Philanthropy podcast: Emma Turner speaks to Lord Jim O’Neill
In this episode, Emma Turner, Director of Barclays Private Bank Philanthropy Service, speaks to Lord Jim O’Neill, British economist and former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, known for coining the term ‘BRIC’. Lord O’Neill is the Founding Trustee and Board Member of the UK educational charity, SHINE, which helps children across the North of England to achieve the best possible qualifications so they leave school with real choices in their future lives.
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Emma Turner (ET): Welcome to the Barclays' Private Bank Philanthropy podcasts, a series that tries to understand what drives leading philanthropists and what they've learnt along the way.
My name is Emma Turner and I run the Philanthropy Service.
So I’m incredibly pleased today to be joined by Lord Jim O’Neill, who I have been lucky enough to know since we met at Goldman Sachs quite a few years ago now.
Back then he was Chief Economist and creator of the acronym BRIC and very involved in the firm’s charitable endeavours. Well as you can imagine, his feet have barely touched the ground since then and a few highlights include being very involved in the design and shaping of the Northern Powerhouse, led an independent review into antimicrobial resistance and naturally became chair of Chatham House in 2018.
He continues to be a lifelong and passionate supporter of Manchester United and the founding trustee and board member of the UK educational charity Shine.
Jim has served on the board of a number of educational foundations, a topic very close to his heart. Last but by no means was least, in 2015 he created a life peer as Baron O'Neill of Gatley, or Gatley probably, so I should really be addressing him as Lord O’Neill – but he says I can still call him Jim.
Jim, how are you today?
Lord Jim O’Neill (LJO): I’m good thank you, thank you for that walk through my illustrious CV, and indeed it is Gatley.
ET: Ok, thank you very much. So we’ve got a few things we’re going to talk about today. And I think the first two questions really, and that is was it nature or nurture that led you along your path? And what role has your family played in your journey, because you and I have had many conversations about both your parents, but particularly, I think your dad, whom I think was very instrumental in helping you, sort of helping you form your early life, so can we have a quick chat about him first please?
LJO: Yeah my old dad, bless his cotton socks, the more time passes since they both disappeared, they both died relatively young for this era of history and so it’s quite a while since they both passed away.
But the more time passes the more I do reflect that my dad, I never thought it at the time, as I guess most kids don’t that my dad was having y influence on me whatsoever. I think he certainly left some things with me especially as it relates to education.
My dad came from a tough sort of Mancunian Irish background. His family had some kind of roots in Ireland and in the republican world in the tough part of Manchester. He left school at the age of 14 and I’m not sure, I’m not sure, not sure if it was resentment but it was obvious that he felt that he’d missed out on the potential benefits of having an education, when he observed the kind of lifestyles when he observed the kind of lifestyles other people of his age and era had.
But primarily I think as a result of that he was obsessed about my three sisters and myself all treating school seriously and sort of took it for granted that we would all go to university, even though in those days of course you didn’t have the same grants system.
I was completely obsessed with football as a kid and it wasn’t quite clear for me the importance of going to a decent school, doing homework or going to university but he just wouldn’t let me stop and you know as I say, in hindsight, had a huge influence for me, And also I’ll never forget, I think I have told you this story before, many years later, after I had done a PhD, which virtually every other human being that I was friendly with thought was a ludicrous thing for me to do.
When Caroline and I, my partner, when we subsequently moved to New York in the mid-80s, my dad used to mail me the Manchester Football Print, which was a Saturday evening football newspaper and he would address it to Dr O’Neill. I think he was the only person in the world that would ever acknowledge me as Dr O’Neill at the time, so he was obviously very proud of it.
ET: Aww, and I do, I never asked you this but have you got siblings and did he put them under the same kind of pressure as well?
LJO: I’ll tell you another, just sort of thinking it through and feeling slightly tearful actually that on his dying bed, I think what is it now, it’s 15-16 years ago…
I have three sisters and one of which now lives in the States - the eldest one and she has done for a long time and when we all sort of went off to college and university and do our thing, she was the only one who went to live back in Manchester, near to where kids were, at least initially, the ones that were closest to my parents or to their grandparents.
