The incredible Scilla Elworthy, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, talks peace, possibility and power. And what happened when Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel called her up...

Scilla with Vietnamese refugees in 1961. Image from Scilla Elworthy.

You’ve worked in refugee camps, been a fashion marketeer, and tackled nutrition and nuclear arms… can you take us through your amazing career?

I had a passion to do something about the state of the world from a young age. When I was 13 years old, I remember watching the Soviet tanks rolling into Budapest on a grainy black and white TV in the living room. There were kids throwing themselves at the tanks. I went upstairs and started packing my suitcase, and my mum came up and I told her I was going to Budapest. “What on earth for?” she said. “Kids are getting killed there and I have to go.” “Don’t be so silly” she said, and I burst into tears.

We made a deal that she would help me get trained if I unpacked my suitcase. And so a few years later when I was 16, I went to work in a holiday home in Suffolk, England. It was to give respite to people who had been in in camps for ‘displaced persons’ during World War II, some of them in concentration camps. The stories I heard were deeply shocking and showed me how brutal human beings could be to one another.

I went on to study social science in Dublin, work in a French camp for Vietnamese refugees, and help orphaned children in Algeria after the civil war. I then spent 10 years in South Africa where I led a nutrition organisation that redirected agricultural surpluses to where people were starving. I saw fresh milk being poured down mines in front of starving children with distended bellies.

From South Africa I moved with my husband back to France. It was there, working for UNESCO, that I began my involvement in nuclear disarmament. In the early 1980s under Thatcher, Reagan and Brezhnev there was a massive nuclear arms build-up, and an accidental nuclear attack was very real possibility. The British Government issued a pamphlet recommending that in the event of one, you should put a paper bag over your head and crawl under a table!

With leaders from East and West Europe at NATO HQ in Brussels, 1987. Image from Scilla Elworthy.

I realised that all the decisions about nuclear weapons were secret. The public had no say; announcements were only made when it was too late to change. This was what inspired me to go back to the UK and set up a research group at my kitchen table. I called it, simply, the Oxford Research Group, because that was where I lived. We set out to find out who and how the decisions were made on nuclear weapons – from drawing board to deployment.

This information was crucial to opening an effective dialogue with decision makers, in order to explore the basis for treaties. We would bring together people with opposing views - for example, a leading warhead designer from Los Alamos National Laboratory with a senior physicist who had resigned from Aldermaston (the UK’s warhead lab). Our work to build trust continues to this day.

Image from Scilla Elworthy

You were involved in setting up The Elders, what was that like?

One day in 2004 the phone rang, and someone said, “Richard Branson wants to talk to you.” Richard and Peter Gabriel had the idea that since the world is a global village, it needs global elders in order to make wiser decisions. They talked to Nelson Mandela, who had liked the idea, and said, “Go away and work out exactly what it is you want to do.” Hence the phone call – they wanted to see if I could help. So I joined a team at Virgin Unite, people who had marvellous skills.

It was challenging for everyone to combine their different visions and expectations, and I made many mistakes. But good ideas emerged, and partners came forward. We whittled down a list of 300 potential elders and Nelson Mandela selected the final 12. We launched on his 89th birthday, July 17th 2007. 

Your book ‘Pioneering the possible’ has just been published. What’s the central idea?

There are three key ideas in the book. The first is that leaders who have shifted their consciousness have a far greater authentic power. Nelson Mandela is an example of this; he went to jail as a terrorist and came out of jail with the power to negotiate a peaceful end to one of the most violent regimes the world has known. The book provides a pathway for how you can find your own inner power and shift your consciousness.  

The second is that despite the daily news being largely dark and depressing, there are many astonishing examples of young social entrepreneurs doing incredible things all around the world. They are like green shoots coming up through concrete. These are the people who are hunting truth, who are awake to the earth, who have woken up to what previous generations have done and refuse to resign themselves to simply wait out the crisis or relax into mindless consumption.

The thirds is about values. The values that most leaders operate from are now stale. For example, an old value is ‘survival of the fittest’, but it’s being replaced by the idea that cooperation is actually more efficient. Jochen Zeitz is a great example of a business leader speaking to these new values. Previously of Puma, now Kering, he’s set an incredible precedent in the way he’s brought NGOs into dialogue with his own executives and pioneered initiatives like the environmental profit and loss account. 

Who inspires you?

Aung San Suu Kyi is an inspiration. As leader of the pro-democracy front in Myanmar, she was under house arrest for 15 years. She taught herself to meditate and become reliant on what I would call her inner power. That meant that when she did come out of house arrest she was able to exercise a balance between the acuity of her mental processes and the compassion of her heart.

Gulalai Ismail from North West Pakistan is another inspiration. When she was 15 she set up an organisation called Aware Girls to get girls into education. Gulalai goes into the madrassas to identify young men being trained to be jihadis and she works with them in their homes with their parents to show that this was not intended by the Koran’s teachings. She has managed to dissuade tens of young men. She relies on her own inner power to stop people getting killed.  

I think there are masculine and feminine qualities in all of us, but in many of us, the masculine qualities have been amplified and we’ve lost balance. By masculine qualities I mean being very directional, competitive, and dependent on personal success. Feminine qualities include creativity, listening, compassion, using the heart as well as the head.

Scilla's beautiful garden. Image from Scilla Elworthy.

Your work is fascinating and challenging. How do you relax and rewind?

I ground myself by growing vegetables and flowers. I love to be in nature in all its rawness; from the desert to the beautiful English countryside. I do all my exercise outside, normally on very long walks which sometimes last a whole week!

And of course I love to spend time with my friends and family. My daughter has 14-month-old twins. She’s involved in education, and has set up a network to help young social entrepreneurs find funding.

What’s next for you?

I am developing a training programme for young Israeli and Palestinian leaders to learn some of these deeper skills of awakened leadership.

I’m excited by this generation of young people connected by the internet; I think young people in Tahrir Square feel more connected with young people in Tunisia or Jordan than they do with their own governments. There is a wave of awareness amongst them to create a fairer and more accountable world, but the media is so obsessed with the extraordinary violence of ISIL that we don’t hear enough of what the majority of young people in the Middle East really care about.

I’m also working with women from all continents on a new organisation called Rising Women Rising World, which we’re launching in Parliament in November. It’s all about building a future in which women are fully involved. So there’s lots going on!

Scilla Elworthy’s book Pioneering the Possible is published by North Atlantic Books on October 7th 2014. As Desmond Tutu puts it in his foreword to the book, “I suggest you use this book as a guide, so that you too can become a twenty-first-century pioneer of the possible”.