking.

From my earliest times as a thinking adult, I was always thinking about disparity, injustice and social justice.

 

MS: In 1995, you were elected a Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum. A big deal. Tell us about that.

AE: Actually, there is a funny story connected to that. I got a letter by fax back in those days from Yehudi Menuhin. It was over Christmas and it said that the World Economic Forum was going to bestow this honor on me.

I actually thought it was a bunch of my friends playing a joke on me as sort of a Christmas joke. However, as it turned out, it wasn’t.

It was because I was very young and at the helm of a bank, and I guess maybe because I had always tried to talk about reconciling disparity with the power of business. It was an enormous honor.

Actually, as it turns out, the World Economic Forum and being invited to WEF for a few years and getting that award actually led to my connection with Uganda and the First Lady of Uganda, so a lot has unfolded from that.

MS: From what I understand, your connections in Uganda inspired Adara. Now let’s dig into this great organization you’ve created. Describe the two halves of Adara. You’ve got the for-profit and the not-for-profit.

AE: Absolutely. The Adara group is made up of two parts. They work absolutely hand in hand. The teams are completely intermixed.

The Adara group is made up of two parts. They work absolutely hand in hand. The teams are completely intermixed.

 

The first part is the business engine. That’s the corporate finance team. They’re investment banker types, corporate tax specialists and people that come out of that part of the world.

Their job is to be in the markets advising big companies and raising capital. They’re doing it to generate revenue not for the advantaged, but for the disadvantaged.

Their job is to relentlessly make money using their corporate finance skills, knowing that that money will be donated across the desk – both in real terms, as they literally sit across the desk from their not-for-profit team mates – but also across to our international development organization, Adara Development, which is now a truly global organization touching tens of thousands of people a year in poverty.

That organization is staffed by amazing development specialists all over the world. We’ve got a couple of offices in the States actually. One of them is in Seattle and one in Montana, a clinical office and a research office.

People on the not-for-profit side of the desk know that their job is to relentlessly think about how to provide evidence-based, best practice service to people in poverty, particularly women and children in remote places. We’ve all got one mission, but we have different skills that we bring to the party.

MS: On the one side are people making so much money they often feel a void in their soul that they don’t know how to fill. Then the folks in the not-for-profit sector are constantly living with the fear of having their last paycheck. They just have no security at all. That’s a terrifically complementary group to bring together.

AE: Absolutely.

When you’re running a bank, you’re thinking all the time about matching your assets and your liabilities.

With those eyes, I started to look at the nonprofit world and it really struck me like a bolt out of the blue that that was one of the really big problems and struggles that nonprofits had.

They try desperately to get donor money year on year with donors who move on with the things they’re passionate about, but they have very serious and long-term responsibilities on the liability side to the client groups they serve.

That goes across all client groups, the mentally ill, the homeless and, for us, it’s people in poverty in remote places. For me, that’s what really was the genesis of the idea to try a new model.

Once I got into the banking world, I found out it was full of people who were absolutely brilliant, many of whom had really deep values but who felt the similar emptiness. They loved their work. It was intellectual chess, but what was it all about?

I tried to find a marriage of those two needs. It’s a bit of a marriage made in heaven, I reckon, and it’s been a 17-year journey for us trying to figure out how you do that and how you do it well.

It has taught me really that everybody wants to do something great with their life, but having a purpose in your life is just so meaningful and enriching. It’s really about making it not too hard for people to cross that divide and to use their skills.

I guess we’re trying to bring mastery, purpose and autonomy in our own small way to the NGO and banking community.

I guess we’re trying to bring mastery, purpose and autonomy in our own small way to the NGO and banking community.

 

MS: Lawyers have the capacity to do pro bono work. In the field I’m in, advertising and branding, we do pro bono all the time. But there is something about banking and pro bono that doesn’t get along. They haven’t had a chance to do it. Why is that?

AE: When I first started to talk about pro bono in investment banking, people thought it was some sort of bad joke.

It really struck me once I started to look at it that there was a need for a construct or a way. I had so many investment bankers say to me, “I really admire that you use your skills for good. I feel my skills are sort of useless for the wider good.”

Putting aside the fact that banks are engines of economy and creating employment, bankers are still missing the sense that their skills are really doing something directly helping people in huge need.

Bankers are still missing the sense that their skills are really doing something directly helping people in huge need.

 

MS: If you think about it, the largest group of people in the workforce today is millennials, and they aren’t working just for the money anymore. They want a company that makes meaning.

