The Business of Purpose-Led Leadership (episode 1)

Download The AGSM Business of Leadership podcast today on your favourite podcast platform.

In this episode, we explore the business and societal impact of leading with purpose

In today’s accelerated world, it has never been more important for leaders to behave in ways that build trust within their organisations and with stakeholders. As a result, there’s been a surge in interest around purpose-led leadership and how it translates to business.

In this episode, we ask what it means to lead with purpose. We explore how it starts with understanding your own sense of purpose, connecting that to your organisation's mission, and doing everything you can to achieve both.

Host Emma LoRusso is joined by Will Felps, Associate Professor at the UNSW Business School. Will shares key findings from his research into what it means to lead with purpose and how it’s translating to the world of business.

We also hear from Annie Parker, Global Diversity and Inclusion Lead at Microsoft for Startups. Annie shares how defining her personal sense of purpose has shaped her career and made her the leader she is today.

We close out the episode with dynamic duo, Pete Horsley and Alan Jones, founder and entrepreneur in residence at Remarkable – Australia Australia's first disability tech accelerator.


  • Emma Lo Russo, (AGSM MBA Executive 2013), CEO and Co-founder of Digivizer
  • Will Felps, Associate Professor at the UNSW Business School
  • Annie Parker, Global Diversity and Inclusion Lead at Microsoft for Startups
  • Pete Horsley, Founders of the disability tech accelerator, Remarkable.
  • Alan Jones, Entrepreneur in residence at disability tech accelerator, Remarkable.


Emma Lo Russo: Welcome to The Business Of. Brought to you by the Australian Graduate School of Management at UNSW Business School.

In this episode, we explore what it means to lead with purpose in an accelerated world.

Joining me is Will Felps, Associate Professor at the UNSW Business School. Will shares key findings from his research into how businesses can lead with purpose.

I also speak to Annie Parker, Global Diversity and Inclusion Lead at Microsoft for Startups. Annie shares how defining her personal sense of purpose has made her the leader she is today.

Finally, we hear from Pete Horsley, Founder of Remarkable, and Alan Jones, Remarkable’s Entrepreneur in Residence, about creating the mission of Australia's first disability tech accelerator.

First, let’s hear from Will Felps.

Will, welcome to The Business Of.

Will Felps: Thank you.

Emma Lo Russo: So we're going to talk about purpose led leadership, something that lots of people talk about loosely and aggressively talk about, but from an academic's perspective, what is purpose led leadership?

Will Felps: So interestingly, most of the thinking on purpose led leadership has come from the area of consulting. It's a very popular term among consultants, and there's a number of great Harvard Business Review articles about it, and it's actually become very popular to some churches. In academia, we haven't so much used that terminology as we've used different terminology, really because, at least the way I understand purpose led leadership, it really has two different components, and the consultants smush these two components together, and as academics, we, being very pedantic, like to separate out everything into these very different categories.

So part of it is having a singular purpose that guides you and it's about having one goal or principle that directs everything else that you do. And it's related to, having a focused strategic intent. There's another element of purpose led leadership, which is about how do you have individuals who believe that what they're doing matters, that has purpose, that it does something good for the world, and that it, in some ways, drawing on their best self?

Emma Lo Russo: And you've been researching the impact and the consequences of purpose driven leadership. What have you uncovered?

Will Felps: So myself, along with a number of other scholars, have tried to understand in particular the meaning component of to what extent is it valuable to have people believe that what they're doing matters for some higher purpose? And what the research generally shows is that it's a powerful motivator. So the underlying thing that it's contrast against is, for example, the assumption that people are just selfishly motivated by carrots and sticks. And this is based on the purpose led leadership movement and idea, is based on the idea that people care about more than that, that they want to, in Adam Smith's words, not only be loved, but to be lovely, to be worthy of praise, and that if you can show them a way that their actions connect to some higher purpose, they'll do extraordinary things. And this is a kind of untapped reservoir of potential that a lot of organisations miss out on because they may have more sceptical assumptions about what drives people.

Emma Lo Russo: So a leader, is it something that's inherent in them from day one? Or is it something that they can think about and learn to articulate?

Will Felps: So I think it's a mindset that you can change and you can be kind of pessimist or optimist. You can see the glass half full or empty. You can see the ways in which people have a noble purpose or not. And if you buy into the mindset that people want to and will go above and beyond if they believe something that they're doing matters, then as a leader, it then becomes your job to make it clear how do you do that? And a lot of times that involves not necessarily telling people, but helping to draw the link that they already implicitly know, making a connection concrete and vivid that is oftentimes implicit, that what you're doing has some benefit for someone.

Because most of the jobs that exist and most of the organisations that exist are doing something valuable, and it's just about making that clear to people. And that's, I think, a big part of leadership. In academic terms, we sometimes talk about transformational leadership or idealised influence. It's about being inspirational. And the research suggests that this is across cultures one of the best predictors of the extent to which people are seen as successful leaders and the extent to which their followers perform well, is whether or not they call on this idealised influence.

Emma Lo Russo: Which is good, I think, for anyone who's listening to this to recognise. So purpose led leadership, does it come from the top? Or could it come from anywhere in an organisation?

Will Felps: Yeah, that's a great question. And there, I think, is where it sometimes becomes helpful going back to that distinction between the two different elements of purpose of leadership, one being the overarching idea that unifies everything within the organisation. I think that usually is set at the top. When it comes though, to finding meaning in your work, that's something that we can do for ourselves, that we can do for each other, and that leaders oftentimes have a responsibility to do for the people who work for them. So depending on which aspect of purpose led leadership you're talking about really determines the answer.

You can sometimes talk about having a mission statement or purpose statement for yourself. What's your unique knowledge and abilities and passion that is going to allow you to contribute something of real value to the organisation and to the world? So for a lot of people, that's part of the process. It's not only sharing that with others and being a leader, but also even for themselves, why? Why am I doing this? That's what the purpose led leadership movement's all about is asking the why question. Not how are we going to do things or what are we going to do, but what's the underlying bottom line purpose that can drive everything else?

