AXSChat Podcast

AXSChat Podcast with Paul Polman, Influencer, business leader, campaigner, Co-Author of “Net Positive". CEO of Unilever (2009-2019)

February 20, 2022 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Paul Polman
AXSChat Podcast
AXSChat Podcast with Paul Polman, Influencer, business leader, campaigner, Co-Author of “Net Positive". CEO of Unilever (2009-2019)
Show Notes Transcript

Influencer, business leader, campaigner, Co-Author of “Net Positive: how courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take”, recently published October 2021.

Paul Polman works to accelerate action by business to tackle climate change and inequality. A leading proponent that business should be a force for good, Paul has been described by the Financial Times as “a standout CEO of the past decade”.

As CEO of Unilever (2009-2019), he demonstrated that a long-term, multi-stakeholder model goes hand-in-hand with excellent financial performance. Paul was a member of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel which developed the Sustainable Development Goals and which he continues to champion, working with global organizations and across industry to advance the 2030 development agenda.


Paul’s new book, “Net Positive”, is a call to arms to courageous business leaders, setting out how to build net positive companies which profit by fixing the world’s problems rather than creating them. He Chairs IMAGINE, a social venture dedicated to systems change, and Saïd Business School, and he is Vice-Chair of the UN Global Compact as well as a B Team Leader. Paul is Honorary Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, which he led for two years.

This is a draft transcript produced live at the event and corrected for spelling and basic errors. It is not a commercial transcript and will need to be checked if you wish to publish it. AXSCHAT Paul Polman Friday, 18th February 2022

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I'm delighted that we are joined today by Paul Polman. You will notice that we are missing Debra

that is because it would be 5:

30 in the morning her time. If she does pop up, she will pop up silently, but we had to rearrange because of the storms yesterday in the UK. So, thank you Paul for your flexibility and for continuing to join us. We are delighted. You're well known for your role as a business leader. You led Unilever for a long time but what many people don't know is that you've been working in the field of disability inclusion particularly innovating in the field around low vision and no vision. So can you tell us a bit about this and how you came to be engaged in the field.

PAUL:

Thank you Neil and Antonio and thank you for the opportunity obviously and more importantly for what you're doing. You know, I worked a lot on the millennial development goals and now the sustainable development goals and they have a simple objective to not leave anybody behind and I have always believed that if we want to save humanity and create a world that is inclusive and working for all, we have to fight for some of the basic principles that I believe are universal. Principles like dignity and respect for everybody, equity, and compassion. I become particularly aware of that in 2005 when one of my friends Eric Wyanmire who was officially impaired at the age of 16 and actually the first blind person to climb all seven summits, including Mount Everest. He called me and he said, Paul, do you fancy climbing Mount Kilimanjaro together because I would like to go back there and I said Eric, I'm game. This is such an incredible experience but then we expanded the concept and decided to take a blind person with us from all parts of the world and with eight of us we climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the first blind person from Kenya, Douglas Sidiyalo, a person from Japan, from Austria and so forth. Six of us reached the top and then when we came down, we went to the blind schools in Arusha and Moshi and the cities around Kilimanjaro and we found the situation to be dire and that got us galvanised into action. As we cannot change our values, if we don't change what we value and it's very important that we value this total inclusion. There are 40 million blind people in the world. 285 million officially impaired, if you want to. 20 million children and less than 10% of those are in education. So, it was a very tough challenge, especially in that part of the world but I'm not afraid of a tough challenge so I thought we need to attack this and do something about it and leave a lasting legacy, if you want to. Gandhi said it very well when he said that our ability to reach unity and diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilisation. So I always felt it was right, from a moral point of view but also actually from an enormous economic point of view and what I discovered, as I went into this that we had a long way to go, not only in Africa but all across the world in normalising the situation for people with disabilities. Only 5% here in the UK of the Footsie companies actually publicly disclosed their commitments to disability. 7% of the C suite who have disability disclose it. So very few people actually are willing to talk about it still and more than half the companies in the world, which was a great surprise to me, rather pay fines than complying with the law to include people with disabilities. So, I thought this has to change. The world cannot work if we don't include for all. I think Covid has added an extra dimension to that. It has made us realise that people that are already in difficult positions, minorities or marginalized communities are paying the higher price for our failings and for people with disability that has even been more true, which makes us even more determined to try to do something about it and it's obviously as you know Neil, better than I do an enormous opportunity. We are talking here about 15% of the world population, which is the largest minority group if you want to, spending power estimated at eight trillion dollars, at a time that we are looking for talent, an enormous talent pool but also an enormous pool that you want to have associated with your companies. I have always believed that business can and should be a major force for change and this is one of the burning issues still on the agenda that needs to be addressed.