AE: I’m a huge fan of millennials because they’re coming to the equation with a completely different definition of what success is in their lives.

I had one millennial who came out of the impact investing space say that they thought of me as heritage. I laughed my head off and said to them, “I know that’s meant to be a compliment, but can I give you a piece of advice? Never, ever call me heritage again.”

MS: I love it.

AE: We have a lot of millenials who come to us trying to crack that nut of how you can have a life where you can use your skills to build security, but at the same time do something great for the world. How can we redefine business? That’s been wonderful to see that rise. I think it’s an unstoppable rise.

MS: Right now, you’re working on a new model, harnessing some of the most powerful bankers in Australia.

AE: That’s right. We just launched The Adara Playground.

It’s a panel corporate finance, business and very senior investment bankers can join for two years.

If they join, they agree that they will work for our corporate finance business at the same time they’re running their own big banks or whatever they’re doing. They’ll work for us on at least one mandate per year – entirely for free.

The revenue they earn will go straight through to our development organization.

For the bankers, it gives them the chance to do deals. In fact, we’re going to work them on deals in pairs. They’re quite excited about that because many of them have worked competitively against each other for years and years, so they’re now going to be working on corporate finance transactions together.

I was watching them shake hands with each other and many of them were saying to each other, “I’m really looking forward to working with you.” I thought, “Wow, that’s a beautiful thing. They’re going to collaborate for good using their skills.”

MS: That’s fantastic.

AE: You can imagine if every bank in the world had a panel structure or a playground where they said to their new employees and their senior leaders, “You can run deals through the playground and the money that’s made on those deals will all go to great causes.” Imagine how powerful that would be in effecting change. It has great potential.

I’m hoping that, as this works, we’re going to change the meme so people can see how easy it is to use skills for good and how great it is to use skills for good.

We’re going to change the meme so people can see how easy it is to use skills for good and how great it is to use skills for good.

 

Probably the ten most famous bankers in Australia have lined up to join us, including chairs of the largest publicly traded banks, the CEO of the biggest integrated investment bank, the chair of the largest independent investment bank and senior non-executive directors. It’s a really big roll call that lined up with me.

We fully intend to showcase how this is done and then offer it to the world. That would be a good contribution, wouldn’t it, if we could make it work and get others to adopt the idea?

MS: I love the whole idea of brands and scaling brands. I look at this and say, “Why couldn’t we roll this out for every business so that every profession could have something like this that, when you get to a certain level or even when you’re starting out, you could push a button and, boom, the money that you make is siphoned off for a good cause?” What a wonderful thing to do around November when Christmas is coming and everybody just says, “I’m going to do something that’s just so easy. I’m going to just press a button, off the money goes and I feel really good about it.”

AE: That’s a lovely way to think about it, isn’t it? A fantastic big vision.

I think, as you rightly say, many people in many industries have shown that that’s something they love to do. It’s our job now to make sure that we really nail this for investment banking, we nail it well and then we share it as widely as we possibly can to encourage others to do what we’re doing but to do it bigger, better and smarter than we’re doing it.

MS: Let’s look at the other side of the table, the not-for-profit side. Working for Adara must be a very attractive to people who are saying, “I want to go into the not-for-profit side of things, but I want to work with a group where I know that I’m going to have security.”

AE: I think we have amazing people working with us. It takes my breath away the quality of people that have joined this journey.

In terms of what grabs them about Adara, I think there are a few things, but I think the model underpinning not only the financial viability but also their own security is one.

I think it’s also that we’re quite contrarian, and we do what our communities think and tell us is right on the ground. We’re not subject to political whim. We don’t take money, for instance, from governments. We don’t give money to governments.

Because the financial viability is underpinned by the businesses, our people know that they’re not going to be caught in the middle between donors and people we’re helping. For instance, we’re in the middle of a massive catastrophe rescue relief operation in Nepal. There’s no suggestion we take a donor trip up there right now because our donors want to go and see what happens.

We just don’t do that stuff. We can do what’s right and what’s the best thing. We’re not forced by circumstances of our funding stream into doing stuff that we quietly think might not be the best thing on the ground, so I think people are attracted by that too.

MS: How have the projects changed? I remember when we first spoke years ago it was all about Africa. You were building roads and schools in Africa. How have your projects evolved and what have you learned from the way they’ve evolved?

