Even if you are not in agreement with her, with her politics or her ideology, you cannot help but respect her, admire her, or be captivated by her genuine enthusiasm for purposeful and impactful business. Her wealth consists in creating non-financial value, disarming complexity, and modelling the art of the possible to bridge two worlds that are seemingly black and white.
Audette Exel builds businesses that support social justice and change. Since its founding, the Adara Group has put $40 million to work to support Adara’s Projects, delivering the highest quality health and education services to some of the most vulnerable people in the most remote places.
From the comfort of Adara’s office in leafy Balmain, Sydney, we keenly sat on the edge of our seats listening to Audette’s every word.
- Learn how Audette’s upbringing fostered her passion for social justice.
- Hear how a young social activist sought to understand power, money and models to affect social change.
- Understand how the Adara Group has bridged the worlds of finance and international development to support people in poverty.
- Get Audette’s insights into the beginnings of purposeful business, the role of leadership and how to attract talent, increase engagement and transfer this to customers.
[Hatched]: To start off, we were interested in hearing about your early years. I’ve read that you are originally from New Zealand but spent quite a bit of time in Singapore as a kid. How were those earlier times?[Audette]: I’m a Kiwi kid. Born of people incredibly wealthy in values and not wealthy in material things. You’re such a product of your environment and I was a product of people who genuinely judge success by what kind of human being you were, not by your material wealth. A fantastic platform to stand on. They exhibited that in their day to day lives. They’re really good people.
My father was this kind of vagabond journalist, so we shifted around a lot and he got a job working for the New Zealand Press Association. We were based in Singapore. He was in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. That’s why we were in Singapore. Being in Singapore in the sixties – a melting pot of Asia – as a little blonde kid with blue eyes, was just this incredible experience of being in this global community.
To explain what that was like, I have a memory of when I came back to New Zealand at 10 years-old, standing in the school ground and looking around – I can still see it – and being astonished that there was a place in the world where everyone looked like me. Actually, I genuinely didn’t realise that there were places where people who looked like me were the majority.
So, in terms of understanding what it is like to feel like a minority, or understanding that the world is full of wonderful people who are different and look different, that was really profound for me. People sometimes say to me, ‘I believe giving begins at home’. A lot of people say that and now, unfortunately they’re saying, well, you know, a version of ‘I believe giving ends at home’. That’s wonderful. It’s great to give wherever you give, but my home is the world. So why would I not give in the world?
Without question, Singapore profoundly influenced my view on what the world looked like and you know, how divine multiculturalism is. I’ve never understood the talk of ‘tolerating’ diversity or difference, as opposed to ‘celebrating’ it, because my whole early life was about celebrating difference. Without question, that shaped everything that has come since. Growing up with different languages around you, with different culture around you – it’s a gift. It’s like being in the best restaurant in the world and you can eat so many different kinds of food.
“It’s great to give wherever you give, but my home is the world. So why would I not give to the world?”
That sounds like a such a culturally rich and fascinating childhood. What else about your parents has been significant in getting you to where you are today?
First of all, my father was an incredible ‘out of the box’ thinker. He had been raised in a very strict religious sect and then walked away from it. He was terribly afraid of dogma, and so one of the things that he pumped into us as kids was to question everything. Question every assumption you stand on. He thought dogma was a terrible thing. I can remember that he used to say that if we were born in Nazi Germany, we might be Hitler youth. We used to say, ‘No Dad. That never would be’. And he would say, ‘Never underestimate the power of groupthink’.
I think that’s really relevant today more than ever because, you know, we’re seeing the rise of autocracy, fascism and also the tacit acceptance and complicity of a vast majority of the global population as that happens. Whether it’s Duterte, Trump, Putin or any of these strong male leaders that we’re seeing, I can hear my Dad’s voice in my head saying, ‘never underestimate groupthink’. So in terms of being a wayward thinker and refusing to walk a path that other people thought was the path you walk, it comes out of that. There’s no question. He gave me that.