Emma Lo Russo: I don't know if it's a true story, but there's the question asked at the janitor at NASA what his role was, and his job was to put a man on the moon.

Will Felps: Yeah, I love that story. I don't know if it's apocryphal or not, but I love it. I always tell it as if it's true in my classes, because it's so great.

Emma Lo Russo: Is a purpose led organisation only for certain types of organisations or can you find purpose in all organisations?

Will Felps: Yeah, that's a great question. So fair enough that there are probably some jobs and some organisations where it's easier to connect to some higher, more noble purpose. But my sense in working with organisations is that the link to some meaningful outcome, some noble purpose, is oftentimes easier... It's untapped. That oftentimes there is a noble purpose there that people aren't seeing, or at least they're only seeing it in the abstract. There's a great study by Adam Grant, he did a study where there were a number of people raising money at a call centre, I think it was for a charity, and what the company, what he did in this experiment is to inject some meaning into these people's lives. He connected the people at the call centre who were raising money with the people who were the beneficiaries of the charity. I want to say it was something like people who got surgeries in developing countries that help with their cleft palate or something.

Connected them over to the people, the beneficiaries, and it said it was usually transformational for these people where their work went from being trying to get points in a call centre to helping these people in a third world country. So that was a case where there was a meaning there, but they just weren't seeing it, because they weren't connected to the end user, to the customer. So I love that study because it really shows meaning is a surprisingly important motivator for people that's oftentimes untapped.

Emma Lo Russo: What would you say to our listeners, how do they find their purpose? How do they communicate that purpose?

Will Felps: I think whether you're talking about your own personal purpose or the organisation purpose, is oftentimes discovering and getting in contact with something that's usually already there, and it's asking the question, "Why are we, what are we about? And what about our purpose is central, distinctive, and enduring. What's unique about what we're doing that we can do over time, the long term, enduring, and what's really matter, what's important?" And then being ruthless about saying anything that doesn't contribute to that purpose we really need to stop doing, because that's a big part of the purpose led movement is not just doing new things or working harder, but stopping doing things that interfere with the purpose or don't contribute to it.

There's a quote from Mark Twain, where he says, "The two most important days of your life are the day when you're born and the day you find out why." Why was I born? What am I here for? And that's probably also true for an organisation, it's a critical moment in the development of their culture, when they really crystallise for themselves, why are we.

Emma Lo Russo: Will. Thank you so much for joining us today on The Business Of.

Will Felps: Oh, it was such a pleasure, Emma. Thank you.

Emma Lo Russo: It was great to hear Will define what purpose-led leadership really means and how we can use it to drive motivation and intrinsic desire to be at work everyday. Connecting what you do to what your organisation can deliver.

Let’s hear from Annie Parker, Global Diversity and Inclusion Lead at Microsoft for Startups.

Annie, welcome to The Business Of.

Annie Parker: Thank you very much for having me, Emma. It's great to be here.

Emma Lo Russo: So, very excited to be exploring purpose led leadership with you. I feel like from the first minute I have read about you, met you, heard you speak, seen you work, it's been such an integral part of how you inspire others. What's led you to where you are today?

Annie Parker: I would describe my career so far as a series of extraordinary coincidences and luck, and when I say that out loud a lot of people come back to me and say, "Oh, but you make your own luck." There's some truth to that, but also you have to be open to it. You have to be able to see it for yourself. My career started off very sensibly. I worked in management consulting. Please don't hold that against me.

Now, there's a Steve Jobs commencement speech that he did at Stanford many years ago now, where he says something along the lines of, "Your life will only make sense looking backwards. You can very rarely ever see it plotting out in front of you, looking forwards."

He's absolutely right. That really resonated for me when I started looking back at my career. A really important inflection point when after that consulting role, I ended up at O2 in the UK, another telco, and I did a job there for about five or six years. I went up through the ranks and got promoted to different marketing roles and leadership roles, and I was doing really well. I could see this pathway stretching out in front of me of the next promotion and taking on more responsibility and by this stage I'd already got the equivalent of a billion dollar P&L, 15 million customers, and just a lot of pressure came with it.

The part that was missing for me was I couldn't see what I was doing that would actually help the world in some way, shape, or form. Now, my marketing director at that time did actually say, "Don't forget, people use their mobile phones every day to connect, to make important calls." I'm like, "It's a bit of a stretch though, isn't it, love? It's a bit of a stretch to feel the genuine purpose in what I'm doing every day."

And then something important happened where I went on a training programme, it's led by an incredible company called the Oxford Leadership Academy, and what they did was to help us understand the sorts of leader that we wanted to be, and then how that might make sense for O2 and Telefonica. It was a really interesting exercise, one of the first things they got us to do was take a blank sheet of paper and on the horizontal axis, time. On the vertical axis, happiness. And to just plot out all of the major things that have happened in your life so far and kind of go, "Well, did they make you happy? Did they make you unhappy? Or did they make you go, 'Meh?'"

I plotted out my career and the entire five years prior to it just made me go, "Meh." That's not good enough, and then I read out my timeline to a colleague who was on the course as well, I said, "What do you think?" This guy called Pete Williams, by the way. Pete, hi, if you're listening. And Pete goes, "I have absolutely no earthly idea why you work at this company. Everything that you stand for and then everything that you're rewarded for are so completely different. You're awarded for delivering results and revenue targets and customer satisfaction, but actually what you love doing is helping people. I can see that in your timeline."

Sometimes it takes somebody to just say it so bluntly to you that it smacks you around the face metaphorically. Now, it took me, about six or seven months later I filled in the gap of trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life by climbing Kilimanjaro with my dad, my brother, and five friends. I remember we got to the top, we could just see the summit ahead of us, and I could see the signs saying, "Congratulations, you've reached the top."

I thought I would get hit with this wave of adrenalin that would make me sprint to the end, and I didn't. The overwhelming feeling was one of sadness and emptiness, because the thing that had filled my purpose for the last six months, climbing the mountain and getting ready for it, I knew was going to be over, and I knew I had to still go back to the job I didn't love. I did the one thing that I always say to anybody now, who doesn't feel that major driving force and purpose in their job. I quit.

