You might have heard already, there is this book by William Deresiewicz. The title: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Quoting one review: “But in this probing indictment, a former Yale professor accuses America’s top universities of turning young people into tunnel-visioned careerists, adept at padding their résumés and filling their bank accounts but unprepared to confront life’s most important questions.”
I have the honor to speak to you, the first class of PPLE. As part of the first PPLE class, you are all pioneers. You are the first to set the standards and create the foundations for your successors. You have a big responsibility to do well and to prove professor Deresiewicz wrong and to stay away from the sheepfold.
Today you are here to embark on your academic, personal and professional journey. My journey started 35 years ago, and I am still going strong. We share the same start, right here at the University of Amsterdam. In fact, I began by studying Psychology, one of the letters in PPLE, at this university. Following this, I studied Business Administration at Erasmus University and Michigan University. As speaker for the Talent Development Program I would like to share some thoughts for you to incorporate with your journey.
With your IQs, you belong to the top 5% of the world population. As the age old adage goes: “To those whom much is given, much is expected.”
You can use this beneficial position to do many great things. As you have chosen PPLE, it is safe to assume that you have a broad interest in societal issues.
At any given moment, we face enough challenges and opportunities. The question is if you want to be engaged as a world citizen or if you choose to be a wealthy spectator.
The possibilities to solve the challenges of this world and to grab these opportunities are in your imagination and creativity.
Some of you will become lawyers and human rights advocates or you can choose the corporate path and become the future CEOs of breakthrough companies. All represent ways to shape the world for the better for the worse. I, for one, chose the private sector path.
Going corporate and doing good doesn’t have to be opposites.
As a pioneer in sustainability at Ahold, the mother company of Albert Heijn, the store that you will come across when you do your grocery shopping, there’s quite a few of them in Amsterdam… I had to pave the way for what is now a global sustainable purchasing policy. I think it was somewhere in 2001 when Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the UN, talked to Cees van der Hoeven, former CEO of Ahold, at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Cees promised Kofi that he would do something for Africa. In 2002, it was decided that I would be that “something”. I went to Accra with my family: Sylvia my lovely wife, and our three boys of 9, 13 and 15. “Drill water wells, build schools, advise market women; do something good!” that was my mission. After talking to all the ministries, NGOs and companies, I found out the one and only thing that Ahold could do was what we were good at: purchasing. But with one little change: I purchasing in a sustainable way.
One example is the Puur & Eerlijk brand. That is Dutch for “pure and honest”. You can find it in your local Albert Heijn. Right now, you can find many “pure and honest” products at Albert Heijn, but this whole journey started out with a small fresh cut pineapple salad from Ghana. It was flown into Amsterdam every night by KL590 at 10:10PM, arriving at Schiphol at 7AM the following day. That journey took us to almost every kind of food you can think of. Starting with a very small product, the concept of sustainable purchasing is now globally applied by Ahold in all its stores. That’s how small can become big. Just step by step.
Before it became such a success, I was not always greeted with a warm welcome. Often, I had to sell the idea to reluctant corporate tigers. In the corporate world the most important thing is to make a profit. That’s why sound sustainability strategies combine people, planet and profit. At Ahold, quite a few people in purchasing found it totally ridiculous that I started working in Africa. When I explained that sustainability was only sustainable when we combined people and/or planet with profit then, and only then, did I get their attention.
If you can’t sell it, it sucks.
As fellow pioneers going through the excitement of being first, you will also experience that it won’t always be easy. Nevertheless, I can assure you that it will be rewarding. I want to make sure that you understand that any solution can be a sustainable solution. If you can’t make it sustainable, you didn’t think hard enough. That’s the least we can expect from you: don’t be an easy rider.
It was not only in the Netherlands that I was feeling the difficulties of being a pioneer. When I moved to Ghana and South Africa with my family to set up a supply chain for sustainable produce, I learned the true meaning of being a pioneer and an entrepreneur in a different culture. For example, the first simple truth I learned in Ghana, when people didn’t show up at a meeting, was when somebody told me: “You’ve got the watch, we’ve got the time.”
With so many nationalities in the room, I have no doubt you will run into similar cultural challenges. Working together and overcoming cultural differences is a nice challenge and it will teach you invaluable lessons for today’s diverse working environment.
You will have the opportunity to create and develop a broad international network and use this to your advantage in the future. I, myself, still work with people I know from my time in Ghana on a regular basis. And every connection creates new opportunities.
My time at Ahold and in Africa was a great adventure, but there’s always a time to leave. For me the time came when Ahold needed to bring in more bureaucracy. You can only plant so many trees in a particular forest in one’s lifetime. After my time with Ahold as Vice-President for sustainability I left to start my own company with people that were close business relations and heavy weights in the corporate sustainability world.
The company we founded is called TheRockGroup. We support organizations to play an economically sound role in a sustainable future. We advise individuals, small businesses, multinationals, governments and NGOs.
As advice for all of you, whether you want to go the corporate way, start your own business or join the public sector, I can say this;
Never, ever, lose your guts; follow your passion. Always be prepared to oppose, to discuss, and to leave if necessary. Be true to yourself, to your own principles. At the same time, remember that being passionate doesn’t mean blindly following your own passion. Make sure you translate your passion in an actionable message for whatever organization you’re working for. Beware, even then, bureaucracy can and will kill numerous life changers. In the end it’s your decision: do you have enough guts to make it happen? Even if that means it may disrupt your career.
To be able to do that: Keep your overhead low. A high overhead can be a burden in your own company and makes you less flexible to face certain challenges. But it is even valid for your personal budget. If you keep your cost low, you can make sure that you can quit that corporate job if you get off track or lose your passion. Example: let’s say you bought a house, and the mortgage is killing you, but no problem, your job is paying well. Well, that’s all OK as long as you like the job, otherwise you’re stuck in the middle.
Finally, to be successful: Create a solid network. The connections you make today can lead a long way. Maybe your neighbor sitting next to you will be your future business partner. In a survey they do at the top business schools in the US, alumni state that they value the contacts they acquired during the program more than the quality of the lectures, etc.
The start of your academic year comes with a lot of opportunities. I can present you with one opportunity right now. If you are interested in sustainability and combining it with the corporate world, there is an opportunity to do an internship later this academic year at our company, TheRockGroup.
You can find me in the cloud, on LinkedIn and Twitter, so shoot me a message if you want more info.
I wish you a very challenging year, a dangerous career and I hope we meet again. And quoting Matthew, one of the writers of the New Testament in the Bible: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?”