Bringing Ubuntu to a global platform for social change – Paul van Zyl, The Conduit

In bustling Covent Garden in London, Paul van Zyl, originally from South Africa and former Executive Secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and his co-founders, have established The Conduit. This private members’ club is dedicated to uniting the world’s brightest minds in a social enterprise committed to changing the world. In an interview with BizNews, Van Zyl discusses his journey from the TRC, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to co-founding The Conduit. He describes how he embraces the philosophy of Ubuntu and his efforts to introduce this concept to entrepreneurs. Van Zyl explains that The Conduit merges elements of private members’ clubs like Soho House with ideas festivals and business incubators, hosting 200 talks annually on global issues with a solutions-oriented approach. The Conduit boasts a diverse community of 3000 members, including philanthropists, CEOs, activists, and entrepreneurs. Speakers have included Nobel Prize winners and other influential global figures like Malala. The Conduit also operates a sister business functioning as a business incubator. Van Zyl reveals that the Conduit has expanded to Oslo and has plans for New York, Geneva, Copenhagen, and Singapore. They also plan to launch an academy to deliver recorded talks to a wider audience. He comments on the global leadership deficit in addressing the world’s challenges and reflects on his time with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I try to live up to the optimism and leadership principles embodied by Archbishop Tutu, and Nelson Mandela, he says. They demonstrated “a kind of leadership that rises above pettiness and partisanship and thinks above the horizon, not on the things that are immediately in front of them.”  – Linda van Tilburg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:08 – Introductions
  • 00:56 – Paul van Zyl’s history as a former Executive Secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission
  • 02:50 – Co founding an ethical fashion brand
  • 05:45 – The unique concept of the conduit
  • 07:15 – The notable speakers that he’s had
  • 09:41 – The 3000 members
  • 12:39 – On if he’s planning to take this concept further
  • 13:51 – Is it always in a building or is it going digital as well
  • 14:48 – If the world is short of decent leadership
  • 17:52 – Leadership in SA
  • 19:52 – Any rays of light in SA regarding leadership
  • 22:23 – Working with Desmond Tutu and the lessons he left behind
  • 23:56 – Conclusions

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Edited excerpts from the Interview

Early activism led to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

I grew up in South Africa in the 1980s and went to university at a time when it’s difficult to remember, apartheid was still in full force. People were being arrested, assassinated, tortured, and disappeared. I joined the student movements and started working on a campaign to abolish the death penalty and get people off death row. One of the lawyers, Bheki Mlangeni, with whom I had the great privilege of working, was assassinated by a hit squad. I then started working with his mother to pursue truth and justice and was involved in helping to support the setup of the Khulumani Support Group. This led to 3,000 victims across the country gathering together in church basements and community halls, demanding to know what happened to their loved ones. This then led to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Because of my work in this space, I had the great fortune of being appointed the executive secretary. So, I sat on the commission.

Together with the other commissioners and having spent an enormous amount of time with Archbishop Tutu, I participated in a process of having our nation look back, interrogate the past, establish what happened, acknowledge the pain and suffering, but hopefully also allow us to move on having clarified who did what to whom.

The Journey from the TRC to bringing Ubuntu to entrepreneurs at the Conduit

After the Truth Commission concluded, I co-founded a global NGO called the International Centre for Transitional Justice. We worked in 30 countries around the world, assisting governments and civil society organisations in developing policies to deal with the legacy of mass atrocities. I did that for several years, then was chosen as a Young Global Leader and started attending Davos.

I won the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship and spoke at TED and the Aspen Ideas Festival. Suddenly, I was introduced to the world of social entrepreneurs, people who were trying to build businesses that had a double bottom line and were also striving to achieve a positive social outcome. As a result, I established an ethical fashion brand. I learned everything necessary about fashion and business in that particular space. This led me to The Conduit because I began to understand that if you want to create and be an entrepreneur, and try to build a business while also achieving positive social outcomes, you need a whole ecosystem of support. 

You need capital, staff, supply chain assistance, marketing help, board members, and impact measurement. And this amazing notion of Ubuntu, taught to us by Mandela and Tutu, ‘I am because we are’, and the sense that we live in an interconnected world where we have obligations towards each other, and we try to support each other and recognise the humanity in each other.

That’s really what entrepreneurs need. They need Ubuntu. They need this network to succeed because building things is hard. It’s easy to be divisive and to destroy things. Building is harder. So, the idea of The Conduit was really based on the idea of building a home. 

We have a 20,000-square-foot building in the middle of Covent Garden and we gather together people who are investors, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and activists, and provide 200 talks a year so that we focus on solutions, not on the problems and then provide capital so that people can fund those businesses and grow those businesses. We say, ‘Let’s wrap humanity around those businesses so that when you hit a rough patch, or you need a problem solved, or you need an introduction, or you need to rely on a network, you have that network around you.’ And that’s, in essence, what we try to do at The Conduit.