I took my phone out, because there is cell phone coverage at the top of Kili, just in case you were wondering, and I quit. I can't tell you the weight that lifted off my shoulders immediately. Then what happened after that was a series of other conversations. Because I declared to the world, if you like, that I was no longer on that career pathway, lots of people going, "Well, what else are you going to do?" I'm like, "I don't know." We were having conversations about perhaps joining the sales team or HR or other ... And of course, they weren't right, either.

But because I was being offered new opportunities, I got to say no to things. I got to decide and prior to that I didn't have that choice, because it was just assumed that I would keep on the path I was on. I guess the first piece of advice in there is if you're not happy in what you're doing, you need to tell the world. You need to tell your colleagues and your company and your friends and your family, because if you don't explain it and say it explicitly, how will they know? And then the second part of that I guess is that you need to be in charge of your own destiny.

You need to choose those pathways for yourself, and the interesting point was after about six or seven months of trying to figure out what was going to come next, the right thing did come along. I joined the startup accelerator programme that Telefonica had just invested in, but again, that opportunity wouldn't have come if I hadn't declared I wanted something different. And then that changed everything for me. I moved from a role where it was very corporate and very sensible to the world of startups, and innovation, and that was 10 years ago.. I look back at that moment on Kilimanjaro and I know that it changed the rest of my path, but I had to choose it.

Emma Lo Russo: And did you know that startups was going to give you that sense of fulfilment?

Annie Parker: Not really, no. Because one of the things, and you'll know this as well, Emma, because I know you work a lot with early stage companies and founders around the world, ... It's addictive, by the way. Once you start. The addictive part comes from you can see your help actually helping in front of your very eyes. It's not some 457 page PowerPoint deck that you send off somewhere and then you go, "I wonder if anyone's ever going to read that." It's a genuine, purpose driven conversation of the help that you can give, even if it's just a small thing of, "Hey, I tried that, it didn't work. Do it like this."

You're passing on your experience and you're passing on your mistakes so that others don't need to make them, as well. Or, it could be opening up the door of a connection or just giving them a bit more confidence to keep going when it gets a little bit hard. For me, it's that whole thing of you can see your help helping and geeze, that's so motivating to want to keep doing it.

Emma Lo Russo: Certainly for all the time that I've known you, but this diversity, inclusion, empowerment of women, but more about creating that opportunity, right?

Annie Parker: Yeah.

Emma Lo Russo: How has that played in, and particularly to your role today, right?

Annie Parker: It's a great question and I think it's one of the things that ... I sit in one sense, within technology, as a woman in technology, which puts me in the I'm a diverse person. But I'm not, really. Because I'm white, I come from a middle class family, I had a very good upbringing and access to education and healthcare and lots of other things that put me way ahead of the pack when I compare myself to people of colour, people with disability, people from other under-represented backgrounds.

There's two ways that I like to describe this. The first is the really positive way, which is talent is equally distributed and opportunity is not. I firmly believe that technology has an incredible opportunity to level that playing field, but then the other way that I look at it is I have overwhelming privilege. It's up to me to use that wisely. A mutual friend of ours often uses the analogy of in the past, perhaps we've been told, "If you've been given a help on the rung up a ladder, it's up to you to turn back and put the ladder back down for somebody else."

One of our good friends, Kirstin Ferguson, would say, "No, no. Don't use a ladder. Use a massive net. Throw that net down, bring as many people up with you as possible." I love that analogy, because it shouldn't just be a one on one thing. It should be one to many. Technology can do that. Our communities can do that, our networks can do that. When you go and speak to perhaps women of colour or people with a disability, who have got incredible ideas for businesses, the fact that they don't get to have the conversations with investors or customers because they just don't have those networks.

Well, we have them. We can provide that connectivity and if you think about the speed at which we can effect change as a result of doing that, I find that massively empowering and motivating, because we get to leave the world a little bit better than when we found it.

Emma Lo Russo: And you've done this through many initiatives, like the hackathons and really looking after the vulnerable and those that aren't represented. And today you're now working at Microsoft in a very purpose led organisation, with Satya Nadella in particular, really driving a lot of change and growth and transformation with values and purpose at its heart. How have you ended back in a corporate and how does that align?

Annie Parker: You know when I said at the beginning that life is, or my career path has been a series of extraordinary coincidences? My boss at Telstra, a lady called Charlotte Yarkoni, incredible woman, she was leading all of the software acquisitions and investments at Telstra at the time. We ended up investing some money and building a startup accelerator because an awful lot of the companies that she was putting forward to invest in or acquire were all from the US, and the question was, "Where are all the Aussie founders?"

And she went, "Well, I hear more Aussie accents in Silicon Valley talking about innovation than I do here." So that was the reason and the purpose behind starting the startup programme for Telstra. She moved back to the US, gosh, probably three and a half years ago now. And was looking to go into another interesting role. She ended up at Microsoft and after about a year, she and I had a conversation and she said, "We're looking for somebody to join the team to look at how we support startups and innovation."

I joined Microsoft two and a half years ago, and I count myself incredibly lucky that a connection in my past has been so influential on what I've now been able to do at Microsoft. In the last six months, my role has shifted from being less about the standard offerings and programmes that we put out into market, and now to actually look at each of those offerings and say, "Do they and will they resonate for people from under-represented backgrounds?"

I'll give you an example, right? We have an offer out there which is for Series A and B scale or status startups. These are companies that have already raised significant funding. They have revenue, they have customers. Now, just by that definition in and of itself, we are looking at an incredibly small audience of women, an incredibly smaller audience of other under-represented groups, because the nature of the industry of startup right now is that only 2 per cent of funding goes to women led companies.

By definition, if we're looking at companies that have already been funded, it's going to be overwhelmingly white and male, so we had to take an honest look at our own offers, and say, "By definition, the way that we've designed them is not equitable." That's what we're trying to do now, is to go back and look at everything that we have, to say, "Is this designed fair and equitably for other under-represented audiences?" Right now I'm working on a pilot, I'm super excited about it.

