Transform the world through entrepreneurial thinking.
A bank whose currency is plastic. A wireless headpiece that stimulates the brain to treat epilepsy, depression, Alzheimer’s and other neurological conditions. A biofertilizer that improves crop yields while offsetting CO2 emissions. A mask worn by cows to catch their burps, reducing methane emissions that contribute to climate change. What do all these imaginative concepts have in common? They’re prime examples of elevated entrepreneurship — that is, solutions aimed at addressing some of the most intractable problems of our time, from climate change and poverty to physical and mental health.
This was the focus of the Global Alumni Reunion held on IESE’s Barcelona campus on Nov. 16-17, 2023. Under the academic direction of professors Christoph Zott and Anneloes Raes, the event drew 1,200 people over two days to exchange ideas on how to turn today’s problems into opportunities via values-led entrepreneurship and people-focused leadership.
As the IESE Alumni Association President and Managing Partner of McKinsey Spain & Portugal, Alejandro Beltran, reminded everyone, it “wasn’t only a gathering but a call to action and a commitment to do better.” Or as IESE Dean Franz Heukamp said, “It was a good moment to reflect on the importance of cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset that embraces change, sees opportunities everywhere, and inspires teams and organizations to innovate in order to build a more hopeful future for all.”
A rousing vision
What keeps you awake at night? It’s the question asked of every CEO. But to really get into the entrepreneurial mindset, the better question to ask is: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
The first question focuses on one’s deepest, darkest fears and anxieties, of which there are no shortage in our world today. But the second question reveals who’s keen to do something about them. People like Ana Maiques (IESE AMP ’15), CEO and co-founder of the digital brain health company, Neuroelectrics.
What keeps you awake at night? Or better yet: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
“It’s important to wake up every morning and be aligned with values and a vision for making a positive impact in the world,” she says. “It’s not just about making money. I haven’t been waking up every day, knocking on doors, looking for investors and working hard on our technology for 23 years on the off chance that I might get rich someday. No, it’s been about working with a brilliant team of scientists to develop something transformational. And I won’t rest until the day I finally see our devices being used at home by millions of patients with epilepsy or depression or whatever condition. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”
Ines Serra, founder and CEO of Biosorra, is similarly motivated. After finishing her IESE MBA in 2022, she could have taken a job at a high-paying consultancy. Instead, she decided to launch her own biofertilizer business, based in Kenya. “The more I read about climate change, the more frustrated I got. The climate doesn’t wait, and I really wanted to be part of the solution. I didn’t find anyone else doing what I wanted to do — collecting crop waste and transforming it into a product that removes CO2 while at the same time improving crop yields and farmers’ incomes — so I decided to give it a shot. And as you can solve climate issues from anywhere in the world, it made more logistical sense for me to go to Africa, where I feel I can have the most impact solving an environmental issue in combination with a poverty issue.” Her solution has earned funding from the XPRIZE Foundation and MIT Solve.
Don’t sweat it, reframe it!
Vision. Values. Positive social impact. These words come up time and again whenever entrepreneurs describe what moves them. And the way they flip the question — from sleepless nights to bright sunny days ahead — reveals an indomitable opportunity mindset, always choosing to see the glass half full where others only ever see it as half empty.
David Katz describes how this reframing technique led him to set up Plastic Bank, when he stopped seeing plastic as waste and reconceived it as a valuable untapped resource. (See his interview “Use one problem to solve another” later in this report.)
“What you think about is what you see,” he explains. “So if you just think about problems, no matter what is happening in front of you, you’ll only ever see the problems. Sure, there’s degradation in the world, if that’s what you’re choosing to see. But in an abundant universe, there are also infinite possibilities, if you choose to see them. And if you don’t see them, then you haven’t looked hard enough. Choose what it is you want to see in life. Look harder. It’s there.”
It happens by plan, not by chance
Another way of putting it is “turn your disadvantage into an opportunity.” Virginia Cha, professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the National University of Singapore, uses the example of her home country to illustrate this very point.
Singapore is a small island nation with few natural resources — it imports 90% of its food. Starting decades ago, the government made a concerted effort to become a regional operations center, positioning itself as an attractive, business-friendly Asia-Pacific hub for multinational companies. This helped grow generation after generation of highly skilled talent, who eventually branched out to launch their own, mainly IT-related businesses.
Eventually, the government began taking the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem very seriously. So prolific are the numbers of people who have started a company because the government gave them some grant money to do so, there’s even a term for it: grantrepreneurs.
The majority of entrepreneurship comes from a team, supported by an ecosystem
Most of these early startups were targeted at consumer digital, followed by B2B and fintech. Now the focus is on sustainable agrifood innovation. Once again, instead of being defeated by its land and resource constraints, the Singaporean government is throwing down the gauntlet and betting big on innovation, rallying everyone around an ambitious master plan called “30 by 30” for the nation to produce 30% of its nutritional needs by 2030.
This is not just seizing opportunity but proactively driving it, offering financing and tax incentives to make it happen.
Increasingly, companies are similarly taking steps to drive this opportunity mindset. And they are doing it through corporate entrepreneurship, which entails companies behaving like Singapore — adopting clear strategies and dedicating serious resources in order to innovate like a startup and generate positive social impact. In fact, Asia accounts for at least 40% of all corporate venturing investments in the world. (This is according to one of many studies IESE has conducted as part of its Open Innovation and Corporate Venturing Institute, which is just one of the many ways that IESE actively supports entrepreneurship.)
