43 weeks ago I started as Chief Executive of the Laidlaw Foundation. It has been an inspiring, heart-breaking, infuriating, illuminating, humbling and incredibly rewarding time. Lord Laidlaw used to say to me that philanthropy was the hardest thing he had ever done; and, to my shame, with zero sympathy, I would laugh and say, “really, how hard can it be to give away millions?”. So now I know. He was (predictably) right. This is the hardest thing I have ever done.
Wake me up in the middle of the night and I can tell you the top 100 things to do to make a conference must-attend. I can wax lyrical on how to make a B2B digital information product both loved and indispensable. I know how to drive top and bottom line growth and generate a 30% EBITDA margin. But this, changing lives through investing in education, breaking the cycle of poverty, reducing inequality and developing a new generation of leaders who are passionate, diverse and ethical. This is hard.
I have learnt a whole new world of acronyms. I thought business was jargon ridden. Now I know we were barely trying. Educationalists from primary to business schools seem to speak in two or three letter bundles whose meanings are completely different from what you might expect. GAG, for instance, in the world of education, is not a useful article should you be tempted to rob a bank, or something that you do when you mistakenly drink sour milk, instead it refers to the General Annual Grant which is the name for an academy’s main revenue funding. I had a fantastically bizarre conversation with our Laidlaw School Trust CEO before realising this.
Every week I have met the most extraordinary people. Leaders who are passionate about making the world a better place: women like Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen; Kelly Walls, Executive Director of the Guardian Foundation; Shaiza Rizavi, managing member at Gilder, Gagnon, Howe & Co; Sandi Wright at the Tamer Center, Lulu Wang, CEO of Tupelo Capital Management and so many more; students like Lorenzo Molinari and Martha Gillberg; academics and educators such as Sir David Carter, Executive Director at Ambition Institute; François Ortalo-Magné, Dean at LBS and Katherine Phillips, Senior Vice Dean of Leadership and Ethics, Columbia Business School.
It seemed rather greedy to keep the insights that they have so generously shared with me to myself. So this is the first post in a blog focused on the people I have met, the places I have visited and the things that I have pondered; my perspectives on the world of #education, #leadership and #womeninbusiness.
My week started with a fantastic day at York University where our wonderful Laidlaw Scholars were presenting the fruits of their Undergraduate Research and Leadership programme and receiving their completion certificates. I am constantly blown away by their ambition, their sense of purpose and their energy. Martha presented her research on peer to peer education in refugee camps; Josh Butcher presented his findings on brand heritage and Jasmine Onstad on cognitive bias in political discourse. You can get a taste of the depth, breath and brilliance of their research at www.laidlawscholars.network.
I met the recently appointed Vice-Chancellor Charlie Jeffery, who shared with me a wonderful piece written by Lord James, Vice-Chancellor of the University of York in their Annual Report in 1969. It says “my greatest fear is that our preoccupation with administrative and financial matters may lead us to regard them as end in themselves so that we devote too little thought to WHAT IT’S ALL FOR, the education of young men and women so that they may be aware of a heritage of civilisation and the provision of opportunities for scholars to enlarge and reinterpret it…” Charlie’s new strategic vision and plan for the university puts “what it’s all for” back at the heart of everything they are doing. It is no wonder that every faculty member I met sung his praises to the skies.
I stayed in the completely gorgeous Principal hotel. They have a free “tuck box” in each room. It is thoughtful. It made me feel welcome. The sight of the crisps and chocolates was happy-making. And then not. We have an obesity problem in the UK. More than two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese. In the households with the lowest incomes, it is over one third. The NHS spends £8.8bn a year on treating Type 2 diabetes (closely linked with obesity). That is 9% of its budget. We need everyone – schools, businesses and not-for-profits, to re-think how they can help. We need to change our perspectives about what constitutes a treat. We need to make it easier to do, eat, the right thing. A box of apples would have been better. Then I wouldn’t have eaten the crisps, or the chocolate.
Starbucks’ hot mulled fruit wine has 25 teaspoons (99g) of sugar in it, their extra-large signature hot chocolate has 15 teaspoons, double the daily adult allowance. Since their record on paying UK tax is also sketchy at best, I think it would be fair to say that they fail the ethical leadership test. I will not be frequenting their premises again; in the interests of full disclosure, this is not an enormous sacrifice.
Not one of the posturing politicians in the upcoming UK elections has addressed the fact that student loans are an absolute disgrace.
On Wednesday I met with Tom Woolf, CEO and Founder of EdAid, focused on driving access to education and shifting the GDP of the students whom they fund. Not one of the posturing politicians in the upcoming UK elections has addressed the fact that student loans are an absolute disgrace. They do go on and on about tuition fees, often with scant regard to the data. But when it comes to the loans themselves, which are unarguably scandalous (6% interest, which starts accruing in year one) and often mis-sold, if not actively pushed by academic institutions, not a peep. Tom is doing something about it. Providing 0% interest loans to those who need it. He is also forcing universities to put their money where their mouth is, agreeing with them that fees aren’t due until the student has nailed the job that they market their degrees as delivering.
Not only is Tom a properly new-Renaissance man, (high performing athlete + business leader + global citizen + disrupter+ activist + father - happily taking his 3 year old son to work and meetings with him), he taught me a new phrase. We were sitting in a members’ only area of the NED, London’s latest buzzing financial hang-out, discussing our mission to get more women into executive teams. I explained how I had been lucky to work for Irvine Laidlaw and David Gilbertson, both of whom had as many, if not more, women on their senior teams than men. Tom look around the room, roared with laughter, and said “unlike the sausage fest here”. The wonderful Nikol Chen, tells me that she and her friends use this all the time, I don't know whether to be more disappointed that they need to or that I have been missing out on such an excellent turn of phrase.
When it comes to diverse leadership teams the evidence is there, overwhelmingly. The lip service is there too. The action? Not so much.
An article in Friday’s FT underscored the point. Only 9.4% of senior jobs in private equity are held by women. Most smart bosses would argue that they look at the data, see what works best and execute accordingly. To be brutally frank, the evidentiary bar doesn’t seem to be set that high. It is how we have ended up with a surfeit of strategies du jour believing fervently in agile working in the morning and pumping scents through the office in the afternoon. Yet when it comes to diverse leadership teams the evidence is there, overwhelmingly. The lip service is there too. The action? Not so much.
See you next week.