We've spoken to around about 45 women around the world, of which you were one of them, Emma, and we wanted to speak to current founders and women who have the profile of becoming a founder in the future, to ask them what is it that you would do differently if you were in the current founder group? And what is it that's holding you back, if you're the profile of a future founder? It was interesting, because the two key insights that we got from that conversation, from current founders, the overwhelming feedback was, "I wish I'd started sooner."

And then from the future founder audience, the feedback was, "I'm not ready yet." So, you've got these two tension points at the same thread, so how do we bring those two ends of the thread closer together? How do we get women who have the skills and the experience and the brilliant ideas to start sooner? And how do we give them the confidence to know that they don't need to have 100 per cent of everything in place to take that leap of faith?

We've built a 12 week online training course with lots and lots of great mentors, curriculum, the whole ... And really the intention of this training course is to get women by the end of the 12 weeks, to know that they don't need to be perfect to start. To know that they don't have to have everything in place before they can take that leap of faith. And then of course to connect them to other women like yourself who've been around the block a few times and can share some of those skills and experiences, and also the inspiration and motivation to keep going.

So, I'm really excited about that. It's going to be really interesting to see whether or not that does solve the problem. But that's one of the other things that I've learned in my 10 or so years in startup land. Not every idea is actually going to solve for the problem that you're trying to solve for, and you need to be open to making those mistakes and a failure is only a failure if you don't learn from it.

Emma Lo Russo: You talked about it when you were sharing your career journey, there was the point where you were on the path, the expected path, and then this "Ah-huh" moment that you don't have to be on the path. You can start dictating your own path. How do you define your leadership today to get to those outcomes?

Annie Parker: The first thing I would say is I'm a very honest leader, so when I'm walking into an organisation, I don't go in with my size 12 boots on and tell everybody what to go do. I don't have all of the answers, and I never have, and I recognise that I do my best work when I collaborate with lots of different parts of an organisation to take the best insights and the most useful feedback. And frankly, this is not going to be massively rocket science in terms of a statement, but listen to your customers. If your customer is an internal customer in the organisation, go spend time with them.

What you have to be open minded to is that the first idea you come up with may not be the one that ends up working. It could be, you could be really lucky and you've hit on gold dust from day one, and congratulations if you do, because that's never happened for me.

So, if you include as many people as you can along the way and show that you're listening and show that you're taking in the feedback, you just earn their trust and

You earn the right to keep going, and it's okay to be human and say, "I made a mistake" or to ask for help. Those things are completely normal. Then I think the final one really is never throw anyone under the bus. The part that often times happens when we make mistakes is that we try and find a way for the blame to perhaps be put on a different department, or on a process, or a person. I don't do that. I never do that, and I would never do that in a million years.

Part of it is because I know at some point it's going to come back and bite me. I may as well deal with the situation right now and take the pain upfront, rather than wait for it to come and get me later on down the line. But also I just wouldn't be able to sleep at night. I need to be able to put my head down on my pillow in the evening and go, "Did I do the best I could do today? And ultimately, will my parents be proud of me? Did I do things they would be proud of?" If the answer to that question is yes, even if I've made a few mistakes along the way, I can still sleep. If I didn't, and I wasn't honest, and I didn't do the right thing, yeah, I wouldn't be able to sleep at all.

Emma Lo Russo: I mean, you touched on so many things there, but values is clearly needs to be aligned to that purpose, to have that harmony, as you say. I know just working on the basis that everyone's smart and doing the best job they can, if you start there, then you shouldn't be throwing anyone under a bus, right?

Annie Parker: Yep.

Emma Lo Russo: Is this different, Annie, because you've had that exposure from startups to ... I mean, even from a consulting, you said from the consulting days, but in corporate, does it change where and who you need to focus on to bring about that change?

Annie Parker: I do see big differences between startups and corporates. I mean, with a startup it's much easier to move faster and to try new things, because there's very few things holding you back here. There's no cultural memory or one of the phrases that I hate the most is, "We tried that before and it didn't work." Because it's super unhelpful. It's the metaphorical door slamming in your face of innovation, because it's like, "Yeah, we tried it before. It didn't work."

"Great. Can you tell me how you tried it before? Can you tell me why it didn't work?" One of my often used rules is no complaint without recommendation. Don't complain about something and tell me it won't work. Tell me what we could do differently. If you switch a person's phraseology from that, from the former to the latter, you can start to open up their mind to possibilities rather than reasons why something won't work. Because of that lack of cultural memory, because you're a startup, often times it does free people's brainpower up, to just think about possibility first, rather than the reasons why something hasn't worked in the past.

That's the first thing. The second thing is typically when you're a startup, you have recruited people for the very purpose of what you're trying to achieve, i.e. the vision, the crazy dream, not, "Please can you deliver some results this quarter?" Which typically I often find the targeting and the objectives that you get given in a startup company versus a corporate are really very different kettles of fish, as a result. Now, the thing that corporates do much better than startups is of course process.

The part that startups often fall down on is they're so committed to the long term vision that they forget that actually managing cash flow in the near future is damn important. Because if you haven't got enough cash to keep going, doesn't matter how big and crazy and awesome your dream is, and it doesn't matter how incredible the technology is if you don't have customers. Some of the things that corporates do really, really well that startups need to learn from are those things of process and accountability and making sure that you are looking at the next quarter and six months to earn you the right to keep going.

I think the two sides of the conversation do need to learn from each other, but when it comes to effecting great cultural change, again, you've got two sides of the same coin. A startup doesn't have the same reach, doesn't have the same potential influence right now, but they have got some really amazing innovative technology that could genuinely shift the world. Whereas the corporate has got the influence, has got the reach, but perhaps doesn't yet have the tech yet because it hasn't made those crazy innovations.

The interesting part about that is the opportunity for both sides to work together to actually do that and partner. Which I know that you do with Digivizer and a lot of the companies out there that I work with. That's I think where this beautiful meshing between the two can happen, where you bring in the earlier straight company that's got a crazy, awesome piece of innovation. You couple that with a larger organisation that has the reach, and actually both sides get to win.

