Entrepreneur Paul Vincent Cable: Sometimes You Have to Swim Upstream

“Education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world.” - Nelson Mandela, former late President South Africa

Leadership can emerge in all sorts of places, even in the institutions we consider most difficult to change. Education is a formative tool to shape young children and adolescents into the people they will be as adults. Though education is often considered an essential service provided by governments, is it also seen as a privilege and is not a common reality for many people in the world. According to UNESCO, 61 million primary school-age children were not enrolled in school in 2010. In sub-Saharan countries, 11 million children leave school before completing their primary education.

Paul Vincent Cable is an entrepreneur and co-founder of The100Hours project and the social enterprise EnSo Impact. The latter is an integrated approach to education, tackling the issues affecting children’s learning both inside and outside the classroom. His vision is a chain of 10,000 of these ‘Smart Communities’ across Sub-Saharan Africa and India.

Margareta Barchan: Tell me about yourself and how you started your work around education and emotional intelligence.

Paul Vincent Cable: I started training at a young age to be a professional musician and practiced the violin up to 6 hours a day. At seventeen, I started singing and went on to study music at Cambridge. After my operatic debut in Florence, I was contracted to sing the title role of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Prague, which was a special moment because it was my favourite role and in the very same theatre that Mozart himself premiered Don Giovanni in 1787. One night after a performance, I had this strange, desolate feeling and found myself asking: “Is this what I’m going to do with the rest of my life? If so, will I look back in 30 years time and think that I used my time well?” It started a quest to find myself and my purpose in life.

Paul Vincent Cable in a gala performance with the Rotterdam Philharmonic with his wife, Agnesa Tothova, singing soprano.

Paul Vincent Cable in a gala performance with the Rotterdam Philharmonic with his wife, Agnesa Tothova, singing soprano.

One of my great teachers taught me the power of living inside a question. The one that I lived inside of was: “Given all the challenges we face around the world, and the many solutions we’re trying, is there something missing that we’re either not doing at all or only doing a bit of, that could potentially act as a massive lever to positively impact everything else?” My mission became to meet the wisest people I could find and see what they had to say about that!

I spent about 5 years “wandering” around the world and met some extraordinary people. Early on in this period, I co-founded with Michael Neill, who is now a best-selling author on coaching, a boutique client services company called Quantum5, and we brought personal development services to blue chips like IBM, Barclays, Ericsson and Hewlett Packard. I then met Bill Cumming. Bill spends his life working in the United States’ high security prisons having dialogues with the prisoners regarding their personal transformations. I was blown away by the change from anger and hatred to compassion.

Bill introduced me to Dr Ron Browning. Ron became another mentor to me and we formed a deep working relationship which continues to this day. We founded The100Hours initiative together. After a PhD in Psychology at Berkeley, Ron went to Japan and practiced Zen with the great master Suzuki Roshi, who played a major role in bringing Zen to the West through books like  Beginner’s Mind and introducing Westerners to the deep traditions of training the heart and mind dating back to the Buddha. Ron later was ordained as a Theravada monk, and for over 5 years practiced with great Burmese teachers such as U Pandita Sayadaw, whose pupils brought the concepts of social and emotional intelligence, and mindfulness to the West.

From these mentors and from great systems thinkers such as Peter Senge, who co-wrote Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, and Donella Meadows, it became clear that the greatest lever for change is actually ourselves, specifically our hearts and minds. If we can help people, especially young people, at a pivotal point in their education, ground themselves in core qualities of heart, such as integrity, commitment, mindful-awareness, responsibility, resilience, and empathy, we will create the foundation for a world that works for everyone.

These discoveries led to the birth of The100Hours. Typically a child will spend up to 20,000 hours at school from the age of 5 until university. How many of these hours are usually spent working on those critical qualities of heart that will determine what sort of human beings they turn out to be? Our current education system places great emphasis on knowledge but almost none on wisdom. Ron and I thought, “what if it were possible to take just 100 of those hours and dedicate them to the beginning of a life of learning in compassionate living and leadership? What difference would that make to them? What difference would that make to the world?”

A dear friend of mine, Taddy Blecher, who is an amazing social entrepreneur and Skoll Scholar, invited us to develop The100Hours at CIDA University in South Africa for the next generation of changemakers. The results were incredible and included saving someone’s life - literally. There’s a documentary on the Homepage of the website with the story, so I won’t spoil it for you now!

Paul Vincent Cable with Dr Ron Browning at CIDA University, South Africa.

Paul Vincent Cable with Dr Ron Browning at CIDA University, South Africa.

We then tested the program out in India, mostly in Bihar and Maharashtra.   We saw similar results. We also tested it successfully with kids in inner London. We gradually refined the model for The100Hours into an acronym: I - C.A.R.E. Action Leadership. The five letters of I - C.A.R.E. stand for Integrity, Commitment, Awareness, Responsibility, and Empathy.

Barchan: What were the biggest takeaways from this research and development?