My mother is an amazing giver. She gives herself all the time. So if you like, he taught me to think and she taught me to give. If you had to sum up Adara, and what my life has been, it’s sort of those two things. It’s working out of construct in the way you give to others.
Tell us a bit about your approach to life, learning and work. What have been some significant periods of your professional journey?
You know, my story was one of social activism, and feminist activism. I was sure I would do Human Rights Activism, but because I broke my knee jumping in the Australian Parachute Championship, I ended up having to finish my law degree at Melbourne University. I hobbled into a university full of kids who drove to university in their cars, while I had been a commercial cleaner for 5 years and came out of a left-wing activist background. I walked into Ivy League wealth and realised, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. I don’t understand money and power’. That’s when I decided I was going to go and learn money and power. It was completely foreign to the life that I’d had up to then.
So I took this huge right hand turn. Out of my tribe and into a world that was completely foreign to me. That journey took me to working for big law firms in the early days, including Linklaters in Hong Kong. I remember a really funny Christmas. I had come home for Christmas and I’d been up at Linklaters doing huge deals and project finance structure. Living the life. Any other parent in the world would have been unbelievably proud of their child. I can remember Dad taking me for a long walk, and whenever he took us for a long walk we knew something was coming. He was really good at telling me what he wanted to say by getting you to think about what his message was.
So we had this long walk and ended up sitting down in this kind of field. I realised that what was worrying him was that I may be being seduced by power and money. He was asking how long was I going to stay at this top law firm. I can remember just packing up with laughter and saying, ‘Oh my God, Dad. So what you’re trying to tell me, is that I should be leaving the firm? Do you know that every other kid that I’m working with, their parents right at this moment are telling them how great it is and they should go for partner?’ You know, this is our weird family right…
So in terms of that subversive thinking – that out of construct thinking – that is a piece of my early life that helps you understand. I don’t talk about that very much. I mean, I just haven’t really been out there explaining this is why I ended up as the ‘weirdo’ that I am. I just never walked the same path as other people.
Was that a conscious decision that said, to change the system I need to go learn about the system?
Absolutely. I knew. It was conscious and it actually came to me. There was an amazing moment of clarity. I was sitting in the cafe at Melbourne University – picture me back in the day with long pink hair; a lot of protesting going on; I was a skydiver. I was really a wild child…
Anyway, I’d had three fabulous years in New Zealand and I’m talking to this guy and I asked why he was studying law. He said, ‘because the top QC in Melbourne earns $6,000 a day’. It was like, wow. Alien species. Really, it was like I had just met an alien. I had this absolute moment of clarity, thinking oh my God, I don’t know about power and money. Followed by a second thought, how am I ever going to begin to change the world unless I learn about this?
It was a conscious decision to step into the dark side and learn. Of course, once I got in there, I realised (like you do when you step outside your tribe) how prejudiced I’d been. Because I got in there and thought this was, you know, the dark heart of the capitalist empire. But actually, there are people in there that are full of integrity. It’s intellectually incredibly interesting. There’s a lot of people there who have values.
It was this incredible ripping away of prejudice, which is why I think my life has been about engagement. I came from one side with a view of the other. I then stepped into the other, woke up and thought ‘wow, nothing is as it seems’. So yes, it absolutely and always has been a learning journey about how I can use this. Where will it come to? What will I do with it? I always knew my life was going to be about social justice.
That’s the other thing to know about me. I don’t remember a time in my life, even as a young girl, where I wasn’t profoundly aware that if I’d been born a little girl somewhere else, my life would have been completely different. The absolute and utter injustice of that, and the gratitude I had for being a Kiwi kid, where there was health and education and the rest of it… this just infused everything about my life. That feeling has been with me, and is with me every minute of every day. Firstly, gratitude. Secondly, anger on behalf of the poor. I’m completely driven by it.