Combining elements of private members clubs, ideas festivals and digital academies 

So, you have incubators and accelerators doing a little bit of what we do. You have private members clubs like Soho House. They do a little bit of what we do. We have ideas festivals like TED, which give you inspirational talks, focusing on solutions, which do a little bit of what we do. You have digital academies like Coursera or Masterclass, which teach people how to do things,  but we try to do that all in one go in a building. We have 3,000 members and we have six floors. If you open up the podcast studio that I’m in right now inside the Conduit and look out the door, there are hundreds of people in the building all working and networking and getting together. So, there’s a very strong community of people doing these activities. We work on climate and sustainability, racial and social equity, economic empowerment, health and wellness, democracy, peace and human rights, and skills learning and education. We take the different areas that we work in and deliver content around that and then gather people around those particular issues.

Golden thread tying big name speakers is finding solutions 

We’ve had about a dozen Nobel Prize winners come to speak. Malala was one of my highlights, a remarkable woman who survived an assassination attempt and has gone on to become a global advocate for girls’ education. Maria Ressa, a Filipina activist, newsmaker, journalist, and editor, has been a real pioneer in the space for freedom of speech. Esther Duflo, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in her book ‘Poor Economics’, is one of the leading exemplars of how you study, how you achieve social equity and economic empowerment for the poorest of the poor at the bottom of the pyramid by actually listening to them, not sitting in Washington or New York or Paris and telling people what they need, but actually getting down on the ground with people and listening to what they need and then doing randomised control trials to figure out what interventions work and what don’t work and then retooling economic policy to cater to the needs of the poor. 

Christiana Amanpour, the legendary CNN anchor, has spoken on a range of our talks. So did James Comey, the former FBI director who had a controversial tenure at the head of the FBI in America and Julia Gillard, the former Australian prime minister who’s been a chair of the Wellcome Trust, one of the largest philanthropies in the world, but also a leading advocate for women’s rights. We have a really interesting melange of people, but our kind of golden thread is, you can’t come to the Conduit and lament the problems that the world has because there are many, and you could give a very, very long talk about the problems the world has. What you have to focus on is framing the problem and then focusing on how you do something about it and what the solutions are.

Discussions on how to mobilise capital for fragile communities that are not a welfare model 

We have the leading philanthropists in the United Kingdom, the heads of the major foundations, the CEOs of the biggest businesses, the heads of the major human rights organisations, the chancellors of important universities and academic departments working on, thinking through some of the most difficult problems. And then hundreds of entrepreneurs who are building out businesses on a daily basis. So, it’s a really wonderful blend. It’s not just the successful and the famous but it’s also young people, activists, researchers, and entrepreneurs. That blend, I think, is what makes it interesting and some of the most fascinating conversations. 

I’ve just walked out of a conversation with Peter Maurer, who is the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, former Swiss foreign minister, and in the room was the head of sustainable finance for Barclays, the head of public policy for Meta, the head of learning for Google, one of the most important people at Julius Baer, the Swiss bank, the head of sustainability at DLA Piper, a global law firm, and the head of Human Rights Watch in the UK.

So, it’s a group of people and everybody’s talking about the humanitarian industry, how to mobilise capital into the most fragile frontier markets to shore up their economic base, create small businesses, address immediate economic needs, but do so in a way that supports economic growth. It isn’t just an aid and a welfare model, but creates dynamic economies in the heart of these communities.

Using capital plus community plus connections to help businesses grow

We put out £25 million in a series of start-up businesses. Those businesses have gone on to raise over £600 million. We always say that it’s not just capital and money that makes a business survive. It’s its business plan, its people, and its execution strategy. So, we provide help around those businesses to whom investment is directed. That’s what I think makes it disproportionately successful. It’s capital plus community plus connections, which I think help businesses grow.

Expansion plans to Oslo, New York, Geneva, Copenhagen and Singapore

We opened in Oslo, and we’re very, very excited. Norway is an exceptional country that punches way above its weight. Just under six million people live in Norway, but it has the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund and plays an important role in conflict resolution, as well as where the Nobel Peace Prize is announced in Oslo. It’s directing an enormous amount of capital towards sustainability and human rights. It’s a start-up nation, and one of the highest levels of trust among citizens exists between Norwegians. So, it’s a very interesting place, and it’s the kind of place where you would think a concept like this would take root and succeed. We’ve had a lot of early success, uptake, and enthusiasm for Conduit Oslo. But, we’re also looking at New York, Geneva, Copenhagen, and Singapore. So, you know, we’re slowly thinking about where this could be rolled out around the world.

