Jean Oelwang

Partnering with purpose

Partnering hero Landscape

It’s the people we surround ourselves with who make us who we are.

What is at the core of most significant human achievements, like closing the ozone hole and ending apartheid in South Africa? Rather than relying on technical skill or breadth of experience, Jean Oelwang concludes that it is enduring partnerships.

Jean Oelwang, founding CEO and Trustee of the not-for-profit foundation Virgin Unite spoke at AKQA, urging deep connection as a refreshing antidote to a growing culture of hyper-individualism, self-sufficiency and deep division in the world we see today. A critical relationship reset. A catalyst to drive larger social movements. A complete reinvention of the system.

It’s having the right people around the table and questioning, who is missing from this table and who has a view that we need to hear?

Observing fruitful partnerships among luminary leaders, such as Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel, Archbishop Desmond and Leah Tutu, ice cream entrepreneurs Ben and Jerry, the co-founders of Airbnb, and the lesser-known scientists Sherry Roland and Mario Molina behind the movement to ban ozone-depleting CFCs, sparked an intrigue in the power of collaboration.

Having spent near on 20 years working with some of the world’s greatest partnerships through Virgin Unite, Jean advocates that working collectively to an end puts the wellbeing of people and the planet at the core – which ultimately leads to becoming the best possible versions of ourselves and, in doing so, multiplying your positive impact on others and the world.

We need to be moving faster and further together, and we need to collaborate at a scale we have never even dreamt about.

Jean Oelwang, founding CEO and Trustee of Virgin Unite

Sharing your purpose and supporting other people in finding their purpose can result in a profound friendship and powerful collaboration – a shared purpose. One such example comes in the form of The Elders, a group of independent global leaders launched with Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu: a collective response from a group of friends committed to addressing the world’s existential threats. Each drawing on their own experiences of leading positive change, their deep-rooted friendship helps them create something larger than themselves. Jean affirmed that “they became who they were because of the relationships they shaped around themselves”.

At the very centre of every interview with the partners emerged a pivotal discovery. A celebration of friction, rather than an avoidance of disagreement for the sake of comfort, to turn conflict into learning, mobilising even greater collaboration. Employing The Elders as a pertinent example, she said: “None of the partnerships avoided friction. They all had friction but they all created tools to lift themselves above the friction”.

It’s going to take a level of radical collaboration that we cannot even begin to imagine yet.

Jean Oelwang, founding CEO and Trustee of Virgin Unite

Fondly recounting her own anecdotes of deep connection, Jean’s resonant call to action alludes to humanity synchronising with humanity. To build these deep connections in our own lives, and live remembering the importance of the small acts – of kindness, a simple smile and integrity – with those around us. That, beyond mere optimism, our moment-by-moment choices, made in partnership together, have the power to architect the trajectory of our planet.