The Genesis Of My Brand Purpose

Business Consultant, Denyse Whillier

If you’re like me and most of the founders I know, you want far more than just business success. You yearn for purpose and meaning. And this means building a business that contributes to making the world a better place.

Do good, make money and change the world sums up my simple business philosophy. Personal fulfilment and making a positive impact on the world mean something different to each of us. We each have our own unique stories. These stories explain our personal identity and choices and help to clarify our brand purpose.

My own brand purpose has roots in an event that shook British consciousness. The Ethiopian famines of 1983-85. I remember watching Michael Buerk’s report on the BBC evening news about a “biblical famine” in Ethiopia, transfixed and horrified as photographer Mohammed Amin’s apocalyptic images beamed into my living room.

Children standing on legs as thin as matchsticks, wailing from the pain of hunger. Emaciated mothers unable to breastfeed their new-born babies. These images produced one of the most iconic television reports of the late 20th Century, reverberating around the world, shocking and shaming the international community into action.

I was at university at the time, and wrote letters regularly to my friend, Linda who was a teacher in Kenya with the international development charity, Voluntary Services Overseas. In her letters, Linda shared how successive droughts had led to poor harvests, meaning there was little food in the markets. Nothing she wrote prepared me for Michael Buerk’s report.

So powerful was Buerk’s report that, in an era long before the internet and social media, the images went ‘viral’ and were transmitted worldwide by more than 400 television stations. It led to Live Aid, a never-before seen world-wide television event, which transformed modern media.

LIVE AID

Described as the Woodstock of the eighties, Live Aid, the world's biggest rock festival, was organised by Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldof to raise money for famine relief in Africa. Wembley Stadium in London was packed with 72,000 spectators, while JFK Stadium in Philadelphia held 100,000. The event aired to over 1.5 billion people, in 160 countries – the biggest television broadcast ever known.

That day everyone in the UK was glued to the TV.  I watched Live Aid with my boyfriend and his family. Just as we were sitting down to eat, David Bowie introduced a film of starving children, set to the song ‘Drive’ by the Cars.. It was harrowing and there was an embarrassed silence both the Live Aid stadium and our dining room. The incongruity of the event and the tragedy of famine struck home.

KENYA

A month after Live Aid, I flew to Kenya to meet up with my friend Linda, the teacher with VSO, and we spent a month travelling around the country and meeting her friends, aid professionals working for VSO and Peace Corps and students on a gap year studying international development.

I spent time in local schools, talking with students about their hopes and aspirations; I visited their villages and ate lunch with their families. At every turn, I was humbled by the generosity of people who had so little. After one such lunch, I was given the gift of a kiondo (a traditional, handwoven sisal basket) filled to the brim with fruit, vegetables and eggs because I was an ‘honoured guest’. I knew my hosts could ill afford this gift; but I also knew they would be offended if I didn’t accept it with grace.

It was during this trip that I decided to apply to study for an MA in Development Studies.

DEVELOPMENT STUDIES AT LEEDS UNIVERSITY

After graduating from university, I studied for MA in Development Studies, a multidisciplinary Social Sciences course which gave me an understanding of the causes and solutions to the problems of international development.

I wasn’t sure how to use my degree and urgently needed to earn some money. So, I took an entry level management role. Before I knew it, was working my way up the corporate ladder in the health and social care sector, my dreams of working in international development set aside as I forged my career in London.

A DISTRESSING EXPERIENCE OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT

Aged 27, I was in my third managerial role with responsibility for managing a team of forty staff and a large building in South London when I came across a workplace bully in the form of my manager.

In those days, people rarely talked about sex discrimination or harassment. Initially I didn’t have the language to describe what was happening to me. I consulted my trade union and my representative explained that I was the subject of a campaign of bullying and intimidation because I was a woman.

I share the story of how I challenged this harassment in my article: I Saw Myself In Dr Christine Blaisey Ford’s Testimony. This debilitating experience shaped my views on gender inequality, fairness and dignity at work and leadership.

SOUTH AFRICA AND A TOUR OF ROBBEN ISLAND

Like many other students in the ‘80s, I was involved in the campaigns and protests to end apartheid in South Africa. Once democratic elections had taken place, I was keen to see the country for myself. I visited the Cape in 2012 and took a tour of Robben Island (where the white minority government incarcerated its political dissidents).

A former prisoner showed us around and explained the systematic way in which the apartheid government had set about creating a brutal, humiliating and dehumanising regime, intended to break the spirits of its political prisoners. The visit was a powerful lesson in transformation and leadership which I wrote about in What A Tour Of Robben Island Taught Me About Leadership.

THE CEO YEARS

Having worked in a variety of senior management and leadership roles, by 2003, I was ready to take on a Chief Executive position. When it came time to move on, I thought a lot about what would give my career meaning and purpose as I headed toward mid-life. I applied for CEO roles in the international development field. But I quickly realised that these charities wanted a leader who’d had their boots in the field, rather than somebody who’d honed their skills as a CEO.

I concluded there were other ways to pursue my personal passions than through a job and started to think more and more seriously about running my own business.

You’ll find the story of how I started my business here and here.

A CHANCE ENCOUNTER IN INDIA

Over Christmas and New Year 2013/14, I spent four amazing weeks travelling in rural Rajasthan. I planned this trip to mark an inflection point in my life, to give me much-needed time for reflection and reading following a major house refurbishment and move, and preparations to start my business consultancy.

Nelson Mandela had just died, and I thought a lot about my travels in South Africa and tour of Robben Island. General Colin Powell’s remarks at the time about how Mandela’s was ‘a life well-lived’ struck a particular chord. I wanted to create a new model of success and make a difference in the world. The question was how?

I don't think it's possible to visit India and not be changed. India is alternately inspiring, frustrating, thrilling and confounding. The depth of poverty is shocking and the lack of educational opportunities, for rural girls in particular, is appalling.

One of my fellow travelers was Stephen Sparrow, a keen philanthropist and wildlife enthusiast and founder of Snow Leopard Vodka, a company he had set up with the mission of raising funds for snow leopard conservation. (There are estimated to be less than 5,000 snow leopards remaining in the wild and they are classified as “critically endangered”). We talked a lot about his business model, and this got me thinking about my own. I also talked a lot with our tour leader, Jude Halliday, about what it was like to be female and living in rural India.

READING HALF THE SKY

Back from India, I read extensively on development, and researched a number of charities, while I thought about how I could do good, make money and change the world. This led me to a book titled Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity For Women Worldwide. Written by Pulitzer Prize winners, Nick Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, ‘Half the Sky’ captivated me because it offers an insightful, optimistic perspective on why, and how, each of us can and should meet one of the great moral and humanitarian challenges of our times: the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.

DO GOOD, MAKE MONEY, CHANGE THE WORLD

These are a few examples from my personal story which frame my view of the world. My goal is to support to support business owners to start, scale and lead brands that effect positive social change. To build a purpose-led business.

Going forward, I’ll be exploring what it means to me to be a purpose-led business and sharing stories from the brands that inspire me. My hope is these stories will enthuse you too so please do keep me posted by sharing your story in the comments box below.

OVER TO YOU

Question: Do you consider yours a purpose-led business? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share how you’re going to use this in the comments box below.

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