The Art of Rapid Collaboration

Once described by a UN official as the “first couple” of business and social impact, Zahid and Yvette Torres-Rahman are the founders of Business Fights Poverty, an award-winning, business-led collaboration network that cuts across silos and boundaries to help all stakeholders deliver real-world outcomes.

Over the past 16 years, Business Fights Poverty has grown into the largest global community of its kind, bringing together over 30,000 strategists, professionals and partnership activists, all of whom are passionate about harnessing business collaboration to support the most vulnerable people.

COVID-19 and, more recently, climate justice, has seen Business Fights Poverty come into its own – harnessing its competences and approaches to rapid collaboration among the global community, unlocking insights, deepening relationships and driving collective action.

We caught up with Zahid and Yvette in between two global summits they are hosting this June – one on rebuilding better from the pandemic, and the other on supporting youth in the face of the seismic shifts in the future of work.

Can you share a bit about what has driven you and shaped your journey?

A: At the heart of Business Fights Poverty is a belief in the power of “purposeful collaboration” – the idea that when people come together with purpose, we can achieve amazing things. Given the urgency, scale and systemic nature of the challenges we face today, we all need to find better ways of working together.

In essence, Business Fights Poverty is an ever-evolving experiment in agile collaboration. We are constantly testing and learning about how to drive rapid collaboration that spans traditional divides to harness our global collective intelligence. With technology, we can make this a truly inclusive and global effort.

Our shared belief in the critical contribution of business to tackling social impact challenges – through core business, philanthropy and advocacy – comes from very different backgrounds: from working for businesses in developing countries (in the case of Yvette) and for governments on international development (Zahid).

One thing we have in common is a sense we had, as children and young adults, of disconnection and a search for belonging. Both our heritages span different nationalities. We have come to recognise that this feeling of not fitting in has fuelled our passion for building bridges and a sense of belonging for others.

“We are constantly testing and learning about how to drive rapid collaboration that spans traditional divides to harness our global collective intelligence. With technology, we can make this a truly inclusive and global effort.”

What are the biggest insights and learnings you’ve gained along the way?

For us, a key insight is that effective collaboration is based on deep relationships. In understanding how people were able to partner so rapidly in the face of the pandemic – including in our case – the common theme was the ability to harness trusted relationships. That is why, when we bring people together to share insights, we are very intentional in how we craft connections at a human level.

Our starting point to any collaboration is a clear “why” – a shared, pressing challenge expressed as a compelling and energising question. This enables us to be very focused in terms of who we convene, what we aim to do and by when. Most importantly, the process needs to be truly co-creative and authentic.

We’ve run this process over 40 times, typically over a few months, but sometimes in as little as 10 days. Each time it’s so rewarding to see how the inspiring people across the Business Fights Poverty community step up and generously share, and how they come to the challenge as themselves – not as their brands or job titles.

Another lesson is the importance of investing in your own resilience and that of your team. At a personal level, we start each day in nature focusing on our own health and wellbeing and end each day with quality time as a family. For our team, we’ve always encouraged them to decide when and where they work. That flexibility was a real source of resilience for the organisation during the pandemic.

As we ‘Rebuild Better’ from COVID-19, what are some innovative responses from your community that shine a light on the power of collaboration?

It’s been so impressive to see how members of the Business Fights Poverty community have stepped up to support the most vulnerable people, despite the immense stress that they have faced, themselves, during the pandemic.

There has been such a variety of business collaborations to support the lives, livelihoods and access to learning of those most impacted – initially focused on emergency response, then on recovery and, going forward, on rebuilding better.

This has ranged from a brewer repurposing its bottling plants to produce hand sanitiser and oxygen in Brazil, to a fast moving consumer goods company collaborating with its competitors on health and hygiene messaging in Kenya.

For our part, we have curated a range of rapid collaborations, from getting critical guidance to companies that wanted to tackle the spike in gender-based violence, to getting emergency oxygen-related supplies to India.

The pandemic has exacerbated many deep-seated inequalities – such as by gender and race – and highlighted weaknesses in our health, education and food systems (to name a few). These system-level challenges require system-level partnerships and thinking. Finding a way to make these agile and rapid must be a priority.

You’ve made “climate justice” another focus area for Business Fights Poverty. Can you tell us why and what you see as key opportunities for collaboration?

As with COVID, the most vulnerable people and communities are impacted most by climate change. We must put people at the centre of efforts to tackle climate change. The transition to a green economy also needs to be just – a transition that empowers and enables future economic prosperity via high quality jobs that take societal and environmental considerations and realities around the world into account.

One challenge is that efforts within companies to tackle climate change – for example by implementing net-zero carbon targets – are often not considered at a systems-level, in terms of thinking, partnerships, etc. Once this systems level approach is taken, climate change issues can then be connected to companies’ social impact teams and linked with issues like women’s empowerment and human rights. An immediate priority is to join the dots and take an integrated approach.

While government must lead – for example, agreeing and driving the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement – business is a critical partner alongside civil society. As with other issues, while philanthropy has a role to play, more important is how a business can harness its core – from product innovation and brand engagement to value chain relationships and employment practices – to drive change.

“System-level challenges require system-level partnerships and thinking. Finding a way to make these agile and rapid must be a priority.”

Through our climate justice programme, we will be mobilising a global conversation about what this means in practice, and curating new collaborations across a range of areas, from women’s empowerment through green technology to building smallholder farmer resilience.

What would be your closing thoughts for us?

HelloScience has been a shining example of a new approach to rapid collaboration, and we are proud to work together with you and support our shared vision for a more sustainable world. Like you, we are convinced that everyone has something important that they can bring to solving society’s greatest challenges – whether that is knowledge, resources or insights.

For organisations like ours, we have a responsibility to ensure that the process of problem-solving is truly inclusive and global – involving those most proximate to the challenges we are trying to address. We are on a journey, and keen to learn from others about how we can best harness our collective power to drive change.

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