Eugene Booysen – The new challenge for business: Attack corporate antibodies

Eugene Booysen is one of a new breed of bankers, a group who realise that the industry needs to transform dramatically to remain relevant. His Damascene Conversion came after attending Singularity University in Silicon Valley: “I left SA as Eugene and returned as New Gene.” As head of innovation at Barclays Africa he has the challenge of driving new thinking into a 40,000 person enterprise that is full of corporate antibodies ready to attack any suggestion of change. Here’s how he’s going about it. – Alec Hogg    

Barclays Africa’s head of innovation Eugene Booysen – talking to some of the business leaders you invited to come and meet here with Singularity University, their eyes have been opened…

Yes, I think they do that well. They come here and they stimulate the amidata, they show nice and shiny new things. If you look at them initially, you see it as a distraction or you think it can’t be this good. Then you start having the learnings, the reflections, and some of the ‘Aha’ moments coming through. I think everyone here will go through that experience for the next six months. Some of these are going to come back to them with a deeper context around how they can go about using this in their business and achieve their ambitions in Africa.

You had a lot of big business owners and chief executives sitting in the audience. For part of it, they must have been really worried but for another part there is a way they can benefit from this exponential world….

Yes, I think it forces reflection and reflection is a humbling experience. We all start with a lot of orthodoxies and biases around what it is we need to do to improve our business. To get this type of context now, it maybe comes across as a simple proposition. We know it’s hard to shift these businesses, shift the thinking, and shift our staff’s thinking. But I think it’s a starting point. All of them leave here with new anchor points, a new way to go and project, a new way to think about it, and a new way to refine some of those strategies.

It’s business transformation, but I heard a lot about antibodies within organisations – the immune system that kicks back against any change.

Yes, a business is set up to be very similar to the human body. It goes about protecting itself against something that seems strange, seems foreign, and seems like an invader, and reacts against new ideas with the same zeal that we act against bacteria in our bodies. How do you shield that proposition? How do you shield those ideas? How do you allow them to flourish where they create appeal as opposed to looking abstract?

How?

The trick is to do invasion on the edge. Think about it as something that sits slightly outside. People don’t quite know what’s going on. You begin to refine that proposition and eventually, it reaches the point where it’s something they want, something they need and it’s blatantly apparent why it’s desirable. At that point, you begin to introduce the firm to it. What you have is the firm upgrading from the edge rather than you trying to put something into the core.

Steve Jobs and his pirates at Apple come to mind. Talking from a Barclays Africa perspective, what would the edge be for you?

I think the edge is how we look at it. We run a growth unit. We tackle some of our new initiatives in there. It’s where we go and look at those adjacent business opportunities. They may not have anything to do with banking, but it becomes an experimental playground, where we begin to play with and refine ideas. It’s where we’re able to bring in partner networks, which we might not normally work with as a bank. Based on that level of collaboration, you begin to refine businesses and create new domains in which you maybe didn’t think banking could participate. We follow that approach.

What about your Seeker Fund?

The Seeker Fund is a vehicle we set up and it was precisely to guide this thinking. We knew we were working with smaller companies – like a VC (venture capital business). Many of them are searching for capital. It’s scarce for everyone. They had ideas that we liked. They resonated with us and gave us an opportunity to invest in them. More importantly, for them it creates the opportunity that we can be an anchor tenant for their product as they mature that offering. For any type of start-up, those two things are valuable – the initial seed capital and secondly, the opportunity to get a large, corporate anchor tenant.

With Barclays Africa you have millions of clients these new partners could presumably tap into.

Yes, and it de-risks the proposition for us as well. These are the ideas we’re looking to pursue. These are adjacent businesses, which we’re looking to get into. Knowing that we have that level of strategic foresight around where it is we want to go, and then finding partners who share that vision and knowing that we’re potentially going to be an anchor tenant of their product allows us to de-risk some of the equity we’re putting in there. In addition, it allows us to learn with them as they go through the growing pains. The degree of experimentation, failure, and mistakes you have to make is part of the learning process and gives you an edge against other people who haven’t been through that learning.

A number of the Singularity faculty were talking about companies that have an edge by making these investments. Some of them have actually “gotten it” early on. It looks as though you are early in a South African context. How much of an advantage has this been for other organisations internationally?

I think it’s been successful for some of the VC companies out there, but there’s a high failure rate as well. The difference is that some of the corporates (specifically offshore) have begun to realise that by taking this approach to businesses and themselves, not just being a VC in the equation but having the ability to use those services, de-risks the VC proposition much better than if you just do it directly as a venture capitalist. It’s that combination of being both a consumer of, as well as an investor in the product, which solves the problem for you. More importantly, I think the start-ups out there don’t always know what the big problems are, which businesses are facing. You’re therefore able to go out there and project the problems, and allow them to come back with the solutions. To quote Peter Diamandis, “Your biggest problems are your biggest opportunities”. It gives you a network to put your problems out there and get back a diverse level of thinking around how to solve it. More importantly, you’re not just asking one company. You can put out to several companies and you’re able to choose who comes back with the best answers or the best propositions.

One of the business leaders I spoke with was scratching his head. It’s almost like trying to fix something while riding the bike, as he put it. How do you do that? Where do you even start with a big organisation, where you know… you can see the coming threat, but you have to keep the wheels of commerce turning?

It’s a conflict, which most large businesses face. You have a trajectory. You’re going in a certain direction, yet you can see the incumbent threat – what’s potentially coming and what’s going to happen – and it’s hard now to go and tweak those strategies, and convince people to do something different. The bit we all forget is that just like in our personal lives, it’s sometimes hard to be vulnerable, to put that fear out there, and to leverage the power of ‘ask’. Are there other people who may have some answers I don’t know about? Democratising the problems you have within your business is that first step to figuring out how you’re going to solve that. Don’t put yourself in a smart contest with the rest of the world. Rather put the problem out there and see how the rest of the world comes back. I think we’re reaching that point where we’re realising it’s naïve to believe that you can solve all your problems.

You said at your presentation yesterday that you went to Singularity University as Eugene and you came back as ‘New Gene’. What did you mean by that?

I’ve spent almost 24 years in banking and during that time, you grow up with a lot of stereotypes, orthodoxies, and biases around what business is about. We all go through the MBA type of programs – how to think about it. Then you’re given a new dimension in terms of how to look at your business. How do you look at what those opportunities are – opportunities that scale? Not in a linear way, but in an exponential way. Being exposed to all those tools and concepts that you’re just not familiar with, comes across as very overwhelming. You go through this period of reflection and I think those learnings come through to you. Once it happened to me, it was very hard to go back into that type of thinking. You find yourself pushing those edges and more importantly, you find a high tolerance for risk because by understanding/learning better from the future, it de-risks the proposition.

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