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“I am secretly very rich, but I’m not rich in material wealth—I’m rich in every other thing that matters to me in my life.”
Conversations
22 February 2017

Audette Exel invests in change

Interview by Mele-Ane Havea
Britt Campion

Mele-Ane Havea on Audette Exel

When I first heard Audette Exel speak, it was all about social impact and changing the world. There are many inspiring people and ideas out there but for me, Audette stands out.

It isn’t just that she has built her own corporate advisory company—The Adara Group—managing over $3 billion with all profits going towards long-term education and maternal health projects in Nepal and Uganda. Don’t get me wrong, that stuff is impressive and very important. The thing that blows me away  is her humility.

Audette uses her financial acumen for the common good. She doesn’t think she has all the answers and is grateful for the opportunity to learn—whether it be from her clients, her colleagues or, indeed, the communities she works with. She’s had her fair share of demoralising experiences in the corporate world where power and money reign supreme. What that taught her was the significance of kindness and respect—that it is powerful currency in an emotionally-bankrupt world. For Audette, true power lies in knowing your role in community and using what you have to make the world better.

It’s this attitude that carries through in her work. It’s all about people. This is what strikes me when I visit the Adara head office, just out of Sydney’s central business district. The walls are painted in warm colours, reds and oranges. It’s the same in all Adara’s offices around the world: intentionally inviting. The staff are warm, welcoming me in and pouring me a cuppa. Traditionally, the finance world is all about the deal—relationships mean nothing and profit is everything. Audette’s life’s work has been to turn this paradigm on its head.

As founder of the organisation, Audette certainly has a lot on her plate, but her energy and passion never seem to subside. I’m inspired not only by the purpose-driven investment model she’s created with The Adara Group, but by the way she’s done it. Her way—with skill, humility and lots of laughter.

This story originally ran in issue #44 of Dumbo Feather

AUDETTE EXEL: I’m going to try to refrain from swearing.

MELE-ANE HAVEA: You can totally swear!

Every time my mother reads an article about me she rings me and says, “Couldn’t you just have refrained from swearing for once?” “I’m sorry Mum!”

[Laughs]. Is she still in New Zealand?

No, she’s here. She’s the reason I came back to Australia. I was desperate to be near her. She and my dad retired to the coast and then very sadly he died within a couple of years. So she’s been down there on her own for 15 years. And I was just desperate to get home as soon as that happened.

Was that around the time you started ISIS?

Yeah. In fact, Dad named it for me. I had just started. I was two-and-a-half years in when he died. And I remember that terrible call that there’d been this accident. I had all those things that go through your head in that awful moment, and one of them was: He’s never going to see what I’m going to do with ISIS. As is often the case with parents, they don’t need to see it run to its conclusion.  They know that whatever you’re going to do, you’re going to do great, and if it fails it’s going to be okay too. So at least he knew I was starting it.

I read that he was quite an adventurer—like yourself.

Yeah he was. He was an intellectual adventurer. And he also went to Vietnam with the New Zealand troops. But he was a hugely freethinking man. Unbelievable mind. He refused to be constrained by conventional thinking. He gave me that. And I’ve been lucky to build a company and a job that lets me do that. I’m one tiny part of a whole line of people who have refused to be constrained and effect change because of that.

This story originally ran in issue #44 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #44 of Dumbo Feather

Massive change in thinking is possible if you don’t accept orthodoxy.

You know, just think about the women of my mother’s generation who went to university for the first time. In a decade, people are going to look back and say, “Can you believe there was a time when gay people couldn’t marry?” Like, how bizarre.

There’s this really amazing Washington Post article called “What will future generations condemn us for?”  (by Kwame Anthony Appiah). And it looks back 50, 60, 70 years and asks, “How could we have had slavery? How did we have many of these things that we now look upon as abhorrent?” Yet things like this are still happening now right under our eyes.

