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Esc Hero #11: ‘Combining communications and development to achieve social change’

Philippa

1. What are you currently doing?

My name is Philippa White. I currently run the Social Enterprise I founded in 2006 called The International Exchange (TIE).

TIE brings together the world of communications and the world of development in order to achieve social change.

In a nutshell, the idea is to find and select communications professionals who currently work in communications companies from developed countries and pair them up with suitable NGOs in developing countries.   And it works.

The professionals are sponsored by their companies and exchange their expertise for a brief but intense period of life-changing personal development.  Everybody wins: sponsoring company, participating professional and the NGO.

For the full picture, go to www.theinternationalexchange.co.uk

2. What did you do before this?

I worked in ‘Ad land’ in London. I started my career in the industry in 2001 at a small ad agency in south London. I then got a job at D’Arcy in 2002, which quickly turned into Leo Burnett.  After a couple of fantastic years there I got a great job at BBH which I enjoyed thoroughly until I left at the end of 2005 when I started the process of setting up TIE.

3. How long have you dreamt of doing what you are doing now?

I came up with the idea for TIE in February of 2005.  So I suppose you could say the seed was planted then and the dream started. But it took a long time for things to come to fruition; it’s taken a lot of dreaming and determination to get to where we are now.

I left my job at the end of 2005 to start researching the initiative and it was only in October and November of 2007 that we had our first clients – Leo Burnett and Wieden & Kennedy.

4. What inspired you to do it?

In September of 2004 my father almost died. He suffered from an aortic dissection; about 4% of people live after experiencing one of these. My father lived.  This got me thinking about life, how fragile and short it is, and how important it is to be happy.

philippa4Then, in October 2004 my uncle from Cape Town died. He was the brother of my father and throughout my childhood had a tremendous impact on my life. He was a doctor but was also really involved in the politics of South Africa. He was a member of the ANC, fought for years against apartheid and was often put in jail after rioting against the government. He made a difference and was a huge inspiration for me during my life.  He believed in what he was doing, and followed his heart his entire life, no matter what stood in his way.

Finally, in February 2005 I went to Brazil on holiday for 3 weeks. I was introduced to a whole new perspective on life. I was surrounded by extreme poverty, yet people were so happy with the little that they had. I had time to separate myself from my London mindset, and was able to digest everything that had happened that previous year.

It was after this trip that I began to seriously think about our industry and my role within it. I knew that I wanted to use the skills that I had developed from advertising, but wanted to use them to make a difference. And I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.  I was also tired of apologizing for working in the industry. Our skills are extremely powerful and we can use them to raise awareness of important issues. We just need an opportunity to do this.

It became obvious that this was something I needed to do and I have not looked back since.

5. From a practical perspective, how did you plan for it?

The first thing I did was sit in front of the computer and write a few short sentences of what the idea was and roughly how it would work.  I then just started writing, and reading, and writing some more.

I wrote numerous pages on the idea, scoured the Internet for similar companies, went to the library, and researched the economics side of things – how the business model would work. I then talked to as many people as I could so that I could start moulding the project into something comprehensible.

I wrote, researched and networked solidly for 9 months (whilst working full time at BBH).  I knew that by the time I left the UK and moved to Brazil to research the developing country side of things I had to have a pretty good idea as to whether or not this project had potential.

I also needed to know that I had enough money to sustain myself, as I knew that I would not have the opportunity to work for money when I arrived in Brazil. Therefore, when my boyfriend and I made the decision to leave in February 2005, we spent the next 9 months saving money to ensure we would be financially stable when in Brazil.

6. How are you funding it?

I funded the first couple of years. I saved money from my time of working in the ad industry, and when I returned to the UK to continue developing things further on that side of the equation in 2006, I freelanced for a year and a half.

In 2006 TIE also received a Level 1 UnLtd award for £5000.  And then, in 2008, Barry Cook, one of the Founders of the ad agency Krow, lent TIE £10,000 to help keep us going.

