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Virgin Unite CEO: How I harnessed the hidden benefits of career breaks

Virgin Unite CEO Jean Oelwang on how her non-traditional career breaks helped her spot collaboration opportunities to bring the private sector, government and NGOs together to solve urgent world problems.

Jean Oelwang

Jean Oelwang is a believer in “disruptive detours.”

At one point in her first 18-year career starting and leading mobile phone companies around the world, she took a career break to work at the Neon Street Center, a homeless shelter in Chicago, as a Vista volunteer.

Another career break took her to the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife in Australia, where she worked on growing the membership program.

“Those detours helped me find my path,” she says. “At Neon Street, it was so clear to me that business, not-for-profits and government weren’t working effectively together. I realized if you were going to respond to social issues, you needed business to be sitting at that table, alongside government and not-for-profits.”

Today, as president and founding CEO of the entrepreneurial foundation Virgin Unite, Oelwang has made it her mission to act on the lessons of those detours by bringing stakeholders together to create a better world, working closely with Virgin Group founder Richard Branson since she launched the organization in 2003.

“Those detours helped me find my path.”

Virgin Unite does this through global initiatives such as The Elders, a group of independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights; Ocean Unite, a global initiative for ocean conservation, and The B Team, a group of business leaders looking to transcend the idea that profit alone matters.

A good part of this work is focused on “bringing humanity back to the workforce,” Oelwang says. One of the B Team’s initiatives is 100% Human at Work, a collective of companies focused on helping people achieve their highest potential and purpose.

“If 80% of people were doing meaningful work, that would play a significant role in solving some of the problems we’re trying to tackle,” she says.

Building fruitful partnerships

All of these initiatives rely on co-creation with other businesses, organizations and leaders. “In the years I’ve been working with Richard, I don’t think we’ve ever done anything on our own,” Oelwang says.

“The common thread is by bringing together these collections of leaders, we’re upping the ante. We’re dreaming big. It’s audacious, so we can tackle some of the most difficult, intractable, interconnected issues. It’s all built around people having moral courage in their careers.

Oelwang learned the importance of co-creation the hard way, when she first tried to win support for The Elders, on which she and Branson had collaborated with musician Peter Gabriel, and had spent months perfecting a PowerPoint presentation before the meeting where she would present it to luminaries such as former US President Jimmy Carter.

“We brought together an incredible group of entrepreneurs, front-line leaders,” Oelwang recalls. “I remember standing in front of this group, and many of my heroes were sitting in the front of the room. I remember President Carter’s piercing blue eyes looking at me. When I finished presenting, he said, ‘I don’t agree with this idea.’ I saw Peter Gabriel and Richard’s faces falling to the floor.”

“If 80% of people were doing meaningful work, that would play a significant role in solving some of the problems we’re trying to tackle.”

After the meeting, President Carter decided to work with them on refining the idea, and they quickly threw out the PowerPoint. “We really co-created – that’s what came out of those three days,” she says.

“When President Carter retired from the Elders, he stood up at the final cocktail party and said, ‘This is one of the most important things I’ve done in my life.’ The experience, she says, “helped me realize how important it is getting the right voices around the table.”

Experiences like this – and fruitful partnerships with high-profile leaders like Desmond and Leah Tutu and ice-cream entrepreneurs Ben and Jerry sparked Oelwang’s interest in understanding more about the power of collaboration.

She explores the topic in depth in her recently released book Partnering, which looks at 65 successful collaborations around the world and analyzes what made them work. The book asks two key questions: “How do we build deep connections?” and “How do we ladder them up into large-scale collaborations?”

Harnessing joy to avoid burnout

Jean Oelwang and Holly Branson. Image: Kami White

With many big projects on her plate and a travel schedule that has her maintaining dual residences in London and Park City, Utah, in the US, Oelwang says another partnership – her marriage – helps her avoid burnout. Originally from Massachusetts in the US, she is married to Chris Waddell, a champion mono-skier who made history in the Paralympics.

“His support for me has helped me weather any moments when I’m feeling low,” she says. “Being married to me when I’m running and trying to do too much, he can have those honest conversations with me.

“I’m fortunate to do work that keeps the fire alive in my belly. I’ve never woken up and said, ‘Oh my God. I don’t like what I’m doing. I’ve woken up and said, ‘I’ve got too much on my plate and how will I do it all?’”

“I’m fortunate to do work that keeps the fire alive in my belly.”

But that hasn’t stopped Oelwang from moving ahead on her many projects. One that’s captured her imagination in recent months is Planetary Guardians, in which the foundation is working with the Swedish scientist Johan Rockstrom, who, with a team of scientists identified nine planetary boundaries – such as stratospheric ozone — within which humanity can continue to advance and prosper for generations.

In the project, a group of leaders is working to identify the right scientific measures to do that and get them in front of “the right people at the right moment,” Oelwang says. They are also working with identifying the capital needed to support these measures. The goal, she says, “is to prioritize where we should be putting capital.”

As she powers on, Oelwang says she frequently hearkens back to advice that Desmond Tutu once gave: “Joy is a discipline that helps with burnout.” She tries to keep herself conscious of the opportunities around her to bring joy to the people around her.

“One of the people directors from Virgin Group said you have a million moments of interaction where you can make or break the culture,” she says. “I believe that, too, with us as humans. We have millions of interactions.

“We have moments where we can make or break ourselves or the other person. I definitely don’t get it perfect all the time or at all, but being aware of it helps me stay in a place of joy.”

Even if that means taking an occasional detour.

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