15 minutes with philanthropist, WCNZ Award winner, and 'spy in the enemy camp', Audette Exel

A lot of executives talk the talk when it comes to philanthropy, but Audette Exel actually walks the walk. Winner of a World Class New Zealand Award last night, Idealog managed to wrangle 15 minutes of Exel’s time before the big event, to talk about high finance, big business, and the state of entrepreneurship in New Zealand.

“It’s not really your usual business story,” says Audette Exel, backstage at the World Class New Zealand Awards 2015, where, in a few hours, she’ll be named one of the winners.

She’s right too, it isn’t.  

Former Hong Kong corporate lawyer, managing director of Bermuda Commercial Bank and chairman of the Bermuda Stock Exchange, among other achievements, Exel is neither your typical business-person-turned-philanthropist, nor hippie-turned-corporate-sell-out.

“I’m not a business person who decided to get into philanthropy,” she says in the few moments we get to speak before the ceremony gets underway. “Activism, social justice; that’s always been my passion.”

A self-confessed “spy in the enemy camp”, Exel says her journey may look like a swing from social activist to corporate high-flyer and back again, but isn’t.

“I had been thinking throughout my whole business career about how to use the tools of business and finance to make change. Once I’d been running the bank for a while, I couldn’t help but start to look at the non-profit sector with those eyes.”

So Exel’s passionate advocacy for humanitarian causes in Nepal and Uganda is not a case of her tuning her back on her capitalist allies, and the corporate world in general?

Not at all, says Exel.

“I realised when I was in that environment that I really liked the people I was working with. These capitalists [I was around] actually have deeply held values. What’s more, I liked finance and I was good at it.”

Instead, Exel says she realised she could use the power of big business to make the changes she so desperately wanted to see in the world.

“I realised that I’d never be able to change anything unless I learned about the tools of finance and business,” she says. “That was the ‘aha!’ moment.”

Image: Audette Exel, backstage at the World Class New Zealand Awards 2015, Auckland

Exel says she also realised there was an inherent contradiction at the heart of most non-profits, a contradiction that stops them being truly effective at helping those in need.

“Non-profits are in this dreadful position,” she says. “They have really important, long-term goals, but they’re tied to really capricious donators, people who might donate this year, then donate to an entirely different cause next year, simply based on fashion or their whim.”

“It causes [non-profit organisations] to focus more on appeasing donors than serving their clients. They become great fundraisers when what they’d rather be doing is focusing on actually helping people. That’s the problem with the model.”

“I thought, what if we could take a business and set it up, not for profit, but to generate money for people in need?”

That business is now the Adara Group (following a name change, for obvious reasons, from ISIS), an Australian-based corporate advisory group that channels all of its profits into communities in remote areas in Nepal and Uganda, aiming to improve lives there through health, education and community development projects.

“We’re corporate finance advisors, essentially. We give advice to big banks and corporates on buying and selling each other. We compete at that top, competitive level, but we use that money to provide funding for a non-profit organisation. The business is an investment bank, which charges fees, but with those fees we underpin the financial viability of our non-profit.”

And Exel says that Adara is more than just a good cause. It represents a new paradigm for the way business can be done, and, in fact, a re-evaluation of what a business can actually be.

“Milton Friedman said that a business’s only purpose is to provide return on investment to shareholders. That’s nonsense. A business is just a construct and you can use it for whatever you want. I think people are beginning to see that.”

Not a fan of the Chicago school of economics, then. So what about the opposite side of the coin, high-profile mega-rich philanthropists, such as the Gates’s and Buffetts of the world?

“I think they’re the leaders. They’re creating a paradigm shift around how business leaders think about philanthropy.”

And that’s a school of thought to which Exel subscribes.

“When we first started [Adara Group], the reaction of the business community was very much ‘you can’t be serious’. Even in the non-profit world we were treated with suspicion, but now we’re almost mainstream. That’s a huge change for the business community. Now we’re just a tiny piece of a larger community.”

And just as things are getting interesting, our interview is over. The award ceremony is getting underway, and Exel has an award to go and win.

As she hangs up the phone, I congratulate her on her nomination, and as a final question, ask her if she’s feeling lucky for a win tonight.  

“I’ve been incredibly impressed with the spirit of entrepreneurship in New Zealand,” she says, “so I’m just feeling really honoured and excited to be here.”

“It’s been a wonderful journey for me. I’ve had lot of doors open, so I think I’ve already been incredibly lucky.”