Zing Yang is an example of this kind of entrepreneurship. A seasoned investor and startup founder herself, Yang was hired by Cargill, the global agrifood giant, to scout out promising new digital innovations worthy of investment for validating, prototyping and potentially scaling up and spinning out.
Remember the mask to capture planet-warming cow burps? That’s one example of AgTech that Cargill is investigating and supporting. Another is ChickenCheck, an AI-enabled tool for poultry farmers that monitors flock movements in order to detect signs of stress and then deliver targeted interventions, such as adjusting feed levels, to improve animal welfare and health in the coop.
As Yang explains, the beauty of such digital solutions is that they afford novel monetization methods. So, in the case of ChickenCheck, Cargill is able to offer the tech to farmers for free and only charge them for the feed, tailored to flock needs.
Novel monetization models, like this one, are key for corporate innovation, along with aligning business units to achieve synergies, and engaging senior stakeholders early — not only can they help overcome internal barriers to innovation, but they can also help decide the best options, whether to build the innovation internally, invest externally, buy it in or partner with others.
Partnering is vital, Cha insists, because “you really can’t do this alone. The vast majority of entrepreneurship comes from a team, supported by an ecosystem, whether that’s in the context of a country, a company or a university. Despite what you see portrayed in the media, there are no lone heroes.”
Top 3 reasons why ventures fail, according to Zing Yang
1. They run out of cash Are you properly resourcing your ventures as they hit each milestone?
2. There’s no market Are you running experiments with your users and those closest to the market to get accurate feedback on their pain points and real needs?
3. They get beaten by the competition Are your organizational processes too slow? Do you lack agility? Are you unaware of what your competitors are doing?
Closing the distance
Nurturing that collaborative ecosystem for innovation is a priority for Hubertus von Baumbach, CEO and Chair of the pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim. He feels that reducing social distance and empowering those closest to the customers and patients they’re trying to serve are key for delivering breakthrough innovation. “I don’t think hierarchy helps those at the top,” he says. “It’s so important that I don’t lose connection with people — that I have the ability to hear from those who make the difference.”
So how does he, as a leader, do that? “I try to listen. I’m interested in how people feel. I want to know how their families are, if they’re frustrated by events that happened over the weekend. We can laugh about a bad soccer game or cry together about a lost family member. I think these are elements that create an environment that brings energy. I don’t believe in bringing in pressure every morning. People know what they need to do, and it’s easier for them to achieve results in an environment where they feel listened to and respected.”
In keeping with this organizational culture of sharing and caring, Boehringer Ingelheim actively encourages open innovation. Its scientists readily publish what they are working on in journals for others to build upon their knowledge base (something that IESE professor David Wehrheim finds can be helpful for attracting investors and talent). And they make molecules freely available through the platform opnMe, where fellow scientists can browse parts of Boehringer Ingelheim’s molecule collections and have any of them shipped to them to foster their own research.
“We believe the more you share, the more you learn. And if something doesn’t work out, we haven’t failed, we’ve learned. A strategy of collaboration, openness and constant learning fuels even more creativity and exchange, which maximizes the potential for innovation.”
He acknowledges that innovating in a context as highly regulated as pharmaceuticals adds complexity, but he hastens to say, “Navigating that complexity is what gets us out of bed every morning.” There’s that phrase again, representative of the get-up-and-go entrepreneurial mindset.
A culture of innovation
Abubakar Suleiman, Managing Director and CEO of Sterling Bank in Nigeria, similarly believes that, to build great things, you have to start by building a great place to work. When he joined Sterling, the organizational culture was clannish, with lots of people who had worked there a long time. He realized he needed to attract new talent, not just in banking but in the five new sectors that Sterling had decided would become key areas of investment for future growth: Health, Education, Agriculture, Renewable Energy and Transportation, or HEART for short. And to attract that new talent, the organization had to become more aligned with the way people wanted to work and live. That meant introducing four-day work weeks and remote working, long before the COVID-19 pandemic made it mainstream, and gifting shares in the company to literally make people feel more invested. This, he says, leads to more productivity, retention, engagement and innovation, even if you don’t pay the most. The results speak for themselves: in 2018, Sterling wasn’t even ranked among the top 10 places to work in Nigeria; since 2020, it has been No. 1 for four years in a row.
You’ll have an easier time finding partners if you set out trying to solve the most pressing problems in society
Having an envelope-pushing organizational culture helps, especially when, like Sterling, you begin venturing outside your traditional business space. Like Cha mentioned in the Asian context, partnership becomes vital to have the greatest impact. But not just any partners: “When partnering, think about what you bring to the table that your partners don’t have,” says Suleiman, and let your strengths compensate for what they want and need.
Also, Suleiman suggests you’ll have a much easier time finding partners if you set out trying to solve the most pressing problems in society. The more significant the problem, the more likely it is to scale and become a sustainable business model. He elaborates: “If I’m solving a healthcare problem, for example, I know I’ve already got partners and allies around the world, as well as the government on board, and this can facilitate access to capital.”
