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E178 | Why Being Purpose Led Can Change the World with The Conduit Co-Founder, Paul van Zyl

If you’ve ever wondered how to be more purpose led in both business and your personal life, don’t miss this incredible episode of Mind Your F**king Business Podcast with The Conduit co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, Paul van Zyl. 

Paul isn’t just trying to build a purpose led business, he’s trying to change the world. Having grown up in apartheid South Africa, Paul trained as a human rights lawyer and went on to serve as the Executive Secretary of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

We talk about his entrepreneurial journey to date; an incredible adventure that has taken him on a purpose led voyage of discovery, which has ultimately led him to co-found The Conduit Club in London. The Conduit is not just another private member’s club. The Conduit Club is a purpose led club where its members come together to change the world. 

Paul also shares how even in a hospitality business like The Conduit Club, purpose can lead to amazing staff connectivity, where his chefs don’t just cook food, they’re on a mission to help The Conduit in its mission to change the world. 

This is a great conversation with Paul. We really enjoyed it. We’re sure you will too.

On today’s podcast:

  • Learning from the Truth Commission
  • Gathering changemakers
  • Why entrepreneurs need central insight
  • The value of proximity 
  • The Conduit restaurant and its purpose


The Purpose of The Conduit with Paul van Zyl

Paul van Zyl is co-founder of The Conduit, a community of people who are passionate about positive social change. They have a 20,000 square foot building in the heart of Covent Garden. And they have between 1,000 and 2,000 people walk into their building on a weekly basis to hear stories about how to change the world, in a pragmatic solutions oriented way. 

They also have events spaces, two restaurants and a co-working space. It’s a community gathering place for changemakers.

So why bring this gathering space into the world?

Learning from the Truth Commission

Having grown up in apartheid South Africa, Paul trained as a human rights lawyer and went on to serve as the Executive Secretary of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He worked closely with Desmond Tutu and by virtue of that, was able to see Nelson Mandela in action during the work of the Truth Commission. 

“And that experience taught me that leadership really matters, that great men and great women can shift the destinies of nations and of the world.”

The Truth Commission was an experience to try and take the worst of humanity, the most horrific events, the most terrible human rights violations and deal with them in a way that restored the dignity to victims, while also allowing the South African nation to move forward and not always be held back and constrained by its painful past. 

“So that’s one part of my life experience that’s relevant to The Conduit. The second is, I was chosen as a ludicrously termed Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, Davos, and I spoke at TED Africa. And then won the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.”

Gathering changemakers

Having spoken at so many conferences attended by so many prominent, interesting, engaged and high potential people, Paul realised he only had their attention for three or four days. And so what he’s trying to do with The Conduit is be a permanent convening place where entrepreneurs, investors, philanthropists, policymakers, filmmakers, artists, activists can all get together and look at global problems, and then stop focusing on the problem and start thinking creatively about the solution. 

“And I think the world has many problems, but we’re not as good at creating structured ways of convening and bringing all the different talents, disciplines and resources of humanity to bear in trying to tackle those problems. And that’s what we try to do here, on a daily basis at The Conduit.”

Humans tend to live in the present moment, says Paul, we aren’t great at making painful, long term decisions that avoid existential consequences. And we’re also not great at looking backwards when something happens, and devoting the time to ensure it’s given proper closure. Which is why we’re in the midst of a climate crisis. 

“Now, when we are at our best, we do both things, we look back and we look forward in a responsible and constructive way. And that’s what makes humanity remarkable. But we more often than not fail to do both backward looking and forward looking exercises thoughtfully and responsibly.”

Which is precisely what The Conduit is trying to instill in its members. 

“And we won’t be here for our grandchildren unless we take some painful but necessary steps in order to deal with the coming climate emergency. And we can do both as humans, but we have to get out of our own way, sometimes, in order to do that.”

Why entrepreneurs need central insight

“Central insight is applicable to entrepreneurship and to climate and dealing with the climate crisis. Every entrepreneur who says, ‘I have a totally fresh new idea, I can learn nothing from any of my past experiences, or from comparisons with other people who are my competitors, or my collaborators,’ is a fool.” 

Entrepreneurs need to look left and right and listen and learn from those who have been there before them, so they don’t make the same mistakes. The genius, says Paul, comes from innovating your own particular distinctive solution based on that learning. 

You then need to ensure that the right people are in the room to listen to what you have to say. And that’s all about brand building and building a business. 

“And then it’s really just making sure that when people get through the door, they’re not disappointed. That they have a good experience, that what’s on the outside of the tin is inside as well. And that’s the hard work of building a business and delivering on your promises.”

The research behind The Conduit

“When we set ourselves up we said, what do we want The Conduit to be known as and what do we want The Conduit brand to be associated with? Yesterday, we pooled a sample of 1000 of our members who in their applications, once they’ve been accepted, wrote up why they joined and 96% said that they want to be part of a community of changemakers. And 95% said they want to participate in our programme and events and learn while doing so.”

Their theory is that the stronger the web of connections you build between people, the more effective entrepreneurs and changemakers they become.

The value of proximity 

So how has an in-person club survived the pandemic? Because, says Paul, the pandemic has taught us the value of proximity. You can’t build a culture, nor be effective or creative unless you structure human interaction. 

“And by that I mean face to face interaction in a systematic way. And I think it makes places like The Conduit more important, not less, because people crave proximity. And that is, I think, irreducible to the human condition.”

The Conduit restaurant and its purpose

“I think we have cracked the code in delivering incredibly sustainably sourced food in a way that is transporting and delicious.”

One of the things Paul never wanted to do with The Conduit is to make people choose between ethics and desire, because when given the choice, humans will always choose desire. The thing to do is align ethics with desirability. 

And think very carefully about the foundations upon which your business is built. 

“Look at your core business drivers and try to see how you can bake in the highest possible results with the least possible risk most of the time.”

Finally, people need a purpose. 

“You go down to the warehouse or to other chefs and say, why are you here, they say we’re on a mission, they don’t say I’m here to cook food, they say I’m on a mission, and then they cook extraordinary food, but they do so with the added sense that they’re on a mission.”

There has never been a more exciting time in history to be able to lead a life of purpose, says Paul. There has never been greater research, innovation, technology or capital. There are so many options open to you to do well for yourself, to put bread on the table for your family as well as contribute to a productive society and achieve positive social impact all at the same time. 

So what’s your purpose?

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