It’s not often we step back and think about the long term. The most you and I have done to contribute to saving the planet basically amounts to recycling. So when I heard about The B Team, founded by Sir Richard Branson and former chairman of Puma Jochen Zeitz, a group of global leaders who have come together to develop new business models that solve social issues and reverse the damage we’re doing to our planet, it certainly made me sit up and take notice.
Kiwi entrepreneur, author, investor and The B Team’s Entrepreneur in Residence is no other than Derek Handley, whose story and insights makes the page stand out with all that he has achieved.
Davina Richards talks to Derek Handley about The B Team and the advantages of being in New Zealand.
While most people delving into the world of business would never have dreamed that they would ever meet Richard Branson, for Derek it was a question of when, not if. So it’s as though he tempted fate when he began reading business books, including those penned by Richard, and started little businesses at school aged 14, to become a successful 36 year old entrepreneur working closely with The Virgin Group mogul.
Derek, who was born in Hong Kong and attended Selwyn College, Victoria University in Wellington, Massey University and MIT’s Sloan School of Management, thought his “correct general direction” was in architecture. “It wasn’t architecture of buildings which drove me to go to architecture school, it was architecture of new ideas, new organisations, whatever that meant. And I knew I had to start as soon as I could which meant just taking a leap,” Derek says.
His first business attempt was an online gambling site called Feverpitch when he was 22 and, like for many wannabe entrepreneurs before him, the game was over before it even began. “Something bad happened and it forced me to do it anyway,” he continues “which you’ll have to read the book to find out about it, it’s only on like page one.” He refers to his memoir Heart to Start which maps his entrepreneurial journey, and I can only assume he’s talking about the time when he was staring down the barrel of bankruptcy after a gamble on the share market.
But the silver lining was his poor business decisions made way for a taste of real entrepreneurialism in 2001 when he co-founded global mobile marketing company The Hyperfactory. He cashed in and sold it to Meredith Corporation in 2010 and went on to invest in mobile advertising tech company Snakk Media.
On the side Derek is an adjunct executive professor at AUT University, chair and co-founder of NZX-listed Snakk Media, a director at Sky Television, a New Zealand Arts Foundation Trustee, and an astronaut-in-waiting at Virgin Galactic. And to top it all off, let me catch my breath, he’s won several awards recognising his success in business including New Zealand Herald Business Leader of the Year, Ernst & Young New Zealand Young Entrepreneur of the Year, PWC Hi-Tech Young Achiever of the Year and named a New Zealand 2011 Leader by the Sir Peter Blake Trust.
Closing the gap
To make any significant impact on the world is to work together and not against each other. So what better way than to place 16 global leaders who have the power and determination to make a difference in one room, and focus on creating a brighter future where the purpose of business is to be a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit; this is what The B Team’s all about.
In 2012 Derek helped create The B Team – a not-for-profit initiative which includes two former prime ministers who have come together to “become a part of the solution to a sustainable and socially fair and just world,” Derek says.
“Business has in the last decade been told that its role is just business. The job of the corporation is to maximise its shareholder wealth, at whatever the cost. The purpose of The B Team is to shift that agenda and re-set it for the century. Its goal is to enlighten or try to inspire other business leaders who are either on the cusp of thinking that way, or want to be thinking that way, to move together in some form of movement as a pack.
“We found these people from all around the world because they were already thinking those things and saying those things in different parts of the world. They’re not all global names, but in their country or their continents they were famous for what they stood for. Some were around corruption, some were on the environment, some were on health and wellbeing, like Arianna Huffington, and some like Richard Branson who are across the board; but in principle businesses need to do more, do better and redefine success in businesses.
“What I learnt the most about The B Team is that they’re just human beings, most often trying to do the best they can not only for their lives, but also for the lives of others.”
Last year The B Team spent time getting to know one another, their roles, what issues they want to address and what issues they would like to work on together. The next logical phase will be to look at how they can scale the movement. The organisation is still taking its baby steps, but Derek suggests that “it’s almost time” for The B Team to blossom.
Tracking back, Derek recalls the moment when he met Richard Branson for the first time. The story goes that as soon as he sold The Hyperfactory he bought a ticket for Virgin Galactic – he is one of 700 people on the list and he’s somewhere in the middle – he went to a cocktail party in New Mexico in 2009 and, obviously, wanted to approach him to at least reach first name basis. He described himself as feeling immensely intimidated and “dysfunctional”.
“A year or two later I met him at the rugby and in December that year went to Necker Island, which is his home and is where some of the galactic customers go twice a year. You spend a week there and get to understand what he’s like.
“He’s a human being who totally integrates health, enjoyment, fun, ideas and business. He’s just a leveller. He levels everybody and you can’t have any ego if you’re in a room with Richard Branson, it just doesn’t work.
“He’s always said he doesn’t understand accounting, jargon and I think, you know, he really doesn’t,” he laughs “so you have to have very simple plain language when you’re talking about something. In today’s day in age we’re trained to spit out jargon and conversations are just a whole collection of things that the average person won’t understand. Let’s just have conversation about what it is you’re trying to do, what is the problem, what are the possibilities, so every interaction is based around human beings talking to each other. This again is another leveller because people use language and ego to try and put people in different places. You just have to be there with humility.”
It was on October 31, 2014, that the Virgin Galactic spaceflight test vehicle crashed in the Mojave Desert, California, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury, and leaving the pilot, Peter Siebold, seriously injured. When asked if the tragedy put him off the idea of going into space, Derek replied, “To try and create space travel available to the masses,
humanity, it’s going to be difficult. The worst thing we can do is bail out because Virgin Galactic needs our faith and commitment as much as it ever has needed it. I think these things are really important and if it’s not people like Richard who are going to try and do it, it won’t happen.”
Small fish, big pond
For many businesses turning ideas into action is a common challenge, a challenge that Derek prefers to approach in a structured, detailed and well thought-out way, to not only help move things forward, but also to pat down unnecessary stress. “The more ideas you have the better. Going through a really rigorous process of creating a very broad set of possibilities is my ethos. I also like to infuse many different thinkers into it, so people who don’t know anything about what you’re doing to people who are very intimately involved with what you’re doing. The more diverse people that look at and test a set of ideas I think the more interesting they can become.”
We may be a small country but we’re doing some mighty big things and its distance,
Derek says, is what helps Kiwis to see different perspectives and achieve their goals. “You’re not in the vortex of bubbles and things that go on in other particular capitals, so New York is the ecosystem of advertising in media, Silicon Valley is start-ups and technology, Hollywood and LA is entertainment, and those worlds for all the good that they have, have a lot of bad because people can’t see outside of their own circles.
“And they actually don’t often even socialise outside of their own circles and it gets very boring and bland in what they talk about, what they say and discuss at social events or any event. They’ve actually created a bubble around themselves that that’s all the people they know, it’s all the things that they know and that’s the only conversations they know how to have.
“I think that by being in New Zealand you can look at things from different angles and the distance is useful at looking at what’s happening over there from a perspective that’s far and not in the midst of it.
“I think we have a more reasonable appreciation for what life is about and what success should be and what the quality of life should be. And the things that the other cities and other communities have lost sight of. So for example, going back to New York again, the whole finance sector is totally oblivious to what it actually means to be happy and what the role of finance is in the world and the damage they have done in the last five to 10 years. I would much rather come from New Zealand than come from some of these other capitals where I think it’s a very 20th century definition of what success should be.”