impactmania was invited to attend the United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) Official Launch of the Spotlight Initiative to eliminate gender violence. Another pressing issue during the United Nations General Assembly week (UNGA 2017) was the world’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II.
We caught up with Ruma Bose, the former President of Chobani Foundation and Chobani Ventures. She currently serves on the United Nations Foundation’s (UNF) Global Entrepreneurs Council and spoke about the relationship between the UN and the private sector; the refugee crisis that keeps her up at night; and volunteering with Mother Teresa.
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Where is the name Ruma from?
My family is originally from Calcutta, India. Ruma, in the Indian mythology, is the wife of the king of the monkeys. It was the monkeys who went and saved our incarnations of gods. The multi-headed Ravana, is considered the demon-king. He kidnapped the wife of Krishna, brought her down to Sri Lanka, and kept her in captivity. It was the monkeys that figured out where she was, and guided Krishna to his wife. I feel very close to that story.
In what way are you representing that story in your professional life?
I have a visceral reaction whenever I see injustice in the world. My mother taught me the importance of giving back at a micro level. Whenever anything good would happen in my life, we’d go to a soup kitchen and serve together, or we’d visit the geriatrics ward and talk to older people. She reminded me that whenever anything good happens in your life, you give back. My father was a scientist and deeply engaged in trying to make the world better at a macro level. He was working on things like renewable energy.
How did Mother Teresa come into your life?
When I was very young, my mother used to tell me bedtime stories about this saint who lived in Calcutta, and how she was helping the poorest of the poor.
One day in the middle of winter, I saw a homeless man going through our garbage. I must have been six years old at the time. When I asked my mother why he wasn’t at home with his family, she didn’t give me an explanation that made sense to a six year old.
I decided to write a letter to the saint, and I asked her what I could do. I literally put the note in an envelope and wrote “Mother Teresa, Calcutta, India” and sent it off. Two months later, I got a response. That had such a profound impact on me, because first of all, it made me feel heard. Secondly, the message she wrote in her letter was that poor people are beautiful people. They’re not looking for our pity or our judgment, but love and respect. What I could do to help this man was to smile. The more you smile at the world, the more love you’re spreading.
I think that started my journey in life around wanting to help people.
You ended up spending time with Mother Teresa.
Yes, when I was 18 years old, Mother Teresa had just survived a heart attack. I finished my first year of university. I’ve always wanted to meet her and volunteer with her organization. I bought a plane ticket and flew to Calcutta. For the first time in my life, I met a woman who made me want to be a better person.
We would volunteer in the slum communities of Calcutta, which in the mid ‘90s was arguably the worst environment in the world. I had a chance to spend eight months talking to people and learning from Mother Teresa who is the most inspirational woman ever.
You co-authored the book “Mother Teresa, CEO” where you talked about her management principles.
Yes, somebody asked me, “Who is the woman who inspired you the most in business?” I said, “Mother Teresa,” and everyone was surprised. Because the general view is that she is a saint and she was trying to save the world.
I started sharing how she had a vision to help the poorest of the poor. She fought the Catholic Church to start her own organization. She recruited 12 nuns and started a small school in the slums of Calcutta. Then over the course of three to five years, she expanded within Calcutta.
Then she expanded nationally across India. In her 11th year of operations, she opened her first location in Venezuela. By the time she died, she had over 600 missions in over 100 countries, with over 1 million people working with her. She raised and deployed over a billion dollars in capital. Mother Teresa is a fundraising machine and a PR magnet. I look at that and I say, that’s not sainthood, it’s executive excellence!
You didn’t necessarily have to agree with her, but you knew what she stood for. If you walked into a Missionaries of Charity [congregation founded by Mother Teresa] in São Paulo, Belize, Ukraine, or India, they all look the same. They have the same approach and same philosophy.
There has been criticism of the work. There has been praise. But I don’t know a single person in the private sector who has her track record.
Give me something that she said that stayed with you, besides the letter you received from her that started you on this journey.
At the time I was leaving her organization, I asked Mother Teresa if she would write a recommendation letter for me to go to law school…of all places. She said, “No.”