Emma Lo Russo: I mean, I'm so glad you touched on that, because one of the things we explore is that how do you do good and do well? How do you stay in the game? Which is often the startup thing, right? How do you stay in the game to be able to achieve our goals? I think for corporates, having worked there, too, it's the challenge of, "I have these short term result pressures but I need to actually care about what our customers think about."

You really have championed diversity and inclusion and that's part of your personal values and it's been part of the purpose, including what you're doing today, for Microsoft. What do you hope of organisations? How are they going to get this right? What are the changes, or what can we as individual leaders be thinking about to get that outcome?

Annie Parker: I want for this to move from a conversation of the tick box exercise, through to meaningful programmes and outcomes. An example would be diversity is not complete if you have one person in your team who comes from an under-represented background. We need diversity of race, colour, creed, socioeconomic background, experience in the world, country that you might come from, disability, language, all of the different things. Because this is something that we have drilled into us at Microsoft. You cannot serve the world if you don't represent the world.

By the way, there's a reason why my role title is equity and inclusion lead, and not diversity and inclusion lead. Because I think diversity is a little bit of a cop out. The way that often times companies talk about it by saying, "We have a diverse workforce" when they actually just mean they have some white women on their leadership team. That's not diversity. That's just, like I say, the tick box exercise.

But then also it needs to go into how you think about designing your product, how you show up in the world, as well.. One of the women that works with Microsoft in our developer relations team, she said, "I was so surprised when I turned up to Microsoft. Not least because on our induction training day," on the first day she was at the company, she goes to that session, and there's a webpage or a slide up on the screen at the front. She said, "It's the first time I've been at a large corporate where I saw a face that looked like mine on the front page of the introduction deck."

She meant there was a black woman. Not just a woman, a black woman. I always say this is so important. Representation matters, how you show up in the world matters. The words you use matter. The way you design your product matters. The more that we take that onboard to recognise that upfront and to not let out a product if it isn't accessible for people with a disability, for example, that shouldn't be allowed. There's billions of people out there who have difficulty reading. If you think about even just the simple thing of closed captions that we now have on all of the videos on social media, closed captions were obviously built for people with disability, but we use them all the time now for everybody, because we recognise that actually it's super helpful for everyone.

That universal design principle there of we solved a problem for a specific niche, but actually it's helpful for everybody. By being inclusive about how we design our products and services, and making sure that they are accessible and equitable, we actually end up serving more audiences anyway. I firmly believe that if we all took more responsibility for that upfront, and particularly in large organisations where we do get to have more of an impact around the world, it's just something that we all need to put upfront, rather than it's an add-on or a tick box. I wish more of that happened.

Emma Lo Russo: No, I think that was a good challenge to our listeners, Annie, to make it real, and to reflect on what we do. So, if we look to the future, Annie, what does that look like for you in particular?

Annie Parker: I have no idea. I've absolutely no idea, and I'm okay with that. I've given up trying to plan where will I be in the next 5 or 10 years. I have bought a house in Australia, so I hope I'm still there. The other thing I would probably say is I hope I still get to do work with incredible founders who are changing the world for the better. I see that as being something that it's not just I enjoy it, it's part of my purpose, but it is also what I believe is incumbent upon me to do, because of my position of privilege.

I want us to learn more about diverse groups and organisations. I'm learning every day about Black Lives Matter, about what that translates to for Australia, on how we support indigenous people across the country of which we don't do a great job of that right now.

A friend of mine, she's called Mikaela Jade, incredible indigenous woman, building a great company called Indigital. She talks about how why would you not want to speak to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders? Because they are the original inventors. They are absolutely the original innovators, so there is 60-70,000 plus years worth of insight and knowledge there that we haven't yet tapped into. Imagine the possibility of that. Imagine if we were to marry up that insight to technology and to wealth and opportunity. Wouldn't that be an incredible outcome?

Emma Lo Russo: Absolutely. I am a big champion and believe we can all do more there, Annie. I think you've shown a lot of courage in the way that you speak, certainly humility. . I want to thank you very, very much for your time today on The Business Of. You've given us leaders plenty of food for thought and certainly inspiration and a real just make it happen, take responsibility. Thank you so much.

Annie Parker: You're most welcome.

Emma Lo Russo: I could honestly talk to Annie all day. Her belief that the best leaders listen more than they speak and put the insights and feedback shared by their people into action really resonated with me. I’m sure it’s something that we all could do more of.

With 1.3 billion people in the world living with a disability it represents a huge market with unique needs and opportunities. My next guests, Pete Horsley and Alan Jones of Remarkable, share their mission to accelerate technology to build social and economic inclusion of people living with a disability.

So, Pete and Alan, welcome to The Business Of.. I've had the privilege of seeing Remarkable, and the work that you've been doing first-hand, and up close. So, for the listeners benefit, do you want to perhaps start, Pete? Where did Remarkable come from, in terms of the idea, and then, tell us what it stands for, and where you are today.

Pete Horsley: Yeah thanks, Emma. Like all these things, I guess, Remarkable came from a couple of different influences. One of those was, we ran a global competition back in 2012, asking people with disability, "What's one thing that would change your world?" It was like a global challenge, type event. And we had someone by the name of Alpa, who was living in a small country town in Turkey, who said, the thing that would change his world, would be if someone could create a solar-powered wheelchair. And we put that out to the worldwide maker community. Had some expressions of interest from people. And we had University of Virginia, actually put up their hand, and said that they'd make a solar-powered wheelchair.

It is, to this day, probably still one of the ugliest prototypes, I think, I've ever seen. It's a couple of solar panels on top of a powered wheelchair, but it worked. That was the interesting thing, it worked. And when we finished that, they sent the prototype over to Alpa. And, within a few days he had said that he was able to travel to the temple that he wanted to worship at. And a few weeks later he said, "I've got a part-time job in town, now that I can get in there." And these were barriers to inclusion, that were being broken down through technology.