Absolutely. I remember when things were unfolding in Bosnia thinking, Oh my God, I’m an adult. I’m in the privileged class of educated people who are not worrying about what to eat, and there is a genocide about to occur. And I am doing nothing. I mean, think about the way the whole world responded to Rwanda. Bodies washed up in the lakes on the Uganda-Rwanda border. That was less than 20 years ago. I was a grown up and a genocide happened. It’s like, “Where were you, what did you do?” I find that an incredibly compelling reason to be a social activist and do the work I do. I have to answer that question not for anyone but myself. The last thing you need to do before you die is be clean with yourself. And answer that question, “Where were you? What did you do?”

Do you feel you could answer that question now?

I always wish I’d done more. I go through these huge highs and lows. What I’ve done is tiny compared to the size of what needs to be done. Then I look at somebody like the Dalai Lama or Obama and I think, That’s greatness. 

You know they say comparison is the death of happiness.

[Laughs]. That’s a good saying. I like it! Do I feel despair about the fact that there’s plenty of things I could have done that I haven’t? Yes. But then I just go back to work. I was in Uganda about 14 months ago. I’d been out in the community. Our focus there is medical and tertiary-level support. But we also do a lot of work with HIV clients living remotely out of the hospital and I’d been out for the day, way out remote, just to see what was going on. It blows your brains apart when you see others living with that terrible disease. It’s everything that goes with that about how you’re going to die and not be able to protect your children. So of course I was feeling overwhelmed at the size of what was around me and our inability to touch it in any significant way.

I went back—we’ve got this house, then called the ISIS house, now the Adara House, at the hospital—and I was up all night thinking, Oh my god, it’s not enough. Oh my god, it’s a huge responsibility. How am I going to keep it going? Walking around like a mad professor. And then as the sun came up and I went over to the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit)—which I always try to do first thing in the morning when I’m at the hospital and the last thing at night—and there were 35 babies and five sets of twins. I walked around that unit and a sense of calm descended on me. And I thought, This is okay. Every one of these kids is alive because of the combined efforts of everyone who’s been involved in this. And when we first came to this place no babies like that lived. And I thought, I can do it for another day. It may not be enough but it’s good. The work is good. So that’s how I deal with it in the world too!

One of my favourite quotes is by Leonard Cohen. He has this song called “The Anthem” and the chorus is, “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack, there’s a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets in.”

Don’t wait for the world to be a perfect place. Find the crack, find the light.

Tell me about the newly-named Adara Group—which was ISIS. Where did it start? What was your vision?

Okay. So the dream for me has always been rooted in the belief that if you can find a way to bridge different disciplines and worlds you’ll affect powerful change. The other dream was to try to bust two ideas: one, that you had to be old, rich, white and male to be a philanthropist; and two, that business was all about profit—returning money to shareholders. I saw business as a tool rather than as an end to itself.

So the big idea initially was: “I’m going to run a business, I’m going to use my skills  to generate revenue to support marginalised people, particularly women and kids. And I’m going to relieve a development team from worrying about money. Because  I think it’s such a terrible thing that NGOs and INGOs spend their whole lives worrying about their donors rather than their work.” I just had this idea that I was going to work to make money and allow brilliant people to do amazing things to empower and support marginalised women and kids. That was the dream.

So what does that look like in practice?

The Adara Group is made up of two parts: Adara Advisors and Adara Development. Adara Advisors is a corporate finance for-purpose business and Adara Development is an INGO working to alleviate poverty. Adara Advisors make money by advising large companies and 100 percent of its profits fund Adara Development. Adara Development works with women and kids in extreme poverty in Uganda and Nepal.

Why do you work in Uganda and Nepal?

I knew I wanted to work in landlocked countries, in rural and remote areas, as I felt like these were some of the hardest places to live in poverty. I had trekked in Nepal in my twenties and fallen in love with that beautiful country and its people, so that was the first place I went once I knew what I wanted to do.

When I asked people where the worst standards of living were in the country, everyone’s response was: “There’s this place called Humla, but you don’t want to go there!” It was like a bull to a red rag.