He describes entrepreneurial impact as “turning a problem into a profit. Admittedly, not all problems can become profitable, but I believe, in Africa at least, a lot of our problems can be solved profitably. It’s just a question of bringing together all of the intellectual capabilities that we have, all of the technologies that we have access to, and all of the great minds — the incredibly brilliant people out there — and giving them an opportunity to work on the problem. And once they figure out a way to turn it into a profit, it ceases to be a problem, it becomes an opportunity.”
Chetna Sinha, founder and chair of Mann Deshi Bank and Foundation in India, would concur. In her interview later in this report, she details how listening to and collaborating with unbanked rural women has had life-changing, society-level impacts. As her story shows, the proverb “It takes a village…” applies aptly to elevated entrepreneurship.
Mature organizations can thrive, not just survive, with a bold vision and a humanistic approach
Having held senior executive positions at DHL, Lenovo and HP and now as CEO of Xerox, Steve Bandrowczak knows a thing or two about driving change, especially reviving the innovative spirit for which these established firms are known. To build a team capable of driving change at the pace that technology is moving today, it takes certain attributes, starting with trust, “because you can’t drive change with an organization that doesn’t trust each other. It means being completely transparent, open and honest about the reality of where we are and getting everyone’s input.”
Getting that input requires going into factories and riding along with the technicians, to really get a sense of what’s happening in the field. “I will always err on the side of transparency, spending time listening to people, no matter where they are in the organization.”
That listening extends to roundtables involving diverse employee groups, from young professionals to Black, Asian and female leaders. “You’ve got to be able to understand their needs and build a culture that everybody can buy into. Without that, we won’t be able to drive change. As the saying goes, culture will kill strategy every time.”
They also offer reverse mentoring to senior employees who have been with the company for a long time. “In general, everybody wants to be successful. Nobody comes to work saying, ‘I want to be miserable and fail.’ But maybe they’re scared; people have a tendency of going to the dark side of change. As leaders, we have to show people the positive side and get people over their fears by making them part of what we’re trying to do.”
For him, having the right attitude counts for everything. “It’s really hard to tell someone who is functionally doing superior work that they don’t have the right attitude to drive change. I look everybody in the eye and ask, ‘Are you ready for this journey?’ Because not everyone loves transformation and change; some prefer steady-state companies. I need a fully committed team who drive energy.”
“If somebody says, ‘You inspire me,’ then I know I’m doing my job. Keep that front and center: in every interaction, encourage people, talk about entrepreneurship, that it’s okay to fail. And when you create that culture, you’ll create an environment of innovation and change.”
Slow and steady wins the race
Of course, life-changing results take time — whether it’s Boehringer Ingelheim’s 10-year-plus pipeline for drug development or 23 years and counting for Ana Maiques’ brain stimulator. “It takes a long time to do something revolutionary and meaningful,” she says. “That’s not a message we get from the Googles and the Facebooks of the world,” where the dominant message is “move fast and break things.”
“It takes an exceptional amount of grit, tenacity and persistence to get to the finish line,” says Salone Sehgal (IESE MBA ’11). A former M&A banker and private equity specialist, Sehgal was an entrepreneur herself before she launched Lumikai, India’s first early-stage venture capital (VC) fund for interactive new media. For her, it’s a long, hard battle not just because that is sometimes the nature of the entrepreneurial journey, but because “being in male-dominated environments, in boardrooms, doing M&A deals, I rarely, if ever, saw anyone like me — a brown, Indian, female — on the other side of the table.”
This remark resonates with Maiques, who recalls being told, when knocking on doors of venture capitalists and getting nowhere, that she’d be better off letting a man go out and raise money for her. “This was 2020,” she says. “I was like, are you kidding me? There’s no way I’m going to ask a man to raise money for me. What kind of example would that set for my two daughters? In life, there are some pieces of advice you should never take, and for me this was one of them. So I did what the Americans call ‘going the extra mile.’ And I’m happy to report I succeeded in raising $20 million. Overcoming things that other people say are set in stone is part of what it means to be an entrepreneur. It means not accepting the rules of the game but instead working harder to change those rules.”
Entrepreneurship is a team sport
Aside from the extra hurdles for women and minorities, Igor de la Sota (IESE MBA ’11), co-founder and general partner of Cardumen Capital, appreciates the difficulties of raising money in general. “You have to create a brand that you are able to scale, you need to have a very clear vision of where you’re going, and people have to buy into your vision. Investors are making three decisions: whether they like you on a personal level; whether the brand you represent is a good brand or not; and whether your product is right. It’s a triple whammy.”
Communicating a clear vision extends to your team, not just investors. “You need to bring people along with you,” he says. Whether it’s pursuing round after round of investment, or continually iterating your product, both take time and require “very strong, long-lasting relationships. I probably spend a third of my time connecting with people. When you make good connections, people are very appreciative of it. That, in itself, is an investment. I firmly believe that building an ecosystem of amazing relationships, with your team and with investors, is indispensable for success.”
Entrepreneurial hiring: how redeployable is your talent?
By Liinus Hietaniemi
Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at IESE
When it comes to scaling up an enterprise, should you stay lean and grow cautiously or hire more aggressively in anticipation of greater market demand? It depends on the entrepreneurial profile.
Using a decade’s worth of data on Finnish startups, colleagues and I found that operating multiple ventures affords the option of transferring staff elsewhere if one venture fails to grow. This reduces the cost of overcommitment, allowing “portfolio entrepreneurs” to hire more robustly early on, which, in turn, speeds capability development and improves the chances of success.