I then ended up running a publicly traded bank in Bermuda. In fact, I ended up on the central bank – the Bermuda Monetary Authority. I signed the five dollar note. I signed the Queen’s neck on the five dollar note. My family have that framed in the house as the point of total departure from where I began. But I’m exactly the same in terms of my views on things as I was then. I am still that activist young woman. Now I’m just an activist young woman that realises I can use the tools of power and capital to effect change.
“I don’t remember a time in my life, even as a young girl, where I wasn’t profoundly aware that if I’d been born a little girl somewhere else, my life would have been completely different. The absolute and utter injustice of that…”
That’s incredible. Aside from the appeal of business as a vehicle for change, what was it about the field of business and law that interested you?
It began as ‘I’ve got to learn that’, but as I got into it, I became incredibly interested in power. I’m interested in power and the way power moves. Particularly when looking at inequity. I’m also interested in models. I’m ‘geekily’ interested in models. If you ask me how I ended up on the board of Suncorp, it’s because I’m weirdly interested in how you put an insurance balance sheet on a banking balance sheet.
You can effect the most amazing change when you do things in a model that other people can copy. Once I got into learning about business, I then got into the amount of power in it. How does that fit with a world where right now 750 million of our neighbours don’t eat twice a day? How do I think about that? How do I think about that around inequity? How can I use power and capital? The 42 wealthiest people in the world have the combined wealth of the bottom 3.7 billion. What is that power?
As I’ve gotten older I have dealt with all these fascinating pieces of the puzzle. You know, law is about power. I studied law because I knew that I needed to understand structure to better understand the way that things moved in society. That’s what the frame was. That’s why we’re living in this fairly terrifying but incredibly interesting time from my perspective. We’re seeing a massive power shift. I began to realise that business has enormous power. Capital has enormous power. I went from this view on the responsibility of business and capital, to the opportunity.
I’ve come to believe that you can’t ever lecture anyone about values. You know, the minute that you start to become the values queen, you can just see people shut down on you. I think the word should, is not a helpful word in the language. You’ll never see me on a stage talking about how you should be giving more. Business should be doing this. It is just not my way. My way is to say there is amazing opportunity. It’s incredibly important we do it strategically now for our businesses.Our business aren’t going to exist unless we understand this and do it.
“We’re seeing a massive power shift. I began to realise that business has enormous power. Capital has enormous power. I went from this view on the responsibility of business and capital, to the opportunity.”
Let’s hear about Adara today.
At Adara, we see our business as a funding engine. Adara Advisors and Adara Partners are embedded in the model. It is about models of how you can restructure the way a not-for-profit is funded to allow them to do brilliant work.
The idea was to go to bankers and get them out relentlessly making money in the market. I’d tell them to go relentlessly make money every day, and this time you’re going to hand it over the wall to your development colleagues. So you’re going to make money that is going to the disadvantaged. Not the advantaged. But other than that, you’re going to do what you do know.
Then I hired development specialists and I asked them to think about evidence-based best practice for service delivery to the most vulnerable groups in the world’s toughest places. For them not to worry about the money, their business colleagues are going to worry about that. It was a model thing.
I am not a woman of wealth. Never have been, never will be. It’s not something that interests me. So I figured that I could change the model. Models, models, models! I’ve always been playing with models.
The new business represents an evolution of my thinking. It’s a much bigger business. It’s an even weirder and out of construct model than the first one. I’ve got this panel of 14 of some of Australia’s most skilled non-executive directors and investment bankers, and they have all agreed that each year they will co-lead one major mandate in corporate Australia, working together with my banking team here. They are on our financial services license so they are our authorised representatives.
Adara now runs deals with the Chairman of Goldman Sachs; the head of Investment Banking of Goldman Sachs; the CEO of UBS; the Head of Investment Banking at UBS, the Vice-Chair of Deutsche Bank… You know, this unbelievable line up. They are working as volunteers for Adara.
We built a whole technology platform to sit underneath that called the Adara Playground to deliver them cloud-based document management, project management and communication tools. So there’s no risk that any information goes inside their own firms when working on a publicly-traded company deal. It is actually the first thing I’ve built with an eye to take it to other markets and replicate it. I am going to take it to Wall Street. It might be the biggest thing we ever do.