So that’s where I went. Back then it was 25 days from the nearest road. Seventeen years later, we are still there working to improve access to health and education.

How I ended up in Uganda is quite a funny story. Back in the day I was invited to the Davos World Economic Forum and happened to sit beside the First Lady of Uganda, Janet Museveni, in a coffee shop inside the conference centre. She sparked my interest in Uganda. So years later when we began Adara I went to see her. We never looked back. We now partner with an astonishing rural hospital called Kiwoko, working to help women and newborns.

How on-the-ground have you been?

Oh, very! I’d spend all my time in country if I could but I have the business to run. Being on-the-ground for me is like taking a beautiful deep breath. I work in both places. In fact, almost all our staff do—they know each other and celebrate each other’s success. It truly is a family! One of the things I’m most proud of though is that we only hire brilliant local staff on the ground. Local people know the best solutions to local problems.

And this was all started in the late 1990s?

It’s been 17 years of an unbelievable journey that I never could have anticipated in a million years. It would be a total lie for me to tell you I had strategic plans, long-term vision, any of that. Just this mad idea that it was possible. And I look back on it and think, What could have been considered foolhardiness—risk-taking—is now being seen as vision. Through all these years of ups and downs, all these crazy journeys, all these mistakes, civil wars, financial crises, Ebola—you name it. Through million of mistakes and challenges, brilliant people have come to stand by me. An unbelievably joyous journey. More tears than you can imagine.

You’ve described your life as an adventure and a riot. What have you meant by that?

It’s been joyous—there is no word that describes appropriately how lucky I have been. The privilege of my birthplace: New Zealand. How glad I am to have been born a Kiwi. I don’t remember a moment of my childhood thinking I wasn’t safe. Then on top of that being born into an amazing family, a father with this huge, wonderful, open brain and a mother with this incredible centred sense of how you behave and what giving is—that you always think about other people’s needs, that it’s more important to give than take. And then this joint message they gave us almost subliminally: you can fail and we will still love you. Just get out there and do your best. So I had all this luck. Luck, luck, luck! Great university! Born a woman in an age of sexual liberation, the feminist movement! Married a beautiful man, got the incredible privilege of being part of a family that had an entirely different cultural context to mine, that wrapped their arms around me. And even when that marriage ended, it did so with love and dignity. Then coming up with this mad idea all these years ago of running a business to fund development work! So gratitude underpins my life and what comes from that is:

“If you are a person with this kind of privilege and that kind of fortune, how could you do anything except use it to do something for other people?”

How could you fritter that away when people get up every day in poverty? Or with a mental illness, facing the world with a brain that is making it really complex for them? I feel this enormous sense of responsibility.

If there are things that you care about and things that you believe in, you have to do it.

You do. And often that’s quite difficult because society is protecting its own comfort level. So there’s a sort of societal pressure to conform. But I’ve decided that I had to live my own truth. There’s this lovely saying that well-behaved women rarely make history. I’ve got it on my fridge [laughs]. So when I’m thinking, Can’t you be a little better behaved? Can’t you be more conformist? I’ll say, “No.” I think I’ve always done the unexpected, refused to conform.

As you’re speaking I’m thinking about how you were an activist during your uni days. But then you went to work in a corporate law firm, which to your activist friends I’m sure was…

Horrifying.

So why did you make that decision?

That’s been an interesting life lesson. That was the first really big experience of stepping outside of my tribe and doing things that people didn’t know or expect. Why did I do it? Because I had a blinding realisation as I was in the last two years of my law degree that I knew nothing about money or power. I’d grown up in this amazing world of the humanist left. And then I suddenly came face to face with uni students, ‘cause I came to Melbourne University, who had cars and drove to uni! It was the most shocking thing to me. I was a cleaner; I cleaned hotels, houses and offices at nights for the five years I studied—that’s how I paid my way through university. So the idea of having cars to drive to university and not have a job to pay your way through was unbelievable to me. I thought, How am I going to effect change if I have to go over that wall? I think everybody knows what their truth is. For me it’s bridging worlds. Somehow in that moment I realised, I’ve got to learn about that world. And so when I went into corporate law, it was a very strange experience of going outside of my tribe, of meeting all these Ivy League kind of people.

