Valuable Lessons From Leaders Of Purpose-Driven Organizations

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.

As the founder and CEO of an investment and advisory firm based in New York City, I come across business leaders representing companies of all sizes from many different industries. One of my favorite topics of exploration at these meetings is a dialogue about why their company needs to exist besides just making a profit.  The responses range from passionate discussions about solving complex problems in industry, making the world better through innovation, to blank stares with the quizzical ‘what do you mean?’ look.  At our firm, we have a non-negotiable rule, we do not take on an advisory client or make a principal investment unless the leadership of said company can clearly articulate their “Why”.

Our “Why” is to help purpose-driven companies reach their highest potential so screening for purpose provides a great filter to narrow down potential business partnership where we want to focus our limited resources and capital.

So, why do I think purpose is a good filter? Because building a successful purpose-driven business is no accident. It is a deliberate and conscious creation, a product of leadership, powered by the people with whom those leaders work. Whether you employ 50 or 150,000 people, you must create a culture where your extended team can plug into something bigger than themselves and thrive. As a management team, as a CEO or as a leader, you must constantly ask yourself are you serving your employees and contributing to their lives? In other words, you have to do a lot of things right and in my view, that sets such companies up with a higher probability for long-term success.

“Building a successful purpose-driven business is no accident.”

Without a CEO or founder who is purpose-driven in her life, who truly has taken the time to figure out what her ethos is, what she stands for, she can’t have a company that is purpose-driven. So, what do purpose-driven leaders look like? The best way to understand a concept is with some real and tangible examples, so let me share a few examples of business leaders who I happen to know personally who exemplify these traits.

Perhaps one of the most well-known example of this type of purpose-driven leadership is Richard Branson. As the visionary behind the Virgin brand, he has grabbed headlines for decades through approaches once deemed unconventional, but now held up as an ideal by many business leaders, including me. Nothing typifies this more than his foundation Virgin Unite and its work in catalyzing The B team and developing a framework for “Plan B”. An alternative way to conduct business since Plan A of solely focusing on profits is not a sustainable option.

Through reputation, charisma and with a clear purpose, from the outset Richard has drawn in some of the world’s most remarkable business leaders to participate in this cause including convincing Jean Oelwang the former CEO of Virgin Mobile Australia to take on the role of President and Trustee of Virgin Unite.

This is purpose in action on a global scale, aimed at changing the world through business and entrepreneurship, an ideal that certainly inspires our company ASGARD Partners & Co. I’m also very fortunate to be able to call Richard and Jean mentors and have benefited from their counsel with regards to driving better ways of doing business, ways which focus on utilizing business as a force for good. One such example is Virgin Unite’s “100% human at work” initiative.

While Richard and Jean might be taking on this initiative on a global scale there are other passionate and purpose-driven leaders also on this journey and making an impact who are worth mentioning and modeling.

One such leader is Jonathan Keyser CEO of Keyser Co. a commercial real estate firm based in Phoenix Arizona that has been built upon the ethos of selfless service. Jonathan has made clear his and his team’s commitment to a company culture that emphasizes selfless service as a driving premise behind their business strategy. By giving his people a clear purpose, described in the detailed operating principles available for all to see, and a clear mandate to only represent tenants he has made it clear to his people who they are working for, giving them the framework and autonomy required for them to make the right decisions. So, is this experiment working? Keyser Co. is one of the fastest growing companies in Arizona and by any measure is a real success story for building a purpose-driven company.

Clara Bullrich and Laura González-Estéfani, the co-founders of TheVentureCity, are another example of a business leaders who have inspired me with their focus on building a purpose-driven organization built on wanting to make an impact. TheVentureCity is an ecosystem accelerator for tech companies, structured as a city, led by a team that is inspired by a need for transparency, diversity and most of all fairness in that industry. Not only does Clara and Laura’s team nurture these young businesses, guiding their founders along the journey, these ladies also take their skills into their local community, offering free workshops and events and partnering with local educational institutions to teach entrepreneurial skills. Spend even a short amount of time in their office in Miami and you walk away inspired by their vision for serving and mentoring entrepreneurs who want to impact the world.

So what do Richard, Jean, Jonathan, Clara and Laura have in common? Each of them has done the work to figure out what they believe, how they want to show up in this world and what impact they want to have with their respective platforms. With this level of clarity of purpose their respective companies then just become an extension of their personal belief systems and that becomes the North Star that guides their organizations. Clarity is power.

So think about this: what is your purpose? How are you building purpose into your business? When you have the answer, start sharing so we can all continue to learn.

Karan Rai
Karan Rai is Founder and CEO of ASGARD Partners & Co., an investment & advisory firm based in NYC. He loves working with and investing in companies led by inspired entrepreneurs and leaders who are building purpose driven organizations. Karan currently also serves as the CEO of TWI, a supply chain and logistics company based in Switzerland. Karan is a member of The WSJ CEO Council. He earned an MBA with a concentration in Finance and Strategy from Yale University’s School of Management. He is also an instrument rated pilot with over 500 hours of flight time. Karan resides in Manhattan with his wife and two sons.

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