How the private members’ club is being reimagined as an ethical forum

How the private members’ club is being reimagined as an ethical forum

If you needed any further proof that ethical is now both aspirational and desirable, then you need only step through the doors of The Conduit.

Situated in London’s Mayfair, it is a hyper-smart private members’ club, with a twist – instead of catering to creative types (like Soho House) or to the city’s poshest punters (like the more traditional clubs in the British capital), The Conduit is focused on people who are passionate about driving social change. And, having flung open its doors for the first time in September 2018, it has quickly amassed over 3,000 members, from CEOs to students and social entrepreneurs to NGO workers.

Yet, to understand where The Conduit came from, you have to first understand the background of its co-founder and chief creative officer, Paul van Zyl. Paul is a human-rights lawyer by training and served as the Executive Secretary of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After that, he co-founded the International Center for Transitional Justice, a New York-based human-rights organisation, and was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

Having such a prodigious resumé comes with many perks. For Paul, one of these was the fact that he was invited to attend global conferences and forums aimed at tackling the world’s greatest challenges, where he ‘began to understand the power of convenings of people who were interested in positive social change,’ as he puts it.

However, as they travelled the world attending such gatherings, Paul and his co-founders came to realise the limits of this system. ‘You meet in this wonderful setting for three days, you have great conversations, you exchange business cards, then everybody gets on a plane and goes away,’ he says. ‘Ongoing dialogue requires community, trust, information, analysis, and capital – and that’s hard to do in two to three days.’

So he and his co-founders, including Rowan Finnegan, the founder of sustainable investment firm Regenerative Investment, and Nicholas Hamilton, a managing partner of Singapore-based investment firm Laurasia Capital Management, decided to establish a new kind of hospitality business. The founding principle was that if you offered people who care about social change a space to convene in, and if you inspired them with thought-provoking talks, they might together create solutions to the world’s toughest problems – everything from environmental breakdown to female empowerment. And thus, The Conduit was born.

Yet what is it exactly that makes The Conduit any more ethical than your average private members’ club? Its ethos comes through in many ways, but perhaps most obviously in its events programme. The club hosts around 200 events a year, split up across seven thematic areas, each with a clear ethical angle: climate and sustainability; health and nutrition; employment and economic opportunity; gender empowerment; education and skills; arts and culture; justice and equality.

Across the year, leading experts come in to talk to members about their work in these areas. The list so far in-cludes globally renowned figures such as environmentalist and politician Al Gore, Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, novelist and activist Elif Shafak, and broadcaster Christiane Amanpour.

Ethics and sustainability are also built – quite literally – into the fabric of the club. The interiors, designed by Cavendish Studios and Russell Sage Studio, include more than 75,000kg of recycled materials. Walls are covered in a hemp-based plaster from Margent Farm, an eco-farm in Cambridgeshire, to provide better insulation and air quality. The design team, according to Paul, also ‘decided to invest its design pounds in artisanship’; wander round and you’ll find wall tapestries made by female artisans in Swaziland, hand-dyed carpets and ceramics from South Africa, and furniture from local makers using sustainable wood.

Craft and design are just one part of The Conduit’s mission to, as Paul puts it, ‘make what’s ethical desirable’. Another key part of this is the food that’s served in the club’s restaurant. The fish and seafood, for instance, come from day boat fishermen, who fish sustainably in Cornwall; the vegetables are from The Husbandry School, which uses sustainable farming methods and offers therapeutic education to young people and adults; and the wines are overwhelmingly organic and biodynamic.

Yet the club’s name offers arguably the greatest clue to its ethical purpose. Most obviously, it occupies an eight-storey neo-classical building on Conduit Street in Mayfair. Yet the name also refers to the role the club plays for its members. ‘We wanted to be the conduit – literally – between people. To connect people together, to convene, to create community and then let people generate and accelerate the solutions,’ says Paul, who was recently chosen, alongside co-founder Rowan, as one of London’s most influential ‘social curators’ by newspaper The Evening Standard.

Moreover – and very unusually – The Conduit takes an active role in helping its members with their ventures, and this is where it goes well beyond being simply a hospitality business and becomes something altogether more interesting. A separate business, Conduit Capital, has been set up for helping members globally scale their high-impact solutions to social and environmental issues through the deployment of knowledge, networks and capital.

Conduit Capital will eventually do this through three channels. Currently, The Conduit Connect matches early-stage investment opportunities with members who can be potential investors, mentors or board members. But eventually this will be joined by The Conduit Investment Advisor, which will manage in-house funds focused primarily on growth-stage investment opportunities and provide shared services to third-party funds, and The Conduit Foundation, which will support impactful endeavours requiring philanthropic capital. The foundation is set to launch in the coming months.

These three arms of Conduit Capital are all about enabling scale in impact and it’s what elevates The Conduit above a straightforward private members’ club. Not only does it get the right people together in an inspiring and considered space; it also helps them bring to fruition their ideas for creating positive social impact. ‘We like to think of ourselves as Capital + People, when it comes to accelerating social change,’ says Paul.

It’s this fundamentally positive outlook (alongside a successful comms campaign and a cherry-picked first batch of 1,500 members) that has meant The Conduit, just one year after opening its doors, is now home to a growing community of members.

Indeed, positivity is a huge part of the appeal. ‘You could look at the global landscape and get a bit depressed by what’s happening,’ Paul admits. ‘But the paralysis of looking at a problem and then being overwhelmed by it is the opposite of what we’re trying to do. We’re saying, "We see the problem, we see the crisis, and we’re going to act and solve."’ For The Conduit, acting and solving are about getting the right people in the same room consistently, inspiring and informing them with events and talks, and then providing them with the support they need to make their impactful ventures successful.

The appetite for this kind of optimism doesn’t stop in London, either. Paul says he and his team are ‘very actively looking at New York’, with some ‘very interesting opportunities’ on the cards there. And they are also looking closely at continental Europe, where they have identified a ‘massive yearning’ for a hospitality concept like The Conduit.

With all this demand elsewhere, why was the British capital the first choice for the very first iteration of The Conduit? In essence, Paul says, ‘London is the most competitive market for private members’ clubs in the world. If you can do it here, then you can do it anywhere.’ Its success in the city seems to be continuing unabated. So, prepare to see a Conduit opening its doors in a city near you before too long.

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