Entrepreneurs focused on a single, standalone company, on the other hand, have less wiggle room. If they overhire and things don’t take off, that’s more people they may need to lay off — and in a context like Finland, with strong labor rights and protections, the compensatory costs involved could hamper a struggling startup.
Portfolio entrepreneurs not only hire more, they choose employees with easily transferable skills, which gives them the option of redeploying talent according to where the growth is. In this regard, the relatedness of the ventures under the same portfolio also helps.
The flexibility inherent in portfolio ventures — with fast scaling, transferable skills and the ability to develop unique capabilities from the outset — may prove advantageous in the long run.
SOURCE: “Human resource redeployability and entrepreneurial hiring strategy” by L. Hietaniemi, S. Santamaria, A. Kacperczyk & J. Peltonen. Strategic Management Journal (2023).
Communicating well with your team is especially important during times of crisis, as Bruno Lea (IESE MBA ’14), CEO of HAAS France, Spain & Maghreb, found out during the COVID-19 pandemic, when his business activity collapsed overnight. “The first thing to remember is that you never go through a crisis alone,” he says. “Everyone is interdependent: the people who surround you, your employees, your many stakeholders, your investors, as well as your family.”
Lea also discovered something else about himself: “In highly uncertain times, I slow down and grow very calm. Staying calm, keeping your emotions under control, saves energy, not only for yourself but for your team. It helps to slow down and remind yourself of your original vision or purpose. Because a crisis is a marathon, not an issue to be solved in one week.”
Mindset, skills, personal situation
A healthy dose of self-awareness and emotional regulation, like Lea’s, are crucial entrepreneurial qualities (see Think like an entrepreneur for more), especially when you find yourself on the rollercoaster of today’s topsy-turvy business economy.
Ivan Rodriguez (IESE Executive MBA ’11), co-founder of the real-estate platform Vivla, says it boils down to three things: mindset, skills and personal situation. “If you’re missing one of those three, you’re going to suffer. I’ve seen so many people try to launch a venture but they didn’t have the right opportunity mindset. And maybe you don’t have all the right skills to begin with, but you at least need to prove you’re willing and able to learn them. Finally, you seriously need to consider your personal situation: this is your husband, your wife, your kids, your friends, your parents, your colleagues; it’s going to take a toll on them. Those three stars need to be aligned for success.”
Sehgal agrees: “For far too long, we have idealized a kind of entrepreneurship culture that’s all about hustle, where people don’t have great relationships with their spouses and they don’t spend enough time with their children. But that’s not the only way to build a successful company. You can have work-life balance, spending time with your family and not working weekends. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, and it’s worth stressing.”
Maintaining a healthy balance, with special attention to those around you, rounds out the definition of elevated entrepreneurship, as IESE Prof. Christoph Zott has highlighted from his research (see below).
5 hallmarks of success
Entrepreneurship, at root, is about creating value by building businesses under conditions of high uncertainty and severe resource constraints. Sound familiar? Today’s business environment — the new normal for many of us — sounds an awful lot like the conditions entrepreneurs are used to, which is why we can learn a lot from studying their approach. These are the entrepreneurial behaviors to emulate.
1. Keep things in perspective Don’t let present circumstances panic you. Take pride in how far you’ve come, and work step by step toward a better future.
2. Consider nonfinancial rewards Focus on emotional rewards now, especially if the payoff appears distant.
3. Dialogue with many different stakeholders Be transparent with your team, customers, suppliers, etc. to keep everyone informed and fully on board.
4. Regulate your emotions You may be paddling like a duck underwater but show calm to the world. Others need to see certainty, not your anxiety adding to everyone else’s stress.
5. Show consideration Always be kind, empathize and listen.
SOURCE: “Learning from entrepreneurs: how established businesses can respond positively to crisis,” a video recorded during the height of the 2020 pandemic, in which IESE Prof. Christoph Zott used the example of entrepreneurs to help leaders and managers in established firms reshape their strategies and actions in an unknown and highly uncertain future.
Leaving a legacy
Above all, elevated entrepreneurship is about profit with purpose — keeping your eyes fixed on the North Star of why you’re doing what you’re doing. “Having a bigger vision or purpose is the only way you can go through crises without going crazy,” says Lea.
And that purpose goes beyond generating good returns, delivering for investors, employees, suppliers and other business partners. There are other stakeholders to serve.
“I strongly believe in giving back to society, given that I have benefited so much,” says Lea. He is passionate about the transformational impact of education, so he actively supports giving more educational opportunities to young people in his native France.
“As busy entrepreneurs, time is our most precious commodity. I may not be making more EBITDA because I’m helping schools, but we need to make time to give back. Whether helping children or the planet, these are equally valuable stakeholders. This is why I’m also involved in an effort to replant trees, to combat deforestation, desertification and climate change. It’s why we make ESG assessments on environmental, social and governance standards, as well as doing stakeholder mapping. It’s why we prioritize business ethics. I consider it my duty not only to do good business but to find ways of giving back to as many stakeholders as possible.”
Elevated entrepreneurship is ultimately about striving every day to say: the world is better off with my venture than without it. Can you say the same? How do you plan to elevate and innovate your business?
The Global Alumni Reunion sessions are available to Alumni Members to watch on demand via the IESE Alumni website.
