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Rupen Desai: “Trust in your gut; and in serendipity”

We live in an unequal world. The divide between food and feed, educated and uneducated, obesity and malnutrition, the damage to planet we leave behind for our children is growing day by day. These inequalities have been created systematically. And will need to be undone systemically, as well. As part of my series about “individuals and […]

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We live in an unequal world. The divide between food and feed, educated and uneducated, obesity and malnutrition, the damage to planet we leave behind for our children is growing day by day. These inequalities have been created systematically. And will need to be undone systemically, as well.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rupen Desai.

Rupen Desai is the Global CMO at Dole Packaged Foods, a company that believes everyone should have equal access to nutrition and wellness, delivered in a positive and sustainable way. He co-founded TS/28 to partner with organizations and help them thrive in the conscious economy. He is a strong advocate of the responsibility a purposeful business and creativity have towards society, communities, and the planet, as well as shareholders. Prior to Dole, he was Edelman’s Vice-Chairman across the Asia Pacific, Middle East, and Africa. During this time, he led Edelman’s Women’s leadership network for the region and was a board member at Female Founders, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the pursuit of gender equality in entrepreneurship and leadership. He began his career with Mullen Lowe, where he spent two decades, leading the Asia-Pacific region for the last six years. He shares Don Quixote’s values in all he does.


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

The ability to wear jeans to work.

I had two offers at campus in B school. Arthur Anderson (Accenture now) offering me twice the money than Lintas, an ad agency (Mullen Lowe now). Everyone from Lintas at the interview panel was wearing denim to the interview and the only question I had for them was, ‘Would I be able to wear jeans to work, everyday?’.

Now, in hindsight, as I think of this and other important moments of my career — making unconventional choices, focusing on what would make me happy (rather than the usual attributes of success), listening to my gut and serendipity have played a role in each and every step.

And, yes, two decades later, I still wear jeans to work each and every day.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

This would be the discovery of ‘Sampo Yoshi’; at 10 p.m., at a hotel lobby bar in Westlake Village, California, three months into my role.

Having spent a full day with the US teams, battling jet lag, Pier Luigi (the global president of the company) and I were ruminating about our newly restated purpose (#sunshineforall) and how we could communicate this to the world. One conversation led to another, and then to a google search that led us to the 170-year-old Japanese philosophy of ‘Sampo Yoshi’.

Sampo Yoshi promotes that the ideal way to do business is 3-way satisfaction model (business was best when it was good for the seller, good for the buyer and good for society). So armed with a tissue paper, a pen (and some scotch) we started sketching out how it could pivot the entire company to be #purposeful, as a business model. This led us to Dole promises that advocate that business is best, when people, planet and prosperity all thrive together, not at the cost of each other. They are all interdependent.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Last summer, after we had launched ‘Quaran-Tensions’; a new humorous campaign for our fruit bowls, we received a letter from a lady named Phyllis. She hated our new ads; and informed us that she would not be buying us anymore. A few days later, a conversative group called for a petition to boycott our products.

I don’t think if the initial fear I felt was a mistake or not (I think its natural when threatened with a boycott) — but my biggest learning was to continue standing behind what we believe in. Our purpose, at Dole, is to champion Sunshine for All. With that, it is important to bring levity and ‘sunshine’ as well as celebrate diversity and inclusion in all its forms.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

We are not treating Purpose, either as a separate part of the business or the next advertising brief, nor checking the corporate social responsibility box. We are attempting to put it at the heart of our business model.

With the 6 Dole promises, we are trying to build a 170-year-old start up that believes (and lives, through its actions) in a world where people, planet and prosperity, are all interdependent and need to thrive together, one never at the cost of the other.

We use #purposeful as our filter to shape our actions, our structures, our innovations, how we measure success…and more. I think the simplest formula in attempting to make a significant impact is where we are aligning our actions to our beliefs. As an organization, if your business model is not aligned to your Purpose — it is very difficult to have any significant or sustainable impact.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

This would be Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the Mayor of Jackson city. Jackson is one of the most unequal cities, when it comes to the divide between food and feed. It is one of America’s largest food deserts and has only one grocery store for every 10,000 residents. Working closely with the mayor and other amazing partners we have been piloting our Sunshine For AllTM program, dedicated to bringing fresh and packaged produce, nutritious meals and educational opportunities to communities that need it the most.

Having Government, NGO’s, like minded individuals & companies working together is our best approach to solve systemic inequalities like access to good nutrition. We may not have all the answers but are committed to finding them.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We live in an unequal world. The divide between food and feed, educated and uneducated, obesity and malnutrition, the damage to planet we leave behind for our children is growing day by day. These inequalities have been created systematically. And will need to be undone systemically, as well.

What if we implement the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Imagine if 500 of the top politicians, NGO’s, business leaders, companies all rallied around, came together, and collaborated to solve one inequality at a time. Imagine hundreds of influencers, all behind one idea to solve access to nutrition, together? Could our leadership supercharge solutions with selfless collaboration to help make real impact at scale? I’d like to think so.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I find inspiration from Don Quixote de la Mancha.

There is something magical in his delusional chasing of windmills (that matter) is what shapes my leadership style and beliefs that we can all push ourselves, together, to do better.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Buy the complete collection of Calvin & Hobbes. It has answers to all challenges in life.
  2. Trust in your gut; and in serendipity.
  3. The only competition that should matter — is the one with yourself.
  4. Build your career by connecting the dots of moments where you felt unadulterated joy at work.
  5. Live a bit like Don Quixote de la Mancha, every day.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Let’s build brands (and businesses) that our conscience can live with.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I suspect Don Quixote got it right! “In chasing windmills that matter, we may never get there — but we certainly will get farther then we thought we’d ever would.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Amanda Gorman! This wonderful woman dreaming aloud before millions of people in the form of spoken word was so inspiring! While Vice President Kamala Harris is an icon for all young girls around the world, Amanda is the one who will inspire millions more. And I will be taking my two young girls to the private breakfast with her.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/rupendesai/

@RupenDesai on Twitter

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