Forbes in conversation with Jean Oelwang
This article first appeared on Forbes.com on August 24th, 2022.
The recent Sorenson Impact Summit brought together business leaders working in impact around the theme “Aspiration to Action.” One of our inspiring keynote speakers was Virgin Unite CEO Jean Oelwang.
Jean is the founding CEO and President of Virgin Unite, the independent non-profit foundation of the Virgin Group. Over the last 17 years, she has worked with partners to lead the incubation and start-up of several global initiatives including The Elders, The B Team, The Carbon War Room, Ocean Unite, The Caribbean Climate Smart Accelerator, 100% Human at Work, The Virgin Unite Constellation and The Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship. She is also the cofounder of Plus Wonder and author of the book Partnering.
The conversation below is excerpted from Jean’s keynote speech. In it, she shares why now is the time for us to reinvent our systems, how she knows that people have the capacity to bridge any divide, and what she believes is the key to unlocking our greatest human achievements.
Sorenson Impact Center: As our world grapples with seemingly never-ending existential crises, what motivates you to go to work every day?
Jean Oelwang: I believe right now is one of the most extraordinary times to be alive. It’s as if someone hit a big reset button, and people everywhere are aware that our systems are no longer serving our interconnected world. There is an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to play a role in reimagining and reinventing those systems, but this reimagining is going to demand a level of radical collaboration that none of us can even begin to imagine yet. I believe collaboration has to start with learning how to partner and build deep connections with one another.
SIC: What makes you say it starts with our connections with each other?
JO: I often think of a beautiful Mr. Rogers question: Who has loved you into being? Who has helped you become your best self? As human beings, we often mistakenly think we make ourselves when in reality it’s the people we surround ourselves with who make us who we are in this world.
Over the last 15 years, we’ve had the amazing opportunity to study deep relationships and collaborations. And what’s become clear is that these relationships are the path to a meaningful, long, and healthy life. But what is also really exciting is that we’ve found that these connections are also at the center of most great human achievements.
SIC: Can you share an example of that?
JO: Let’s take protecting the ozone layer. When I speak at events, I often ask if anyone knows who discovered the hole in the ozone layer and who was part of protecting it. This is one of the greatest human achievements and everywhere I ask this question, no one can raise their hand. I believe the reason we can’t raise our hand is that it wasn’t one single superhero like we’d been led to believe it has to be. It was an extraordinary collective of friends.
It all started with these two incredible scientists, Sherwood (“Sherry”) Rowland and Mario Molina. In 1974 in a small lab in California, they discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (or CFCs, which at the time were in everything — deodorant, hairspray, refrigerators) were destroying the ozone layer. Sherry’s wife, Joan, remembers the day he came back home from the discovery. She asked him, “How was work?” And he looked at her and said, “Work is great. But it may just be the end of the world.”
He and Mario felt so passionate about this looming disaster that they immediately published an article in Nature magazine, and they thought the whole world would react. Well, the opposite happened. The $8 billion CFC industry started to attack their character, calling them Russian spies and trying to get their fellow scientists to undermine them. Suddenly, speaking engagements were pulled out from under them, doctorial students stopped coming to their classes. And this didn’t last just for a week or a year. It lasted for a whole decade.
I was fortunate to meet Mario in 2020 before he passed away, and I asked him, “How on earth did you weather this attack on your whole life, your character, your work?” He looked at me, and he said one word: friendship. He said, “Sherry and I were so close that we were never going to stop until the world listened.”
A decade later, three lifelong friends and scientists in the UK proved that there was a hole near the South Pole. That sparked the world to come together to create and implement the Montreal Protocol, one of the greatest collective achievements of humanity. Yet it’s oddly absent from our schools, from our universities, from our companies, from our conversations. Again, I really believe that’s because it doesn’t fit into that perfect superhero mentality.
SIC: So this is one example that helped kick off the research you’ve been working on around collaborations?
JO: Yes, Plus Wonder started to study many other human achievements. Another example is the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Of course, when we think of the end of apartheid, we rightly think of the extraordinary Nelson Mandela. But there is one moment that stands out to me from our experiences exploring this achievement. We were in South Africa, celebrating Mandela’s life about three months after he had passed. We were packed into this tiny white tent, and it was pouring rain so we were soaking wet, but there was this unbelievable electric current of energy in the tent. One after the other, surviving anti-apartheid heroes got up on the rickety stage to pay tribute to this great human being.