The IESE Global Alumni Reunion gratefully acknowledges the support of its sponsoring partners (listed alphabetically): Banco de Sabadell, Barcelona Health Hub, Bodegas Roqueta (Abadal), Boehringer Ingelheim, CaixaBank, Casa de Campo, Castillo de Canena, Codorníu, COVAP, Damm Foundation, Diageo (Johnnie Walker), El Corte Inglés, Frinsa, GFT, HP, Marqués de Riscal, NH Hotels, Oesía, Osborne, Pazo de Rubianes, Plain Concepts, Quely, SEAT, Steelcase (Silver Sponsor), Tarrago, Tech Barcelona and Venta del Barón.
Save the date
The next Global Alumni Reunion will take place in Madrid on November 14-16, 2024.
These 8 qualities are necessary for next-level innovation.
1. Opportunity mindset
Every half empty glass is also half full: your job is to reframe problems and find creative solutions.
2. Take the long view
Innovation takes time. Think beyond the next quarter. Consider giving employees equity stakes to embed a long-term value orientation for sustainable innovation.
3. Reduce social distances
Hierarchy doesn’t help those at the top hear from those who make the difference. Check in with people and bring everyone along with you.
Not only internally but with industry partners, universities and R&D centers, and not just with people but with AI. Don’t be the Lone Ranger: innovation is more powerful when everyone works together.
Experiment, fail fast and learn from mistakes. Have agile processes that enable you to pivot quickly in light of new learnings.
Know your limits. How do you react under pressure? How can you play to your strengths? Which complementary skillsets do you need around you?
7. Walk the talk
Prioritize ethics in your decision-making and make sure everything you do is aligned with your values.
8. Spirit of service
Have a purpose beyond making money. How can you serve people, improve lives and make the world a better place?
David Katz is the Founder and Chair of Plastic Bank
David Katz describes himself as “just a dude from Vancouver, trying to do cool stuff and figuring it out as I go.” But lots of regular dudes have walked along a beach and been outraged by the amount of plastic waste they see washed up on shore. And many have also seen how 3D printing works, creating fantastic shapes from plastic filaments. Yet few, if any, connect those dots and launch a business.
Katz, who grew up on an island off the west coast of Canada, saw the environmental degradation starting 40 years ago. But it wasn’t until 2013, during a 3D printing seminar at a Silicon Valley conference, that he had his “Aha!” moment — when he realized that plastic, reshaped, suddenly acquired new value. The idea for Plastic Bank was born.
Here he explains how it works, which may just spark an “Aha!” moment of your own.
Tell us how your business idea came about.
I began this journey wanting to solve the problem of plastic waste in the ocean, before realizing that wasn’t the real problem I needed to solve. Many people want to go and clean up the ocean. They do a beach cleanup — that’s beautiful. But if we want to work on the important and not just the urgent (which is how to be effective), then we need to solve the root problem. And that problem is poverty.
Eighty percent of the material entering the ocean is coming from areas of extreme poverty. And in that reveal, I discovered a phenomenal opportunity. Many of you have heard of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals: 17 ambitions for humanity that need to be addressed. But they’re numbered in a particular order for a reason. So, if we are to get to Goal No. 14 (to conserve and sustainably use the oceans) or ensure clean energy (No. 7) or achieve gender equality (No. 5) or provide quality education (No. 4), then we have to solve Goal No. 1, which is to end poverty.
What do people who live on less than $1 a day need? Food, water, shelter, medicine, community, opportunity. They live in a condition of daily need. Their time paradigm is today, now. And if you have traveled to areas of extreme poverty, you know they are full of garbage, often plastic waste. But what is waste? It’s a construct. We’ve been conditioned to see garbage, yet it’s actually a resource. Plastic, it’s so easy to vilify, but in that moment in 2013, I was flooded by the enormity of the idea of plastic as a currency, with tons of it freely available on the Earth for anyone to use.
Thus began a journey to unlock humanity’s greatest monetary reserve in a relationship with the Earth that lifts all humanity and ends poverty. It’s about creating the next realm of business by investing in a regenerative economy.
You call this using one problem to solve another. How does it work?
We started off in Haiti and have expanded across Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. We set up local centers where people bring the plastic they have collected. This prevents the plastic from ever entering the oceans in the first place. The material is checked for quality, weighed, and the value is transferred to an account for people to spend on whatever they need: school tuition, pharmaceuticals, filtered water, cooking fuel, cell phone minutes, Wi-Fi.
Suddenly they have a bank account. Do you remember the first time you had a bank account? Did you not feel like you were a part of something bigger? Do you remember the power of having savings? Do you remember the power of having the ability to see beyond today to tomorrow? Did it unlock you? Did you think differently?
“We talk about climate change but it’s really business change we have to talk about”
Suddenly you’re hopeful. You aren’t enslaved by loan sharks and indebted. And as you collect material consistently, you become a reliable Plastic Bank member; you are returning material every week and it’s of a certain quality with a certain value. We know what kind of debt-service ratio you can carry, so we can loan you money at zero interest, which is paid back using plastic as a currency. Massive volumes of material are being gathered by hand in a way that builds prosperity and hope.
How does the model encourage exponential change?
