January 2021 marked the exciting start of a new term for PSI’s Board of Directors. We are conducting interviews with the Board members, delving into their backgrounds, personal and professional journeys, as well as their call to PSI and its mission to deliver consumer-powered healthcare.
Below, we talk with Mike Joubert, Founder of the Billybo Group.
PSI: Tell me about your background, your areas of expertise, and your professional journey
MJ: I am a very proud South African. I was born in Cape Town, I am one of three brothers; my parents encouraged us all to be curious about the world. And as a white South African, I realized quickly the privilege I held and developed an awareness of the deep societal issues at hand at a young age.
At age 17, I was conscripted into the SA Navy, where I worked as a basic training and survival instructor. This shaped my resilience, confidence and positive attitude in life. I studied for a bachelor’s degree in commerce at University of Pretoria and then got involved with the student organization “Remember and Give,” or RAG. RAG raises funds every year to help better the lives of disadvantaged South Africans. This was my first taste of an NGO doing good. I was a very liberal student, an activist, and I also became President of the student body, where I regularly encouraged discourse between liberal and conservative groups on both sides of the conversation in South Africa.
Following that, I obtained an MBA at the University of Stellenbosch, and pursued a thesis on Black economic empowerment within the informal sector. While most of my research material was still banned by the National Party government at the time, I was able to access banned books, like ‘The History of the ANC’, through academic dispensation. In doing that research into South African politics, I realized the extent to which 80% of South Africa’s population did not have basic human rights, not least of which was the right to vote. Pretty shortly thereafter then State President F.W. de Klerk unbanned the ANC and other banned organizations on 2 February 1990, and began peace talks for a negotiated settlement to end apartheid. This event and the subsequent release of Nelson Mandela from prison were pivotal moments in my life, which made me even more intent on becoming actively involved in social economic development and the redress of inequality.
So, when I left university, I joined the board of trustees of an NGO called Project Literacy, working to address adult basic education and training. I was on that Board for 23 years – also as a past Chairman – and my fellow Board members were amazing South Africans, two of them, Judge Johan Kriegler and Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke jointly ran the first Democratic election in our country. Through their eyes, I learned so much.
I understood I could make a difference in South Africa by playing a leadership role through business. My first job was as a management consultant, followed by some time as a director in computer development before getting my big break as marketing director for a liquor company. I had the opportunity after that to join Levi Strauss & Company in South Africa (LS&Co.) as the CEO and later as VP Marketing for Levi’s & Dockers in Europe, based in Brussels. My years there were the highlight of my career given the LS&Co. philosophy is filled with values and principles; we used its foundation to make a significant contribution to HIV/AIDS in South Africa in three ways – advocacy, voluntary counseling, and testing, and using South African musicians as a catalyst to get young people to test. At that time, I met Katie Schwarm and Kim Schwartz from PSI. Together we sponsored New Start with Levi’s, which was a Society for Family Health (SFH) South Africa initiative.
After my time at Levi Strauss & Co, I started my own business – I also won a coveted award in South Africa called Marketer of the Year Award – and pretty soon thereafter, I was asked to join the Board of SFH. I have been involved with a number of NGOs over the years, and I’m very proud to be a part of both SFH and PSI. Serving on PSI’s global Board of Directors is a massive privilege; it is a small way in which I can give back where it is most needed.
PSI: You are now in your second year on the PSI global Board, and you have long-standing connections to PSI through SFH South Africa. Tell us about how you came to the PSI world and what motivates you about PSI’s mission?
MJ: My exposure to PSI was through Levi’s, which sponsored a number of HIV/AIDS initiatives, working together with PSI globally and in South Africa. PSI’s mission is one that gives it a practical footing: serving consumers is about as direct as you can get and I love that: a single objective and vision that you are working toward.
At the time, what struck me about PSI was that it was a 40-year-old organization that was making a difference at scale. We have been through some dark patches in South Africa, but I was always left in awe by the resilience of the local teams and the extent to which PSI – in DC and on the country-level— supports South Africa. This is how a truly global organization needs to work. Let the local people on the ground do their work but have global support to step in when an assist is needed. PSI has a solid legacy of delivery. The strength of the PSI brand, its structure and its now 50-year legacy is what helps us navigate both the calm and the stormy waters.
My marketing mantra is “engage with heart, convert with smart,” which is simply that you need to first engage emotionally and then convert people with the smart stuff. PSI does this exceptionally well.
Changing behavior for good is probably the toughest challenge in any business. It is relatively easy to distribute mosquito nets and condoms but to change people’s behavior, that is the challenge. Over the last 10 years with SFH and last two years on the global PSI board, I have learned so much from PSI – making me both a better Board member and a better citizen.
PSI: What does consumer-powered healthcare mean to you and how do you see it making change for the people PSI serves?
MJ: The words “consumer” and “NGO” are two words that are very seldom spoken in the same sentence, so the fact that PSI is a human-centered organization means a lot because if you haven’t been in an environment and don’t understand the people that you serve, the work will never be done well.
Consumer-powered healthcare is an effective way to determine how to use limited resources in making a real difference. Over the past decade, I have been to a lot of clinics, I’ve seen condom distribution, male circumcision – and I’ve seen conversations with males to convince them that it is ok – and I’ve been in groups with consumers sharing their desire to achieve better quality lives through family planning. I’ve learned that if we don’t understand what consumers’ lives are about, how can we do the services that we do? PSI’s consumer-powered approach makes us a strong, effective organization.
PSI: We know that COVID continues to weigh heavily on all of us but what are the upshots this year that you’re looking forward to?
MJ: If I use my mantra of engage with heart, convert with smart, from the heart point of view, we will see and experience more empathy and kindness. The smart part is innovations in technology, which led us to develop a vaccine at speed. If I look at that through the PSI lens, we have an opportunity to get even smarter with technologies and digital processes to deliver more effective consumer-powered healthcare. The heart part is that there is more of a recognition that we are in this together and the smart stuff is needing to do what is right for humankind. PSI as an organization and the people within it represent all that is good in the world. We are all dedicated to the work we do – that’s the inspiration to get up in the morning.
PSI: What is a fun thing about Mike that our readers should know?
MJ: I have a deep-rooted love for music, South African and world music. I can’t play a note of music, so I am a very dedicated audience member. I had the privilege of spending two days with Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters; he loves Harley Davidsons and I also used to ride. A friend of mine knows Dave’s keyboardist, so when the Foo Fighters played here, my friend told me that Dave would love to go for a ride. I thought he wanted to go for twenty minutes, turned out we rode for the whole day, and then a second day, all around the Western Cape. And I got to know the nicest guy in rock and roll, who puts a lot of his time, money and effort into raising the bar in music by helping other musicians. This reminded me that you don’t just do good in business or NGOs—you can be a rockstar musician and do it as well.