University of Melbourne Magazine

A gift for giving

  • The people business: Audette Exel in Kathmandu with two of the children her ISIS Foundation has rescued.

    The people business: Audette Exel in Kathmandu with two of the children her ISIS Foundation has rescued. Picture: Jonathan Torgovnik/

    To reach the headquarters of the ISIS Group you venture down a narrow alley in the inner Sydney suburb of Rozelle and vault up a flight of steps. “ISIS: Uganda, Nepal, United Kingdom, USA, Bermuda, Australia’’ reads the sign at the door. What could possibly unite such disparate destinations? Audette Exel (LLB(Hons) 1984) is the simple answer.

    I’m a little early for our chat and catch the University of Melbourne-trained international finance lawyer padding around the office of the unique business-for-purpose venture she started in 1998 – a global commercial business that feeds a philanthropic organisation focused on Nepal and Uganda – in bare feet. She heads off to slip into something less comfortable and returns atop high heels. Around the oval wooden table of a meeting room whose bookshelves are lined with guides to far-flung places and biographies of moral heroes such as Nelson Mandela, she explains the yin and yang principles that form the ISIS Group.

    The company has a business face, ISIS (Asia Pacific), and a philanthropic face, ISIS Foundation, and both are united in common purpose: to help support the poor in remote regions of the developing world. Exel is Chief Executive of the former, Chair of the latter. Her stated aim is to “have the world of business hold hands with the world of development,” and in this she has been strikingly successful.

    She needs to earn more than $100,000 a month, she says, to keep the motor of the charity, which directly and indirectly employs more than 140 people, purring along. A mere 10 staff are employed on the business side, though as Exel’s core skill is international finance she does much of the lifting herself. Her financial expertise is put to use advising banks on, as she puts it, “buying and selling each other and how to invest hundreds of millions of dollars”.

    By her reckoning about 30,000 people are benefiting from the Foundation’s assistance. “We don’t fund grants, we do our own work in teams on the ground,” she says. “And we are known the world over for our remote work. Our most remote service was 25 days’ walk from the road when we began working there 16 years ago.”

    Most of this work targets the health and education of women and young children, including early school education and the fight against child trafficking. The virtuous circle linking both the finance and humanitarian facets of ISIS puts a smiling public face on the banking sector, a rarity this side of the global financial crisis, and it produces some nice ironies.

    Exel closed a deal last December that earned $2 million in advisor’s fees for ISIS. “People in Uganda and Nepal, all over the world, were celebrating a US private equity fund,” she recalls. “I suppose that’s unheard of.”

    Asked why her efforts are focused on isolated communities abroad when there are so many remote Aboriginal communities closer to home in distress, she has a ready answer to what is doubtless an often-asked question: “If I had all the hours in the day and all the money in the world there’s so much need on the planet that I don’t know where to start.”

    She agrees that Indigenous communities are in need of support, as are refugees. “I think refugees are heroes. But what I say about giving is that everyone should follow his or her passion. It doesn’t matter if it’s environment activism or work for children in poverty. For me the most vulnerable people in the world, the people who get me up every day, are women and children in extreme poverty, in remote places. There’s a Jewish saying that if you save a life you save a world. I profoundly believe that and my motto is: just do something.”

    The backstory of this Kiwi-born and philanthropically oriented global finance whizz is every bit as interesting as her day-to-day work. As she tells it, her first three years of university, in New Zealand, came to an abrupt end when she was injured in a skydiving accident in Australia. Unable to return for treatment because of the New Zealand accident compensation system, she applied to finish her law degree at the University of Melbourne and was successful. At that moment everything changed.

    Audette Exel has deployed her skill in global finance to help the poor in the world’s remotest areas.

    She had come from what she describes as a “socially active left-wing” milieu at the Victoria University of Wellington, and found herself sitting at the campus cafeteria, or drinking at Jimmy Watson’s, talking to fellow undergraduates about the mountains of money awaiting a successful Queen’s Counsel.

    “It was the first time I’d really met such people,” she recalls. “I was even amazed to see students driving their own cars to university. And I realised I had a huge hole in my knowledge base. I believed strongly in social justice and human rights and I saw that if I wanted to effect change I needed to be able to reach across to people of wealth, power and influence. I needed to study the world of money and work for the most business-friendly law firm I could find.”

    She fell in with a circle of like-minded “humanist focused” law students such as Richard West (LLB(Hons) 1982), Gail Furness SC (LLB(Hons) 1984, LLM 1990) and Richard McGarvie QC (LLB(Hons) 1985), who have cut more conventional paths through the law. Audette Exel opted for a much more tangential direction, which took her in stages to Bermuda, where she ran a bank.

    But first she needed to find that business-friendly law firm and had the “incredible good fortune” to be accepted by the commercially and globally oriented firm of Allens. “If I hadn’t gone to Melbourne University I wouldn’t have got into Allens, and if I hadn’t worked at Allens I wouldn’t be where I am,” she says.

    When we meet she is preparing for a circuit of work engagements in Singapore, London and Manhattan. “I so love New York,” she says. “They really know how to think big.” She is no stranger to the wideangled lens of global ambition herself, and is planning new ways of engaging the corporate world in projects that will aid the beneficiaries of ISIS: the poor.

    Her social ideals are ageless, and there’s no lessening of the passion that shaped her early move towards finance as a fuel for philanthropy. “I’m absolutely adamant that education is a social asset and the wider we can cast the net the better,” she says in relation to the Federal Coalition’s budget measures for higher education. “When you close education down to only higher socio-economic groups the whole world is the lesser for it.”

    She insists that these are “nonpolitical” remarks, and yet there’s a touch of heat in her voice suggesting a frustration with recent policy changes. “If I had had to face the kind of fees that are being talked about I would never have studied law,” she says. “There’s just no way. My father was a journalist and my mother a fantastic secretary; people rich in values though not in material wealth. I would have baulked at the concept that you walk out of university indebted for 10 years. I just never would have done it. If this goes ahead I wonder how many (students) we will miss out on.”

    There is probably no better person to comment on the elevating power of education than someone who has dedicated her working life to the alleviation of poverty. “I’ve been working in the development sector for 16 years, and the private sector for longer, and I can vouch for the astonishing success of people who come out of poverty. I would put them up against the best Wall Street entrepreneurs that I’ve come across. To lose out on that pool of people being able to find their track and find a voice in society – it would be a terrible loss. But I have to believe this too will pass.”

    At a brainstorming session to harvest ideas for the next 30 years at ISIS the group’s founder was sideswiped by a sense of time’s passage. “I’ll be 81 years of age by then,” she says. Always the creative strategist, she is conceptualising new ways for ISIS to approach the business side of its operations; to provide the fuel that keeps the philanthropic motor going. But there is a snag. “Of all the things that have kept me awake these past 16 years, the one thing I haven’t worried about is that a new Islamic militant group will use our name and become the first news story around the world. Of all the issues we’ve had to face – I never expected we’d have a branding issue!”