When my sister came over from Florida to see my dad about a week before he was dying, I was there that day, I was there most days… and linked to the same theme, her son that’s called Adam, she said to him that I’m very sorry that Adam couldn’t come to see you and he says, “Never mind that, make sure he’s concentrating on his bloody education and stop kicking a football around like that scoundrel there stood next to ya” pointing at me. It was so moving, it was very moving.
ET: Well I remember you reading a letter for me at the carol service at Goldman Sachs and I remember saying to you how proud your dad would have been and I remember you saying halfway through reading it you nearly choked up because you thought of him and there you were standing reading a letter and it was very emotional I think for both of us, so that’s why I wanted to talk about him because I know…
LJO: No listen no, I remember, you’ve also reminded me that when I made my maiden speech in the House of Lords, my dad was sort of late to this kind of background, he was a staunch working class Tory he would have been part of this sort of you know perception of so called ‘red wall’ Tories.
But I acknowledged my dad in my maiden speech because he would have been, as my mum, for different reasons they would have been so, the whole idea that I would end up being a member of the House of Lords I mean it’s kind of ridiculous to be honest. But my dad would have been, again, the only person who would have sort of “well of course you should be!”
ET: Yes! Well how lovely, how lovely. Well okay were going to send a nice little message up to dad today, he sees it…
LJO: Well that’s nice
ET: He’s doing okay don’t worry about him.
We can’t possibly, before we get to the philanthropic side of your life which is really the point of this conversation, but I mean I only gave a little kind of snippet, but do you have any career highlights that you feel have really formed who you are today in particular or maybe, maybe not, I don’t know I want to ask the question.
LJO: I do actually, I do. But you know if I’m selective, I laughed to myself when you were going through my CV and had the dubious challenge of having to say the phrase antimicrobial resistance.
When I read that review and subsequently it’s probably the most interesting thing I’ve ever done in my career, partly because it’s so important and particularly in the context of COVID it’s given me some familiarity, to put it mildly with the whole challenge of infectious diseases.
And it’s so important, so global, so complex, and we seemingly had a big influence on this issue around the world and it was very, very gratifying and particularly so, because when I left Goldman’s as I think I told you before, obviously being a partner for a long time I didn’t need to do anything and so I dreamt up the notion that anything I would do, if it couldn’t be better, it had to be different.
And I got encouraged to do this review especially for that reason and it indeed, not only could I not pronounce antimicrobial resistance, I didn’t actually even know what it was. I tell this joke which is partially true. I got this phone call from a senior government person on my mobile as Caroline and I were walking to a wine tasting event that our son had bought for me as a birthday present.
And she could sort of just about hear what was being said and she said, “You should do that” and I said “Really?” and she said, “Yeah because it’s the first time in over 30 years that not only I understand anything you do but anything that I’d be interested in.
So, I regard that as a major gratification of my professional life and I guess if I had to pick another one or two more, one is actually setting up SHINE which we will talk about in a minute, but also becoming a partner at Goldman.
If I go back to the years before when I was sort of working as a research person competing against Goldman, I used to look at the place as though it was a, you know, full of complete weirdos and freaks. Why would anybody work 18 hours a day everyday of their lives, you know, in order for the outcomes that they pushed?
So the whole idea that I’d end up there was sort of crazy and they tried for many years to try and get me there. They got so desperate they ended up offering me a partnership in the days when it wasn’t… I think I was only the fifth person ever or something like that.
And so I was a bit sort of stunned and I was obviously also pretty proud about that and my dad was still alive then so he was, he was also very proud of that.
ET: And what did Caroline, because Caroline is obviously a very big part helping you make decisions or you know giving you feedback on choices that come along, and what was her reaction about that? Was she was she, “Oh, go for it” or was she totally, “Don’t go anywhere near it”?
