Before sitting down with AA Directions, Derek Handley had spent the day with people dedicated to solving problems, from sustaining our coastlines to the future of education. It was for research into his own work with his charitable trust, The Aera Foundation, which invests in causes and companies addressing social issues in imaginative ways. Derek, an entrepreneur, speaker and author, is a problem solver himself. He shares why he’s so driven to bring change to the face of business and help Kiwis lead meaningful lives.

What drove you to launch Aera?

Aera works on a variety of themes united by the singular aspiration to contribute to improving the state of our people and planet. It’s a petri dish in which to experiment and learn different ways to approach the challenges we have, and to learn and support projects and people. It’s about finding innovators and people who are changing things through their own connection with a bigger purpose.

What are the challenges?

Research suggests there is less connective tissue at a community level, and that’s what people really want. The problem is people don’t find meaning in their work. Through my fellowship programme, Aera Fellows, high school leavers are chosen to partake and research the state of social issues and the different philosophical wisdom around what it takes to live a meaningful life. Often people don’t allow time to reflect on what they are doing. Many are driven by fear, but you’ve only got one shot at this life and there really isn’t anything to be afraid of.

Can you shed more light on your fellowship programme?

I’m building on the idea and looking to scale it much bigger. Aera Fellows has run for three years; five high school leavers went through the programme last year and my aim this year is to open it up to 20 people, including those who’ve retired, to help them contribute to something meaningful. The programme looks at how and what it means to be part of a society and how to serve, whether it’s tangibly on a local school board, advocating for a drug reform, or research into the state of social issues; whatever it means to step forward in your own life. 

What’s driven you to make changes?

Over cups of tea, glasses of wine, holidays and books, I’ve thought hard about what I can do to help people connect to what they’re here to do and to use who they are to serve others. Those two things are connected; you can’t lead a meaningful life if you can’t figure that out.

What’s your background?

I grew up in Hong Kong before moving to Auckland as a teenager. I left Wellington’s Victoria University as an architect and finance graduate. I was interested in architecting ideas and was keen to figure things out like, what does success look like? And what do great companies look like? I met Sir Richard Branson at an event and later spent a week at his place, learning business, which led me to co-establish The B Team with him. It’s a not-for-profit initiative formed by a global group of leaders to create a future where the purpose of business is to be a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit. 

Did Sir Richard Branson pass on any golden advice to you?

He taught me the key ingredients to entrepreneurship: belief, self-awareness and grit. You have to absolutely believe in yourself when you’re doing something different and new. A lot of people aren’t going to believe in you and, for some people, that could be friends and family, which is tough. If you’re not self-aware then you’re not aware of your personality and strengths and there’s not much room for growth. Lastly, you need grit. You need to knock down every obstacle that comes in your way.

Reported by Monica Tischler for our AA Directions Autumn 2018 issue

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