How did you feel? Were you intimidated?

Actually, it’s funny, I had these 30th anniversary drinks with some of them the other night. And they were all warm and welcoming, always have been. But I was listening to them talk about their lives, and a number of them were saying, “My kid’s at SHORE,” you know, good Sydney schools. And I was thinking, Oh I remember now how I felt. And it wasn’t that I didn’t feel welcomed, it’s just that I was an outsider. Initially I felt like a spy and I’m inside the enemy camp! Then of course I got in there and went, “Geez, people are smart. They’ve got values, they’re warm, they’re funny.” If there’s one thing that those of us with moral fibre abhor, it’s prejudice in any form. And then suddenly…

You see it in yourself!

Right! You get a, Whoa! I’ve been so prejudiced! So it was a beginning of a bridge creation. And it’s funny because people will meet me in a board or business situation and I’ll be in my black suit, and I’ll try to brush my hair properly—I’m not very good at it.

[Laughs].

But people meet me like that and they think I’m a businesswoman. And they say,
“Wow, what made you decide to give back?” [Laughs].

And it really makes me laugh because they don’t realise I’m a social activist who decided I needed to learn about business to figure out how to do really good social activism and bring all those parts of my life together.

It’s funny how people perceive you through their lens. All these years later I am here and I’m more thoughtful about how I speak, I realise the importance of exercising compassion instead of judgement. So I’m less: “Oh! Excuse me! Let me just get on  my soapbox.”

How did you stop that? Because when you’re passionate about things, you want to convince others.

I realised that you don’t convince anybody when you come at them with anger. I only resort to anger in the end when nothing else has worked and I’m just using it as catharsis [laughs]. One of the wonderful women who’s been with me from the start who’s a brilliant professor of medical anthropology, she runs all our research, has this wonderful line: “You can’t argue with crazy.” There are some viewpoints that are very difficult to engage with. And I think that if you are going to try to have a conversation, you have to find a voice that somebody will listen to. That voice cannot be one of attack. It can’t be one of condescension. People don’t listen to that stuff. That’s why I never lecture people about values.

I guess it doesn’t really build a bridge.

It doesn’t. It actually builds a wall. And you can see it in people’s faces. I’m still less measured than I would like to be at certain times. But I don’t believe it’s okay to leave prejudice unmet. I went through periods when I would come home and cry after sitting in rooms where people would say hideous homophobic or sexist things, whatever their particular piece of bile and hatred was. And I would just put my head down and not deal with it. Now I have to. It’s not good for me to leave it unmet. If somebody says something that I find offensive in a meeting, I will say, “Please don’t speak with words of hatred or bigotry around me.” And you can hear a pin drop when you say that. It’s about finding a voice and knowing what you want to use it for. What do you want to speak about? And do you just want to speak or do you want to be heard?

When did you find your voice and how?

I think I’m still finding my voice. It’s a journey. I’m more at ease with my voice now because I know my purpose. I can talk very honestly about mistakes. I think I’ve earned the right to speak because I’ve been working in this space for a long time. And I’m trying to work there with integrity and speak with honesty so I’ve got something to add to the public discourse and the conversation about the areas of things that matter to me. Seventeen years ago when I was starting I wouldn’t necessarily be saying, “This is where the complexity is,” of the profit and non-profit motives intersecting for instance, because I was just beginning. Now I can say, “Here, let me help add to your thinking by telling you what happened here, or how I’ve evolved on this concept.”

It’s interesting ‘cause your humility was one of the things that really struck me when I first heard you speak. And I wondered has there ever been a time in your life when you were challenged by your own ego, and how did you overcome that?