LJO: No she was the deciding factor actually. I had I had some considerable, I mean I joked about it but I did have some reluctance, I wasn’t sure if it was kind of me.
And I remember the exact place, we were in our bedroom sitting on the bed and I said, “Shall I do it, shall I go for this or not,” and she said, “Of course, how can you say no?”
And she said to me, “As you often say, so long as the place allows you to be you, then why would you not?” and then as soon as she said that, I thought yeah I’ve got do it. And she’s my great best friend in life, my great sort of, in some ways my mentor, I trust her judgment about decisions I’ve made a lot.
ET: I used to say about that institution and I think its true and I’m going to put you in this category and by the way it’s a compliment, before I say it.
They were very good at hiring misfits, because they sort of knew back in the day, when you and I were there that they needed misfits alongside all the fits, because they needed people to disrupt.
They needed people to have a different opinion and they needed people to have a very different perspective and I think that was one of the things that I admired most about them actually.
I’m not sure it’s quite that now and it’s harder and harder of course to hire misfits but you need misfits in organisations because they are going to shake it up a bit so I’ve always anyway put us in the misfit category but I do mean that as a compliment.
Um, I was going to ask you who your heroes are next and now given we’ve talked about your dad and obviously Caroline, is there anyone else that springs to mind before we move onto why you started SHINE and how that’s developed over the years?
LJO: Well, I was thinking about this in advance of us chatting because I thought you might ask me this.
Yeah I, and this might be another sign of me being a bit of a misfit but I often struggle to identify with particular characters, you know famous people that one might normally think of as being their heroes.
But what I would say in the spirit of what we’ve said so far is that as my yardstick by you know, stating the obvious in a way, but I value more people that I’ve known the longest.
Especially my family, especially Caroline, my adult kids, and to some degree my sisters. Also, my closest circle of friends, a bit of an oddity in a way, but it also helps me during COVID because they are people that I’ve known a long, long time.
I’ve a group of 20-25 of them are from my days at Sheffield University, living all over the place. We don’t see each other physically that often, but as evident by the sort of WhatsApp chats that I have with those people, the one with this crowd is the most active during COVID.
And I really value my friendship with them, they are a very diverse bunch and we all do different things, we don’t really have that many professional interests but you know I regard these people as my kindred spirits.
And then when I think about, and of course, and also another side of my oddity is when I really do hone in on people I think are my heroes – surprise surprise, quite a few of them would come from the world of football.
As you know I’m obsessed about Manchester United and have been since the age of seven when I first went, and Denis Law part of the three of the Holy Trinity has always been my favourite footballer.
I’ll tell you a funny story about that. I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of people in life. Alex Ferguson who is definitely one of the other ones, I do, Alex’s ability to act as an effective leader and to adapt – remarkable, remarkable!
I’ve had the privilege of being quite friendly with Alex and he had a big celebration for his 25th anniversary of being the United manager. They did it at a place called The Points, which is a sort of entertainment venue at Lancashire cricket club.
I was invited along and I partly shared a table and took a couple of mates of mine, needless to say we had far too much to drink even before the thing really got going.
And I saw out of the corner of my eye, Dennis Law, now a slightly elderly Dennis Law, walking over to somewhere beyond where we were sitting. So I jumped up, went over to him and said “Dennis, Dennis I’ve got to come and say hi”.
And I said to him, “You won’t remember but in the early 1970s when I was doing my A-levels, I used to work in a pub on Monday night and you used to come in every Monday with a Manchester City player, Mark Summerbee and have half a pint of bitter and I would serve you”.
And I could see him thinking who the hell is this guy and he says he says, “Oh are you still working there?” and just walked off. Which kind of put me in my place.
ET: That is a great story!
LJO: I know, so funny. So Dennis Law, Alex Ferguson and the mischievous part of me, which it’s certainly not a role model, but like many other people growing up in that era that were obsessed about football, I wanted to be George Best.
LJO: You know George Best had everything!
