Where My Core Values Come From

Business Consultant, Denyse Whillier

On Thursday, 17th October, the veteran congressman and civil rights leader, Elijah Cummings passed away after a long period of ill health. A week later, Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi led tributes to his legacy and the core values that underpinned his life’s work: truth, justice and kindness.

Elijah grew up in a segregated city, and showed his civil rights roots for the first time aged 11 when he and a group of children rallied together to try and integrate a swimming pool in a white area of the city of Baltimore. Stoned and beaten every day for a week, he said that “the experience transformed my entire life.”

The quality of our values is ultimately determined by the source of our beliefs. With his values forged by his experience of segregation and reinforced by the example of his parents, Elijah Cummings was unflinching in his pursuit of his values; to give voice to the voiceless, to defend democracy, and to always reach for higher ground.

Elijah Cummings knew that our core values are a compass or North Star. They enable us to imagine our ideal life and then to create real ways we can achieve it. These guiding principles shape our behaviour and help us to determine whether we’re on the right path or not. Likewise, core values define our companies, describing how we want our business to behave. For example, the shoe company, TOMS, gives away a pair of shoes to a person in need for every pair it sells in an effort to alleviate poverty and make life better for others in the developing world.



I think a lot about my own core values which are rooted in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The Sustainable Development Goals are a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for everybody in order that nobody is left behind. They address the immense global challenges we face in this VUCA world, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice. 

My core values have their 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 the 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 one of my closest friends, Linda, a teacher working 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 Kenya’s markets. Nothing she had written prepared me for Michael Buerk’s landmark broadcast.

So powerful was Buerk’s broadcast 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.


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, myself included, 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 film being shown at teatime and the tragedy of famine struck home.


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 Linda’s 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 equally I knew they would be offended if I didn’t accept it with grace.

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


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.

It was during the course of my studies that I started to learn about why gender equality matters so much; that women’s and girl’s empowerment is essential to expand economic growth and promote social 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 the bright lights of London.

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. For months, I didn’t have the language to describe what was happening to me. Confused and unhappy, I consulted my trade union to explain my experiences. When my representative explained that I was the subject of a campaign of bullying and intimidation because I was a woman, the penny dropped.

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 had a profound influence on my views on gender inequality, fairness and dignity at work and leadership.


By 2003, having worked in a variety of senior management and leadership roles, 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 interest in development than through a job. And I 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.


Like many 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 2005 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. It was also an abject lesson in why peace, justice and inclusivity are integral to a healthy society and functioning democracy.


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 that tour of Robben Island. General Colin Powell’s remarks at the time - about how Mandela’s was ‘a life well-lived’ - struck a deep chord. While my career had been focused on delivering inclusive services that improved the lives of some of the most disenfranchised members of our community, I didn’t feel that I could say mine had truly been ‘a life well-lived.’

I wanted to create a new model of success and make a tangible difference in the world as a business consultant. The question was how? I wasn’t familiar with the concept of purpose-led businesses at the time.

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 travellers 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 how business can be both purpose-led and profitable. I also talked a lot with our tour leader, Jude Halliday, who lived in Rajasthan about what it was like to be female and living in rural India.


Back from India, I read extensively on development, and researched which charities I wanted to support while I thought about how create my own purpose-led business model. 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. Read How Reading Half The Sky Has Inspired Me.


These are a few examples from my personal story which frame my view of the world and inform my core values of fairness, inclusivity, kindness and reaching for the higher ground.

Going forward, my goal is to support to support business owners, particularly female founders, to start, scale and lead brands that effect positive social change. And to build a purpose-led, responsible business of my own. I’ll be exploring what it means to lead a purpose-led business and sharing stories from ethical brands that inspire me. My hope is these stories will enthuse you too.

BTW, if you’d like to book a two-hour intensive business strategy session with me, I’ll donate 50% of my fee to my chosen charities.


Question: What are your core values? 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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