I think every human being on the planet, including me, struggles with his or her ego. People will write lovely things about me, and sometimes I’ll read it and go, “Yeah man!  I’m the rockstar!” And then I laugh because I know the truth! I think the trick is not losing touch with your truth. I think a lot of people become their CVs. If you look at mental illness and the speed at which many men die once they’ve retired, it’s frightening—because they were their CVs. So if you ask them, “Who are you?” They’ll say, “I am the CEO of this business.” They define themselves that way. And the minute you’re defining yourself by your image or your job title, you have lost touch with yourself. I think having people around you who don’t let you take yourself too seriously is really important.

Do you have siblings?

I do. I have a sister who lives in Kiwiland. And a beautiful older brother who spends his life trying to do the right thing by fish. He’s a fishing expert. He is amazing. So I’m wedged in the middle. In my family, pride was about being the best you can, not being better than others. My father was determined that his children would not go to private schools. And I remember him saying, “My children will speak with the same level of respect to people who are sitting and living on the streets as they will to the Royal Family. That’s how my children will be.”

That’s pretty powerful.

Yeah. And what a gift they gave us. Because it’s hard when you’re in the bubble that the advantaged can sometimes live in—where you’re actually not meeting people who are living a different life. How do they reach out of the bubble and communicate? First of all there’s this fear. But secondly there’s just a complete lack of understanding. If you’ve had an upbringing where it doesn’t matter what your skin colour is, what your sexual preference is, whether you’re able-bodied or disabled, whether you’re wealthy or not, what matters is who you are—how you behave in the world, what values you bring. If you’re brought up like that, it’s pretty powerful.

I read that your family lived in Singapore for a while. And I think that in itself would have made you see quite quickly, My normal is not everybody’s normal!

It’s so true. You know those weird flashbacks you have about your childhood? I have one where I was standing in the playground when we came back from Singapore to New Zealand. I was nine, maybe. And I remember standing there looking around and being astonished, literally astonished, that there was a place in the world where everybody looked like me. I had just thought that I was a minority because I was the little blonde-haired, blue-eyed kid in Singapore in the middle of Asia in the ’60s. I think first of all I recognised the world was multicultural, but secondly I understood what it feels like to be the “other!” Not in a “poor me” but just in a “this is the way it is!” It had a big impact on the way I thought about things. And it showed me that there were no boundaries. Having parents who were brave enough to say, “Of course, we’ll live in Singapore in the ’60s while there’s a major war being fought up the road” is big. I mean, Mum with three kids and Dad literally away for big assignments months at a time—that was unbelievably courageous.

You’ve embodied that bridge between cultures.

Yes! It’s a powerful thing to say: “I do not have to define myself as either this or that. I am defining myself as me. I am a child of the world.” I think the only way we’re going to create change is when we’re all so wonderfully mixed up. And it’s happening! That’s what the internet’s kind of doing for us. It’s mixing us up! We’re laughing on Twitter with people from all over the world, different races, different languages, different religions. We’re finding community that crosses divides. We’re falling in love with each other across all sorts of social boundaries and borders and maybe that’s where the hope is.

 

There’s this amazing poem by Karlo Mila, a New Zealand woman of Samoan, Tongan and Pakeha heritage, called “There are no words for us.” It’s about dealing  with mixed-race identity, but it’s hopeful. The last sentence is so beautiful.  She says, “Our sweet nashi offering widening the palette of the world.”

Oh yes! That’s beautiful! “Widening the palette of the world.” All of us have a responsibility to get up there and say, “Hey, it’s great to be me and it’s great to be you! You don’t have to be perfect.” That comes back to an earlier conversation. If you create a false picture, or a picture that somehow you’ve done something that other people could never do or attain, that you are somehow special, what use is that to anybody? Really!

I think you’ve got to become so comfortable in your own skin that other people are comfortable in your skin.

And I think you’ve got to remember that there’s greatness in everyone. I’m working on something for the business at the moment. We’re creating a structure where very, very senior investment bankers can come and run pieces of advice for us pro bono. I’m creating a panel structure. So I want to bring the concept of using investment banking skills to the concept of pro bono and doing good. Traditionally, nobody’s ever put investment banking and pro bono in the same sentence. So I’m talking to some very senior players in the industry and saying, “Wouldn’t you like to come and offer a piece of advice, do a deal, but for pro bono and 100 percent of it will go to marginalised women and children?