NEIL:

Absolutely. So for those of our audience that don't know that the innovation we were talking about was something called Orbit which revolutionised braille. So, for those of you that are not familiar with braille readers, they tended to be made out of thousands of moving parts which is really, really expensive which is why a braille display or reader used to cost thousands of dollars per machine. Now the Orbit project used a different technology to create the pins that pushed it up and slashed the cost by 90% and that is the revolutionary part of what you were doing working with a pal of mine Kevin Carey who was the Chairman of RNIB at the time and loading up these readers with books as well. So not only are you giving access to information, but youre also providing a library of information to the individuals that get these much more affordable devices. So, a little bit more about Orbit from you would be great?

PAUL:

There's no problem about that Neil. In fact, when we looked at the situation of blind people, we said we have to do something about it, we cannot just be silent bystanders, so we created the Kilimanjaro Blind Trust which is incorporated now as the biggest charity for the officially impaired in Africa. We are in six countries; our headquarters are in Kenya and the main objective is really unlocking literacy for life. So we ensure that officially impaired children are enrolled in schools. Obviously have access to the right tools, . e the Orbit itself. We provide educational material, training, advocacy and we are slowly but surely expending out of East Africa into other countries. We reckon we are touching about 25,000 children now with our limited means but are certainly seen as the most recognised organisation. We were dealing with the Perkins braille machine that you'd rightfully describe was a very useful tool. But expensive and inefficient. You could not put books on there. Children that were officially impaired, Harry Potters book would come out, if you're lucky in Africa you might have access to a brailed book three or four years later when the conversations have changed or having to share exams in school. Having to share one braille machine amongst four or five officially impaired people. Situations that would never have given you a chance to develop to your fullest potential. Now we are rapidly moving to ensure that every child in school has an Orbit, think about it as your iPad. You can put an unlimited number of books on there. You can put curriculum on there. You can even put STEM on there now which is quite revolutionary for braille, and we have come up with the Orbit people with a device that teachers do not need to know braille but can actually follow on the normal telephone or other device what the officially impaired students are typing. What we have seen with Covid as well is, when the schools were closed, Uganda just opened after two years of closure for example. These children still have access to the Orbit and can actually study at home and it totally changes their lives and increasingly we are moving not only giving them the tools to educate themselves, but the most important thing obviously is to unlock their full potential for life. So, we are working with students now at university level. We are working increasingly with companies to place these people and that is obviously a very rewarding thing to do and hopefully we can soon expand with help for everybody to the various places in Africa first but then globally as the need is enormous, as you can imagine.

ANTONIO:

Well, that is, it's extremely interesting to see how we can you know connect to other parts of the world and are able to empower other people that are usually you know when we read the news every day we know that there are a few countries that dominate this space and sometimes African countries get a little bit forgotten. So, from that journey, that you enter there. What do you believe helped you to be a better leader?

PAUL:

It is very rewarding to see and actually it keeps us, in one sense, modest and honest with a certain level of humility and humanity. If see a blind girl say I want to be the Minister of Education so that in my country I can change the plight of officially impaired children or I met another blind boy, the other day who wants to be a doctor so that he can prevent the same issues in other people. It really keeps you with both feet on the ground and makes you realise what life ultimately is all about.

ANTONIO:

You mentioned previously that we still have a long way to go and you mentioned a few examples from the UK, what do you believe that other executives from other companies need to do for us to move forward and to make sure that their work forces are feeling included and are able to say I have a disability, I need help. What do we need to reach that step?

