A futurist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur, Derek Handley has devoted his life and career to empowering others to develop self-knowledge and achieve personal fulfillment while improving the fortunes of the world we share and the people who populate it.
The vehicle for Handley’s life’s work is the Aera Foundation, a charitable trust registered with the New Zealand Charities Commission. The Aera Foundation invests in causes and companies innovating to solve pressing social and environmental issues — all united behind the foundation’s mission to improve the state of people and the planet.
Aera-backed philanthropic and social entrepreneurship ventures include projects to address child hunger and global food shortages, mental health and wellness, environmental stewardship, and drug policy reform. Through the foundation’s Aera Fellows program, Handley and his team seek to strengthen civic engagement for the next generation by encouraging young people from New Zealand and beyond into public service.
Prior to returning to his home country of New Zealand in 2020, Derek Handley spent more than a decade in the United States serving in a variety of professional and charitable capacities. Most recently, he held the role of Chief Innovation Officer at Human Ventures, a New York-based company builder that partnered with entrepreneurs to develop ventures in community transportation, child nutrition, health and wellness, and blockchain technology. Under Handley’s guidance, Human Ventures oversaw the creation and launch of more than a dozen new enterprises.
Handley’s work on a previous venture — a pioneering technology startup that helped global brands navigate the emerging mobile landscape some six years before the iPhone’s invention — earned him a coveted spot on the ‘Silicon Alley 100’ list of the most influential technology entrepreneurs in New York City.
Fresh off this honor, Handley teamed up with Sir Richard Branson In 2012 to launch The B Team, a global leadership collective devoted to creating new norms of organizational governance and sustainability.
A lifelong student, Handley completed the Entrepreneurs Development Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Graduate Executive Program at Singularity University in California. He also earned degrees in architectural building science (BBSc.) and finance (BCA) from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He is currently studying toward a master’s degree in religion at Harvard University.
Handley’s efforts to improve the health of the planet and its people extend beyond the Aera Foundation. Wiser, a new platform that arose out of the Aera Foundation, features programming for business leaders, family offices, elite athletes, students, and others eager to find more purpose and meaning in life.
Handley also makes time to serve as a director of Sky New Zealand and as an adjunct professor at AUT University in Auckland. An aspiring astronaut, Handley hopes to be among the first civilians to reach space on private conveyance in the coming years.
Where did the idea for Aera Foundation come from?
After exiting my first company, I wanted to incubate different ideas that were focused on improving the state of the world —both its people and the planet as a whole. The Aera Foundation was launched after my wife and I concluded that setting up a charitable trust, like a sort of studio that came up with these ideas, would be the best way to accomplish our goals I’d been involved in similar initiatives before that relied on trusts to fund and support these ventures. At a higher level, we wanted to be more creative in how we thought about and went about creating the change we wanted to see. We saw it almost as a real-world experiment to develop and advance the human and environmental issues we believed worthy of our support.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Pre-pandemic, I was much more disciplined with my time. I would get up pretty early, maybe 5 a.m., and begin my day with an activity that helped me gain perspective. Typically, this was reading or listening to a podcast on a topic not directly related to what I do day-to-day: art, religion, psychology, philosophy, anything much bigger than me. Next, I’d meditate, then immediately write down the things I needed to do that day. I use two columns: On the left, two to five things that I absolutely must do for the day; on the right, a variable number of things that would be nice to get through. If the day was shaping up to be a productive one, I’d focus on my first “must” and try to get it out of the way, then break for breakfast. From there, the day would flow into calls, meetings, productive work. I always tried to make time for family dinner in the evening, with time after for the last few calls of the day, if needed. COVID has disrupted my schedule a bit. Lately, my days have been consumed by Zoom calls from end to end. But I still try to center myself every day, often by journaling or just going for a walk.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I keep a physical notebook with a pipeline of ideas in various stages of development. These ideas typically begin with a bit of research or creativity, where I try to determine what makes the idea interesting and where it might be capable of going. If an idea has potential, I talk to a partner or possibly an entrepreneur with whom I might collaborate. Here, I want to understand whether the idea is really something I’m keen on. After this, if the idea has merit, I move on to prototyping. The development timeline varies a lot. Earlier this year, we rolled out a series of conversations over Zoom called Wiser Conversations. My original thought was, “Let’s have live conversations with interesting people.” Right away, I emailed 10 people and asked them if they’d be willing to participate. There wasn’t much more to it; that’s an example of something moving from idea to action very quickly. Other times, we’re thinking and talking and prototyping and testing for a long time before launch. But the pipeline is what’s constant and what’s important — it’s how I run my life.