And so I don’t know what the word “no” means. I thought, I didn’t explain this to her properly. All I wanted her to do was confirm the fact that I had actually done the work that I did. I didn’t ask her to say anything beyond that. She sat me down and said, “Ruma, take this work and go do good things with it. Don’t take this work to get there. Because then it takes away the purity of the act.”
At the time, I didn’t understand what that meant. Today, that resonates very deeply with me, because it is about authenticity and doing things with the right intention. When you’re 19 years old and you want a recommendation for law school, it’s a different story.
What she said to me is we all have a purpose in our lives. That purpose can change over time, but take the time to understand what it is and find the vehicle that’s going to get you there. Then make sure that that vehicle evolves over time as well.
Looking back at my life and the things that I’ve done, I’ve hopefully have made a difference in a few people’s lives. Now I want to impact 200 people. Now I want to impact 2,000 people. Now I want to work on challenges that can impact at least 100,000 people.
You are part of UNF’s Global Entrepreneurs Council. Many companies are looking to responding to the market’s demand for businesses that operate more responsibly. Companies such as Unilever have an enormous capacity to impact the world. With this week’s talk at the UN about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), how do companies begin to incorporate some of the SDGs in their day-to-day operations?
Historically the business of business is business, right? The traditional thinking is you make a lot of money and then you give it away. Philanthropy was viewed more as charity.
Today, you’re seeing a huge shift, especially with the millennial generation, who wear their values, right? They want to travel in ways that reflects their values. They want to wear clothes that are made with sustainable products. More people in society believe that business can actually be a vehicle to do that.
It has to start from the top: the board, CEO, and the management team, have to embed their core values that reflects their mission into the culture of the company. That’s not easy to do, that takes time, and then that can permeate need through an organization.
If you’re a food company, and you can find a way to make better nutritional products that are more affordable, then that becomes a new addressable market for you. If you look at your supply chain and make sure that every level of your supply chain is sustainable, then that’s a way of doing your part. If you are an education provider, can you take your core assets and values, and extend that into the developing world? To the extent that we can, maybe you can’t. If your actual business does not have an application for the SDG specifically, then create a culture that empowers others to do so. Have matching grant programs or encourage your employees to take a month off to think about these problems. It is about creating a mission and a vision and a culture and values that reflect what the SDGs stand for.
What is the impact of the United Nations Foundation (UNF) Global Entrepreneurs Council, what do you see happening there?
The UN Foundation used to be the only vehicle for the private sector to engage with the UN. Now you have the UN Global Compact, every one of the UN agencies have partnership programs, where they try to partner with the private sector. Historically, there’s been a huge mistrust between the various sectors, the UN, business, and civil society. That’s changing, and I think that everyone is recognizing that we all have a part to play.
Give me an example of where companies could help the most delivering on the SDGs at scale.
With delivery of urgent drugs to the poorest people in the most remote areas of the world, companies like Coca Cola, for example, have distribution channels into those regions. Being able to partner with an organization to develop a strategy to deliver urgent goods that are needed in these remote areas is terribly important.
Another example would be, looking at where people are migrating to with the current refugee crisis. It’s really expensive to take a satellite images today, but there are all sort of companies in Silicon Valley who are taking a picture of the Earth every single day. If you can track mass migration, even the general direction, you could set up a camp in this area or help with added security.
Tell me a bit about what you have seen in the refugee crisis.
Yes, the refugee crises keep me up at night. What is happening in our world today is the biggest crisis since World War II. Sixty-five million people are displaced from their homes and they are forced to flee as a result of war. And, you’re going to find more refugees being forced to flee as a result of climate change.
The way that the world is responding…I would say that I’ve seen the best of humanity and I’ve seen the worst of humanity. It’s not good enough, and we need to come together and do more.
I know there’s no easy answer, but give me a broad brush of what would be needed.
Let’s talk about the first 100 days of a refugee family’s life. The moment that they decide they need to flee from their homes. Sometimes it’s a five-minute decision, other times it’s a five-week decision. We need to remember, when an individual makes a decision to put their family and their children on that terrible boat journey, it’s because the sea is safer than the land. So from that moment, they have to sell their assets, borrow money from either family, or horrible predatory lenders.
