This episode two features a very special friend of mine, and one of the first featured missions we debuted in our newsletter. Caroline Pugh is the Founder and CEO of Oya Partners, which enables family offices, philanthropists, entrepreneurs and investors to deliver effective and forward-thinking strategies for impact, investment, and growth. Her company empowers high impact individuals and brings their visions to life.
Words of Wisdom from Caroline Pugh
Creating a Space of Belonging in the Professional Realm
A professional powerhouse, Caroline is both the star of this episode and a star in her own right changing the game for family offices and philanthropists nationwide by carving out a new niche to spark connection and facilitate knowledge sharing to make strategic decisions about impact, investment, and growth.
Caroline Pugh began her career as the Chief of Staff to Aneesh Chopra at CareJourney, a data analytics company in the healthcare space. Her experience running the show for a high-powered executive from behind the scenes inspired her to empower those in similar roles, specifically those who are looking to make a big difference in the world. This role catalyzed a critical realization for Caroline: how very much we crave and require human connection and an open, honest dialogue.
I couldn’t be more impressed with how deftly she segued this intuitive insight into an actionable and innovative solution. At the intimate dinners she plans, guests can share openly, knowing nothing they disclose will leave the table.
As an advisory firm, Caroline Pugh’s current company Oya Partners is driven by the core mission of working with leading family offices and young global leaders who make direct investments into private companies and funds.
Oya Partners also works with philanthropists and impact investors committed to making systematic change, on a range of issues including philanthropic giving, investment strategy, community building and leadership development.
Something I admire about Caroline Pugh is that she’s so much more than her career. When she’s not taking the reigns of this high-powered business, she serves on the Board and as a Senior Advisor to the Mandela Institute of Humanity as well as an advisor to the Mandela family office. The Institute is founded and led by activist and humanitarian Ndaba Mandela, building upon the legacy of his grandfather, Nelson Mandela.
A pivotal moment in her professional path was a serendipitous series of events that got her involved in a life-changing initiative: supporting Ndaba Mandela’s Washington-DC book launch. Ever since, her relationship with Ndaba has blossomed into a more generative and meaningful initiative than she ever could have imagined.
A simple book launch ultimately turned into so much more. Caroline helped Mandela cultivate new strategies and partnerships that turned his vision into reality. She helped bring his mission to life through his foundation. Check out the five most important takeways I got from our interview below!
Top 5 Takeaways From Caroline Pugh
During our conversation, Caroline shared with me the most important lesson Ndaba taught her about Nelson Mandela:
1. People remember former South African leader Nelson Mandela for his forgiving nature, but he also kept an unwavering commitment to his core values, practicing what he preaches throughout every aspect of his life.
2. Like Nelson Mandela, the best values to aspire towards center around the golden rule: treating other people how you want to be treated.
3. In every interaction, aspire to engage the people you meet with love, dignity, and respect.
4. How Nelson Mandela and Ndaba Mandela taught her to think on a global scale about the world’s biggest problems.
5. How Ndaba Mandela is carrying forward his Grandfather’s legacy and how he has great character to emulate as a leader
Launching People Forward on a Path to Success Where They Truly Belong
As the episode continues, Caroline shares her passion for moving all human beings forward on a global scale, much of which has been influenced by her work with Ndaba and other influential figures who have touched her indelibly throughout her life.
Caroline is both the star of this episode and a star in her own right, illuminating a path towards connection and professional excellence for experts in her field. She has an unmatched capacity to maintain a holistic worldview of our expansive, global, and connective human ecosystem. So many entrepreneurs always forget to take a step back and ask themselves what impact their work is having on others. Caroline helps leaders find their voices, even in situations that carry grave potential political ramifications.
Beyond being an indomitable inspiration for anyone’s career aspirations, Caroline is an incredible friend. She motivates me to strive to be my best self and put in the effort to improve every single day. Unlike many, Caroline genuinely understands the true nature and critical importance of inclusivity and diversity as ethical principles. She has truly committed her entire professional life and expertise to empowering others like her to accomplish the objectives they hold dear. Tune in here- I can’t wait for you to experience our conversation, and I hope you get as much out of it as I did.