What’s been the reaction?

Keep your fingers crossed for me! We’re moving towards launch. But it’s fascinating because I had one quite cynical, larger-than-life character originally say to me, “Oh Audette darl, nobody will do that!”

So condescending!

“Nobody will do that for you and give away 100 percent! Why don’t you split the fees with them 50-50?” And I said, “No, I’m not splitting the fees with anybody. Because every cent that we make goes to women and children in extreme poverty. And I’m going to seek everybody’s higher self. I believe that everybody wants to do great things. I think everybody wants to use their mastery for purpose. And I’m going to prove it!” And he kind of looked at me like I was crazy. And then after a while he sat back on his heels and said, “You know what darl? I think you’re right. They’ll do it for you.” So it is that catering to the best of people. Believing in the best of people. Sometimes I feel as a leader you have to strive to be better than you are to inspire others. People need to believe that great things are possible. And that you believe in them. And if you don’t model it, what then? If you don’t model humility, even when you read something and you want to go, “Wow look at me! Whoo!” Can you imagine? First of all if I did it around here they would laugh me down. But secondly what message would I be sending?

And what culture are you promoting?

Right. So you’re creating a space for people to step up as best they possibly can. And you are cheering them on. That’s what leadership is. And you have to think about it all the time. Even kindness. The Dalai Lama has this beautiful saying: “My religion is very simple. My religion is about kindness.” And I thought a lot about kindness and how bloody hard it is to be kind. How easy it is to go to an unkind thought or to say something and then later think, Shit. That was a bit unkind. It’s that whole thing about compassion versus judgement.

It seems simple: be kind. But it’s amazing how bloody hard it is.

You walk past somebody on the street who’s homeless. And you could stop and buy The Big Issue. You could give them an extra five bucks. You could look them in the eyes and say, “Hey, g’day, what’s your name?” But instead you’re in a bloody rush. And you don’t really want to confront the fact that people are living on the streets. So you just choose not to be kind. But if there’s only one rule we should strive to live by it’s “be kind.”

I love that. It makes me think of another thing that I read about you—that you had chosen to live quite simply, you drive an old Toyota. And I wondered about your relationship to money.

Well, first of all, I do not live in a hair shirt. We’re sitting in Balmain, and yes okay, it’s true, I’m not a fashion icon! [Laughs]. One of these articles said, “Audette Exel lives on a shoestring” and I snorted. I eat more than I should. I live in a lovely two-bedroom terrace house that I walk to from work. But everybody makes a thing of my car! My car has become this iconic thing! There’s nothing wrong with my car! [Laughs]. It gets me where I need to go.

I don’t understand why people are so dominated by their attraction to money. It’s an addiction that I do not have, thank god. And when I watch the Lord of the Rings—“my precious”—it’s actually a brilliant way of describing what can happen to you if you become fixated on money. Why, really, does it matter that your house has a bigger and better view? Compared to the opportunity you have to save a life or to have a life of adventure yourself. I mean, money matters enormously for people who desperately need a level of safety and security. Everybody deserves that. Everybody deserves health, education, food on the table. I absolutely do not decry that for one bit. But I do not really understand why it would matter to have another $10 million in the bank when you already have however much. I don’t understand why people think money matters more than love, joy, peace and justice. I don’t understand why it matters to people to wear incredibly expensive jewellery. It’s just not my thing. At some point I have to buy a new car because I need a car with airbags I think.

[Laughs]. And I guess  the question is, how much  is enough? I don’t think we ask ourselves that enough.

