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Inhale Oxygen and breathe… An interview with coach and social entrepreneur Lily Lapenna-Huda

After two days digitally marooned in the beautiful Berkshire countryside, surrounded by 90 leaders keen to discuss the challenges faced by those who want to change the world for the better through business, coach and social entrepreneur Lily Lapenna-Huda reflects on Oxygen and on her own leadership.

What are the themes that stood out for you across Oxygen?

One important theme was about organisations resetting, reanimating, repurposing their relationship with their customers.

This could be at a time of crisis, to help unleash a next phase. So David Pemsel from the Guardian Media and News talked about how they’re transforming their commercial model by turning their readers into members and growing that as a revenue stream. We heard how when LEGO hit rock bottom they reconnected with children and parents to go back to what was quintessential, back to play and to a child being the builder of their own future. And Aravind Eye Care System looked for a new business model by identifying the bottlenecks stopping poor rural Indians getting from their homes to be treated in Aravind’s hospitals.

How does this relate to your experience at MyBnk?

At MyBnk I started by creating a Youth Advisory Board and we co-created every program we ever did with it. Don’t attempt to create a service without something like this! But be clear too that it’s not a static process, it’s not just in a time of crisis, it’s a relationship that must build and deepen as you grow.

At Oxygen you took part in a session on ‘the purpose driven life’ with founder of Camerados, Maff Potts, and Cleantech entrepreneur and investor Rainer Hönig. What themes struck you during that discussion?

Identity was a big theme. What it means to ‘be’, how your identity is wrapped up in your work and how your identity is sort of seeking a sense of purpose, which may be in your work but work can take over. There’s something around identity and purpose, which again are very dynamic, they evolve they move they change…

You talked about three identities you were given over the years during that session.

Yes. The first was ‘social entrepreneur’ when I was on my start-up journey with MyBnk.

It was a label that gave me a sense of belonging and credibility in the external world. It reinforced my sense of purpose but the shadow side was a pressure from that outside world of what being a social entrepreneur meant to other people and this didn’t always align to what I was doing with MyBnk. What was more important for me was to reach the young people and have an impact on their lives rather than to try to create an income-generating model. I struggled with it as it was expected as a social entrepreneur that you had a commercially viable social enterprise. It took me a while to own the fact that by selling our services we’d only reach a small percentage of young people while through partnerships we could make a significant dent. It was a label that came with myriad awards and funding and recognition for the founder and CEO…the ‘Heropreneur’ whereas in reality it was about teams and about social impact.

What was the second label?

The second was Lily the ‘system change leader’.

It came at a time when I sat back and thought, there’s more I can do. I’m only reaching 0.01% of the youth population. That’s when we aligned with all of our competitors and sat with them on an all-party group and lobbied the government and then I became a system change leader! I needed to get out of my tunnel and look at the system – zooming out and looking at the ecosystem is important, as is collaborating across sectors.

The result of the campaigning and working with collaborators led to financial education becoming compulsory for all secondary schools. Today all young people in state maintained secondary schools get FE!!

And now?

This last phase has been Lily the ‘enabler’.

My husband is a film director and we were moving to California. So I took a crayon and drew a picture and in it said, ‘what matters to me as I move to LA?’ My kids and my husband were in the middle surrounded by nature and there was me and I realised many things were missing in my life as I looked at that picture. And this now is the pursuit of changing that and finding a life that has meaning. With the enabler it’s about leveraging what I do by helping others through executive coaching, through consulting, through speaking. And about building a life that matters to me, I’m not defined by my work anymore. I work because it’s part of my life but there are other things I really enjoy.

Were there other themes in the two days that struck you?

I loved the two stories – the story we tell the world as leaders that feels safe and comfortable and motivational, and then we were given a chance at Oxygen to present a more real, vulnerable, raw story that is perhaps in reality even more motivating. You created a safe process for us to share those stories – I shared an important story for me here, which was a first. Hearing Richard Addy of Akas, someone I know and respect and value as a professional, share his two stories gave me permission but it had to be done in an environment in which I felt comfortable.

There were some other truly practical and fun things too.

The importance of day dreaming and of walks. Making the space and time for thinking and reflection. Being diligent to carve it out for yourself and for those you work with. I do it now but at MyBnk I never did.

What’s missing when you don’t make time in that way?

Imagination, creativity and also I think when life gets very complicated you need to simplify. People try to run away from the uncomfortable. You need to create space and simplicity – re-centre, reground yourself. And I also think that, as Peter Keen said, you get some of your best ideas walking.

I also really liked one of the quotes that David Pemsel said, “you do by doing”. When I was at MyBnk I had this motto – learn something new everyday and apply it the next day. It wasn’t about courses or reading books it was learn by doing and do it until I get it right.

Do you still do that?

Yes but it’s less frenetic. There are more ebbs and flows so I do it and then I have time for reflection for thinking and walking. Also now when I have a big decision to make I think the dilemma through in Italian or French, it gives me time to react as I think less quickly in those languages!

As a Wavelength alumnus do you have any advice on turning inspiration into action?

What helps me is to come back from a couple of days like this and allow it to sink in before drawing out what’s useful. I put it all into some kind of visual and then put this up somewhere I can see it so it doesn’t go completely out of my brain. Then from there there will be things to follow up on including some immediate actions.

But I wish I’d done things differently too after Wavelength. I wish I had made more of a commitment of being in touch with people. Even if there’s not an immediate thing to do together something may come up. Use WhatsApp to touch base now and then. Connect on Linked In. With the Personal Boardroom, as shared by co-founder Zella King, we were given some good insights on the people we need around us to support us. A lot of those people were at Oxygen. Now we are conversant with the Personal Boardroom we could be more LA about it and less British – ask for what you need!

Any other final thoughts?

There was a sense that people were wondering before sessions, ‘what will I get out of this’ and then coming out surprised how much was relevant, interesting and had affected them. It’s what Martin Narey said at the end, you can learn something from every single one of these people, something that will help you as a leader and in your work.


Lily Lapenna-Huda MBE is a professional coach and the founder, former CEO and Chair
 of social enterprise MyBnk which 
has brought financial education to
 millions of young people around the
 world. Now based in LA, Lily is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and Ashoka Fellow.


About Wavelength Wavelength is a world-class leadership company. We aim to make the world better through business by enabling ambitious leaders to develop their connectivity, knowledge and resilience. We understand the key issues facing companies today: employee engagement, service excellence, social innovation, digital disruption, leadership resilience and change management. Our unique programmes and insider access to progressive and inspiring organisations offer a radically different model for learning and tangible return on investment.

That’s why companies such as The Guardian Media Group, Eden Project, Jaguar Landrover, BBC, Centrica and Eli Lilly are on our wavelength.

Find out more about Wavelength here.

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