BRYAN WISH: Hello everyone. Welcome to the One Away podcast. I’m here with Caroline Pugh, a passionate community builder and connector. She founded Oya Partners in the spring of 2019, a company that works with philanthropists, family offices, foundations, and the private sector on a range of issues including healthcare, technology, next generation philanthropy and leadership. Caroline also serves as a board member of the Mandela Institute of Humanity as the senior advisor to Ndaba Mandela, chairman and cofounder of Africa Rising foundation. In this function, Caroline works on strategies and partnerships to bring the principles and leadership of Nelson Mandela for the next generation to end the HIV AIDS epidemic. Welcome, Caroline!
CAROLINE PUGH: Thanks for having me, Bryan.
BRYAN WISH: So, Caroline, you described your One Away moment as a pivotal experience in your life: meeting Ndaba Mandela. Under what circumstances did you two connect?
CAROLINE PUGH: It honestly happened out of nowhere. It was completely unexpected. The world tends to find amazing ways to bring people together that are destined to meet, and that is essentially what happened. He had written a book called Going to the Mountain: Life Lessons From My Grandfather. He was doing his tour in the U S and we got to meet while he was in DC, and I helped put together his DC book launch, and after that we started working together.
BRYAN WISH: Wow. Tell us, how did you end up putting his book launch event though together? What was the connection point to make that possible?
CAROLINE PUGH: We had a mutual friend who understands that one of my biggest passions is bringing people together and creating opportunities to convene and unique experiences where people get to learn about something brand new. When she had heard that he was getting a book tour and that he was interested in meeting interesting people in Washington, she called me and said, “I feel like you would be the go-to person for this.” I felt very flattered by that, and of course I wanted to be able to do something meaningful, so that’s what we did. We pulled together a great group of people in DC who are influencers and change makers in their own rights, whether they were people in the social media space or the impact space or owners of companies. All of them were very eager to meet with Ndaba when he got here.
She gave a short speech on his values or his upbringing and what he’s doing today. We had a short discussion afterwards that gave me an opportunity to see firsthand who this person was, and how they ultimately wanted to lead their lives. I understood from the get-go the type of person Ndaba was. I definitely was keen to see how I could bring value both to him and his organization.
BRYAN WISH: Fantastic. Well, you are definitely a global connector and someone driving values by helping people in a really authentic way, which I’ve always admired. So you met Ndaba and he was clearly impressed by your work together. I can tell there was a spark that generated something like connective tissue between you two that’s grown into a strong bond lasting until today. What was it at that book launch and during that time you guys spent together where you saw him as someone you wanted in your life for the foreseeable future and vice versa?
CAROLINE PUGH: The first thing I was incredibly impressed with was the clear responsibility he has in Darfur to make a difference within his own community, but also globally. He is committed to carrying on the legacy of his grandfather, president Nelson Mandela, by being a leader for his own country and bridging the gap between Africa and the rest of the world. I found that very admirable, because I know for a lot of people in his situation, whether you’re the son or daughter or grandson or granddaughter of a global leader, it can be very daunting. I’ve seen many people and I’ve read many stories of people retreating into the background instead of having a public life. It’s very difficult. and I can only imagine how much pressure comes with those types of responsibilities.
I admired Ndaba’s full-on commitment to the work he’s doing. I found that very admirable, and I knew immediately that he was someone I ultimately wanted to help. I wanted to be a part of the mission in some way, shape or form. We started spending more time together. He was doing more book events over the course of the summer, and I was so fortunate to be a part of those. Over time, I had this realization of how much power and potential this person had to make a huge impact. If I could at least help him navigate some of the partnerships and conversations that were happening in the U.S., what could that turn into over time? My work with Ndaba was focused on bringing his visions and dreams to life.
BRYAN WISH: Absolutely. You mentioned having an altruistic nature at heart, and you wrote that he constantly reminds you that we all have a responsibility to do better in the world and drive it forward. It seems like you that’s part of you, but what does he do that makes him so special at being able to have a mission? What’s something that he cares so deeply about and is able to make such a profound impact and carry that? What are some of those intangible characteristics you’ve noticed as you both have worked together?
CAROLINE PUGH: Something that I admire about Ndaba is his values. A story that he tells very often is about his grandfather and his values. He makes the point by saying a lot of people remember his grandfather for being able to produce the truth and reconciliation of who his grandfather was.
A lot of people don’t know that his grandfather had incredibly strong values that he maintained for the entirety of his life. He considered that his best trait and accomplishment, even compared to the forgiveness piece. He described all the amazing people that came to the Mandela home over the course of many years, from Muhammad Ali to different presidents from all around the world. Whether you were the president of the United States or an average person, you were made to feel at home. Nelson Mandela would treat every single person with love, dignity and respect. That was something that he wanted to do for the rest of his life, and also wanted to teach his children and his grandchildren.