I want it to be the most prestigious thing in the world for an investment banker to sit on a panel with top people, and to do one deal across the competitive boundaries. One deal a year for a minimum of two years with all proceeds going to vulnerable clients. And that is way bigger than Adara.
So again, it’s the model. In fact, I’m quite a long way towards proving to myself that the model is going to work. The first company we advised was Wesfarmers. We’ve advised top 100 companies. Big mandates. And they love it. Some of our panel members are completely evangelical. Talk about purpose, mastery for purpose – they’d never had that feeling. It’s fascinating to watch.
“I want it to be the most prestigious thing in the world for an investment banker to sit on a panel with top people, and to do one deal across the competitive boundaries. One deal a year for a minimum of two years with all proceeds going to vulnerable clients.”
When I first went to them with the idea, they said, ‘come on Audette, you’re not telling me that you’re advising on an M&A deal and helping the world are you?’. I said, ‘that is exactly what I’m telling you’. They are brilliant, and I told them they can do what they are brilliant at and it’s going to make a massive difference.
The first mandate included Matthew Grounds, the Head of UBS and David Gonski. It was amazing working under them. Wesfarmers were the client and at the end of it I walked Gonski and Grounds to the lift and I said, ‘David and Matthew, I just need you to understand that the fee you just generated for Adara, the amount of money that you just made on this mandate, is the equivalent amount of money it costs us to run a hospital in Uganda that services a catchment area of about 800,000 people for a year.’ The look on their face…
What does scale look like for Adara?
There are a million different ways to cut this cake, but my version is ‘one hundred miles deep, one mile wide.’ Do things really, really well and you do it so well that other people will copy you, and do it bigger and better than you.
Last year we put out a 20 year video that sort of sums it all up. I thought a lot about what I wanted to say. It’s a set of belief statements. It’s things like how we believe that people, even many days walk from a road deserve great health and education services. Then we’ve been able to underpin that by showing that, hand-in-hand with our community and our partners, we have built schools in these places.
“One hundred miles deep, one mile wide. Do things really, really well and you do it so well that other people will copy you, and do it bigger and better than you.”
We believe that even babies in the world’s most remote places deserve the highest level of care possible. So we have NICU specialists and tertiary & medical specialists in settings without consistent electricity supply. We care for thousands of mothers and babies a year and we’ve done this work all with Ugandan teams. It’s all about going deep, and we believe you can use the tools from investment banking and business to effect social change.
The Adara Group has raised nearly $15 million for people in extreme poverty, and another $25 million from all these amazing people who have come to stand with us almost out of nowhere… $40 million to people in poverty using the tools of business. So going back to scale, if you do something and you just keep trying and trying and trying… then you can say, actually, we really know this.
So that’s why a huge platform for us is knowledge sharing. Our two pillars – best practice service & knowledge sharing are scale for us. We’re about specialty. Deep specialty. Proving a handful of beliefs and then putting them out to the world.
Could you tell us a little bit about leadership and purpose?
First of all, I read something the other day that said we shouldn’t be talking about the noun leader, we should be talking about verb to lead. This takes you into a slightly different headspace, right?
There is a slight complexity around this, which is that people want you to be an icon when you’re a leader. Because we’re living in this age of image and superficiality; political spin; the 24 hour news cycle; the lack of authenticity… people sort of want to grab you as an icon and that takes away from my fundamental message, which is that you can be an absolute Kiwi girl and just get out and do stuff, do cool stuff.
I think it’s a privilege if you get chance to lead. You get the chance to speak to people’s higher-selves. The best of who people are… or you get the chance to unleash the worst of who people are.
If you see what’s happening in the world at the moment – where does Trump sit in that? He sits at appealing to the basic instincts in humanity – xenophobia, racism, anti-semitism, sexism, fear and ignorance. But if you have a chance to lead, you should use that privilege to actually speak to something that’s better in people.