Change starts at the neighborhood level, which is why we partner with local schools, making them collection points. The children go home and teach their parents. So instead of the parents throwing the plastic in the river or burning it (because no one is coming to pick it up), the children bring it to school, and the parent earns a bank account. The family starts to view the material differently, and the child views environmental stewardship as the pathway out of poverty. The same goes for churches, where people’s recycling can be brought, almost like an offering. This is “social recycling” and it’s changing the paradigm, where even the poorest of the poor can be in service. It’s a powerful model where change begets more change.
What happens to the collected plastic?
It’s turned into feedstock, which we call Social Plastic. This is then sold to manufacturers and values-led organizations around the world that are standing on the right side of history, for recycling into packaging, eliminating the need for virgin plastic.
How important was it that Plastic Bank be a for-profit social enterprise?
Oh, it had to be for profit. You see, everybody’s got to win: the poor win, the Earth wins, but we’re also providing a stream of material to manufacturers so that their brands win, their staff wins, the consumer wins, and even the plastic wins because it becomes new again.
We talk about climate change but it’s really business change we have to talk about. Most public companies have a poverty mindset, living for the next payday or the next quarter. The more we can create a space for CEOs to make decisions based on all of society, not just the shareholders, and get them participating in the change as well, that is how we truly start changing the world. If we’re really going to gather the whole world together, it has to be value creating in every sense and involve everyone.
Tell us how you use blockchain to add value.
Every transaction occurs using blockchain technology. So, you want to deposit, you want to withdraw, you want to spend your credit in this or that pharmacy or cell phone provider: it’s all tracked. This reduces the need for manual audits and speeds the use of authentic data, enabling us to determine someone’s creditworthiness and provide a loan at the press of a button.
It also facilitates producer responsibility. Increasingly, organizations are obligated to take responsibility for the material they’re putting out into the environment and prove to local governments they’re collecting it back. Blockchain tracks that, too. With a QR code on a bottle, anyone can see the story of the bottle — where it was collected, the people who collected it. With such data, we are all better able to support communities and transfer more value to them. This creates active engagement between the person who bought the material and what happens on the ground, and it allows scope for the corporates to also drive activation.
What kind of leadership is needed to drive the shift?
I always say CEOs are not so much at the top as they are at the bottom, because the bad stuff flows downhill. Ultimately, the CEO is the one barraged by all the challenges. How do you live in that space? I believe it comes down to selecting the right people and only saying yes to people who fulfill the entire requirement, not just 80% of the requirement. It requires servant leadership, helping other people become greater than they ever thought possible. My greatest experience is going through a big challenge together with the greatest team, united in a common purpose. And you can’t just like the purpose, you also have to like the work that the purpose requires or you’re not going to be successful.
“Organizations have to be focused not just on being sustainable but on creating purpose”
It also takes a learning mindset. I love the saying, “The man who thinks he knows everything has nothing to learn.” It’s true. I think too many leaders become lulled into a place of satisfaction, and they get complacent or lazy. But when you’re trying to change the world, you need to surround yourself with people who are curious, who are constantly seeking and struggling and trying and who love the journey of life.
And in my life, when I became curious, it became about receiving. I remember attending an event that said: what precedes giving is receiving powerfully. That landed for me. We have to ask ourselves: what is occurring inside of me that might be preventing me from being open to the gifts of the universe? Because it’s all out there. We just have to be open enough to accept it; to be ongoing learners, always looking, always studying, always giving up the self.
Are you hopeful about the next generation of leaders?
Oh my goodness, yes, the whole thing about climate change and business change, today’s young people are demanding it. A regenerative economy is emerging, brought on by a very passionate, empowered next generation. A generation that has been through financial crises, a pandemic, ocean acidification, marine debris, wars. An entire generation living in a constant state of fear. They want to do business with those organizations standing for the repair of the damage that has been done.
The next realm of successful business will have the mindshare and heart of an executive who knows they can choose purpose in their lives. Today, organizations have to be focused not just on being sustainable — sustainability is mere table stakes now — but on creating purpose. Because young people don’t work at places that don’t have it, that aren’t doing something authentic and beautiful in the world. That’s not what they’re giving their lives to. They want things with heart and soul. And increasingly, consumers want that too. It’s the purpose economy, where it’s not about a job or the product itself, it’s about creating an aliveness in the world, where the journey is the destination. And these same people are going to be the next realm of politicians and policymakers. I still think we’re a good generation away from seeing a profound shift. But the tree has been planted.
What’s your final advice to people?
When I first had this idea, I was overwhelmed by all the voices in my head telling me, “This is crazy, it’s beyond you, it’s too big.” But I also heard a still small voice telling me, “You don’t need to be the person who changes the world; all you’ve got to do is choose to be on the journey.”
When it comes to starting a project, perfect is the enemy of the good enough. We can talk about all sorts of amazing world-changing ideas, but none of it matters unless we choose to make a start. Don’t get caught up in your thoughts or distracted by people telling you why your idea might not work. Accept their criticisms as gifts. There’s no failure, it’s just trying. Your path will be different from mine (I have no step-by-step secret to success). It’s not a destiny you’re born with or not. It’s a decision you make.
If there’s one message I can share, it’s that you already have everything you need: creativity, resourcefulness, perseverance, communication skills, intelligence. You just need the courage to begin. And it’s not about the money you make, it’s about who you want to be in the world. Are you going to be that inspiration?
