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After Hurtwood: Alexei Levene – entrepreneur extraordinaire

Time to meet Alexei Levene, one of those rare human beings who combine a passionate concern for human well-being with an ability to actually make a difference within the wider world of human commerce and interaction. Fresh from speaking at Davos and the Qatar Economic Forum where he has had the attention of some of the most powerful world leaders, meet a man with a mandate for change, and with a finger on the pulse of climate issues. Having set a fascinating trail over more than two decades, Alexei seems poised ready to lead the charge in addressing the issue of water (‘the most undervalued resource today’, he tells me) in our troubled and climate-challenged world. His company, Desolenator, is set to roll out a desalination technology using solar energy rather than chemical process, turning sea water into drinking water. This in itself is not new; what is revolutionary and exciting is the scale on which this can be carried out, as Desolenator has just proved. Could this alchemy prove to be the holy grail of our time? With a summer of searing sun and terrifying leaps of temperature in Britain and across the world that have left us sizzling and the press gasping, here is something to focus our minds rather effectively. Surely this must be part of the solution? I’m already fascinated and want to understand both the process itself and how our Hurtwood boy has ended up in such an interesting position. It took a while to catch up, not least due to demob happy disorganization on my part. This is one busy and focused human being, but Alexei generously makes time to share his journey onwards from the Surrey hills to the white heat of the climate debate. In his own words, ‘It’s been a wild ride.’ So sit down, buckle up and lean into it! There is plenty here to inform and inspire!

So, let’s start with basics. What brought him to Hurtwood? Serendipitous happenstance on one level, it seems; a frustrating disillusionment with the traditional ‘English public school tradition’ as Alexei puts it, had driven his exhausted parents to a wise educational advisor. They took a punt on this alternative system, and it proved redemptive, he tells me. Hurtwood gave him ‘the happiest days’ of his whole educational years. ‘It was transformative.’ He clarifies: ‘the pretty miserable time’ that had constituted his education thus far gave way to ‘a genuinely great experience’. Everything seemed to combine: the ‘beautiful setting, amazing teachers’ and the invitation to address them by their first names, ‘studying Theatre’, oh yes and let’s not forget, ‘there were girls!’ The ‘stigma of authority’, as Alexei calls it, evaporated at last. He explodes with enthusiasm for the energy he found on the campus and in the classroom, recalling the regular discussions and ‘hysterics’ in History with Jackie Quinn who he describes as ‘the best teacher I have ever had’. She soon told him that he was capable of either failing the subject entirely or flying to the top. He of course flew, ultimately achieving the highest mark within the whole cohort. In Theatre, he remembers Mike Friend and Hugo Ellis’s passionate exploration of performance and communication, which he clearly regards as formative. Consolidating his linguistic skills with an A-level in French with the redoubtable Ali Morton, he found that he had stopped fighting the system and was moving forward at last to the future working world.

So, with an excellent portfolio of A Levels, where to next? A brief flirtation with law in the form of a CPE qualification confirmed that this was not the world for him, so rather by accident than design he found himself scooped up by an American software company which, with little volition on his part, transported him to Dallas, Texas. He surprised even himself to find that he functioned rather well in this world, particularly in the fields of business development and sales, and for a few years he built on experience and range across several similar companies. His advice to others feeling their way into the working world? Have a go and see, and in this case he made connections and gained knowledge and skills that have shaped his career in fundamental ways. This was a young man in a hurry, however, and one always ready, it seems, to follow his heart. So at this juncture, love took him to Poland, where he continued to work in digital software. Pretty soon he ditched the corporates, trained his own team, and began marketing his own software products. This kept him busy for a while, but once again it is clear that Alexei is driven by an agenda of personal challenge and fulfilment in a broader sense, and not simply satisfied by financial success. A voice from the past, an unlikely mentor from his earliest commercial days, an ex-special services veteran, a Geordie to boot, invited him to join a group of other CEOs whom he was taking to meet the Dalai Lama, no less. The stated aim was to extend the discussion on ‘business as a force for good,’ and this seems the key intersection of change in his career trajectory. Becoming part of this critically important conversation and network, Alexei soon found himself living in Paris, sharing a flat with a Tibetan who had only recently been freed from prison in Tibet and developing a genuinely exciting new approach to the business world alongside his pal. Philosophically, this centred on ‘bringing Buddhist psychology as a sort of metaphor for personal development and organisational design,’ to business development, and developing new software to make this happen. ‘We talked of innovation,’ he tells me, ‘but the idea was to produce better leaders,’ and enrich work practice. ‘It was way ahead of its time,’ Alexei observes, and they soon found themselves much in demand. Amongst many other roles, they were creating virtual worlds for many different businesses to increase self-understanding and analysis. One of the biggest was Shell, who employed their expertise to reflect on the future shape of the company over the coming 20 years, and for whom they utilised a ‘game’, World of Warcraft, as a metaphor for organisational design and leadership. They were having creative riot, he tells me, living in various parts of Paris, including Bastille (our Zoom catch-up is on July 14th – vive la revolution!) challenging mindsets and work practices of the wider business world, and the future looked innovative. What happened next was the catastrophic financial collapse of 2008, which put paid to such promising challenges to the mindset of the corporate world. There was no longer a business to be made, and the cold reality saw him return to the UK wiser, more committed than ever to a better working world but needing first and foremost to earn a living.