Or they give up a kidney to pay for passage.
Yeah, there are the most horrific things happening along this journey. Organ trafficking, child trafficking, you name it, it’s happening. For those that are looking for safety in Europe, they arrive in Greece. That boat journey costs anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 euro per person, and it’s a terrible, dangerous journey.
If they make it and they arrive in Greece: 1. they are in a lot of debt; 2. they are living in these horrible camp settings. Nobody deserves to be in that situation. Now, if it’s an emergency and people are there for a couple of days, that’s one thing. But, the average time that an individual stays in camps in Africa is more than 18 years!
With the Syrian crisis, which is more recent, most of the people are trying to get into northern Europe. But now, with the EU – Turkey deal, refugees are stuck in Greece. Ultimately, the Europeans as a collective are saying that they don’t want more refugees. Again, I don’t want to generalize, because I have seen tremendous goodwill and hospitality, but it’s overwhelming.
How do you begin to solve this issue?
I think you have to look at all the basic provisional services that refugees need at every stage. When they arrive, they need shelter, food, housing, health care, and money. They need a job. A refugee is a refugee until they find a job; so facilitating their ability to earn an income for their families is huge.
Think about this, if you had five minutes to leave your home, what would you bring? You’d likely bring your passport, jewelry, and anything that you could sell for money, and you might bring something that is of sentimental value to you. You would not think of bringing your university degree, and so you’re arriving in a new country, you have no way of proving that you’re educated, that you’re qualified, that you have skills. Forget the fact that nine times out of ten you’re not allowed to work, and you don’t speak the language.
It’s very, very tough, and now you’re seeing this us versus them culture. What scares me the most is that the kids are out of school. If you have 400,000 kids living in refugee camps without going to school, we are creating a generation of angry children who are void of hope, who have no reason to live, and that’s when bad things happen. That fear alone should cause governments, NGOs, everyone to come together to solve these issues and at least let these kids go to school.
Tell me about the little girl you met in Greece?
This little girl brought three things from home. One of them was a book. She insisted that she wanted to go to school. She didn’t want to end up like every other girl that she was reading about. When she arrived in Greece, she immediately started pressing on everyone to tell her where she could go to school and learn. As a result, they started a small classroom with a few people. It showed me that one person can make a difference.
To me, she is a hero; we can start looking at refugees as heroes looking for better lives versus perpetrators. You only decide to leave your home if you’ve lost hope.
Have you seen anything here at the UN this week that gave you a spark of hope?
I think everyone says all the right things, especially within the UN community. People want to try and do something, but who’s holding them accountable? Everybody talks about a $1 billion deficit, but the refugee issue will be a bigger cost to society.
What can people do? What would be one step?
That is a great question, individually, we can’t all save the world, but we can all do our parts. So if you’re a teacher, volunteer your skill set, if you’re an accountant, go to an NGO, and offer accounting skills. If you’re a teacher, teach someone how to speak English. If you’re an entrepreneur, think about ways that your skill sets can help. If you have time, give time, if you have money, give money. There are a number of organizations that are doing wonderful work.
Could you name a few?
The American refugee community is doing a lot of good work. The IRC and UNHCR has a lot of innovative programs.
What are some organizations where entrepreneurs can get more connected with societal issues?
I will encourage every entrepreneur wherever they live to seek out those institutions, communities, and networks that are all trying to do something better for the world. For me, joining the Global Entrepreneurs Council at the UN Foundation (UNF) was catalytic. UNF gave me the opportunities and the access to be able to help.
There are other organizations such as the World Economic Forum, Aspen Institute, Rockefeller Foundation, YPO. I cannot encourage people enough to build relationships. Get out of your comfort zone and start building relationships. Be collaborative and start doing things.
How can women better support other women?
I think that’s a great question, because I don’t think enough of that happens in the world. If you’re in a position where you can guide, mentor, hire, you should just take it upon yourself to do that — choose one woman in your organization and help them be better, because all of us have gotten to where we are because somebody decided to help us.