“I think it’s a privilege if you get chance to lead. You get the chance to speak to people’s higher-selves. The best of who people are…”
If you want to lift people; if I chose to lead by coming into the office every day and talking about the negative or telling people what their limitations were; or if I chose to lead in society by talking about working inside construct instead of outside construct… everybody does it differently, but I think the most powerful leadership and the greatest opportunity you have, if you have that privilege, is to model the art of the possible. I see it as a privilege and I choose to try to always talk to the highest piece of people.
The great thing is when people connect with you, when people connect with their heart and their head and they’re connected with that kind of higher-self place, you just see these massive openings in people. Their lives change. The difference is unbelievable. We’ve got an amazing man in here who applied for a job as a maternity leave cover for a recent graduate school IT manager. He was the Chief Technology Officer at Swiss Re. On his application he wrote, ‘Please don’t be concerned when you see my CV. I really love the Adara Group and I really want to come and work with you’. We were like, ‘Wow – let’s trap him here forever!’ He says he has never enjoyed a workplace more. He’s never been so happy.
You know, our Net Promoter Scores (NPS) are off the charts. We have an NPS of thirty-two, and total engagement scores in the high eighties. Everybody works like maniacs, and in an under-resourced way. Why? Because when you appeal to everyone’s higher self and put purpose at the centre, people come to it with their head and their heart completely connected. People work harder; they work longer; you attract better talent; and they stay with you for amazing amounts of time. They spring into work full of joy and they transmit that to your customers or your clients. It is such a powerful business tool when you engage people that way.
Also when I think about communication and leading, I think, ‘what field will I meet you on? Should I meet you on the field of logic and data?’. The great news for the purpose movement is you now can meet people on the field of logic and data – it’s in. It is just blowing everybody away. It’s fantastic. The data is in.
“When you appeal to everyone’s higher self and put purpose at the centre, people come to it with their head and their heart completely connected. People work harder; they work longer; you attract better talent; and they stay with you for amazing amounts of time. They spring into work full of joy and they transmit that to your customers or your clients. It is such a powerful business tool when you engage people that way.”
So some people you have to meet on that field, other people you have to meet on the field of belief systems. We see that with climate change. It’s ludicrous the fact that we even have a climate change debate in my view. You’re dealing with people who can’t deal with data. They’re dealing with belief systems. Or sometimes you have to meet people on the field of emotion and anecdote, or metaphor.
So it’s about figuring out, ‘Okay, I’m about to walk into this boardroom, should I be telling great stories and giving metaphors to try and explain the point I’m trying to make? Or should I be dealing with logic and data? Or does somebody in this room have a belief system and I actually need to talk to them that way?’ So to come back to the leadership piece. How do you lead through all that? You figure out what field to meet them on.
The final thing with leadership is humility. If we talk about leadership in the impact space, if the impact community doesn’t grow with humility, then you know there’s going to be a train wreck ahead. If the impact or purpose community walk in saying we know better than you and this is how you should do it; and not listening to the voices around that are actually real experts in some of the pieces, that’s problematic.
“Leadership is humility. If we talk about leadership in the impact space, if the impact community doesn’t grow with humility, then you know there’s going to be a train wreck ahead.”
You’ve been a leader in the purpose scene since its beginnings, or even before its beginnings really. How have things changed in the past 20 years?
What I would say about the purpose movement, is that it is a zeitgeist shift and it’s fantastic to be living through it. I’ve lived through a handful of periods of time in different parts of my life where I’ve thought things were interesting. But this has legs. This is a movement that’s changing. I really feel it now.
You know, 20 years ago when I set up a corporate advice business to fund an NGO that supported the poor, people thought I was a liar, a drug dealer, a crook or just completely deluded. I went through a period where I actively sought a peer group and I had these really funny experiences going to places where I thought, ‘I’m going to find someone who understands’. Now, it is almost mainstream. How fantastic is that!
