James Baker-Duly, Youpal Group COO
March 22, 2021
1018         1

by Arabella Seebaluck

Q: You’re from South Africa. You’ve been living in Sweden for 20 years. So tell us, how did you come from SA to Sweden? And why?

Maybe it’s a story of how I get to South Africa… My mother is Swedish, my father English. My father came from England to work in Sweden in the late 60s. On weekends he would race car rally events and his navigator introduced my mother who was a childhood friend of his. Eventually, my parents would drive down to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where my father worked at a local university as a mathematics lecturer and my mother worked on humanitarian efforts. It was a few years later I was born in Addis.

A week after my birth, we were on the road again travelling down to South Africa, where my father was given a position as a mining engineer. For the duration of that trip my cot would be the cubby-hole I would fit nice and snug into. I then grew up in South Africa with my four siblings.

It was only in my early twenties that I moved to Sweden. I worked in various companies before joining a very large IT company here in Stockholm… and that’s where I met Ruben and Karl. We worked together for 2 years, with Karl and Ruben eventually leaving the company. They would soon approach me and ask if I wanted to partner on their Youpal venture. I said: “If it’s with the two of you, count me in.” There was no hesitation on my part. And that’s how the story began with the three of us business partners.

Q: What was it that was appealing to you that made you decide to join in with them?

Karl and Ruben, nothing else. They could have made up anything and I would have joined them, it didn’t matter to me. I experienced the spirit of Ubuntu – I am because we are – with Karl and Ruben. This is all about community, unity and contributing to something together. I knew right away these were the perfect people to work with. This is the only reason I joined Youpal. I knew I would have a real strong, trustworthy partnership and we would have each other’s backs. Although we are different we share a lot of the same values, are creative spirits and having an essential nature to make a positive impact, it was clear to me we were going to do something great.

Q: So it’s really a case of I am because you are…

It is! Here at Youpal we have been following it somewhat inadvertently. Even though, growing up in South Africa, I’ve long been aware of the Ubuntu spirit advocated by Mandela and Bishop Tutu. I witnessed the transition of South Africa from an apartheid regime into a democracy in 1994. I saw this transition of the country being unified through this philosophy.

It was a state of uncertain transition and nation-building between 1990 and 1994 till the first democratic president that was Nelson Mandela was sworn in. During this period the country was on a knifes edge and at risk to collapse into civil war. Examples of Ubuntu during that period for me was Bishop Tutu driving the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) to help South Africans come to terms with the past and advance the cause of reconciliation. Another example is South Africa winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995. After the game I witnessed in the streets of Johannesburg for the very first time all people no matter their ethnic background, celebrating and hugging each other for the very first time, after a lengthy and volatile transition from Apartheid. For me this was the real start of unification for all South Africans, thanks to Mandela´s foresight and in my opinion his spirit of Ubuntu philosophy “I am because we all are”

That was my life lesson, growing up in South Africa. It was the same decision that I made joining Youpal. I knew that whatever we were going to create and build, Ruben and Karl were the right people to do it with.

Q: So, after South Africa, you moved to Sweden where you have been for the past 20 years. Walk us through your journey… as you have since then become the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Youpal Group when the company was restructured in December.

I used to be a musician and performer. I used to work in a recording studio. I used to manage African bands in the 90s in South Africa with my good friend Andy Innes, lead guitar and music director for the late Johnny Clegg. So, that was my life in the 90s… in the entertainment world. But then I seemed to have grown out of that phase.

That’s when I came to Sweden and took the first job I could get my hands on. I began working in the building trade. I did that for a couple of months before deciding to become a carpenter. That’s when I took up the trade of carpentry. Soon after that, I met the lady who is now my wife. She suggested I study business and I enrolled at IHM Business School Stockholm.

As soon as I graduated, I got a pretty cool sales job with a Finnish company. We were selling online business simulations where teams from companies around the world would compete with each other over a 4-week period. We were basically boiler-room sales, a real Wolf of Wallstreet craziness to it where I have some of my fondest memories.

From there I progressed into the IT vertical with a focus on Financial Services end to end banking and insurance digital solutions. It was then finally I guess I crossed paths with my new future, that is Youpal.

I have had pretty much every role within the company. This is what it’s like being in a start-up … you tend to have to wear every hat. Now that we are a scale up company, I am the Chief Operating Officer (COO), which is, to me, the most challenging role as it involves people, processes and tools and how they all interconnect with each other vertically as well as horizontally. It’s not only about Youpal Group, the company itself and its core… but we also have other companies that we’re controlling. So, it’s about having streamlined and effective operations to support our direction.

Processes and tools are pretty much logical and technical by design. One challenge is for people to engage and interact with these processes and tools in the most effective way cross functionally. This of course is all very operational even mechanical like, ensuring that people can do their work in a safe, secure and good user experience environment. The biggest challenge though is to build culture within the company and this is why I lean towards the Ubuntu philosophy “I am because we all are”

What does this mean? It means a person is a person through other people. You cant be a human all by yourself, you cant do your work all by yourself and what you do affects others around you, whether it be professional, private or the whole world. The goal here is quite simple, we are creating an environment where people can thrive, from mentoring, inspiring a co-worker to making a positive impact on business, society and the environment. The spirit of Ubuntu is our cultural framework and driving force.

Q: Your journey has been quite eclectic. Do you see Youpal as the end of this eclectic road for you? What is next for you and for Youpal?

There’s no change planned for me. Youpal is my life and what I love to do every day as we have a larger vision that we have only just scratched the surface upon. It’s about  employing 25 million people around the world. Creating jobs for people with a focus on developing countries. It all starts with one. You give someone an opportunity to grow and be successful, the chances are this will inspire their family, friends to follow the same route. If we build this on a larger scale, then we are looking at socio-economic impact, like building a lower class up to a middle class, and countries that have strong middle classes lead to economic growth and reduced poverty. So, it starts with one and our goal is to provide the platform to do this, where people can thrive, create and inspire others.

Read Part 2 of this interview here.

Youpal Group is a Digital Infrastructure company with staffing solutions to serve industry verticals. We are a people company passionate about making a positive impact on business, society and the environment.

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