Learning from Unilever

Young male college student presenting to a classroom of people

This week, as thousands of education pros gather at SxSWedu, we’re pausing to ask ourselves some tough questions. One of those questions is “How can America do a better job of connecting the dots between education and employment?”  and even “What can education learn from industry?”

For inspiration, we thought it might be helpful to look across the pond. Pearson College – our degree-granting higher education space in the United Kingdom – has some real experience in working with industry to make education a more enriching endeavor for students. Our friend Luke, a Pearson College student in London, shared with us his recent experience attending a Pearson College Industry Day at Unilever, and some of the lessons he learned. Read on, fellow SxSW’ers, and be inspired! What can your students learn from industry?


“We’re in the world to provide life and address the issues the world has, not to provide brands”. And with those words, Paul Polman had us gripped.

You might think that the man at the top of a company with two billion daily customers and 450 brands would be too busy to find time for 80 students. But you quickly understand that the CEO of Unilever is no ordinary business leader.

During the half hour he spent with me and my fellow students of Pearson College London, Polman spoke passionately about his company’s responsibility – about the difference it can make to making the world a better place. It’s a line that might typically grate with us cynical millennials… but it didn’t. Perhaps it’s because we’re the hopeful young generation in search of the alternative to the excesses of the world we’re readying ourselves for. Perhaps it’s because we’ve already seen it in action, studying in and around Pearson, considered one of the best brands at having a higher purpose and acting on it. And perhaps there’s just something about Polman that seems beyond PR. Something sincere that sets him above the cloud of smoke and mirrors we’re normally spun.

Unilever is enormous – 170,000 employees in 190 countries. But in a world where being ‘big’ is becoming synonymous with being bad, Polman is unapologetic about size. He refers to Unilever as a ‘monster’, but you get the sense he’s imagining the BFG rather than the Jabberwock. Size for Polman is about opportunity – a bigger Unilever can make a better world. And when he tells us that 660,000 children die every year from a lack of basic sanitation, the equivalent of 40 Boeing 787’s crashing every single day, we know exactly what ‘opportunity’ means to him.

This is the beating heart of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan that now defines the whole company – a pledge to “double the size of our business while reducing our environmental footprint and increasing our positive social impact.” And in that brief line we got why this is such a step forward. That this is not the old way of CSR sideshows and nice things to talk about while you’re quietly busy destroying forests and polluting water. This is the social impact of business as usual; that if you don’t get your responsibilities to the welfare of people and the planet right, you won’t get your business right either.

If you read about this in the business press, you get the cold, economic version from Polman; that in a volatile world of finite resources, running a business sustainably mitigates risks, reduces costs and so fosters long-term growth. And the examples he shares with us are drawn from the same stable of hard statistics. He points to the 25 million more people who will have access to a toilet by 2020, thanks to the Domestos Toilet Academy scheme; and the 257 million people who now know how to wash their hands properly, thanks to the grandly titled Lifebuoy Handwashing Behaviour Change Programme.

But meeting him, you get the sense of the deeply personal mission Paul is on. It comes across when a colleague asks “What does this world lack?” “Leadership and trees” comes Paul’s answer. “As long as we value a tree that is dead more than one that is alive then we are in trouble” he says. Paul believes fighting climate change “is a moral obligation that we have… It’s only when we live in harmony with Mother Earth and with our fellow citizens that we will all benefit for the long term.” And as I scribble away in my notepad, I suddenly realise that I’m referring to him as Paul, as if he’s my friend and we’re all friends in this together.

Yet this warm tone belies what is clearly a steely ambition to lead Unilever in the right way. His belief in running a socially impactful business has not always made him friends… nor money. When the company missed sales targets for six out of eight quarters in 2013 and 2014, shareholders were given reason to doubt if you really can run a commercially successful company and create sustainable social impact. Paul’s answer – that you run a commercially successful company precisely because you create sustainable social impact – seems to have won the day. In 2015, Unilever exceeded its sales targets for the first three quarters on the run.

Paul sends us on our way with words that are still ringing in my ears. “The purpose of a leader is to change the world around you in the name of your values.” And, looking around at my fellow students, you knew that everyone couldn’t wait to get started.


About the Author
Luke Hope-Robertson

Luke Hope-Robertson

Luke Hope-Robertson is a Pearson College student in London.