What they each said on stage was beautiful, but what was more fascinating to me was what happened when they got off stage — the love and bond between these great leaders was palpable. I turned to one of the family members of these heroes, and I said, “How did they endure the atrocities of apartheid and still remain such deep friends?”
She said for one, they had such a strong sense of purpose that they were never going to stop. But second, she said it was understanding their distinct role in the group. She said any one of them could have been Mandela. But each chose instead the role in the collective where they could make the biggest difference. So you had people like Walter Sisulu, who was the planner, and his wife Albertina, who organized the women’s marches. You had Archbishop Tutu, the rabble-rouser, and his wife, Leah, who was the rock in the community. And then you had the amazing Mandela, who got the audacious goal of ending apartheid out into the world.
At the Rivonia Trial, Mandela stood up and gave a three-hour speech. His words were so courageous because in that courtroom he knew there were two options for him: death or prison. Anytime I’m feeling worried or nervous, I listen to those words from that courtroom. Years later, I met one of my great heroes, George Bizos, one of the lawyers at that trial. I went up to him nervously and said, “Thank you, George, for all you did to end apartheid.” He looked at me and said, “No one does it alone.”
SIC: Why is that message so important right now?
JO: I believe we’ve pushed society so that, almost from the day we’re born, we think we have to be the superhero. We have to get the gold star. We have to be at the top of our class, the top of our companies.
It’s pushing the world into hyper-individualism. I believe this is one of the root causes of many of our complicated problems right now. We have a real opportunity to move from being hyper-individualistic to being hyper-connected and really having a relationship reset in the world.
SIC: Can you share some of the work on this subject you’ve done at Virgin Unite?
JO: Yes, over the years at Virgin Unite working with partners, we’ve built about 18 collections of leaders to drive systemic change in the world.
One of them that started some 17 years ago is called The Elders. They came together to work on behalf of humanity and the planet with no agenda but to fight for peace and human rights. Over the last 17 years I’ve had the opportunity to sit at the feet of these great leaders, and I became fascinated with how they had become who they were in the world. What became clear quickly was that they became who they were because of the people they surrounded themselves with, whether it was their friends, their romantic partners, their organizations, or their business partners.
I became obsessed with two questions: How do we build these incredible deep connections in our lives that allow us to have these outsized legacies of impact? And how do we take those deep connections and friendships and ladder them up to collaborations?
SIC: How are you exploring those questions? How do they inspire you to keep working?
JO: I decided to go to the source and, with a group of friends, we set up a not-for-profit called Plus Wonder and have been conducting interviews with members of more than 65 successful partnerships and collaborations of all kinds — friends, business, romantic, etc. These relationships all have two things in common. One is longevity. And the second is that they use their partnership to make a much bigger difference in the world.
Here is one of the most inspiring stories from the 65 partnerships we’ve interviewed. It’s hard to believe it’s true, but it is. It starts some 20 years ago and centers on two men: Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix. These two people couldn’t have been more different at the time they met: Azim is a Muslim and was an investment banker; Ples is a Christian and, at the time they met, was a Green Beret.
They met in a moment of deep tragedy. Azim’s only son, Tarek, who was 19 years old at the time, was delivering pizzas to make money to pay for university. And Ples’ grandson, Tony, who was 14, was in a gang. As part of a gang initiation, Tony shot and killed Tarek.
At that moment, Azim could have gone into a moment of hatred and bitterness and stepped away, but instead, he did the opposite. He welcomed Ples and his whole family into his home in San Diego. And they sat in that home and they healed together. They forgave. And then what is even more extraordinary is that Azim and Ples built a friendship that they say goes beyond the emotional and cognitive, but is a spiritual connection. They call themselves brothers.
Out of this horrific tragedy, they created the Tarek Khamisa Foundation that they co-lead which works to stop kids from killing kids. When they walk into these high schools, no one can not listen to them after they’ve been through this tragedy and been able to bridge this incredible divide. About two years ago, Tony got out of prison, and the first thing Azim did was to hire him into the foundation, realizing that what happened wasn’t that 14-year-old’s fault. It was society’s fault.
I share this story because first, I wish they didn’t have to do the work they do to stop kids from killing kids. But second, in America right now we are so divided, but we have such an opportunity to come together. Anytime I think that there is something so big or deep we cannot bridge it, I remember these two. If they can bridge this extraordinary divide, we as human beings can bridge anything. And right now there’s an amazing opportunity for each of us to figure out how we can help build those bridges.
If you would like Jean to speak at your next event, email email@example.com.