I keep wondering if I’m going to meet somebody at some point who’ll say, “Take my pot of money and do something good with it!” And I’ll say, “Yes!” If I were Bill Gates, would I be doing what he’s doing? Totally. And bloody good on him that he’s doing it. I think we are simply custodians of the planet at every level, including custodians of wealth that comes our way. A lot of people suspect that I must be secretly very rich, which I find incredibly funny because I am secretly very rich, but I’m not rich in material wealth—I’m rich in every other thing that matters to me in my life. People find it hard to imagine that you could give away a lot of money and not have a whole lot yourself. People see it as a sacrifice. You know, I’m not dismissing the incredible drive for people to secure themselves and their families financially. That really matters. Not being able to pay your electricity bill, it matters. Being a mum who’s escaping a domestic abuse situation with kids and wondering how she’s going to put food on the table—that matters. What I’m saying is in my life and with the levels of money that I’m around, it’s seashells. And do I think there’s ever going to be a day in my life when I can’t afford to eat what I want? Probably not.

What’s your vision for the Adara Group?

The vision is to get us to 20 years, to show that this is a sustainable model. And to have a panel of some of the most senior investment bankers in this country standing beside me doing deals to generate money for marginalised people. Then we will have not only created a structure that will long outlast me when I get hit by the yak that falls off the cliff, but that will be a model for every bank in the world. We will have given every financial services institution in the world a construct and said to them, “This is how you do it. This is how you take a skill of knowing how to do a merger and acquisition, or how the derivatives market trades. This is how you use those skills directly for purpose.” So that’s the vision. And if I get there then I’m going to have a big bloody lie-down [laughs].

[Laughs]. I suppose there’s been such a journey for you personally and for the business that the next step is about allowing other people to own it.

Yes, and we have just gone through this name change—because what a thing to find that your name’s been taken over by an extremist group. But ISIS was very defined by me. I sat at the centre and have been the face of it even though there’s been so many other people. I’m not taking credit for it all, but it had an Audette shape. Adara is actually being shaped by a much wider group.

The development team—they’re unbelievable, and they know more about development work than I ever would. And the business is now a whole lot of great minds coming together. It’s the first time really in my life when I’ve laid it down in front of people and said, “This is what I’m thinking, what do you think? Can you help me?”

I saw the great Gloria Steinem speak and she said, “Somebody said to me, ‘Will you hand over your torch?’ And I said to them, ‘No, you can light your own torch, I’m going to continue to stand here with mine’.” Which I thought was wonderful! So it’s not quite that I’m handing my torch over. I’m not. But there’s going to be a whole lot more torches shining.

I feel really uplifted speaking to you—hearing this wonderful outlook you have. I want to ask, just because I’m curious, about sadness.

Well, I’ve had my share of grief. I lost my beloved father in a second in an accident. I have been through the sadness of a divorce. I struggled with my health and looked down that big tunnel of, Where is this all going to lead and will I be dead by my brother’s wedding? And every day I’m connected to sadness. But the thing that has always helped me is believing there’s a crack with a sliver of light. When I’m out working with HIV clients in the community, and people are talking about someone who’s just passed away and left their kids, there’s somebody else there who’s taken those kids in. When we went through the terrible time with Dad’s death, people came out of nowhere and wrapped their arms around us and held us up as a family. And as I went through the sadness of saying goodbye to my marriage, friends stood by me quietly. So, you know, against darkness, I see light.

I think I’m very lucky to have that optimistic gene.

Of course I feel pain. But pain is not something that I need to bring to work and lay on the table. So if I’m feeling pain about something, I’m laying it on the table with people who are in my most intimate circle. I’m not sitting at work crying about what’s happening in the world. I’m working… [laughs]… to change it!

Mele-Ane Havea

Mele-Ane comes to Dumbo Feather with a varied background, from corporate law to community and human rights law, with an Oxford MBA thrown in for good measure. At business school and the Skoll Centre for Social entrepreneurship, Mele-Ane became enamoured by the idea of social and responsible business, and the power of story-telling. When not rallying the troops at Dumbo Feather, she works on a number of projects that promote the idea of business as force for good, in particular with the B corporation movement.

 

Britt Campion

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