AE: We’ve made a lot of mistakes. I always would say the biggest mistakes have been made by me when I moved too fast alone. The greatest success is always with the team.

The work has evolved over the years. We’ve lived seventeen years through three Ebola outbreaks. We’ve lived through a ten-year Maoist civil war in Nepal. We’ve learned from our mistakes.

We moved too quickly in the earlier days and intervened in communities doing stuff that wasn’t right for that community. I think, of the first 1,000 latrines we built, 970 of them turned into goat sheds, so it’s been quite a journey.

However, in terms of where it’s evolved now, one of the great things about having a cornerstone funder, and the way we do in the business, is we have relentlessly stared down our mistakes and funded really good research all the way through to see where we’re messing it up and fixed it.

One of the great things about having a cornerstone funder, is we have relentlessly stared down our mistakes and funded really good research all the way through to see where we’re messing it up and fixed it.

 

Where are we now? We’re very well known particularly for our work with neonatal intensive care for babies at risk in very remote settings.

We’re very connected now to some of the big global leaders in health, trying to help showcase and train how you run maternal-infant support facilities at a tertiary level in very remote places. For us, that’s Uganda. Our tiniest clients are our preemies and babies of HIV moms.

We’re also pretty well known for the rescue of kids from traffickers. A lot of trafficking happens when there is a civil war, as there was for ten years in Nepal. We got involved in that work and learned our way through it.

That work involved us learning about rescue, learning about custody and learning about reconnection with family of origin. Now our kids have gone from being three to being fourteen and fifteen, so we’re learning about how you manage broods of teenagers into independent living.

At the moment, because of the Nepal earthquake, a lot of trafficking is starting to happen, so the government has been calling our teams in to intercept groups of kids that are on their way out of the country supposedly to get education, but obviously to be trafficked.

The final thing we’re pretty well known for is very remote health and education. To give you a sense of that, our most remote project when I first went there is a 25-day walk from the nearest road.

It’s really specialized work because all the things you take for granted about delivering services to people, you don’t have when you don’t have roads that are nearby. Communities are very different when you’re working remotely.

MS: Are we looking at the future NGO or non-governmental organization model here?

AE: I think this contributes to what’s going to come. There are a million different ways to cut this cake, but I think, for me, the place that I sit in it is I believe in engagement. I believe in reaching across divide and we only change the world when we do it together and not when we stand on different mountains and throw stones at each other.

I think that the NGO sector will continue to look for partners in the business community and the business community will need to figure out how they can use their businesses and their skills for purpose.

I think that the NGO sector will continue to look for partners in the business community and the business community will need to figure out how they can use their businesses and their skills for purpose.

 

I think we’re going to see more of this. I think we’re seeing more of it already with the shared value movement, the multi-stakeholder movement and some of the things that were talked about at Conscious Capitalism all those years ago.

I think this is definitely a trend and we’re one example of how to engage across divides. We’re delighted to be early in this space and able to help others who want to find a way in.

MS: Do you think Adara could become a broker between people who are looking to do good and people who need the backing so that they can do good? Do you see yourself sharing this learning as some sort of a creative commons or creating an app for that?

AE: There’s no question. Certainly, knowledge sharing is a huge build for us and there’s a lot of discussion going on amongst the senior leaders of the organization about what form that takes. We share knowledge locally, regionally, nationally and globally. How do we do that to touch as many lives as we can?

I love your idea of the commons. Technology opens up huge opportunities for us to be able to share.

The complexity around sharing all we’ve done is a bit like giving birth to a child. Every child is slightly different. Every time you do this work, every time you’re running a business and every time you’re doing the work on the ground, there’s a different social, culture personality construct that you’ve got to work through.

I don’t believe that it’s so much about replicating. I think it’s about modeling, showcasing and then supporting others to find their own way to achieve the same ends. Yes, you’re going to see a lot of us in that space in the next five to ten years trying to help as much as we can.

I do hope that by knowing about what we do that people will see it’s possible, that they’ll dream things that are outside the box and that they’ll think of different ways to approach old roads that have been walked down for many years that are no longer getting people to the end they want to get to.

By knowing about what we do that people will see it’s possible, that they’ll dream things that are outside the box and that they’ll think of different ways to approach old roads that have been walked down for many years that are no longer getting people to the end they want to get to.

