Women Winning in Business by Irvine Laidlaw

Presentation by Lord Irvine Laidlaw at the Columbia Business School breakfast on 10/09/2019.

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Good morning everyone,

I am going to talk about three areas today:

  • How I became successful
  • How you can be even more successful
  • Why I am sponsoring the Women in Business program

Like you, I have been lucky in life. Lucky to get a good education, to come to Columbia at a time when very few non-Americans were at the school, and then to create and build highly profitable businesses. Lucky to hire great people who were a pleasure to work with, and who made me very wealthy.

I live in Africa for part of the year and have a business in Rwanda. I see enormous numbers of people in Africa who didn’t have my - and your - advantages in life, whose education was almost nil, who have almost zero opportunities to better themselves and their families.

So every day I am grateful for all that I have. But with this success comes an obligation to help others to achieve all that they are capable of. That’s what much of what my Foundation tries to do. 

I flew to Tanzania last month to visit some of our Undergraduate Scholars. They were there on our program of giving them leadership experience in a place outside their comfort zone. In Tanzania they were building a sanitation block for primary teachers in a very primitive rural village.

I have to tell you that they were lousy builders, even by local, very poor standards. But what they had done, working as a team, was to think through how to use the sanitation block to change behaviours, and how to engage the whole community in this project. These were 19 and 20 year old students who were turning their leadership skills to a practical end. They are why I sponsor such programs.

How did I become successful enough to sponsor our programs?

My first suggestion for you is to choose your parents well. My father was third generation running the family textile business. So entrepreneurship and owning a business was always part of my life.

What can you do to be successful? You have a great start with an MBA from Columbia, but that isn’t enough. Here’s my tips for you:

  • Get into a highly profitable business area. (story on how I got into conferences).
  • Never be scared that you don’t know the business. If you see a profitable opportunity, chase it. I got into the renewable energy business by lending money to a wind farm developer who went broke. Fortunately I had collateral on his rights to an area of the North Sea, scheduled for development. Did I know anything about wind farms? Not a thing. But I ended up developing two large offshore wind farms. Veja Mate is the 10th largest wind farm in the world. We delivered Veja Mate on budget and six months ahead of schedule. Probably the most profitable wind farm yet developed.
  • Now I am building power plants in Rwanda using methane from the bottom of Lake Kivu. And building homes in Madrid. Am I an expert in these fields? No, but I am a fast learner – and that’s all you need to be.
  • Hire the best people, motivate and retain them through challenge, appreciation and money. Use high bonuses that are aligned to what you want to achieve.
  • Chase winners, exit losers. This applies to people, businesses, even countries. I was never patient about underperformers firing them quickly if they didn’t work out. I was wrong probably 20% of the time, and right 80%. Which odds to you prefer? People love to chase losers and turn them into break-even, while the same amount of effort on a winner would give a much higher return.
  • Never, never be satisfied with a result. I would always take the time to compliment a manager on a great job, but then say ‘how can we do it better next year?’ How can we make more money, satisfy our customers better, make the event more valuable for our sponsors – and more profitable for us.
  • If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again. My first two business ventures went bust – they were bad ideas. I ran out of money and had to sell everything. But I wouldn’t take a job as starting another business was so important to me.
  • The Uber and We Work models – revenues but no profit - are not ones to chase. Rather, you should have a relentless focus on long term profits, productivity, and costs will pay.
  • You will only make a profit if you satisfy customers with great products. There are no shortcuts to this.
  • Starting a business will take longer and cost more than you ever dreamed about.
  • I could go on for days, but my last tip is that if you start a business hold on to as many of your shares as you can. That’s how you will get rich.

The last thought to you for this morning is a list of ‘qualities’ that I came across recently. It isn’t from any business school but from a charity called the College of Magic who work with township black kids to teach them magic, and human values. What a great thing to instil in young people. We would all do well to remember them.

Which brings me to a very important part of all we do, and it is this.

Honesty pays in both personal and business life.

It has cost Volkswagen $50 billion to cheat on exhaust emissions. Other companies have found, to their cost, that bribery, bad drugs, ignoring climate change does not pay. Yet often they continue to behave wrongly.

We are making honesty and ethical behaviour a central part of our leadership development program. Not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is also the profitable thing to do.

 My Foundation has three active programs.

Laidlaw Schools Trust who run schools similar to Charter Schools, but in the poorest parts of the UK. Presently we have about 6000 students in the system. It’s the toughest job that I have ever undertaken.

Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholars. What we are trying to accomplish is to encourage, motivate, train and stimulate the next generation of world leaders.

And our third program is the one you know – helping women to get business degrees from top business schools. Why do I do this? Because from personal experience in my conference and exhibition company, women are simply better than men. They work harder, are less concerned with their status, are more loyal, and brighter.

Yet women do not get the promotions they deserve at many companies. There still is a glass ceiling which the old boy network does its best to impose.

What many men do not realise is that a gender balanced company is certain to be more profitable than a single gender company.

You are the women who are going to break this outdated tradition. You are going to outperform the old boys, and to rise to the top. And that’s why I am investing in you.

Nikol Chen (she/her)

Digital Content Manager, Laidlaw Foundation

Hello! I have been with the Laidlaw Foundation for over 2 years, helping us strengthen the global Laidlaw community and expand our programmes to break the cycle of poverty, reduce inequality, and develop a new generation of leaders.

I am originally from Kazakhstan and I studied Human Sciences at UCL. I am a fan of all things human- and design-related, as well as an avid swimmer, obsessive podcast listener, documentary enthusiast, and film photography fan.

Drop me a line if you'd like to chat! 💬👀