PAUL:

Well as I said, the first one is a moral obligation. The world cannot function if we leave others behind, and I think the moral case is well understood but increasingly also for the business community you have to make them understand the enormous economic case of this. This is an enormous purchasing power, an enormous talent pool that you can tap into and yet, it suffers still from many of the myth that keep the people behind. The chances of employment are significantly less in every country in the world. The myth that you go up against are all fallacies in fact that people with disabilities must be less productive, must be sicker, must be less loyal, must be more costly. All these things have proven themselves wrong so actually it starts with increasing awareness, and this is where the valuable 500, for example comes in, you need to lead the people to the water, if you want to and share best practices. Companies like ATOS who have worked on the accessibility of people with disabilities who have increased the sensitivity within your own organisation, built into all of these HR policies etc is a first thing, is create awareness. Not only of the enormous economic potential behind this but also about the busting these myths. And once you have this awareness it is important that you make commitments. Very few companies disclose actually or are aware of the status of LGBT. We have attacked to some extent gender; we have attacked the issues of LGBT. We have dealt with other issues but for some reason disability has still stayed as a side show, if I may call it that way. So, make yourself aware of where you are in the organisation and set yourself the audacious goals that are needed. When I retired from Unilever, I did not want, nor did I need any retirement present. So I said the biggest present you can give me is to make a firm commitment that you are going to hire more people with disability and what I was very pleased about was that my retirement present was a commitment by 2025 to at least have 5% of our workforce be people with disabilities as you call it be and the number one choice of people with disabilities as an employer. I could not have wished of a better present. But make these bold commitments. And not only make these bold commitments but be part of the Network of the Valuable 500, where you get the best practices, learnings from others, to then implement it in your organisations. But it can only be done if it is from the top down. In any organisation, you will find roadblocks, you will find reasons not to. So it needs that leadership from the top to solve this issue at an accelerated rate.

NEIL:

So, I am proud to be part of the board of the Valuable 500 and Axschat has been supporting Valuable since before it become Valuable. How did you, what was your journey to become Chair of Valuable 500 because we know it, but it would be great to hear from your point of view how Caroline persuaded you. Not that you probably needed much persuading.

PAUL:

Well, if you, as the saying goes, if you want something to be done enrol a busy person and I was not looking for more work but obviously a combination of my passion in the field from my work with the Kilimanjaro Blind Trust we just talked about, as my own foundation. My firm beliefs having developed the sustainable development goals that we should not leave anybody behind. I also obviously got touched by the infection as passion and optimism that Caroline has and I'm very honoured also to Chair with you and be part of the advisory board with you Neil. I know you're equally passionate about that area. You know, it is very important, I have always believed that, and I have written this book net positive how courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take. That it is important to get the business community enrolled. You know the business community is 65% of the global economy. 80% of the financial flow, 95% of the job creation. If we don't get this firmly embedded in the business as an integral part of the strategies, we will never get there and that is obviously where I have spent my whole life and feel the most comfortable. I met Caroline in 2017 in Columbia. I also Chair another advisory board which is of One Young World, a wonderful group of young people coming together to rise to a higher level of moral consciousness. And Caroline was on stage. I had just arrived by plane from Europe, and it was late for my body, and I had some jetlag, so I thought let me go to the event venue and just pop into stay awake but also to get a little bit of the smell of the place because I had to give a keynote the next day. And literally as I walk in, Caroline was on stage with some other wonderful people that were there. And so as she was talking and I had never met her before, although we had crossed paths apparently in the past when One Young World was in Ireland, she was on the stage and said wouldn't it be wonderful to have at least the CEO's that are here come forward and make a commitment to improve their representation of people with disability in their workforce and she then actually spoke my name and said if Paul Polman would be here, you know that would be a wonderful signal to have him be part of this, I thought it was a set up Caroline convinced me until today that it was not but at the end of the day I went up to the stage and we were emotionally crying. We get these CEOs to commit and that was the start of the Valuable 500. We increased our objective and our vision behind it but now, we have eight trillion dollars of revenue, over 500 of the biggest companies, 22 million employees, 13 iconic members. And really companies that are enormous in size. I'm talking about the Allianz or the Googles or the ATOS or the Vodafones and the Verizons and the PNG's and the Unilever's of this world. So, we can be very proud that for the first time hopefully we have created this community that collectively not only makes this commitment but also then links it to clear action to drive it forward and change these statistics which are in desperate need of repair, if I may call it that way.