 

MS: I look at things like the Occupy movement and Austerity. There’s a lot of alienation happening around the financial sector. The 99% aren’t looking at bankers too kindly right now. This could become a brand pillar in the rehabilitation of banking so that banking starts to turn its image around. It seems entirely doable and I think it would make people a lot more excited about entering the sector. Instead of working just for the dollar, they’d work for something bigger than themselves. That way, they belong to a tribe that’s global as opposed to just a whole bunch of folks in suits who are working on making money.

AE: I agree with that. Brand is such a powerful thing. You know so much more about this than me, but I think the trick is it’s got to be real. In the early days of the environmental movement there was quite a bit of greenwashing.

When you run a for-purpose business or you run a business that has a purpose deeply embedded in it, it’s got to be very real because people know what authentic is. They can sniff out something that’s a marketing ploy, as opposed to something that’s actually real.

I think the divide that we’re seeing, the disparity and that terrible statistic that the 85 richest people in the world have the combined wealth of the bottom three and a half billion is unsustainable at every level. It’s not just from a values proposition, but from an economic and social proposition.

We need to find ways to effect significant change. This is our drop in the ocean of ideas to effect that change.

MS: You talked about authentic brand. That’s one of the keynotes that I give. It’s all about authentic brands. What are the hallmarks to the authentic brand to you?

AE: Authenticity.

MS: Hilarious.

AE: Integrity. That’s the thing we talked about at the start. It’s very easy to be pushed into becoming an icon, and I believe that speaking with honesty about the journey is incredibly important, even the parts where you’ve made terrible mistakes. In fact, weirdly, sometimes making mistakes is the greatest contribution you can make because others learn from them. I think there’s an integrity and honesty piece.

There’s clearly living the actions rather than the words. It’s one thing to be a thought leader, as they say, and it’s another thing get out there, give it a go and do it.

I think humility stands a bit with truthfulness for me, but the minute that you fall into arrogance, you stop listening. I think really deep authenticity comes from always learning and listening.

The minute that you fall into arrogance, you stop listening.

 

Then you have to model it. It’s not about telling people what to do. It’s about inspiring them by being the best model you can be.

If you manage to get all that right, then hopefully you’re going to effect some change.

I love the fact that you have skills that can effect change in the world because it’s powerful. Branding is powerful. Telling a great story is powerful if you do it with absolute honesty and you do it in a way people come away saying, “Gee, I could do that too.”

MS: Do you think that going forward brands that embrace authenticity might actually have an easier go of it?

AE: Yes. You’re touching on a strong point. It’s really hard work to be an image. It’s like they tell you when you’re little and they say, “Don’t lie because you can never remember what your lies are.” I decided very early in my adult life that I could only be myself. It was quite a risk to decide that because there are ways that society pushes you to conform, the way you dress, the way you speak, the people that you associate with and all the rest of it.

I decided very early in my adult life that I could only be myself.

 

I decided pretty early on that I really was hopeless at being anything other than myself and have discovered weirdly that being myself and carving my own path through all those mistakes I’ve made and all those times I’ve fallen down has been the strongest thing that I could ever have done.

Actually, I think there’s another very interesting topic of discussion around this. What does it say about leadership today, that simply being authentic or simply being yourself is somehow a huge badge of honor?

MS: Isn’t that crazy?

AE: People have great instincts about who is real and who is not. When you hear someone speaking on-point and spinning, every bone in your body says that’s just…

MS: Crap.

AE: I was just trying to look for another word that wasn’t a swear word. I was having trouble.

MS: You’re Australian. You’ve done extremely well, half an hour without swearing. That’s fantastic.

AE:  That’s because my mother is in the next room.

MS: Here’s the final question. Five years from now, you’re standing on a stone and looking backwards at this magical thing you’ve created. What is it? What does the next five years look like?

AE: If I’m standing on a stone, I hope it’s a stone on the top of a mountain, I’ve got my arms in the air, the sun is pouring down and I’ve got a big, beaming smile on my face because life has been a joyous journey.

The next five years are about bringing home everything that we’ve tried to do in the last seventeen years. To not only do deeper and better service to more people in need, but to have really proved out that anybody can do the same as we’ve done and help people do that. If we’re there, then I’m going to be really happy standing on that mountain.

MS: It also strikes me that part of humility is saying, “I don’t have a clue where this is going to go.” The world is just shifting and you’d be arrogant to say, “This is exactly where we’re going to go,” because things do shift so quickly.

AE: Yes, life does kind of blow back your hair sometimes and there are things that happen that you don’t see coming.

MS: Audette, thank you.

AE: My pleasure.