Big Ideas: “Every step in diamond mining and processing can be part of a virtuous circle ” with Sean Cohen, CEO of Rand Defined Diamonds

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Cohen, CEO of Rand Defined Diamonds. Sean was born in Leeds, UK while his South African parents were studying there. His grandfather, a Polish immigrant to South Africa in […]

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Cohen, CEO of Rand Defined Diamonds. Sean was born in Leeds, UK while his South African parents were studying there. His grandfather, a Polish immigrant to South Africa in the 1930s, started a diamond company in 1947. At the age of 13 in 1977, Sean and his family moved to the U.S.A. where he studied history and law. In 1991, amid South Africa’s transition to a multiparty democracy, Sean visited South Africa, saw the changing dynamics, and consequently, met his wife. Sean decided to stay in South Africa and start a business to manufacture latex gloves for hospitals.

After he sold the latex glove business, Sean decided to immerse in the diamond business, first starting as a polisher and eventually purchasing the original company from its family members. In 1996, Sean was elected President of The International Diamond Manufacturers Association. During his tenure as president of IDMA, Sean founded the Kimberly process in conjunction with NGOs, United Nations, and the government to eradicate any possible conflict Gems.

Sean’s legal background and business experience allow him to understand diamonds from the consumer’s point of view. “I started learning all there was to know to work at the diamond factory at the bench cutting diamonds. I needed to start with an appreciation and understanding of the skill involved and what it takes to make a great diamond.” In 2000, Sean and his family moved to New York to expand his broad base of retail clients. “The Rand Defined Diamonds disc encapsulates everything that is good and great about diamonds. These are the diamonds I would want to buy as a consumer.”
Sean and his wife divide their time between homes in New York and South Florida.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It’s a funny story, and the conclusion is that I followed my fate. I was working as a lawyer in NYC, and I bought a ticket to South Africa to visit my grandmothers. I haven’t seen them in years.

On day two, I met the women who will become my wife. Within moments of meeting her, I knew she was the one. In the early ’90s, there was an energy of anything, and everything was possible in South Africa, with Mandela free, the sense of change, and human hope and energy. I didn’t go back to NYC. I ended up staying in South Africa and followed my path as it revealed itself to me.

First, it was manufacturing latex gloves; then it’s on to diamonds. I wanted to change the diamond world. I want it to be a positive experience for everyone involved — from the miners to the polishers, to the consumers. I saw no reason why it couldn’t be that way.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

There are many interesting stories, but one is a seminal event that set the path for what followed. Life takes you in interesting directions, and not always what you planned. In the mid-’90s, my desire for change and energy led me to run in an election for the MDCA, which was the local diamond manufactures association. I wanted to tackle the diamond world. However, I was seen as a kid. People who had been running the same shop for decades wanted me to “wait” decades for my “turn.” But I won the election based on the platform to open things up and provide greater access.

As president of IDMA, I thought I would be changing miners’ relations with polishers to have an open free market opportunity. Within a month after the election, Global Witness, a resource-oriented NGO, approached me. The activists told me about conflict diamonds.

It was an interesting experience because the activists expected strong resistance from the industry, but I was in full agreement. Conflict diamonds is a problem that should not exist.

The next few years of my life were devoted to establishing the Kimberly process to exclude ill-gotten diamonds from the supply pipeline. This process involved everyone from corporations to governments to NGO’s. Everyone was on board. Previously, many industries viewed NGO’s as hostile to their interests, but I saw something different. NGO’s are dedicated to solving the problem, not grandstanding. The NGO’s in Africa were just as equally committed to ensuring that the people of Africa had a real economic opportunity, so they were not hostile to prosperity diamonds. NGO’s saw diamonds as I do — an excellent solution for development, education, and growth.

I was fortunate to meet a lot of dedicated, thoughtful and committed people.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Yes. It starts with the idea that resources can and should be the engine that drives well-being. It is always better to help people help themselves, live lives of dignity rather than be beneficiaries of charity or state. There is no reason why this should not be; it is only a matter of focusing on it as a goal.

I want to share about the prosperity diamond. Diamonds are about emotion, beauty, and value. They are given to someone we care about on very special occasions. And they are expensive.

So, why shouldn’t everything about that diamond be beautiful? From the way it was sourced, to whom, how, and where it was polished, to how it came to you. Every step should be part of a virtuous circle, and it should be the right diamond with the best qualities at the right price.

The rough materials of our diamonds are sourced in countries such as Botswana, where the bulk of the revenue goes to a truly democratic government. The government reinvests those proceeds on development, education, medical, and the well-being of its people. The polishing of our diamonds takes place in Botswana. This provides highly skilled jobs for the people, mainly disadvantaged women. Diamond polishers do not need a formal education, the field has an open entry, offers good pay, and offers the opportunity for people to advance themselves. It provides financial independence for the workers and their families.

To go down the supply chain, the polished diamond is beautiful and of superior beauty. It’s the cut, the precision, the skill, and the commitment. The consumer receives a beautiful diamond at a reasonable price.

And there I was, some 25 years ago, looking at the diamonds from my first small factory, and seeing this virtuous circle. I couldn’t believe no one else was doing it. Perhaps no one saw the whole picture. Or maybe they were focused only on the lowest common denominator.