What’s one trend that excites you?
A trend that I’m devoted to is the increasing interest in and awareness of investing with a strong sustainability or impact lens, of looking at investments that contribute positively to environmental or social challenges. That’s the lens AeraVC applies to its own work and is the biggest investment opportunity of our generation. In this pandemic year, we have seen a dramatic acceleration in impact investing interest across the board because the current situation has clarified things for potential investors. They say, “Hey, if we’re going to invest, why not invest to improve the state of world?” That’s a super exciting trend to be a part of.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
The most productive thing I can do as an entrepreneur is actually to stop doing anything: to go away, disconnect, think, write, escape. This escape doesn’t have to be for a fortnight or a month; anywhere from a half-day to two days is enough to reset. I’m trying to step back at least once a month for one to two days and every week for three to four hours.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would probably say: “Think really hard about what you think and trust your instincts on that.” In other words, don’t let others influence you. Get to the core of what it is that you actually think; peel it all back. When you get to the heart of the matter, act on it.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I realize that many high-performing entrepreneurs work effectively despite long hours and packed schedules, and indeed take pride in their ability to manage heavy workloads. But I believe everyone stands to benefit from disconnecting regularly when they’d otherwise be working — even for a few hours at a time. Stepping back and focusing on something that has nothing to do with “what you do” provides valuable perspective that you don’t get in your day-to-day and becomes the source of new thinking.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
When I meet someone for the first time, no matter who it is, I try to see the person in the context of the very long term. I ask: What could this relationship look like over a decade-plus timeframe? How can I help this person achieve what they want to achieve as a person and how can I possibly contribute to that? As a corollary, I have faith that I am and will be working with the people I’m meant to work with and that they’ll help me as I help them. This is my fundamental driver, I believe, behind developing and growing anything.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I have had a number of failures — a number of companies that have not worked out, a number of hires that have gone badly, a number of new markets that failed miserably. The common theme to move forward after any such setback is realizing that “it is what it is,” that you must make peace with the failure and look for the lesson that the failure wants you to learn. I’m pretty philosophical about failure. I see it not as a failure as we typically define it but as part of the human experience. Failure helps me understand something that I didn’t understand previously, to learn something that I didn’t know. I do my best to be clear-headed about the situation and focus on the things that I can control about it. And I strive to recognize the immense privilege I have in even being able to build something that fails in the first place. I have that agency and privilege; 99% of people don’t.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
This week I spent $90 to spend the day at a nunnery in one of their solitude rooms overlooking a beautiful lawn and the sea. It’s a pretty fantastic investment to have days like these booked regularly into my calendar. (The nuns fed me lunch too.) Sometimes it’s good to pay other people to help you shift your mental and physical state into a different mode. Booking and paying for a day of reflection and thinking helps ensure you’ll actually take it, because otherwise you may find excuses to postpone your well-intentioned plans.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
My favorite is Calendly because it takes so much of the back and forth out of scheduling meetings. In addition to saving on time, it also helps prevent my email inbox from getting inundated with the wrong type of communication. Too often, email gets used inefficiently — the worst being the reactionary, micro back-and-forths negotiating logistics like meeting times.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I guess I should recommend my own book, “Heart to Start,” while I’m here. I wrote it for entrepreneurs who were “in the building” phase. I found that all the books I read when I was younger were written by amazing entrepreneurs long after they had been exceptionally successful. Consequently, most details of what it’s really like in the trenches in those early years were whittled down to a paragraph here or there. So I wrote the book to capture what it’s like when you’re “in it.” I also recommend Greg McKeown’s book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” which gets at something pretty important. At a higher level, Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” is a profound read for anyone.
What is your favorite quote?
One of my favorites is Thomas Carlyle’s, “No pressure, no diamonds.”
- Don’t let others influence you. Get to the core of what it is that you actually think; peel it all back. When you get to the heart of the matter, act on it.
- Everyone stands to benefit from disconnecting regularly when they’d otherwise be working — even for a few hours at a time. Stepping back and focusing on something that has nothing to do with “what you do” provides a valuable perspective that you don’t get in your day-to-day and becomes the source of new thinking.
- When you meet someone for the first time, no matter who it is, try to see the person in the context of the very long term. Ask: What could this relationship look like over a decade-plus timeframe? How can I help this person achieve what they want to achieve as a person and how can I possibly contribute to that?
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.