I feel incredibly positive about it; enormously relieved that it’s happening; and fascinated that some people don’t fully accept it. I’m fascinated that you could be having a debate about some of the stuff still, even though we see what’s happening in our world. But mostly, I’m happy for our world.
What we have started to see is major companies pricing carbon, even when there isn’t an energy policy. Major companies talking multi-stakeholder. Major companies recognising social license to operate in a very serious way. A huge shift of companies talking into the geopolitical space saying it’s not okay to have trade wars. It’s not okay to be talking xenophobia. I think people running great companies are starting to say, ‘We need to be making these decisions ourselves’.
That truly is fantastic. What do you think has woken bigger business up to purpose?
Oh, I think data and logic.
Generation Y – how much do we love Gen Y! I don’t understand people who say they don’t want to employ Gen Ys & Millennials. I’ve got so many of them – here and all over the world. Why? Because they’re Global Citizens, digital natives, and they refuse to be sucked into the group think of the dinosaurs.
We know it in business, you want to get these young people and the first things they ask in the interview room are, ‘Do you do pro bono work? What is your connection to community? Why don’t you have any women on your board? What kind of advancement opportunities have you got?’
So why are big business beginning to see it? It’s coming from the pool of talent and it’s coming from their customers. You know now, if you have been found to be making your clothes in a Bangladeshi factory sweatshop and it burns down, it destroys you forever. It’s also coming from awareness – radical transparency. It’s from regulators. Business as a sociopath is over. That is a good thing for the world.
I actually have this enormous sense of optimism and I think the purpose movement is bringing that. To see corporate leaders talking purpose… People need to know why they come to work. People need to be great at what they do. You have to let them do it without standing on their head to much. They have to have purpose. They have to be able to answer that question – why am I coming to work?
“It’s also coming from awareness – radical transparency. It’s from regulators. Business as a sociopath is over. That is a good thing for the world.”
That’s another thing I’d say about the purpose movement, it’s wonderful if you can bring that before you start. Trying to back engineer purpose is a really complex and difficult thing. To get it right in the centre substantively, requires a huge amount of strategic thinking and support, but the great news is every entrepreneur in the world – young or old – can start with that. I think authentic purpose is going to be the number one business tool.
Here at Adara, what does that purpose look like?
The purpose for us actually comes from a belief statement. We believe that everybody in the world has the right to essential service delivery no matter where they’re born. That’s the belief statement. So our purpose basically underpins that belief statement – to deliver the highest quality health and education services to the most vulnerable people in the most remote places at a standard of absolute excellence. To build businesses that can support that social justice and that change. That was there for me, years before I built it.
“Authentic purpose is going to be the number one business tool.”
What does purpose mean for us? When we put an application out for a job, we get hundreds of applicants. We have the highest quality people working with us. I believe people work incredibly hard. We front face the markets and work in the top levels of investment banking as if we were a major firm. The reason the work goes out at such quality is because people are totally passionate about what we do every single day and they are completely connected to the work.
So you’re here in the Global Support Office, but we’ve got a clinical practice office in Seattle, a research office in Montana, big teams in Uganda and Nepal, and a little office in Bermuda. I’ve actually just managed to get right around the world and thank every single one of them. The culture is really strong in here. Even now we’re touching tens of thousands of people a year. We run a really big payroll now. It’s a big organisation but it’s still in people’s hearts. Purpose means everything.
I would not run the business for one day, nor would anybody else who is working in here, if it wasn’t that they are there to serve the poor. That’s why we’re here.
You know, even on those terrible days, when things have been really hard or really frightening, there’s never been a day where I wanted to do anything other than come to work. And that’s what real purpose is right? It’s really meaningful. That’s why I say to people, ‘chase your passion. Don’t invent a purpose’. Don’t say to yourself, ‘I need to go on that board because I need a not for profit board on my CV, or we need to remodel this company around purpose.’ Never do it that way. You’ve got to do it from the place inside you that’s driven because then you’re the energiser bunny that never runs out of batteries.
If you put passion together with purpose, it’s a magic combination. Nothing stops you once you’re in that situation.