Chetna Sinha is the Founder and Chair of Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank
A mother who worked manually, breaking stones in fields, and who dreamed of building a house for her family. A welder who wanted to save to buy tarpaulin for protection during monsoon season. A student who asked for work so she could get a bike to ride to school. An elderly woman who took out an interest-bearing savings account so she could buy the medication she needed.
These women are the inspiration for Chetna Sinha, founder and chair of Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank, India’s first bank for rural women. “These are women who have never been to school but they have taught me many lessons. And as I worked with them, I realized the wisdom I get from them is not only for me, my life or my journey, but it is also wisdom that can change policy and the entire banking sector.”
Since its creation 25 years ago, Mann Deshi Bank has loaned over 5.4 billion rupees ($65 million) to women in India’s Maharashtra state, regularly creating new financial products to meet the evolving needs of female microentrepreneurs.
Sinha also founded the Mann Deshi Foundation, which supports the activities of the bank by developing women’s business and financial skills. Mann Deshi has supported over 950,000 women and aims to reach a million women in the coming years.
Sinha has worked on issues related to gender and financial inclusion at the World Economic Forum; the Women 20 (W20) and Group of 20 (G20); the BRICS group of developing nations; and the Group of 7 (G7). She has received the Nari Shakti Puraskar, the highest civilian award for women in India.
Here, she explains how, if you listen closely to the people you’re trying to serve, you’ll not only help them, but you can succeed in changing society.
What made you take the drastic step of moving from Mumbai, where you were born and raised, to rural Maharashtra?
When I was a university student in the 1980s, a Gandhian leader came to campus and recommended that we go and work in the villages. This fascinated me. I thought, “Yes, I want to do that.”
So, I traveled across the country, and during those travels, I met my husband, Vijay. He is a farmer and was leading a movement for farmers’ rights in rural Maharashtra. Seeing his dedication to the farmers, I fell madly in love with him. Our thoughts, ideas and goals aligned perfectly, so we decided to get married.
I chose to leave Mumbai and settle in Mhaswad, where we started working together for farmers, women and other vulnerable groups. It has been over three decades, and he continues to be my partner in both work and life.
How did you discover that the best way to contribute to your new community was by setting up a cooperative bank for rural women?
I was inspired by the women I met who wanted to save money. These are ordinary women who never went to school, never traveled or earned a degree, but they wanted to do extraordinary things with their lives. Whenever they went to different banks, they were told they couldn’t open an account because their savings were too small. So I thought, if banks aren’t opening accounts for these women, why not start a bank for them?
Ours is the first bank in India for rural women. I’m so proud that we set it up with no outside capital. Our capital comes from the women themselves, our savings come from women, and our credits go to women.
Mann Deshi Bank combines specific local products with digital technology. With doorstep banking, bank employees go directly to homes and shops to collect deposits and loan payments, logging them with handheld digital devices. Biometric technology is used to access accounts in order to counter concerns over stolen personal identification numbers. Why?
Women were saying they didn’t just want access to finance, they wanted control over their finances. In the way they’re using digital banking, these women have taught me never to give poor solutions to poor people. They are smart and they want smart solutions.
How do you know where to innovate in creating new products and services?
Number one, listen to the common people, what problems they have, and try to solve them. Number two, keep it simple. One of our women placed a fixed deposit and said she wanted monthly interest. Every month, she would come and claim the interest. I asked her, “What are you using this for?” And she said, “I have problems in my knee and muscles. I need regular medicine. So I’m using this interest to buy my medicine.”
“If you listen to people and you provide solutions, you can create national-level changes”
In her own way, she was essentially customizing a pension product for herself. Based on her story, we designed a pension product for rural women. At the time, there was no pension product in India for women who weren’t in the formal economy. But thanks to us doing this, a national pension scheme was designed.
If you listen to people and you provide solutions, you can create national-level changes. So, even though we are a bank for rural women, we helped design a pension product for the whole country.
Microcredit has come under fire, since some borrowers are unable to repay their loans and some small businesses subsequently fail. What makes your bank different?
In some cases, that criticism is valid. I say that because microcredit is not the whole of microfinance. For me, I wouldn’t have started the bank if women hadn’t been talking about savings. When women come to our bank, they save first, and then they take out credit. Saving is as important as credit. If you just focus on credit, it’s not going to help.
Also, when you are dealing with the first generation of women who are doing banking and credit, you have to be prepared to be more comprehensive on the supply side. That is why we created financial literacy with debt counseling. We have talked to policymakers about this, too. I’m proud to share that the central bank of India has made debt counseling a major component of financial literacy. It’s important to address these associated issues.
This seems to be the holistic approach to empowering women taken by Mann Deshi Foundation. How did that activity begin?
We saw that our clients were taking out loans, and saving. But then they began to tell us they wanted to set up businesses. So, we started the first business school in India for rural women who had never been to school. After graduation, they didn’t go looking for jobs; they set up their own businesses. This was another lesson: these women may not have been able to go to school, but they can manage and run their own businesses successfully.
The business schools also create opportunities for women belonging to different castes.
We provide courses where young women from the Dalit community, who have never been allowed to be in schools, can learn to do highly male-dominated jobs like administering vaccinations. In this way, they begin earning and taking care of their families, and they also break centuries-old caste barriers.
How is climate change, which severely affects rural communities, shaping your activities?