And probably, the second influence was running hackathons. And we could see the role that having user-centred design, and having people with disability involved in design, was creating some great opportunities. But, they weren't going on to commercialization. We weren't getting technology into the hands of people with disability. And so, for us, we really wanted to support that development of those products and services, and that was really how Remarkable was born.

Emma Lo Russo: So, how would you define the purpose of Remarkable, and how has it evolved, to the programmes that you're running today?

Pete Horsley: Yeah so, Remarkable's Australia's first disability tech accelerator, and we support early stage startups. Breaking down those barriers to inclusion. And we see technology as one means to do that. So, our mission really is to make sure that, eventually, this technology doesn't have to be remarkable. That this kind of technology is actually just the regular way that all technology, and all services are created. That they're created, considering the needs of all users, not just some that have certain access abilities.

So, for us, our mission probably has continued to sharpen, over time. It's sharpened around that inclusion mindset. It's sharpened around ensuring that we have users at the centre of that. And, we as a team, I think, are still learning in this process as well. It's an ever evolving, learning process for all of us.

Emma Lo Russo: So maybe, it would be good, Alan, to understand your role as the entrepreneur in residence, for the Remarkable programme. What does the startup accelerator look like, and your role in helping Pete, and the team bringing this to life?

Alan Jones: So, if you can imagine, there must be so many people out there in the Australian community, today, who are aware of a problem, and have an idea about how you might solve that, using technology. But, that's not yet what they get to do all day. Or even, very often, not at all. Maybe they think about it when they're in the shower, or out having a walk. But, they need a couple of things.

So, one thing that they need is, they need some external validation that, perhaps, this might be an idea to take seriously. To put some more commitment into it. So, that's one of the values that we provide. We're good at picking great technologists, and great entrepreneurs, and so, we can say, "Yes, you should take this seriously. You should work on it." The second thing that, I think, that we provide is, the reason why accelerator programmes are called accelerator programmes is that they accelerate you. They accelerate you, and your business.

So, you as a professional, we help you with your productivity, your work-life balance, your goals, your teamwork, your output, your communication style. And we help prepare you if you're going to be a bootstrap company, for how to manage that financial process. And, if you're going to be looking to raise investment for your business, we'll help you understand whether or not you have a business that's suitable for that, and then, we'll help you raise.

And then, I think, the third most important part of accelerating a startup is by saying, "You don't have forever." This opportunity, if now is the time, is not going to be the time forever. So how do we make sure that you actually get to market as soon as possible, without failing. So how we do that is, basically, we have an end date. So an accelerator programme goes from here to here, and along the way there will be a few challenging exercises and goals, that we'll work with you, to try and achieve.

Emma Lo Russo: And, how many businesses have gone through the programmes now?

Pete Horsley: Yeah, we've had 32 startups come through the accelerator so far, over five different cohorts.

Emma Lo Russo: And I have to ask you, because having watched now, most of your cohorts go through, and seeing them early, and then, when they do their final pitches, you want to help every business. Because there's such a need there. What do you look for, and which ones have gone through, and actually been successful? What are the characteristics when you're looking at this? Because the importance is so great, it would be hard to almost let anyone be left behind.

Alan Jones: So, there's many different dimensions to what might make a potentially successful startup, and an interesting startup for us to work with. So, a lot of startups are taking a traditional business process, or a problem and solution set, and pretty much just delivering the same sort of solution to the same sort of problem. But maybe just using technology as a way to market more cost effectively, to a bigger potential market of customers. And so, that might be a pretty robust business, potentially, and that might be useful.

But, I guess, on the other end of the scale, there might be companies developing, using existing technologies, or inventing new technologies, that might just very much disrupt, change the economics, change the potential opportunity, change the value of the solution, by a 10X or greater degree. And in a perfect world, those are the kinds of companies that we're very inspired to work with. I guess, the other thing is, high potential entrepreneurs. I think everybody that sets out on an entrepreneurial journey hopes that they will be a high potential entrepreneur. And part of our role is to help them with that. Is to help them develop some self-awareness around their strengths and weaknesses. Because somebody can be successful for a couple of decades, and still have some real blind spots, or some weakness, that they rely on other team members to fill.

So, we want to be able to work with that person in those areas, and make them much, much more valuable again. In other cases, perhaps, somebody set aside a period of time to work on their startup idea, "I'll take a couple of years off from my career, and work on this startup." And so, we might be working with them, very intensely, for a period of a couple of years, perhaps. And it's succeed or fail, and then, if it doesn't work out, you go back to your day job.

Pete Horsley: And, I think, Emma, to your point, it is really hard choosing these, because each of them are setting out to achieve something that's aspirational. And it is, as you say, it's the kind of change that we want to see in the world. And so, we have to listen to our customers. We have to hear from them, and for them to say what's important to them, what's the highest priority. We look for that thing, that what is remarkable about them? Has anyone actually tried this before? And, if it's not necessarily blazing a new trail, then we might look at something else, that pushes the whole sector forward.

Emma Lo Russo: How important is that ecosystem that you bring?

Alan Jones: I think really, the bravest people in the disability tech sector in Australia, were the people in that first cohort of the Remarkable programme. Because they had no role models to follow on from. And so, with each additional cohort that we add to our alumni base, there are more and more role models, examples of success, for people to look at and think, "Well, that might be me. I might be able to get to there." And so, the importance of an alumni network that stays connected with each cohort, and tries to help, and makes connections, and gives coaching and guidance, that's a really significant part of the value of a good accelerator programme.

Pete Horsley: Yeah, I think, one of our most valuable assets is, obviously, our time. And if we can use that mentor community to be able to allow them to make best use of their time, then we're aiding them to get to that impact, faster. We have a common saying, and the whole thing of, "It takes a village to raise a child." And we say, "It takes a village to raise a startup as well." And each of them are propelling them on forward. And some of it is just around being a great cheer squad as well. There's so many doubts that come into the minds of founders. And so, to have a group of people say, "I believe in what you're doing. I'm behind you. I'm with you." That's an incredibly validating, and incredibly powerful thing as well.