NEIL:

Yeah. So talking about how we drive that change and how we systematise this. Obviously, you have just written the book Net Positive and we talk about sustainable development goals. One of the things that I have been passionate about is actually making sure that we include disability clearly in sustainability and in the way that we embed this in organisations. So, I have talked, for a while now, about treating exclusion like pollution but actually applying the same kind of framework that we do with decarbonisation because disability exclusion is an externality. It's a negative externality of the way that businesses operate. And at the same time, when we make stuff accessible and inclusive, you have the positive externality that everybody can use it. It's easier for people. It generates inclusion, tax revenue, revenues for organisations etc. So, this is something that we are doing within my own organisation. But I'm wishing to proselytize and get out there so that people can understand and grasp the concept. How do we help organisations conceptualise these things? Do we need different economic models than we currently are? Do we need to think about things like donut economics? Are those frameworks helpful for business leaders to conceptualise what they need to do so that we are going from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism and a more holistic view of what business can do for society?

PAUL:

I guess from the heart of the book that I wrote Neil is that we need to reframe what good looks like. And I like your phrase exclusion is pollution and if you don't mind, I will borrow it with pride because it's a simple but powerful way to capture it. And it is clear that we have chased the wrong goals. When a measure like GDP was invented to measure success of a country, it was really only measured, only designed as a tool for industrial output. When Simon Kuznick did that in the '50's or 60's, he said don't use it as a goal to measure your success, because it doesn't measure negative externalities. It doesn't measure the finite resources. It does not measure finite resources; it doesn't measure fair income distribution. And here we are with two of the biggest challenges in the world, although we have lifted so many people out of poverty, we have started to realise that this is the way we are doing this is frankly unsustainable. We cannot have unlimited gross or output like this on a finite planet and anything you can do forever is by definition unsustainable. And increasingly we are realising that issues like climate change and inequality are actually two sides of the same coin. Covid, as I mentioned again, once more has shown that it's the people that are disadvantaged or in marginalized jobs already are paying the higher price of our shortcomings are again paying a disproportionate price for things like Covid. So, we have to step up. If we want to make this this world, if we want to make it function and function for all, we have to be sure that we attack the burning issue of climate change but that we also attack the equally important issue of inequality and more and more people understand that and that is why you see actually a drive to redefining what success looks like and move away from GDP, increasingly towards an overall wellbeing index. You know that it is ridiculous that we value wars or pollution or cutting down trees if you want to because it drives down our up our GDP because we don't value the quality of education piece or the air that we can breathe or the fact that we can live together in an inclusive environment and a safe environment so that is really the change that needs to happen, that is the genuine progress indicator or the human development index or the happy planet index or the gross national happy index and I can give you more and more of these initiatives that are popping up across the wealth that some countries are already starting to adapt to properly define what success looks like. Now the good thing about this is that the world has woken up. I think one of the major efforts that is taking place is the establishment of the sustainable standard board where next to optimising the return on financial capital now more and more people have realised also that we also need to include environmental and social capital as a minimum on equal footing. We have seen increasingly governments adjust and adapt their legislation as well. Requirements to publish the numbers of the work force diversity in LGBT and in gender but increasingly also hopefully with people with disabilities. Adapting laws and frameworks to make sure that companies act in an inclusive way. The Disability Acts that are coming in in different places. So we have started to see this broader awareness of what needs to be addressed, but also the willingness to do something about it. And what this is all about obviously is jumping on that trend but accelerating it because what is missing like on climate change, what is missing on inclusion is that we probably are aware of what needs to be done but that we are not moving at the speed and scale. And having now 500 of the biggest companies with the economic force of over eight trillion dollars in revenue is probably enough to create a tipping point and this is what we are all focused on.

ANTONIO:

Paul, behind me on the wall, I have a magazine, a wired magazine without war in this day saying we are at a climate crisis. Now, we are being talked, how can we make sure that this, all these delays, it was many years ago, how can we find a way that we don't get on kind of a trap, and we end up in a single situation in relation to disability?