In my village, there are frequent droughts. One woman told us, “If you can’t do anything about water, we’ll have to leave and end up in the slums of Mumbai.” That made us realize we need to work on water issues, too. Even for a bank, if we don’t help address issues of climate change, then our customers will be forced to migrate, and we will be through with our work in banking.
How do you measure impact?
First, you need data. Accenture did pro bono work for us, creating a management information system so we could capture data and measure our impact. That includes the tangible impact like increases in income, the number of assets held, and so on. But there is also the softer, less tangible impact, which is how much confidence we have built. The bank provides women with control over their finances and their lives, and that impact is, I think, extremely important, because that’s what’s going to change the next generation. We need to design better formulas to measure that kind of impact.
Speaking of the next generation, what changes have you seen in the lives of women in the decades since you started this work?
For the daughters of India, their lives are changing because women are investing. In the countryside, we now talk about STEM education. You ask women what they want to become, and they will say, “I want to become a computer engineer. I want to become a scientist.” That change has come — and not because we have big universities or anything like that. It has come because these women have paved a very different journey for their daughters.
In these days of geopolitical, economic, social and environmental complexity, it’s crucial for us, as business leaders, in whatever organization or setting, to understand the dynamics and try to tackle them with innovation and creativity. It requires entrepreneurship, which isn’t just for startups, it’s for everyone.
What is entrepreneurship? Basically, it’s the process of creating something out of nothing, which sounds like magic. Although the end result may be quite magical, there’s a lot of scientific research behind it. And that research reveals many of the things we believe about entrepreneurship are not, in fact, true.
Here are three persistent myths or stereotypes about entrepreneurship that research shows to be false:
1. Entrepreneurs are born, not made. Many people think you have to be genetically gifted or talented to be an entrepreneur. Wrong. Research shows that entrepreneurship is something learnable. Anybody and everybody can exercise entrepreneurship in their own context, in their own way.
2. Opportunities for new businesses are out there, waiting to be found. People often believe the next great business idea exists, and it’s just a matter of you being the first to discover it, like Mount Everest. While on rare occasions that might be true, most of the time opportunities need to be — and can be — created. “The truth is out there” was a tagline for The X-Files (which was, fittingly, science fiction). True entrepreneurial opportunities arise from within.
3. To be a successful entrepreneur, it takes luck. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood: “So, do you feel lucky, punk?” Who is lucky all the time? Nobody. Indeed, many entrepreneurs are extremely unlucky. Unfortunate things happen to them, yet they are still successful. So it cannot all be down to blind luck. Rather, entrepreneurship is a process. And the good thing about processes is, you can learn how to run them; they can be managed and improved.
If we disabuse ourselves of these false notions, what will it take for us to engage with the entrepreneurial process?
It starts with a healthy dose of self-awareness. It’s one thing to see opportunities, but then you need the inner capacity, the inner drive, to seize those opportunities and turn them into something great. Do you understand your strengths and weaknesses? Are you consciously bringing the best version of yourself to work, playing to your strengths and bringing in new capabilities that compensate for your weaknesses?
It requires that you design great teams. You will need to surround yourself with people who have complementary skillsets and strengths, and who can challenge you when necessary. Despite media adulation of the entrepreneur as a lone maverick, moving fast and breaking things, in actual fact, entrepreneurs rarely, if ever, act alone; they always act in a team. Reach out to others. Good things will usually come when you reach out for help with good intentions.
Entrepreneurial leadership is well suited to tackle the tough, existential problems we face today
This entails a sense of humility. Understanding that we all need to work together in order to make things happen is humbling. Collaboration and coordination are the very definition of organizations, yet, as we all know, organizations don’t always work together well; sometimes we work at cross purposes. However, given the times we are living in and the challenges we are facing, it is more important than ever that we swallow our pride, put egos aside, and mobilize collaboration at all levels of our organizations.
We call this exercising entrepreneurial leadership. And it is the exact kind of leadership that is well suited to tackle the tough, existential problems we face — wars, geopolitical tensions, extreme political ideologies on the rise, poverty, climate change — what we refer to as the Grand Challenges, on top of the more everyday challenges we face in our companies, jobs and personal lives.
Entrepreneurial leadership sees all those problems as opportunities. Whenever you talk to entrepreneurs, you notice they never consider a problem purely in the negative sense; they reframe it as an interesting challenge to be (re)solved. Likewise, you make the choice to see any problem whichever way you want to see it.
Be tenacious. In trying to solve problems and exploit opportunities, don’t throw in the towel too soon. Entrepreneurs teach us the value of resilience, of perseverance, of not giving up at the first sign of trouble. And there will be lots of naysayers discouraging you along the way. Don’t be disheartened but let their criticisms serve as the impetus for ongoing improvement.
Allied to this is courage. Not everyone will see the opportunities exactly as you do. Persisting with your idea when others don’t see it takes courage as well as tenacity. Again, use these moments as opportunities to learn and grow.
Finally, consider what is “elevated” about your entrepreneurship. You could say elevated entrepreneurship is entrepreneurship with purpose. What is the larger, nobler purpose of your entrepreneurial endeavors?
We invite everyone to pause and reflect on these fundamental questions: What does elevated entrepreneurship mean to me? And how am I going to put it into practice, starting today?
This Report forms part of the magazine IESE Business School Insight 166. See the full Table of Contents.
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