Tutus and Mandelas are in short supply in the world, but there are encouraging counterbalancing trends 

If you look at the world today, we are facing a climate crisis and an economic crisis. Our economies are more unevenly distributed and unequal than they’ve ever been, and the ladders of social mobility in many economies are being broken. We’re not transitioning from generational poverty to a generation of wealth. We have a debt crisis, and we’ve just emerged from a pandemic.

We are witnessing the re-emergence of great power conflict. We are experiencing polarisation, massive displacement and migration, and people moving across borders. We are seeing a decline in faith in democracy. It can be quite depressing if you look at the world we live in. 

However, there are also some quite encouraging counterbalancing trends. We are in a golden age of entrepreneurship. We are undertaking the most remarkable innovation that we’ve ever done in human history. AI, if it doesn’t destroy us, is almost certainly going to save us. There is an enormous amount of wealth being created in new industries, such as electric vehicles, solar, wind, new forms of food, batteries, smart grids, molecular biology, and material science.

There is a flow of capital into this space that is fuelling these new, incredibly interesting industries. Young people are more mobilised than they’ve ever been around climate change and injustice. So, we have this demographic wind in our sails pushing us to address these issues more urgently than ever. If we’re going to take on the good forces if you think of the bad forces as the horsemen of the apocalypse,

If you think of the good forces as these kind of benevolent sets of genies in a bottle, if the genies are going to win, then we need good leaders. These leaders have to steer us through choppy waters, help us navigate trade-offs, have an unerring moral compass, and lead us towards things without being distracted by the partisanship, divisiveness, racism, and cheap shots that you see in so much of our politics today.

 So, I think, Tutu had that, Mandela had that and if you cast your eyes around the leaders who are in prominent positions in the world today, those are in short supply. We need to get those people into positions of power, both in corporate life and in political life, as quickly as possible, because if we don’t have them, it’s going to be much harder.

South Africa scored an own goal after the transition

We have a legacy of a system that was a crime against humanity. We’re a couple of decades out of that system, and we were blessed with extraordinary leadership during our transition. However, we scored an own goal. We allowed kleptocrats to pillage and plunder the state, dismantling not just the institutions we all rely on, but also corroding a sense of civic trust and the belief that government is an institution that, while it won’t solve all our problems, would at least be a constructive force in trying to address them.

I believe we desperately need a set of competent, technocratically empowered, honest leaders who level with people, describe problems as they are, and won’t play politics when trying to address the very substantial problems that our country has inherited and must overcome. They also need to recognise our incredible assets, harness those assets, and play to our strengths. I remain a huge optimist about South Africa, but I think we would be dishonest if we said that we hadn’t inflicted wounds on ourselves in recent years.

But, we have incredible civil society leaders, sports figures, important figures in the media who keep us honest, and significant figures in the judiciary and our legal sector. We also have some important business leaders who are showing the way. It’s difficult to be super optimistic about the political realm, but I also think we have to go through this period of transition.

We moved from a quintessentially evil system to a liberation moment where those responsible for our liberation were quite appropriately at the helm of our country’s leadership. Now, we need to dispense with those old dichotomies of leadership and politics. You can’t rely on what you did 30 years ago to say that you are automatically entitled to govern the country going forward. You’re judged by the quality of your leadership and the quality of your delivery.

Those old fault lines need to break down, and we need new political formations based on ideas and promises of delivery, not about fiefdoms, patronage, or who owes what to whom. It’s not about a cheap allocation of resources amongst elites at the very top, but an approach which seeks to genuinely empower people, particularly the most vulnerable. There’s all the potential. Our country is set up to be able to accommodate this kind of politics.

We need to have the political maturity to get there and when we do, I believe our people are remarkable. So, I’m confident that we’ll excel. However, it’s not a very bold statement to say we’re not there yet.

Lessons from Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela

I think I learned two things from Tutu. One was this idea that it’s always darkest before dawn. Even the most terrible, evil, tragic circumstances can lead to positive outcomes if you systematically think about them and apply courage, principles, and morality to tackling problems. So, Tutu was an optimist. He was a man with a wicked sense of humour.

He didn’t let humanity’s faults get him down. Instead, he let humanity’s benevolence and great potential inspire him. I think it’s very hard, especially if you’ve spent time in Mandela’s orbit, not to have formative moments of your life around people like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and not come away humbled by that, not to assimilate a little bit of their kind of adherent optimism and also try to live up to the example. 

We’ll never live up to the example because they’re just heroic figures, but I think trying day by day to achieve the sorts of things that they achieved and showing a kind of leadership that rises above pettiness and partisanship and thinks about the horizon, not just the things that are immediately in front of you, are things that they embodied and taught everybody around them.

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