Back in London, he dabbled with some consultancy until another opening presented itself in the form of a friend who had been working on an academic project to open up wider investment in eco projects in the form of wind farms and solar farms across the UK. They joined forces with a few others forming a business that aimed to extend investment beyond the limited field of high-net-worth individuals. Abundance, as it came to be called, became the first regulated crowdfunded platform in Europe, opening investment possibilities from ’ordinary people’ from as little as five pounds. Simple idea: better world for all, and returning to one of the oldest of ideas, the truly ‘mutual’ bank, where the investor has the choice (and moral satisfaction) of knowing where his hard-earned savings would be invested. Projects have ranged across the harnessing of wave, wind and solar power, and to this date Abundance has handled over 120 million pounds of investment. Alexei observes, ‘the business is still going strong’ and the crowdfunding principle widely imitated. A shareholder still in this company he ‘exited’ when financial exams loomed, and something more interesting was already beckoning: this time it was India calling, and things were about to get crazily inventive.

Once again it was word of mouth that opened a new direction. Hearing word of a project driven by an extraordinary woman, SB, who had already instituted many elements of societal change and social empowerment, Alexei rapidly found himself on a plane out to Kerala, and pledging a year to the project that he found there. Central was the focus on women and female co-operatives, because they were so routinely marginalised and powerless. The aim was to provide them with self-supporting financial autonomy, and he was soon involved in all manner of projects, often working out of his own garden and with a pack of local stray dogs joining in! One important strand involved training blind social innovators in leadership and business skills at, whilst explored eco inventiveness. Some of the more commercial elements covered a ‘smart’ ring, also a buckle, both functioning rather like early Fitbits. Central was the challenge of desalination through the use of solar power, solved by one of the many extraordinary inventors involved in the project. They were soon able to make a panel that could produce 20 to 30 litres of drinking water a day without any chemical intervention. Here was the alchemy: now, how to scale this up and roll it out across an increasingly needy (if not necessarily wised-up) world? Winning a competition from 3,000 start-ups called Climate Kicks, he and his partner realised it was time to get serious. A move back to the UK to set up the business was short-lived: Brexit meant a shift to Holland which was happily proved ‘the best move’. A ‘superb investor’, a specialist in desalination, was now onboard: the time to ‘go big’ had arrived. This is exactly where I find Alexei, based now out in Dubai, with the first major plant impressively operational, and proof to the most sceptical that this idea can work. Once again Alexei is working ‘to raise money as ever’, surely now with a world wrestling with the global fall-out of climate change, more attuned to listen. With world leaders ‘actually listening’ at Davos, there must be more hope that the backyard project of chemical-free solar desalination could provide the most necessary of all human requirements, clean drinking water, limited only by sun and sea. This is precisely where I find him and why he is so busy. Expect to hear more of Desolenator, expect a burst of enthusiastic crowdfunding in the near future, offering all of us the chance to play a part in harnessing some elements of climate change for the good of all, becoming part of the solution and not just the problem. I told you this was important as well as impressive.

So other world-changing milestones are afoot for Alexei himself. He and his girlfriend, now fiancée, are expecting their first child, which is surely the most powerful imperative of hope for our future world. The prospect is clearly exciting, and not just for his patient parents, he tells me. It has been a truly ‘wild ride’ from Hurtwood days. Asked in a recent interview about entrepreneurial endeavours he advised resoundingly ‘Don’t do it!.. unless you have to’. He freely admits that although he has found his way through, it has to be the most challenging options and requires a driving passion with pretty well no alternatives. From the ‘transformative’ (his words) two years at Hurtwood, he seems to have found his way through all kinds of marvellously creative and philanthropic projects that have drawn on his intellectual, spiritual and physical skills to something of a watershed moment – if you pardon the pun. As we part, he tells me that he is enjoying catching up with other ex-Hurtwooders out in Dubai, sharing that sense of alternative individuality that it accommodated. It has been a real pleasure, as ever, to spend time with such a charismatic, committed ex-student: out there, making a better world and doing us proud. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Alexei Levene: so get out your wallets for the good of us all.


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