Ndaba was the first person to be raised by Nelson Mandela. He lived with him for 20 years, and so he exemplifies everything that Nelson Mandela was and is. He is able to see someone who is so true to who they are, which I feel is rare to find.
When he brought up that story, it made me consider how many people I know have stayed true to their values for the entirety of their life. The only two people that came to mind for me were my parents, Now, this is something that I strive towards: defining the things that I want to be about as a human being and how I stay true to that for the rest of my life. Ndaba has been a very inspirational figure in my life for that reason. We have to know what we want to stand for and put out to the world. You have to stay true to that.
BRYAN WISH: Absolutely. I’d be curious to understand, Caroline, when you’re around people, their environment becomes your environment. How has being around Ndaba and his core values influenced how you think? Have his beliefs impacted you beyond your work together and transformed your life in your greater pursuits, which I know you have many of?
CAROLINE PUGH: I think it’s allowed me to think bigger and more globally. When you’ve lived in the same place for a long time, you can get stuck in the same mindset. I’ve lived in the U.S. now for 18 years. I’ve lived in five countries, but I’ve spent most of my adult life in the U.S. I think the average person is taught to pursue one career and a stable home, and to, and to pursue singular types of things, on a singular track. You have to be very good at this one thing and eventually become an expert at it, whether it’s being a doctor or lawyer or whatever else. Now we’re moving more to a society where people can do many things, but it’s still rare to find people who think on a global scale and have big ideas about how they ultimately want to make an impact.
Obviously there are many types of leaders. We’ve seen people like Steve jobs and Elon Musk who were thinking on that type of scale. We’re working with Ndaba and others who want to make a global impact, who are talking about humanity. How can we move humanity forward and progress forward at the same time?
I never thought I would be in a position where my day to day life is very much so centered around those conversations. Now that I’m in this position, it’s very inspiring, but it also reminds me of the responsibility we all have to make the world a better place. That’s why we started the Mandela Institute for the Humanities, which Ndaba is the founder and chairman of. We came up with the name “humanity” because it is about how we can move the human race forward and remind everybody of the values and the shared responsibility and destiny we have to make a contribution to this world.
BRYAN WISH: Very neat. It’s funny, when I met you through Kairos, it was a very global organization, but this seems even more human centered. You can see real progress. So Caroline,Ndaba had a quote back in 1960 before he went to prison. He said, “During my lifetime, I’ve dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live and achieve, but if it needs to be, it’s an ideal I’m prepared to die for.” I’m curious, what would you say if there was one thing that Ndaba might be PR would be prepared to die for if he had to, and if you had to bring it back to you? if it came to a cause, what would be one thing that you’d be prepared to die for?
Caroline Pugh: That’s a great question. I’ve never been asked that. Whenever I ask Ndaba about his own personal legacy, something that he’s extremely passionate and determined about, he says, “I want to be able to unite people of African descent all around the world and especially create a platform and an environment for young people in Africa to have the opportunity to play on the same level playing field as everyone else.”
I think he has the unique perspective of understanding that Africa for the most part has been in the dark where Western societies have come into lavish resources. Africa, for the last hundred years or more, has not had the same opportunities as the rest of the world. So, I think something that he’s very much so prepared to die for is making sure that Africa is now on the same level playing field. A large part of what he’s doing to achieve that movement is empowering young people by giving them the tools and resources. It also involves the eradication of major diseases and health concerns that are happening in Africa, which is primarily the eradication of HIV AIDS. Unfortunately his parents passed away from AIDS at an early age so he was personally affected. He’s definitely determined on those levels.
As for myself I work with incredible people in my life and I feel very grateful for that. I know there’s a specific reason why I’m in this position. I wouldn’t be able to tell you what the specific reason is yet, but I know there is one. Due to the responsibility I feel in fulfilling these missions and the work that I’m doing with these people, I would personally be prepared to die for them because they’re so important to me now. The work that we are doing to make an impact and to make this world a better place is so dire to me and my life because it’s everything that I want to do. If that was ever taken away from me or if that was something that was being threatened, I would definitely be prepared to die for that.
