‘We must viscerally disrupt our comfort zones to create opportunities for evolution’: In conversation with Philippa White, Founder and CEO of TIE

Originally posted at Cherwell. Available at: https://www.cherwell.org/2023/10/25/we-must-viscerally-disrupt-our-comfort-zones-to-create-opportunities-for-evolution-in-conversation-with-philippa-white-founder-and-ceo-of-tie/

By Sophie Magalhaes
25th October 2023

Founder and CEO of TIE discusses her global background and how it has influenced her mission to connect disparate people.

Philippa White’s mission is to help companies create “people-centred leaders” by introducing talented employees to different cultures and challenges, helping them better understand their own unique qualities and potential.

Over a Zoom call I greet Philippa, who is all exuberance. An enthusiastic and open-minded conversationalist, she tells me of her myriad cultural influences growing up. We bond over identifying as “global citizens.” Born in South Africa but raised in Canada, it was the South African side which had the most influence. The niece of Nelson Mandela’s personal doctor during the first round of negotiations with the Apartheid government in 1990, her uncle was trusted implicitly to ensure that Mandela stayed healthy and well during these important discussions. White’s uncle risked his life to fight apartheid. His fascination with perspective and possibility sparked her own drive to breach global barriers and find common humanity with disparate people.

I ask about her time working at an advertising agency in London. “Was it the creative job you’d hoped for?” She replies, “it was an innovative and creative work environment.” Yet there was still something missing. “It was often the same conversations. (…) A middle class bubble. People who saw the world in similar ways.” I tell her that I have had a similar experience in Oxford. Whilst conversations are engaging, they are insular. People stick to what is familiar.

Hearing this, it’s unsurprising that White veered away from the London corporate world to create a life in the Northeast of Brazil. Being half-Brazilian myself, I am curious why Brazil was the ideal place to establish TIE. “It’s a bit like the wild west. The independent way of life is so entirely different.” Despite having contacts in South Africa, Cape Town was not good enough. “It’s quite European, it’s quite comfortable. You can see the disadvantaged areas if you want to. But it’s very easy to stay in the posh lovely part.” White is adamant that we must disrupt comfortable ways of living if we are to see the world differently. “It’s that visceral feeling which creates that change. It’s taking people to the edge and not quite tipping them over yet. And then you create an opportunity for evolution.”

For the first few years TIE programmes were primarily in Brazil. Early experiences hosted employees from the communications world for 30 days, working in various environmental and educational social initiatives, developing professional leadership competencies. An early project included an awareness raising initiative for an HIV and AIDS organisation. As the business progressed, programmes became widespread. When I ask about a favourite TIE experience, White tells me of a designer from New York who spent 30 days in Malawi, using his communications background to bring fuel efficient clay stoves into the hands of Malawians. Through his work, the new stoves not only lessened high rates of infections caused by smoke inhalation, but decreased deforestation in the region. Before the private sector made it to Malawi, only 500 stoves were sold in two years. However, 30 days after the TIE programme, 10,000 clay stoves were sold. Such impactful change transcends our communities. “It provides a necessary global perspective and opens the minds of those within the corporate world.” By developing more human focused leaders from the private sector, TIE programmes humanise the corporate world, making it more competitive. The experience immerses professionals in real global challenges, demonstrating how the world works beyond their bubbles. She says: “through this you not only impact people but you yourself become more interesting and more valuable to businesses and their clients.”

White describes the Covid-19 pandemic as an “atomic bomb.” For a business model which depended on international borders being open, the TIE model had to be completely rethought. Staying authentic to TIE’s values, White had to bring worlds together virtually. TIE transferred briefly to a business – consumer model, pulling together ten cohorts of professionals globally to develop professional skills and expand horizons. Throughout our conversation White repeats: “necessity is the mother of invention.” A phrase that has always been the basis of all TIE programmes, but also became the TIE motto when having to re-think their business model. The constraints of the pandemic paved the way for revolutionary development solutions. Since the pandemic, White has returned to the original business focus. Now TIE has a host of options available for companies, both in person and virtual, as well as a scaled programme that involves up to 500 people around a business and is executed once a month throughout the year.

TIE has also expanded into a podcast and, most recently, a book: Return on Humanity, Leadership lessons from all corners of the world. Written by White, she draws on stories of inspirational leadership from around the world and encourages readers to approach business with a human focus. When I asked White why she’d chosen to write a book, her answer did not surprise me. “I’d had people for years telling me that I should write a book.” No doubt a natural storyteller, Return on Humanity stories show that leadership potential doesn’t depend on your educational background or income level. People from all walks of life can use their human assets to impact businesses and the world around them.

Our conversation ends with a piece of advice. White says that well-educated and worldly students must seek the companies that share their set of values. “It’s a two-way system.” You have to be qualified to get the job, but the job must also deserve you. “Ask yourself what fulfils you, identify your idea of success. And find a company that fits that.”

Tie Unearthed podcast is available to listen to on Spotify. ‘Return on Humanity: Leadership Lessons from all corners of the world’ is now available for pre-order. To find out more about TIE, visit their new website.


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