>>:

Yeah. So that is very important, and I think the awareness is moving up. It is the zeitgeist, if you want to and Covid has really seen a shift, a shift in collective consciousness but also a shift in commitments of action to do something about it. So we need to be sure first and foremost that in the debate of building back better that we also put in, in terms of equality or the just transition that people talk, that we put in the rights of people with disabilities. I think it's not well understood yet that we are talking here about the population of 1.3 billion people, 15% of the world's population, the biggest minority group that most of the disabilities happen between the age of 20 and 65 that it could happen to all of us and so, we have to destigmatise. That is the first thing and I think with efforts like the Valuable 500 goes a long way in that direction. The second thing we have to do is it's very difficult for companies alone to really move the needle of that scale. So, we need to form these partnerships. I always say we should not compete on the future of humanity and companies that understand that collaborative leadership is more important than competitive leadership will be doing well. And here we have 500 the most iconic companies in the world, including ATOS being part of this effort collectively creating and sharing the knowledge. Collectively driving each other to higher levels. I believe we can get to move the needle forward in a significant way. And then the third element is to use that collective power to also drive the advocacy. There is no question about it that our multilateral institutions, our governments have it difficult at this time. We are seeing an increase in populace, nationalism, xenophobia. Multilateral institutions not quite functioning. Major distractions geopolitically that take away from this agenda. So as a business community we have the obligation to collectively raise our voices to ensure that government's implement the right policies and that governments obviously put the right frameworks in place to ensure that everybody then starts to implement these more inclusive strategies. Right now, for example in the US in the Disability Act, there is no minimum wage for people with disability. That is unacceptable. When Covid came in the UK they wanted to deprioritise people with disability to have access to the vaccines that became available. That is unacceptable. So if we don't work together to also ensure that governments individually and collectively put the right policies in place I am afraid we would not cut to these tipping points that we are after.

ANTONIO:

I think something that we need to look at, we need to get not as a campaign but as a permanent narrative is something that we need to talk about every day. I think that is something that we need to do as part of our commitment with a topic that we are so passionate about.

PAUL:

I could not agree more.

NEIL:

Its definitely, disability is a thread in the fabric of society. So if we don't include that talking about that thread then it gets left. behind. It gets siloed. We lose that progress.

PAUL:

What I find Neil is that people working a lot with the blind they have also dealt with uncertainty in their life. They always have to cope with the unexpected. They always had to use technology to actually enhance their capabilities. Often now technology has given them the possibility to do even more than nonofficially impaired people or sighted people if you want to. But also, they have also had to learn how to live in this VUCA world, of volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous and at a time when the world is even changing faster and faster, these people are actually better positioned than many of us who don't have to deal with these disabilities. So, the inclusion, where we see this in companies and I have seen the same in Unilever and I am sure you've seen the same in ATOS, the inclusion of people with disabilities of higher numbers in your company just absolutely lifts the total organisation and positions you better for more challenging future.

NEIL:

Absolutely. So we are used to dealing with complexity, ambiguity and problem solving and every business needs problem solvers especially right now. One last question before we have to close or rather a sort of topic and quite often there has been this idea that disability should be a charitable and when you're doing business with people with disabilities that should not really make money from it. My view is that actually there is nothing wrong with making good money out of doing good things and if anything, we should be making lots of money out of money out of it to make it attractive to businesses. So how can we create that attraction for businesses to engage in the topic rather than just as the macroeconomic figures but get them really engaged on how does that embed on how they sell or provide services to their community?

PAUL:

Well, you raised an interesting point Neil and listening to your question and reflecting on it, you know, a business needs profits to survive but profits are like white blood cells in your body. We need white blood cells to live but I've never met an individual that actually lives for his white blood cells so business itself needs profits to survive but it needs a higher order, a higher purpose to be able to be successful long term t be able to attract employees, have a higher level of engagement etc and then higher purpose can only come from representing these basic values of inclusion dignity and respect, equity and if businesses neglect that at all of its levels it ultimately will not be successfully. That is the essence of the book that we have written, net positive. So businesses that understand that they internalise and take responsibility of these gaps that we still see in society be it the environmental gaps or the social gaps that we have now. Not only discover that it's an enormous opportunity to be successful, the spending power of people with disabilities etc. Not only is it an enormous opportunity but it is also an imperative to be successful as an organisation long term. You simply will not be able to attract talent if you say I'm only hiring white males, or I am only taking care of people with disabilities or I am only doing LGBT. You have to have an integral approach where we ensure that we reflect society that we make it inclusive for all and unlock that full potential that comes with it to be long term successful.

NEIL:

Thank you very much Paul and we need to thank My Clear Text for keeping us captioned and really look forward to you joining us on Twitter on Tuesday night. It has been a real pleasure to talking to you.

PAUL:

I look forward to that. Thanks to both of you. Be safe. Page | 2