LJO: And you know, one of my closest mate’s sister was amongst his many conquests in life and so you know we all used to think, look this good looking, talented guy, and he just sort of, you know anything this guy wanted in life was George’s - so I think, I want to be George Best!
ET: I’ve only ever been to one football match in my life and it was when George Best made his comeback at Fulham and I was really shocked by the amount of swearing on the pitch.
LJO: Yeah it’s terrible, terrible! Another thing that links part of my past that in this regard that after he died, Manchester United’s next game was at West Ham United and beautifully I managed to get a couple of tickets. West Ham hosted this incredible tribute to the life of George Best, it was a very poignant day for the two of us, it was lovely.
ET: Aww. Right now, I remember you sitting on a… well me sitting on one of your sofas in your office at Goldman Sachs and you’d just gone out and spent the day volunteering with a charity that is no longer with us and I think that’s all we’ll say about it…
LJO: I remember that day yeah…
ET: You had your head in your hands and you said, “Emma, I cannot believe the depravation less than 5 miles from this office at Goldman Sachs and I’m going do something.” I’m presuming that was the day that the idea of doing what has now become SHINE, so do you just want to talk about…
LJO: Yeah it was
ET: …That moment, and then sort of fast track if you like as to why you’ve done what you’ve done and also I think importantly for other people, what it gives you.
Because I think it’s important to acknowledge that if one does move in this world, which you and I move in for different reasons, so why you do it and what you get out of it, because it’s never going to be a one way street. So, let’s just talk about SHINE.
LJO: Yeah, yeah… no thank you. So I remember that day well, as well I was really taken with that experience.
You know I was kind of shocked, at as you have politely implied, that here we are all living in our very fine world at Goldman and everybody indeed working ridiculously hard in the narrow functioning of that world and indeed less than five miles away you’ve got these poor kids, many of whom didn’t have a home to go to, and the whole idea of having any kind of education was the last thing, you know just surviving each day – never mind having an education.
And it was remarkable and actually it led to me to giving that particular charity quite a bit of money which seems like it wasn’t wisely spent – but it was the beginning of me thinking about SHINE. Not so long afterwards, one of the co-founders, another good mate of mine Mark Heffernan, who’d been a proprietary trader at Goldman but had gone off to work in the hedge fund world, came from a pretty normal background like me.
We were at Ascot races of all places, and this was just as Goldman was planning to go public and he said to me, “What are you going to do with the rest of your life now you’re going to be so wealthy?”
And I said, “Well, weirdly I have not even thought about anything, and I don’t think about anything to do with my life in that context,” because even without that, just being where I was, even the job before Goldman allowed me a level of wealth I had never dreamt I would attain.
And that was a beginning of a more serious discussion and it led to us deciding to give something back to education, because linked to what we have already touched on, bringing in the other two strands.
My dad had been obsessed about our education, but my mother and father did not have any money. My dad came from a tough background, he was a postman and then ended up through his own efforts running a post office, but they had no money.
And as children we went to a state primary and junior school in a very tough part of Manchester. I knew that it was only because of my parents’ persistence that we got on.
There were kids that I went to that school with, who were probably as capable as I might have been, but just never had the environment where they could be encouraged to go through education.
So that made me realise that I needed to give something back to support people from that kind of environment.
As an aside, and I think I may have told you this story as it relates to SHINE, many, many years later, about ten years ago, there’s a school called Cross Acres in Wythenshawe in a tough part of south Manchester.
They had a SHINE project going on, so I went back there to say hello.
I met one of the dinner ladies in the yard at break and I was introduced to her because apparently we were in the same year and I didn’t remember her.
Like many people from there, they were all from that exact neighbourhood and so I quizzed her about three lads that would have been in our era. They were all dead and two of them hadn’t got beyond the age of 40, and these were people that I used to play football with as a kid.
So, you know that just added to me about the importance of something like SHINE. Of course the other thing that goes with it, in my professional training as an economist, as economists frequently say even though people – we struggle to explain to people why it’s so important – productivity is at the end of the day the key thing to countries’ success and education is probably – of all the things that mater for productivity, is probably the most important.