Emma Lo Russo: So, I mean, it's probably obvious to understand the benefit to the customers of the startups that you're helping, and to the businesses themselves. What about those corporates?

Pete Horsley: Lots of corporates that we talk to, who are involved in Remarkable, are saying that they want to do something that has purpose. They want to do something that has an impact, that is delivering more than just shareholder value.

They learn that some of the models that startups use, can be applied to their own business unit, or their own work, themselves. So, they do talk about the two-way benefit of this. The access to the impact, and being part of that impact, is incredibly important to their values. But then, there's some really pragmatic, and practical things that they get from it as well.

Alan Jones: Every organisational culture is different, but you do see the larger the organisation, the older the organisation, the more it drifts away from the desire for opportunity, and more towards avoidance of risk. And in startups, it's all about desire for opportunity, because there's very little to risk. There's almost nothing to lose. The inspiring thing, I think, for a lot of people in the corporate environment, is to be reminded, to be refreshed, that risk and opportunity, perhaps, might not always be entirely connected.

If you dial up the opportunity lever, you don't necessarily, at the same time, dial up the risk opportunity.

Pete Horsley: Just to add one more thing, if I might, Emma, as well. Lots of corporate organisations have an incredible search for talent. So talent is one of the number one kind of things they need to keep an eye on. And, the area of disability is an area that has been completely overlooked, in terms of the amount of talent that's actually in that community. And so, I think, that there is another benefit that can come, as you meet people within our community, that do have lived experience of disability, that they're almost discovering a bit of a gold mine of other talent, that exists there as well.

Emma Lo Russo: Do you think awareness is stronger today, in terms of the disability space, and what true equality, and accessibility means? Do you think there's genuine change happening? How fast is it? Is it better today than it was last year? Where are we in the scale of where you'd love to see it get to?

Pete Horsley: Yeah look, I do think that there is change happening. And we, as a sector, I guess, we're standing on the shoulders of the giants that have come before us in areas like racial justice, and the rights of women, and LGBTQ. So, I think that there is a more general push, overall, towards greater levels of inclusion.

I think, particularly in Australia, with things like the area of social policy that we've had around the National Disability Insurance Scheme, that is certainly bringing this more into the public attention, and more onto the public agenda than we've probably had it before. And it's allowing people with disability to be a bit more spokespeople about their own rights. Because, previously, they just had to be grateful for the things that they could get. And now, they're given the right to have the resources that they need. And that enables them to go, "Well, hang on. It isn't all the ways that I'd like to see this. There are some things that still need to change."

So, I do think that technology is just one of the pathways there. But, we're starting to see some really exciting changes happening in that.

Emma Lo Russo: You touched on, earlier, the move for corporates. And it's consumer and employee led, right? The desire to work for organisations that are more purpose-led. What do you think a purpose-led organisation looks like?

Alan Jones: It's been a difficult year, I guess, really, for the economy as a whole. And for large organisations that we would all have considered too big to fail, have been really threatened by the economic changes in this year. And so, on the one hand, it's been a tremendously destructive force. It's created massive unemployment, on a remarkable scale. And it's caused a lot of social, and business, and economic harm to the world. But, at the same time, it also, kind of, resets a lot of assumptions about what might be possible, coming back up, out of this.

So, there's an opportunity there, in corporate Australia, for leaders to set a new set of goals, and a new set of purposes for the team.. Perhaps, if the purpose of the organisation now, is to rebuild a new organisation, almost from the ground up, responding to the new economy that we're moving into. To me, that seems like a much more inspiring goal to get behind.

So, if we rub the white board mostly clean of what was there before, and what had been up on that white board for so long, that it's kind of hard to get the marker out, once we start again, we can really sit down and have a think. When we sit down and have a think, we have an opportunity to actually really involve the team. No matter how big the team is. There's so many more ideas in there, and there are so many more lived experiences of different aspects of the customer problem, in a large enterprise.

So, I think, the challenge for that purpose-led leadership in the next year or two is, "How do I make sure that, instead of just filling in the same lines with a marker pen, on the white board that I had before, and trying to make everybody work to those same goals as before, how do I make sure that I take into account all the potential insights that might be out there, in the organisation? So that, when we start modelling, again, on our white board, we're actually creating something that reflects what's truly going on in the storefront, on the street, in front of the customer tomorrow."

Pete Horsley: Emma, I think, that there's an inherent tension in purpose-led organisations, as well. There's a tension because a purpose-led organisation actually should have a finite existence. Once you solve the thing that you're trying to solve for, then you're no longer needed. And you've got to then balance that with ... and we see this tension in our startups all the time, that you're trying to balance that with being a sustainable organisation, and having a good culture, and all of those sorts of things that are really important to businesses.

So, one of our startups that came through a couple of cohorts ago, is called, Xceptional, and it's looking to create smoother pathways for neuro-diverse people into employment. And Mike, one of the founders, or the founder of Xceptional, actually has a young son who is on the Autism spectrum, and for him, he hopes that by the time his son actually gets into the workplace, that Xceptional is no longer needed. That it becomes something that is inherently normal in all organisations, that they don't see disability, or neuro-diversity, as a barrier to entry to employment.

And so, up until that point, when he's solved that problem, he has to create this sustainable business. And so, I think, corporate Australian's are having to ... they know that their staff really do want to work for organisations that have this ultimate purpose. And that that guiding force needs to be the thing that drives company culture. But, they have to realise that they've got to enter into this ultimate tension between those two things.

Emma Lo Russo: How can we help corporates understand the value of connecting to Remarkable, or to the businesses that you're fostering, and helping them move forward? What's your advice?

Pete Horsley: I think, helping them to see the opportunity that, perhaps, they're missing out on. What do widening your view of the talent pool. Widening your view of who your customer base is. If we're only pitching to the middle 50th percentile, then we're missing out on other target groups. The fact that Microsoft had a Super Bowl ad, that they gave prime position to, that was about an accessible Xbox controller, I ... Obviously, Satya, the CEO, does have a son with a disability, but, I think, it's more than just goodwill that they're doing that for. And they're doing it because they know that there's money to be made there as well.

