Andrew Warren’s thoughts on his CEO SleepOut

Andrew-Warren-(nmg)So, the first South African CEO Sleepout has come and gone, and it was a privilege to be able to represent NMG Benefits and the broader NMG Group in this global initiative. I was among 250 CEOs who collectively raised over R25m for Girls and Boys Town, a South African charity focused on children in need. And while there was unquestionably excitement (and an element of fun) in being there and meeting the other CEOs, there is a lot more to this event than schmoozing with my peers.

Listen to my Cape Talk interview below

I have decided to contemplate this through a series of questions and answers:

So, it looked like there were a lot of creature comforts there. You had chairs, fires, sleeping bags and soup prepared by one of the top SA chefs. And you were on the streets of Sandton, not Hillbrow. How tough was it really?

I don’t believe an event of this nature will ever be able to replicate the brutal reality of everyday life for thousands who live on the streets, where every day is a fight for survival, let alone a night’s sleep. We went into the night dressed warmly, healthy, well fed and surrounded by friends and colleagues. And for the first half of the evening the interactions with others kept the cold and fatigue at bay.

But once I lay down on the cardboard “bed” that the chair turned into and tried to get some rest, a few realities became evident. I have spent many nights in the mountains sleeping on the ground (inside and outside of tents), and I enjoy this (really! J). But last night was different – the noise of others around me, the smoke from the fires drifting to the ground, and an adequate, but not comfortable sleeping bag meant that rest and sleep was not easy. And while I did sleep, I did not get a good rest.

Contemplating the effect of this is important – yes the night was uncomfortable, but I do not need to go out and seek employment today. I will be in the office, where today there will be sympathy that my performance will be affected by lack of sleep (except, perhaps, from Geoff!). I don’t think prospective employers (even for occasional employment) of those who live on the streets will necessarily have this sympathy and understanding. And so it’s the daily reality after a night on the streets that must be really tough. Day after day, night after night.

What was the most moving experience for you personally?

I was interviewed on the radio a few days prior to the event and my son, Tom (8), got to hear me. That night we discussed what I was going to be doing, and why supporting those much less privileged than us, without a home, is really important in South Africa where so many have so little. The next day when he was dropped at school, having thought about this he asked that his weekly hot chocolate treat be given to a homeless man that we drive past daily on our way to school. Small acts can make a big difference to those who think society has forgotten about them.

What was the most impactful conversation you had while at the SleepOut?

Nikki Newton-King (CEO of the JSE) and I spent some time talking about black participation in the South African economy and investment markets, and the imperative for the entire financial services sector (from personal financial planners, to insurers, asset managers and pension funds, all the way to the JSE) to understand the importance of this. She is aware that there are times when the financial services industry and government talk past each other, and unless we really understand what the social imperatives are, and that we as the industry show success in meeting those imperatives, we will not be seen as part of the solution.

What did you take away from your 12 hours?

The financial plight of millions in South Africa is dire, and those, especially children, whose only choice is to spend a night on the street are the most heart wrenching. But more than just the financial plight, the many homeless are looking for us simply not to ignore them, and to acknowledge their existence – with a smile, with a nod, a kind word and a chance to be human. I will certainly try to be more conscious of this going forward.

Is there more to just getting children into shelters?

More than trying to solve a homelessness crisis, we are in a country with a high rate of unemployment. Girls and Boys Town (and Twilight Children’s Home, Tembisa Child Welfare and Elundini) are more than just shelters. These organisations are places where opportunities are created for meaningful education, rehabilitation, and where healing takes place. This in turn creates employment opportunities as well as giving underprivileged children a more stable foundation.

Girls and Boys Town asked their children to provide questions that they wanted answered regarding the realities of working life. During the evening we all went and wrote answers to these to be given back to the boys and girls. It was great for me to be able to contribute to these answers and to enrich the insights of children who are just about to embark on their journey in the working world.


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