BRYAN WISH: Yeah, absolutely. Wow. I’ve never asked anyone they’d be prepared to die for before, and I’ve never even thought about that myself. So maybe I should do some soul searching. Thank you, Caroline. So you walked into this serendipitous book launch event and met Ndaba, and that catapulted you onto a stage of working with more of these global leaders who have the opportunity to use their lineage to make a global impact on very specific causes. That seems like the beginning of realizing what’s possible in that space, but why don’t you give some insight into how you’re working now. What are some of the logistics and raw materials that are going into some of your processes of working with these people? How are you activating their ideas to make their visions come to life?
CAROLINE PUGH: Sure. Well, I think the first and core thing is all about trust and understanding. When you talk to anybody who wants to make a difference or has a lot of responsibility, a large part of starting to execute and put a plan together is around, Who can I trust to make sure that they understand what I’m ultimately trying to do, but have my best interest in executing on the things that I want to do in the best way possible. And I think, whether it’s in the philanthropy space impact space or overall business, there’s a lot of noise and there’s a lot of people who advertise that they have your best interest or that, , they are an expert and they have all the tools and resources to be successful, on the behalf of you and with you.
It’s hard to understand if you can truly trust somebody, so for me, the most important thing in all of my work is that everybody feels like they can trust me and that I’m truly there for them. I want them to feel like we’re building something together, and that this is not just singular or for the short term. From there, it’s all about defining what they ultimately want to learn more about. My biggest passion and I think strong suit is being able to be the connector of dots between people and things. I wouldn’t say that I’m any one expert about philanthropy or impact or any one particular space because I don’t, I’m 27 years old, but I’ve been able to see a lot of different things. I am very good at getting in touch with people understanding if someone is legitimate or not, and whether they’re making an impact. If someone wants to get into work in Africa or criminal justice reform, my biggest area of interest, I get very excited about it. I understand quite well which people and organizations are the leaders in this space and who’s ultimately making an impact for the long term, versus putting a short term bandaid on the situation. The third piece is creating immersive experiences where people get to truly understand the problem they’re trying to fix and why it is so important. That’s part of the process for any entrepreneur who created a successful product or service that meets the need of a market; they started a company because they experienced the pain of it themselves. Whether it’s the founders of Airbnb or Uber, they saw an opportunity that didn’t exist and that they knew would make life so much easier. The same logic applies to philanthropy and impact space. Anything we do is all about understanding what’s wrong with the system so we can have a much better idea of how we can take control and take action on it.
BRYAN WISH: So alignment and connection with the person comes first, then how can you look at what they’re trying to do and put the people and resources behind it to make it work? Understanding, on a philosophical level, what are they trying to solve? Is it a pain point they’re experiencing? Let me ask you this. Have you gone deeper down, as you’ve started to meet other people in this world? What are some of those problems that they’re trying to solve that you’re trying to be a catalyst for?
CAROLINE PUGH: I admire anybody who is in a position to utilize their platform, whether it’s a media or philanthropy one, dedicating themselves and committing both internally and externally to what they’re saying. That is something I want to make an impact in. I need to start developing a thesis and a strategy that is measurable. Those are essentially the people that I’m working with and hope to continue working with for the rest of my lifetime. What’s exciting about that is that, especially with young people, you’re seeing more and more people who want to spend more time and energy and dollars on making an impact versus completely on for-profit activity.
I was having a conversation with someone earlier today where they said that 80% of Stanford business graduates want to start a company or be a part of a company that has a social impact, which is an amazing statistic. If, out of some of the smartest students, some of the smartest people in the world, 80% are dedicated and committed to making an impact, then ultimately we will be living in a better place someday.
The first step is the intent and the drive behind it. But then what is the actual execution and how do we focus those smart young people in the right direction and to tackle some of the largest problems of today. There are a lot of organizations and institutions and things of that nature that are helping to do that. I personally love working one-on-one with people, understanding where they are in their lives, and figure out the best people for them to talk to. It’s one thing to read about a problem like climate change, criminal justice reform, or healthcare, but it’s another to talk to someone who’s experienced the pain of it.
When you’re sitting across the table from someone who’s been in prison for 25 years and they talked about how they were wrongfully accused and that they’ve spent a quarter of their lives in a jail cell for something that they never did, it impacts you very differently than just reading an article. If we could get 80% of Stanford business graduates and have them sit down with real people who have been affected by, some of the flaws of our society, then that could be a part of accelerating how we can ultimately make an impact.
