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Unlocking Extraordinary Purpose In Everyday Items

08/09/2016 01:29 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2016

Last year, I traveled to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, a temporary home for 80,000 Syrian refugees who fled their country's civil war. My trip was prompted by a news article written by two volunteer dermatologists after their travels to a refugee camp one year earlier. To reach the camp, many refugees walk for days in the desert, which can create cracks that cause discomfort and can even lead to infection in the body's first line of defense: the skin. The doctors wrote about how an ordinary household item, Vaseline® Petroleum Jelly, was an easy remedy for the various skin concerns they encounter and how they needed more of it.

Dermatological issues might not be the most pressing problem for vulnerable refugee populations, but in speaking with the U.N. Refugee Agency, I discovered that skin problems are among the 10 most common conditions refugees face. As a Director at Unilever managing the Vaseline® brand, I had the power to help solve this issue.

Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan is the guiding vision by which we do business, empowering each employee to find his or her personal purpose and express it through our brands to create a brighter future. For the Vaseline® Brand, and for me, that meant healing.

In partnership with the NGO, Direct Relief, we created the Vaseline® Healing Project to bring simple supplies and dermatologist's hand to places in need, both internationally and in the U.S. The project's goal is to help heal some of the debilitating skin conditions that keep many people from work or school or ordinary life through medical supplies, dermatological care and Vaseline® Jelly.

From this experience, I've gained life lessons that I'll never forget. Learning to spot opportunity, to realize new potential in everyday objects under extraordinary circumstances and to embrace the problems that I have the power to solve instead of being overwhelmed by those I can't. These are all crucial business lessons, but I realized they are also lessons about how to live sustainably. I couldn't solve the refugee crisis, but I could make a difference in the lives of those affected.

Young People Inspiring Change At Home

Back in the United States, I was thinking of what I learned in Zaatari when I met two remarkable young women who are living all of these lessons in order to create a brighter future in their community -- and all before graduating high school.

Californians Katrine Kirsebom and Corinne Hindes grew up as friends with a love of winter sports, often tearing through the snow on downhill ski slopes. But at age 11, they realized that winter wasn't fun for everyone. Seeing a homeless man on the street in their hometown, clad in just a T-shirt and jeans to brace against the cold, inspired them to make a promise to help.

On their next ski trip, the young girls noticed the mountain of unclaimed winter clothing at the lodge's lost and found. Remembering the homeless man, they realized those abandoned mittens and boots could warm new hands and feet.

Katrine and Corinne found value in the discarded objects that most of us ignore. And, crucially, they took the opportunity to help solve a problem. They realized that while homelessness is a significant and complex issue, keeping somebody warm was within their power.

Warm Winters, created by Katrine and Corrine, was launched in 2011 with a donation to a homeless shelter of unclaimed items from a ski lodge. The founders have since partnered with 30 lodges across 12 states to distribute thousands of coats, boots, mittens and hats. Unilever is proud to support Warm Winters to also distribute personal care products such as Vaseline® Jelly to help Katrine and Corrine touch the lives of thousands of people. While the initiative has made great strides, so far it's been able to serve only a fraction of the millions of people using homeless shelters across the U.S. But Warm Winters has big plans to scale up. Going forward, Katrine and Corinne have a plan to train 5,000 youth over the next five years to help collect and distribute more essentials.

I am so inspired by their success in rallying other young people to get involved. Young people like Katrine and Corinne are the next generation of business leaders, starting early with a mindset to find a purpose and seize an opportunity to make a difference. I, for one, am excited to see the bright future they help create.

Unilever has partnered with WE Day in an upcoming broadcast special that celebrates youth like Katrine and Corinne who are making a difference. Special airing of WE Day on August 28, 2016 at 7 p.m. ET/6 p.m. CT on ABC. WE Day is a commercial-free, national broadcast celebrating the transformative power of individuals acting together. Learn more at www.we.org.

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