And so, organisations can see that, if they open up their customer base to suit the needs of a wider population, then potentially, you've actually got a greater market share there. And you've got greater access to talent, as well. So, I think, it's in helping to reframe some of these conversations. It's not about charity, it's not about doing a nice thing. It's about saying, "What's right?" But then also, "What are the benefits of doing what's right?"

Emma Lo Russo: That's the theme of The Business Of, is doing good, and doing well. I'm loving, I'm loving the points that you're making there. How do you measure your impact as Remarkable, and what does the future look like, for Remarkable?

Pete Horsley: Yeah. So we're a, I guess, we're an intermediary. So we work through our startups. Our startups are the ones that are having the impact on the end-user. And so, we have to measure our own success, based on their success. So, we have to make sure, as we said before, that that impact is embedded into the startup from day one. That it's not just a bolt-on. It's not like, "We'll make some money, and then we'll donate some money to a not-for-profit." We want to see impact baked in, from their business model perspective.

But we measure our success across a number of different areas, of the success of the startups. So, we measure it across how many customers are they serving? Across the revenue that they're bringing in. Also, the capital that they might raise. And so, across the 32 startups that we've had so far, they've created around about 480 full-time, equivalent jobs. For the $4.2 million that we've put in, and that's our operational capital, as well as our investment capital, they've gone on to raise about $24 million so far. They've served about 44,000 customers.

Emma Lo Russo: 44,000 customers. That's powerful, right? That's when it starts to look amazing. Do you have a favourite story? Collecting the stories of impact? What's the personal favourites?

Pete Horsley: Yeah, there's lots. There's lots I could choose from. But, maybe actually one from really one of our first startups, actually. They came into the accelerator using 3D manufacturing, and 3D printing, as part of their business model. And we helped them to consider what the business model was around 3D printing of orthotics..

And so, they were telling us the story of one of the customers that they were working with, who, when they got their orthotic fitted, the pain that they experienced, watching their daughter have this orthotic fitted, was like nothing else before. They literally, physically manipulated the child's foot into the position that they needed it to be. The child was screaming in pain. They then took a plaster cast of that, and then, took an instrument out to cut it off. The child was extremely scared of all of this.

And what AbilityMade have been able to do is, to take that very physical process, and turn it into a digital process. So, they use 3D cameras to be able to get an image of the foot. And then, they can manipulate that foot digitally, rather than physically. And then, in the same period of time, they can also cut down the amount of time that an orthotist takes to produce that orthotic then. And the story that we had was, that this young girl got her first set of orthotics created. They asked her, "What colour you'd like it?" And she said, "Pink." And they asked her, "Can we put your name on the back of it?" And she said, "Yes, absolutely." She went from then associating her orthotics with pain, and she didn't want to wear them, to she did a lap around Narrabeen Lake, which was about 8,3 kilometres.

Emma Lo Russo: Oh fabulous!

Pete Horsley: So, it's incredible seeing this change, yeah.

Emma Lo Russo: Love it. And Alan, do you have a favourite?

Alan Jones: Yeah, again, like Pete, so many. But we have a startup in this year's cohort, and Handi, the two co-founders, Heather and Andrew ... and Andrew's a sexuality advocate for people with a disability, based over in Toronto. And his sister, Heather, is from the advertising industry. But the two of them have set out to solve a huge, hidden problem in the world. There are so many people out there who are living with a disability, who are unable to enjoy sexual pleasure because of their disability.

Perhaps, with the help of a sex worker, they might be able to do that. But, obviously, that comes with risk, and with cost, and most importantly, perhaps, lack of privacy. So, I think, we would all agree that the ability to self-pleasure is a pretty fundamental human right. And it's something that we all take for granted, and don't even think about. And yet, there's a significant proportion of the community that never gets to experience that. So, the two of them have been working on a line of sex toys. Working with an awesome research team down at RMIT, and they have come up with a really innovative first device, which is going into prototyping soon. It's something that someone with a disability can use, irrespective of gender. And it's something that can be controlled with a chin control as well. So, if you have limited, or no use of your hands, or your legs, this is still something that you can use.

I fully expect this is going to set the world on fire, for that community. And it's just such an enormous problem. If you think, about the rest of your life, not having any access to sexual pleasure, without a stranger there, helping you. You know, how big a difference could this make to the world? So, I'm so excited to see that product come to the market.

Emma Lo Russo: They're both wonderful stories. And, as I said, I find it hard, when I've watched these cohorts. I start off going, "That's one's my favourite. No, that one's my favourite. But, that's how you feel when you hear these stories. Because it starts with that real experience of being excluded, or not having the same opportunity. And then, you see how they've just broken down these amazing barriers to create something that may not have been thought of before, or done in such a different and new way that just empowers so many. It's incredible. I commend you, and I definitely want our listeners to see how they can get involved, to get in touch with you, to be part of that mentor, or part of the corporate engagement programmes, integration programmes, funding. There's so many possibilities in that broader ecosystem.

So, thank you so much for your time today. It's been wonderful to hear the story. And actually, have the spotlight on you. I don't normally see you guys other than being the workhorses behind the scenes, helping these businesses. So, thank you.

Pete Horsley: Thanks for having us, Emma.

Alan Jones: And really grateful for your support. Thank you.

Emma Lo Russo: The work Pete and Alan are doing is so inspiring. Remarkable is a great example of an organisation that’s driving positive change in the world through its clearly defined purpose. And it's worth noting that the entrepreneurs they work with and support create astonishing new opportunities and businesses in the disability sector and across the startup space in general.

Leading with purpose in an accelerated world starts with understanding your own sense of purpose, connecting that to your organisation's mission, and then doing everything you can to achieve both.

Take to you next time on The Business Of.


You are free to republish this article both online and in print. We ask that you follow some simple guidelines.

Please do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author, their institute, and mention that the article was originally published on Business Think.

By copying the HTML below, you will be adhering to all our guidelines.

Press Ctrl-C to copy