I always considered what I want in a diamond. I want a diamond that is beautiful. A diamond that is ethically sourced that benefits the people and the country it came from. And I want a diamond at the right price.

How do you think this will change the world?

Firstly, it’s no secret that Africa has resources, and it’s also no secret that in many parts of Africa those resources have not necessarily benefited the people there. What we do is a virtuous circle. There is no reason that that same virtuous circle cannot be applied globally to any area where there are resources. The fact is we live in a modern world. If you like electric cars, cell phones, your house, transport, clothes, you have to mine the minerals for those things. And you have to manufacture the finished product.

The question is how it’s done, who benefits and where.

Everything can be done in a virtuous circle where everyone benefits without impacting profit or the bottom line. Development leads to growth, and growth leads to more customers. The virtuous circle requires seeing the whole picture and putting the pieces together. It is not more expensive, but it will require more effort and coordination.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

Yes. I was in my office sorting diamonds, and some of them seemed to speak to me. I knew each of these diamonds stories, where they came from, who polished them. I wondered about the person who will buy that diamond, the situation, the emotion. There I was, holding that diamond, and I realized that it is something that will be a big part of someone’s life.

I found this so positive, and I started to wonder “how can we communicate these virtuous stories? How can we offer these diamonds to people?” I realized that we already had all the pieces of the virtuous circle. It was a function of breaking out of the traditional diamond sale mode and communicating our story.

This would be a transformative idea, and widely applicable.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Awareness. People really do care.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

1. There’s a Winston Churchill quote,” Never, Never, Never, give up.” It is hard to start something new and break paradigms. There is a lot of resistance, inertia, and ambivalence to overcome. Doing anything consequential takes time and forbearance. It takes time to executive, to market, to communicate. There will be obstacles both seen and unseen. You have to keep driving forward, even through difficult times. We’ve been running the virtuous circle with our diamonds for two decades, and it took a decade for retailers to see the value. It’s taken another eight years for society to appreciate our story — or perhaps — it took us eight years to learn how to share our story effectively
2. “The future is never what we think it’s going to be.” Or the very act of conceptualizing means that those exact events are not going to play out exactly as you see them.
3. “I know the facts on the ground may change, but if you can’t tell me what the numbers are going to be tomorrow or five years from now, how I can have confidence that you’ll adapt to changing realities correctly.” I was asked this when we planned a new expansion in Botswana. Things were fluid; no one knew what supply would be like, how long it would take to train people, or how much we could grow. I knew that we were doing the right thing, that it is the future. We do not know all future variables. To be asked for a 5-year projection based on unknown variables seemed unrealistic. If you face this situation, I suggest reframing that question as “Yes, it is fluid, and yes, the facts will change. And yes, five years from now we may well see nothing in this projection to be accurate. But if you can’t define and project today based on the facts we know today, how can we have confidence that you will understand the changes correctly each time they happen?”

We apply this rule to what we do. It’s a great companion to instinct and vision.

4. Some good people sometimes do bad things, and there are bad people who sometimes to do good things, its best to be able to distinguish between the two. 
5. “Hire good, competent people and pay them well.” I started in a small company, and the mindset is that you do not have the budget for hiring good people. In reality, it’s the people that make the company work. Talented people will make your life easier, help the company advance better, and decrease finance cost.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

Nothing is static; you have to keep current and reinvent, stay efficient, always evolve, find and learn new ways of doing the things you do better. The change is good, its new opportunities.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

I have a collection of advice:

The people in your life is everything. Love is real. Follow your dreams. What is stopping you? Virtue has its reward. Karma is real. Everything is possible. Do things the right way. Talent has many forms, so recognize it when you see it. Be a net positive. Your parents probably know what they are talking about, but you should not always listen. But do listen to your spouse.

There are many measures of a successful life. Life is all about balance. Mistakes are inevitable, so learn from them, don’t dwell. It is okay to make new mistakes, but it is not okay to make old ones. Learn something new every day. Don’t forget to laugh, have fun and smile. Life is precious, and it is short. We are all human; we have the same emotions. Respect that in others. And something Mandela said to me the one time I met him, “you can only see as much of the mountain as is visible from where you’re standing”

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

• Perseverance and drive. Without that, nothing is possible no matter how capable someone may be. 
• Have vision, goals, the ability to plan and inspire people. But don’t be afraid to modify. 
• There are no sacred cows. You may be the head, but it’s the people in the organization that make it work. Your ability to inspire them, to recognize their talent, and to let them do what they do best is where success will come from.
• Listen, but in the end, it isn’t a democracy. As a leader, you have to make the decision and set the course. Good or bad, it is your responsibility. It’s easy to know the positives. It’s hard to know what the problems are, how to solve them, and what issues are hidden.
• Have a state of mind that the day is never done. You are always thinking from the moment you wake up to the moment you are asleep. You can always learn. And make sure you know your customer.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

I would want to meet Russell Simons. Of many high-profile professionals in entertainment, Russell views diamonds as we do — that diamonds are something that can and should drive development. Diamonds are a way to lift people’s lives. I think we can do something great together.

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