However, the business model of TIE is this.  TIE is a leadership development opportunity for communication professionals and also helps companies from a retention/moral/recruitment point of view. These companies pay TIE a fee so that their employees can get involved with the initiative.

7. What was the hardest thing about making this happen?

The hardest thing about developing TIE has been the uncertainty – not knowing if this would work.

The other really difficult thing has been the constant concern of running out of money.

philippa6Because I’m based in Brazil it does make things a little harder. There are the daily difficulties of living in a developing country – culture is different, your faced with poverty on a daily basis, it’s not as safe as in London, and our roof leaks and our landlady has no desire to step in and fix the roof.

Finally, it has been quite hard taking the pay cut and seeing all of my colleagues buying their, now, second house, having children and simply having a much more stable life.

I chose to go down this route, but because of the finances and the constant uncertainty of how TIE is developing, it makes these bigger decisions of buying a house and having a family much harder – both logistically and financially.

But, even in the face of all of these challenges, I wouldn’t change my decision for the world. I know we’re onto a very good thing, and that we’re heading in the right direction.  The rest of these hurdles along the way are just small obstacles put there to make us stronger.

8. What has been the best thing about having made this happen?

It started when I first thought about what I wanted to do for a career following my degree at business school.  Everyone around me at business school was going into Investment Banking or Consulting. They were getting huge signing bonuses, and prestigious job titles… but I knew that life wasn’t for me. I thought long and hard what I wanted out of a job.

Having now made it my mission to create an exchange of experiences that make a difference to everyone involved – I just could not be happier. I genuinely would not want to be doing anything else.  I count my lucky stars daily that I am fortunate enough to have exposure to the people I have exposure to.

I meet people running HIV/AIDS organizations, meet people who fight for human rights, meet street children who want a better life for themselves, meet homeless people who pick garbage for a living.  All of them are incredible people who all have their own story to tell – and we’re able to share that story.

And then, I’m able to jump on a plane, fly back to London, meet with my contacts in the ad world, and drum up new business.  My life in London and Brazil couldn’t be more different – and I just love that.  I have managed to get the best of both worlds, and that is without a doubt the best thing that has come about having made this happen.

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9. What advice would you give to other people who want to do something similar?

I recently read a speech written by Steve Jobs from Apple. He said that he had come across this quote when he was 17 and it had stuck with him ever since:

“If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”

He said it had made an impression on him and that since then, for the past 33 years, he has looked in the mirror every morning and asked himself:

“If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today…?”

And whenever the answer had been “No” for too many days in a row, he know he needed to change something.

I believe so strongly in following your heart and that if you put everything you have into your new mission, it will work.   One way or another.  We are only on this planet for a short amount of time, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.  Or by doing something you think you should be doing, rather than doing something you want to be doing.  Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

I read a book by Elizabeth Gilbert where she says:

‘Faith is belief in what you cannot see or prove or touch. Faith is walking face-first and full speed into the dark’

And she couldn’t be more right.  Although taking a risk and following your heart may feel scary, and is full of unknowns, it’s worth it.  It’s never going to be a smooth ride, and you’ll face some of the scariest challenges along the way, but if it’s something that you really want to do, and you believe in it 100%, then you won’t regret it. I know I haven’t. I wouldn’t change what I’ve done for the world

10. What resources have you found really useful?

If you’re wanting to start up your own business, there is a great book called ‘Anyone Can Do It’ and its written by the guys who started Coffee Republic in the UK.

Others that have helped develop TIE are ‘Good Business’ by Giles Gibbons, and ‘Presence’ by Peter Senge. These are more around the areas of Corporate Responsibility, sustainability and leadership development but inspirational books nonetheless.

When it comes to renewing your faith, power, and courage to pursue something, you just can’t beat ‘The Alchemist’. I love reading that book.

If you’re interested in TIE, check us out at www.theinternationalexchange.co.uk or you can follow me on Twitter at philippawhite

  • Hamish

    Great post, I want to do this one day!

  • Anthony

    Great idea! Really well done.