BRYAN WISH: Yeah, It’s powerful. Something I think maybe you’re saying is that you’re working with people of great magnitude. You’re catalyzing what they’re doing, but I have to imagine from the outside looking in. That’s great, but I know you and how much pressure do you feel? If you give someone the right relationship at the right time or the right idea, that could impact thousands if not millions of people. Do you feel pressure, almost like in the obligation to do this perfectly? What’s it feel like for you behind the scenes to be making a lot of these key decisions, and for people to put their trust into you?
CAROLINE PUGH: That’s a good question. I do feel a lot of pressure because I know I have a big responsibility and there, this is something that I’ve worked very, very hard for. and so I don’t want to give it out. I also understand that there is, like you said, a great deal of impact that can be made if this is done the right way. For me, it’s more about the relationships. I feel the most pressure about fulfilling this relationship to the best of its potential inability positively impacting the person that I’m working with. Are they truly living their highest potential because of how I’m being able to execute on their lives and specific areas?
I think it’s a constant balance of self-reflection and self-understanding, and of saying, okay, what are the things that I am good at and what are the things that I love doing, versus where do we need help and where do I need to learn more and where can I lean on other people to help me figure out what to do? I’m still trying to figure that out and understand my specific value. I have an idea of it now, but that could change over the next 5-10 years, too. As part of this process, I try not to feel too much pressure because that doesn’t ultimately get you anywhere. Stress can be a motivator and inspire you to do more, but ultimately, if you feel overwhelmed, you’re not able to work as efficiently. I’m working on leaning into my strengths and understanding my weaknesses and areas for improvement. Being transparent about that instead of trying to be a jack of all trades all the time is something I’m trying to get better at, as well.
BRYAN WISH: I think that’s a great mindset. I’ve heard pressure can be healthy because feeling nervous in a situation is a stimulant you can channel in a positive way, but too much of that can take you off the tracks. My last question, Caroline, is if Ndaba lived a fulfilling life when he’s at the end of his road and you’re at the end of your road, right? What, what’s the legacy that you believe that he will continue to fulfill? What do you see your legacy being?
CAROLINE PUGH: It’s so funny that you’re literally talking about someone I admire so much and then putting me right next to him because I feel like we’re like totally different people and you can’t even compare the two of us. In terms of Ndaba as his own legacy, I don’t want to speak on his behalf, but from what I know of him today, if he didn’t do anything for the rest of his life, he would have already accomplished so much. In every room he speaks in, he shares a vision and he shares his experiences, and it inspires everybody. He’s spoken at a dinner for a hundred Fortune 500 company executives. All these people were looking to be inspired, understand what their core values are, and how to shape the core values of their companies.
The person who brought them up to the stage and introduced him said, “You all are leaving this room, have an extra spring in our step and an understanding for how we can make a difference.” In the end of it, everybody agreed and the fact that someone like him, a guy that grew up in the ghettos of South and who then moved in with his grandfather, the president of South Africa, could do that to some of the most influential executives in the country, in the world, is huge. I mean, there were people coming up to us afterwards saying, “I want you to come into our company and address and share exactly what you shared tonight with our whole company of thousands of people, because we believe what you said can help shape our culture.” Not many people can do that!
He has a very special ability. It’s not even about “are you a good speaker?” it’s about “can you make people feel something that makes them want to change and make a difference?” If you can do that in one 30-minute speech, that’s invaluable. So I think his true legacy is about changing the narrative; it’s about changing the way people think about their own purpose and passions in life. As for myself, some of my biggest heroes and the people that I look up to are people who have been able to work with the greatest leaders and the greatest people of our time. I admire those who helped behind the scenes; the people helping to shape their lives. Behind every global leader, behind every person that you and I admire, there is a team of people or there is one dedicated person that helps them execute on those ideas to help them be the person that they truly are.
Whether it’s your family members, your closest advisors, or your closest friends, there is always that person or team of people. If I can work with some of the greatest leaders of our time and help them execute on things that ultimately have an impact on millions or billions of people, that’s what I want my legacy to be. At the end of my life, or no one knows my name or what I ultimately did, I’m ok with that. If the people I supported know that we made a big impact together, I will be very, very happy.
BRYAN WISH: Wow. Well, Caroline, thank you so much for your vulnerability, authentic stories and for being yourself. It was a pleasure to learn more about someone who influenced you so much. I think has helped even crystallize some of your visions for the future. So thanks again for sharing. It was a pleasure speaking!
CAROLINE PUGH: Thanks Bryan!