Cable: There were several things. One is we saw that with the right conditions, it’s possible to make a massive difference. The other was that the constraints of the standard educational system to creating those conditions are major: the teachers have already been selected and trained in a particular way, and the curriculum has already been created. Another big takeaway was that the problems affecting kids’ education are not restricted to what happens in the the classroom. For instance, health and physical well-being have a major impact. If a child is malnourished, or suffering from respiratory illness from breathing in kerosene fumes at home or is affected by drinking dirty water, then they can’t learn. It became clear that we needed to redesign schools from the inside out.

By this time, I had also learned a lot from the work Ayrton, my son, was doing. So we decided to team up and build our own unique schools: EnSo Impact schools.

Enso Impact’s vision is to leverage technology to bring world class teaching, including solutions to health and well-being to a billion people in emerging markets, starting with Sub-Saharan Africa. Because energy, health, food and water, girls’ and women’s empowerment are all critical elements impacting educational outcomes, our model integrates all of them. We formed a consortium made up of several fabulous companies to do that: BBOXX for solar power; Access Afya for health care; Whizz Education for edtech; Avanti PLC for broadband internet and we have also engaged Unilever to provide soap, detergents and other products. We’re very excited about our first school opening this summer!

Margareta Barchan: Your work demands a significant amount of courage. Have you ever thought of it in this way?

Cable: Not really, but thank you for the compliment! Now that I think about it, it has involved a lot of swimming upstream, in the sense that the mainstream of education is focused almost entirely on academic results, and does so, in my opinion, in a very narrow way that ignores critical systemic factors.

Barchan: Where does your personal courage come from?

Cable: Both my mum and dad had a lot of influence on me, in different ways. Mum, who was an incredible educator, was fearless in her approach to it, and confronted things that she didn’t agree with head on. Dad (Sir Vince Cable) is well known as a maverick and doing things differently from the norm!

Barchan: You speak a fair amount in your work about “context”. What does this mean to you?

Cable: By “context”, I mean the views, values, purpose, attitude, and qualities of heart and mind, that run our thinking, feelings, and our actions. The context for our lives is truly decisive in how things turn out for us. Our views ultimately dictate all our actions. So deeply examining our core views and exploring to what extent they are empowering or disempowering us, and letting go of those that disempower us and replacing them with ones that empower us is literally life transforming.

This is vital to our I - C.A.R.E. Action Leadership model (Integrity, Commitment, Awareness, Responsibility, Empathy) that we’ll scale through EnSo Impact. The model has the potential to cascade through individuals, families, communities and eventually whole societies.

Barchan: Can you teach other grown ups about these principles even though they have passed their formative learning age?

Cable: Yes! There’s a common view that things are best - or even, only - learned as a child. But in my experience, an adult can learn as quickly as a child if they are really committed. In fact, the fastest learners I’ve ever seen were all adults or people well into their teens. The sky’s the limit! As adults, we can create extraordinary results and acquire great skills if the commitment is there.

Barchan: Does this also apply to learning braveness and courage?

Cable: Yes! If the willingness is there to really look at your life and to improve your life - to strengthen yourself internally - if that is there, anything is really possible.

Barchan: The night you left the opera house in Prague, had anything special happened that made you decide to change your life? Why did it happen that particular night?  

Cable: I had the sudden feeling of not being on the right track. It reminded me of when I was 14 years old when I saw the film Gandhi, and it made such an impression on me. The problem at that time was I had nowhere to go with it, no one I could talk to and discuss the questions the film addressed. So you could say that I’d had this unconscious feeling of dissatisfaction ever since I was a teenager (i.e for many years!) Still, there was nothing particularly special that happened to me that night in Prague; it just suddenly became a burden on my shoulders that I couldn’t ignore any longer.

Barchan: What is your opinion about future generations in this regard?

Cable: There is a fair amount of recent research on Generation Z and it certainly seems to be the generation with the most concern for a peaceful and sustainable world, and what it takes for us as human beings to achieve that. Gandhi’s message of “being the change” seems to resonate most with them. I feel hopeful about them. With the children we have worked with around the world in my work, I’ve seen tremendous receptivity.

So, I see our role as supporting and guiding them in leading empowered, contributory lives. Even though the young generation is very dependent on social media and that makes their attention fragmented, there’s also the benefit that their interconnectedness makes it much easier to spread change. So yes, I believe they are more concerned about the world and will make change happen. If any generation can make that shift, it’s Gen Z.

Paul Vincent Cable speaking about education at the    Humanitarian Water, Air and Food Awards   , broadcast at the UN.

Paul Vincent Cable speaking about education at the Humanitarian Water, Air and Food Awards, broadcast at the UN.

Barchan: How do you see this generation leading in the future?

Cable:  I feel that if we can provide enough of the right grounding through our educational system, this generation will provide exceptional leadership, even while they are still young. Let me give you a specific example. Ron and I had just given a session on mindfulness at CIDA. We broke for tea. Rather than taking a break, two of the students came up to the front and picked up the microphone and started taking the other students through the same mindfulness scan that we had just led; and they were great at it! It helped us see that “students teaching students” is a very powerful method for teaching leadership and it has become a part of our methodology.

If you’ll allow me a “proud father” moment, I’ve also seen with Ayrton too that children can lead amazing change even while they are still children. He’s been a leader since the age of 8, and that came about through helping him understand that he, like all people, has the power to make a tremendous difference in the world.