Millennials: Find Your Purpose, Be The Change

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever is a glass half-full kind of man. It came across clearly from start to finish during his keynote speech at the 2016 DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia Awards.

Paul Polman shares his insights with social enterprises at the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia 2016.

“This is actually the best time to be born!” he quipped. 

“Women – despite what we have to fix – have more chances to participate in the workforce. And there are more educated people – more people have gone to school than any time else. People also have access to clean drinking water, more people have access to healthcare therefore are living longer lives”, he added.

Indeed, when former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan back in 2000 launched the millennium development goals, many thought the objective of halving the number of people living in poverty was unrealistic and couldn’t be done, especially not in the 15-year timeframe that was set. Poverty was defined as an income of $1.25 a day.

“Lo and behold we’re 15 years further and we’ve lifted half the people out of poverty. We have achieved that goal”, said Paul.

So what comes next? The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Last year, 193 countries adopted a set of goals to end povertyprotect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. Each goal has specific targets to be achieved over the next 15 years.

There Is No Halfway

He compared the implementation of the SDG agenda to that of running a race – you don’t stop halfway.

“When Usain Bolt ran his 100 meters and won his third gold medal, he didn’t stop halfway, he ran the full race. Bolt has six gold medals in the 100 and 200 meter races. Six gold medals for 76 seconds of participation in the Olympics. As a businessman I like his efficiency. You don’t go halfway. And you know that as social entrepreneurs. You don’t go halfway. You finish the job,” said Polman.  

The SDGs are there to finish the job, to irreversibly eradicate poverty in a more sustainable and equitable way. We need to take care of our people, planet and create prosperity and peace. We need to do so in the spirit of partnership. That’s the essence of the sustainable development goals. “We’ve never had a better opportunity to finish the job than now.”

What Are We Doing?

In a time when the world is stuck in its various monetary and fiscal policies, many countries simply aren’t able to implement the structural reforms needed to create growth. Paul points out that we arguably have one of the most exciting agendas with the highest return on investment at hand to address these issues.

The sustainable development agenda has a price tag of roughly $2-3 trillion a year. That sounds like a lot, but think about it. The global economy per annum is worth approximately a hundred trillion dollars, so that’s really only 2-3% of the global economy.

Development aid comes in at only $160 billion a year. How can we bridge the shortfall?  That’s where the private sector comes into play. We need businesses. In developing markets alone, 60% of the GDP, 80% of the financial flows, 90% of the job creation comes from the private sector including increasingly social entrepreneurship. Here’s an example of some projected payouts:


Return on Investment

$1 in nutrition


$1 in water/sanitation/hygiene


Giving women access to financing, land rights, rights to participate, educational rights

$28 trillion

Where You Play A Part

There is enormous potential for social entrepreneurs to make a difference. Polman feels the time is ripe and that the world is ready for them. “Brands have to be put to the service of society. If you cannot explain what your purpose is, then what is your purpose?”

He believes that this social enterprise award was started because the market is out there. “You are the future. We can’t solve the issues that I’ve talked about without the Millennials.” He added that his outlook was very optimistic for three reasons.

Firstly, we’re living in an age of transparency. Whilst wealth might be concentrated in the hands of a few people, power is actually increasingly dispersed. Citizens of this world are able to connect and exercise that right of power. The age of transparency drives behavior. The age of transparency also allows us to measure things. “The statistics I mentioned to you were simply not available before. We can now see what investments are needed, what the benefits are and are able to scale them. The opportunity is tremendous,” he said.

Secondly, the cost of not acting has become higher than the cost of acting. The cost of climate change, the cost of dealing with the results of conflicts –  the 60 million refugees, more than we’ve ever had in the history of mankind –  it comes to roughly $9.7 trillion a year. That’s nearly 10% of our global GDP. The development agenda only costs $2-3 trillion.  From any perspective, it makes economic sense.

Lastly, Paul finds hope in the Millennial generation. “It is very clear without any doubt that the millennial generation is more purpose-driven. More young people want to work for the Peace Corp than Goldman Sachs. That’s a dramatic change from what we’ve seen in the past.”

Millennials he concluded are creative, have a higher level of persistence, and are purpose driven in trying to achieve their goals. “You are a crucial part of the economy. You don’t want to be a part of developing the sustainable agenda, you want to actively shape its goals,” he said.

In short, we are the future and social entrepreneurship is the platform Millennials can use to make a difference.  “I’d love to be in your shoes,” Paul said wistfully. “To be the generation that says, ‘Nobody before us could fix it but we did.  We irreversibly eradicated poverty.’” 

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever delivered the keynote speech at this year’s Social Venture Challenge Asia Awards. He shared his enthusiasm and support for budding social entrepreneurs and how they play a vital role in his vision of the future. Polman also chairs the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and sits on the board of directors of the Consumer Goods Forum, leading its sustainability efforts. He is on the board of the UN Global Compact. Polman has received several awards for business leadership related to sustainable development.

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