So if I put my own background, my own good fortune, and my own professional belief all together you know, SHINE has become one of the most important things in my life.
As we now are into our third decade of its existence and it’s a huge part of my life and in fact linked to some of the enormous challenges of this COVID pandemic – the missing out of the educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged is one of the biggest challenges here in the UK and probably many other countries, of it.
SHINE is coming again to its forte. I’ve been pretty involved with the team and I think I’ve shared it with you, there’s the most beautiful story – very uplifting and it’s about nine days old now, since the day we’re talking.
This young chap in Huddersfield, he’s 13years old who thinks he can get a decent home schooling through COVID, just woke up one day and decided he was going to walk to and back from his school early every morning before he starts his home schooling for 32 consecutive days, each additional day carrying another book in his satchel, so on day 32 he will have 32 books and he was going to try and raise £200 for SHINE.
It just came out of nowhere, and of course needless to say when I and some of my friends got hold of this story we tried to give it a bit of publicity.
And I think as of last night, that the guy’s now managed to get over £7,000 and a couple of SHINE supporters are going to match the total amount that this guy raises.
And it just epitomises so many wonderful things about SHINE, but also the context and the way that some people are positively behaving about challenges in life through this crisis, it’s lovely.
I hope Emma, yourself and your colleagues at Barclays can get this and help us to get this story out all over the place.
ET: I often say to people you know – never underestimate the imagination of young people you know like this young boy, the thing we haven’t talked about, and very briefly so that our listeners understand – what would say is the main focus of how SHINE does its work? Because I seem to remember you were doing sort of out-of-school programmes in the earlier days, is that still what you’re doing?
LJO: No it’s changed a bit actually, so the principle of SHINE and this will be familiar to much of your audience is really venture capital investing or so called VC investing.
What it essentially believes in – and we’ve had this philosophy since the start is to find initiatives, if they can be supported and developed and grown to scale, can become more and more effective and influential and beneficial to the educational outcome of people from a background of [the] disadvantaged.
SHINE stands for support and help in education but we aim to exclusively finance programmes or projects that help those from a less advantaged background to reach their potential.
And in the early days we did all our efforts around projects in London or very close to London, because we also believe in monitoring and evaluation – we we’re a bit of an oddity when we first came on the scene.
We sort of applied rigorous research type techniques that weren’t so familiar to the charity sector at the time and that’s kind of what led us to a number of priority areas including to what I think you are referring to which is, SHINE on Saturdays.
Which is essentially a volunteering programme on Saturday mornings for kids to turn up and have an additional education and that was a big part of our early years and in the spirit of VC and partly because of the significant improvement in the school attainment of schools for many disadvantaged boroughs of London.
About four years ago now, maybe just over, one of my fellow trustees, David Blood, a guy that you would know well originally came up with the idea, when I was in government so I had temporarily stepped off the board, and said, “Why doesn’t SHINE decide to move north where the education gap has deteriorated relative to London and the South East and there’s many different locations of huge educational attainment deficiency and sort of try to reinvent itself and presume VC philanthropy up there?”
And it was a rather clever idea, not least given that I’ve got Mr Northern Powerhouse stamped on my forehead as well as BRICs and we kind of knew it would be difficult for me to resist getting back involved actively when I came out of government, as I did.
And so for the past four years SHINE has been at the heart of everything to do with educational initiative of the North and in that sense I’m proud to say that SHINE is not letting a crisis go to waste here and has been heavily involved with some others about the whole issue of a so-called catch up premium. Fiona and her team with us have played a huge role in this, but the general projects that we support these days essentially cover three areas:
So called early years. Secondly, and this is crucial because we couldn’t just repeat what we did in London - we had to learn - the transition years from primary into secondary or primary junior into secondary was an amazing amount of evidence and it’s slightly weird, but in the North of England the general performance, if you could describe it as general, is that the educational outcomes at primary are not that different from London and the South East.
