Behind every great success story is a leader with an eye on the future and a passion to change the past.
Bad news travels fast. Looking at headlines, or even at my Facebook newsfeed, I see many stories vilifying CEOs and big business. As a business leader, I want to shine some light on the good that exists out there. And there is plenty of it! I recently attended the annual EY Strategic Growth Forum, where the best CEOs, entrepreneurs, advisors and investors gathered to share their insights on what is shaping the future of the global economy.
Attending as an invitee and alumni of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women Program, I joined the event in Palm Springs to learn from and network with other top entrepreneurial leaders who create sustainability throughout their companies, plus participle on the Global Women's Advisory Business Council panel held at a separate venue. These are the people who are strengthening our economy, creating jobs and working together to benefit each of us. As a sustainably focused entrepreneur with the aspiration to create a kinder planet, coming together with so many outstanding individuals with similar passions was inspiring and invigorating. And, good for business through the connections I made while there.
Here are a few highlights from three of the leaders who have made a lasting impression on me:
Hamdi Ulykaya, Chobani Founder and 2013 EY Global entrepreneur of the Year:
Chobani is one of the fastest growing companies in history, going from a young start up in Central New York to a $1 billion dollar business in just over five years. The entrepreneur and philanthropist behind it, Hamdi Ulykaya, has transformed the U.S. yogurt category with products made only from natural ingredients that are delicious, nutritious and accessible to all.
Several key points really resonated as I listened to him speak. He said, "Create goods, with good around it." I especially enjoyed a farming metaphor he used when he described his experience being an entrepreneur as a Kurdish immigrant: "The seed is what you are made of, and the soil is what you need to grow. The USA has pretty good soil. Anyone can wake up here and believe they can do it -- that spirit must be preserved. Honesty, integrity and hard work!"
With help from the Small Business Administration, Ulykaya was able to grow his company and make quality yogurt affordable for everyone. Yet, he wanted to do more. He drew on his Kurdish background, thinking of the generosity of shepherds, and created the Shepherd's Gift Foundation. This foundation gives 10 percent of the company's profits to support positive lasting change in the community. He said that immediate community is the biggest source of growth. Emotional ownership is key. This is why he committed, with the first cup of yogurt he produced, to give back to charity.
David Rubenstein, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Carlyle Group:
David Rubenstein is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, one of the world's largest private equity firms. Since he co-founded the firm in 1987, it has grown to manage more than $170 billion from 33 offices worldwide. Rubenstein shared his passion and enthusiasm for education. He believes that educating youth, especially increasing literacy, is the only way to solve the ill level of income disparity.
In addition to education, Rubenstein believes philanthropy is critical (and that doesn't just mean writing checks -- or even donating money at all, in some cases). One way he 'walks the walk' is by signing The Giving Pledge and practicing "patriotic philanthropy" which benefits the country. These beliefs extend into his business practices as well. He says that finding the right talent means identifying successful characteristics: hardworking but humble, saying 'we' more than 'me' and being passionate about something other than making money. "A brand that stands for doing good in the world is a powerful tool for recruitment," he noted.
Thomas O'Conner, Jr., Chairman and CEO of Mohawk Paper:
Thomas O'Connor was a member of a three-man panel alongside the CEOs of Warby Parker and Honest Teas. The session highlighted how they have shaped a corporate culture of "purpose and stewardship" that is good for the bottom line and the environment and society.
O'Connor's comments, like Rubenstein and Ulykaya, reflected the same aspiration to lead his company by being a leader to not only people, but the environment and society alike. It is part of who they are, not marketing speak or green-washing. For example, his company used wind power for two years before they talked about it publicly. It just is part of their culture. The fact that O'Connor has preserved a corporate culture with a business and industry in such turmoil is incredible.
O'Connor credits their culture with preventing an identity crisis that so many other companies in his industry faced. "We have built a culture of loyalty and dedication and perseverance," O'Connor said. "Anyone can buy a machine or start a company. The difference is having people. People with the entrepreneurial spirit. People who are willing to adapt and change."
EY's Strategic Growth Forum has proven time and again to be an inspiring gathering of amazing leaders, and comments from these leaders -- and many others -- this year proved that business can be one of the strongest ways to make a positive difference in the world.
For those of you who want to make the world a better place through your work as well as your personal life, don't get disheartened by the bad examples we too often hear and see of people who focus on profits at the exclusion of all else. Look to examples like these three business leaders, and the many other inspiring executives who are trying to improve the world through their business. I know that nothing lifts my spirits more than finding others who, despite being in different industries, share the same aspirations that I do.