But by the time kids are leaving secondary school, there’s a huge gap opened up and the evidence appears to be that particularly in more isolated communities, so in some of the rural areas or the old industrial towns that aren’t so close to the big cities, there’s a huge struggle for kids going from primary to secondary and so SHINE is very focused on trying to help initiatives to change that.
And then thirdly, also the transition from school into post-school life of some kind of adult skills learning or going into work. So we’ve changed and developed in the spirit of VC that we try to support whatever we think is, what is most appropriate for where we are trying to aim to.
Two other things to quickly say and we’re a big supporter and sort of creating our own that is sometimes known as so-called ‘opportunity areas’ where you take a particularly disadvantaged community and try to support a whole gamut of different initiatives.
Blackpool being a particularly interesting example. In fact, many old historic industrial coastal towns are as well known as very poor places these days and it’s really important that some of these initiatives are put together and we are very actively involved in those.
The last thing to highlight is one of the few things were saying nationally is and has become a great success for us – we have a competition every year that’s called ‘Let Teachers Shine’.
Where we basically invite ideas and applications from any teacher in the school and we have a panel that awards, I think it’s ten winners and they get a small financial reward, and then if they develop the plan, SHINE along with other supporters will help develop it.
And some of the greatest initiatives in teacher-led learning are being supported by this ‘Let Teachers Shine’ programme. There’s two or three of them that have gone on for major national success and we’re very proud about having supported them.
ET: You see what’s so brilliant about this is that when you look back at where you started and where you’ve got to is that you’ve always been willing to change and grow and not kind of stay where you are.
It would be lovely if more charities were able to do that but we’re very – we’re kind of running out of time so I’m not going to ask you what you would take to your desert island, but I’m going to ask you…
LJO: Can I just say in that regard, it’s an important point, given your huge experience in guidance of people. Part of the great reason why it’s such a thrill is that we do adapt and change and the whole move North was almost like starting from scratch again 16 years later, but with the experience that we’d had from the first 16 years and it makes it very exciting.
ET: Well I hope more people listening to this who are involved with charities will encourage them not to sort of stay where they are but to look to the future and move forward.
So Jim, my final question, because we are probably going to run out of time, so I wont ask you what you’d take to your desert island, but what do you think is next for you, either personally or professionally SHINE-wise or any other-wise that you would like to tell us about.
LJO: You know the answer is I don’t know. I try to stick to the principle of when I left Goldman 7 years ago and it’s sort of helped me have a very so far contented life professionally.
That you and I know many of our senior colleagues that retired from Goldman and frankly a number of them sort of struggled about identifying and fulfilling their life since they left.
And I was very mindful of that and I was worried, which was partly why I deliberately chose to leave Goldman at a timing of my own and when people didn’t really expect me to, so that there wouldn’t be that issue.
I dreamt up this idea that if it couldn’t be better, it had to be different to make sure my mind would still be agile and I could learn and adapt and change as my life went on.
If I look at the seven years, of things I’ve generally done since I left Goldman, I wouldn’t have dreamt that these are things I’d be doing when I was there. It’s been essentially public policy.
Obviously Northern Powerhouse, antimicrobial resistance and SHINE are the three things that have been the most dominant and I am very committed and passionate to all three.
I don’t need to do anything and I don’t want to just get dragged into doing things for the sake of it and I need to as time goes by make sure I have sufficient time for my wife and my kids and my close friends.
So I’ve got pretty tough standards about things I get asked to do and I hope I retain that and I like to think that there will be something around the corner new and different and I don’t know what it is yet.
ET: And you know, knowing you there will be. Now if I was there I would give you a hug if I was allowed to, so I’m going to send you a virtual hug and a huge thank you.
As always it’s such a joy to interview you – it’s the easiest thing in the world and I hope that we can ask you back in a year’s time to do another one for us, but until then thank you so much Jim O’Neill for your wonderful stories today. Thank you.
LJO: Thank you Emma, that’s very sweet of you and I will look forward to that.
ET: Alright Jim, bye!
LJO: Bye Emma!
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