Chapter one: My journey into business
The journey of a Being Entrepreneur starts long before we graduate from college or walk away from a 9-5 job with our 'big idea'. It starts when we first become aware of the deeper meaning of our unique life experiences, and recognize how the different 'dots of our lives' connect to inform our entrepreneurial adventures.
Many years ago, when I was 15 or 16, my father told me a story that shaped the rest of his life. He was my age at the time and had a passion and talent for art. His dream was to go to art school so that one day he could make a living doing what he loves doing. His father, of course having the best interest of his son in mind, but also projecting some of his own fears, made the argument that his love for art should be kept a hobby. Instead, the more responsible choice that he was encouraged to make was to go to business school.
I grew up seeing my father fully at peace with the choices he had made. He became a very well-respected international businessman, provided comfortably for his family and continued to nurture his passion for art by taking evening classes. His commitment and dedication to keeping this hobby alive was an inspiration to me. At sixteen I could see the wisdom in my grandfather's words. And so, after graduating from high school, I simply assumed that business school was the right choice for me too.
I don't remember having many doubts about that. Nor do I remember a deeper passion drawing me into another direction. Although it appeared to me that I was doing the responsible thing by following my father's footsteps, there was of course one important difference. I did not have a passionate hobby to give a sense of meaning to my day-to-day life. I was trying to follow a recipe, but I didn't have all the right ingredients. The spices were missing.
Not only did I lack the drive and ambition to be successful in that world, I also was not a particularly good student. My grades were average, yet when the moment came to pass my final mathematics exam of the International Baccalaureate Program, I got the second highest grade in the school. It was as if I had had a brief moment of enlightenment where everything clicked, and I was able to access abilities reserved only to the top tier students.
This magical performance was sufficient to get me into one of the top business schools in North America. However, this achievement did not do much to boost my confidence or desire to be in business. Instead I continued to deliver good enough results with the hope this would land me a respected job and make my family (my Dad in particular) proud. After graduation, a nice but not particularly prestigious job with a small computer company, landed in my lap.
While I was an account manager for a small Value-Added Reseller in the computer business, I saw my business school colleagues join the ranks of large consulting firms, travelling the world and making “good” money. They were living the business student dream, taking life in their own hands. Meanwhile I felt like I was playing small, simply going with the flow and letting life take me wherever it wanted. I was no longer on the fast track to success.
My boss at the time tried to convince me that being a big fish in a small pond was better than a small fish in a big pond but that didn’t satisfy me. I wanted bigger and better. My idea of success was now firmly rooted in the stories of the people around me rather than based on my own personal standards and aspirations. That inner work was not something I was ready for then. It was much easier to look for the solution elsewhere. So, I decided to go back to school to get my MBA. Surely with a master’s degree in hand I would be able to find the success I was looking for.
Again, all the right doors opened effortlessly. I (barely) passed the GMAT test but it was sufficient to get me into the one-year MBA program in Leuven, Belgium. By the end of the year I had a job offer with one of the largest and most respected consumer goods companies in the world. It wasn’t outstanding grades that made this possible, nor was it my wealth of experience. Instead, it boiled down to an essay I wrote as part of the application process for a student internship program.
I remember taking this assignment quite lightly. In my mind there was no real chance that such a company, reputed for recruiting the best talent, would consider me. So I decided to write the essay from a place of having nothing to lose. I don’t recall the exact topic, but I do remember being authentic in what I wrote. It must have been another brief moment of brilliance that I unconsciously tapped into because what came through was real, vulnerable and brimming with ideas and possibilities. When dropping it at the post office I knew it would be polarizing. Either they love it, or it will land in the crazy bucket. It was perhaps one of the first times that I deliberately showed more of my real self and trusted that taking this risk would lead to something good. I also remember it being fun to take this playful and unconventional approach.
Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, I received a letter back from. They decided I was not the right fit for the internship. Not because I was under qualified but because I was OVER qualified! They apparently loved my essay so much that they wanted me to come in directly to interview for a permanent job. I was shocked and could not believe my luck. At some level I felt like a fraud, not trusting that I would be able to consistently deliver the brilliance they had seen in me.
Indeed, after my first year in the company, I was struggling to find my place as an Interactive Marketing Manager for the Benelux region. During my first performance review, the director who had hired me, clearly stated his disappointment. The creative visionary he had met during the interview wasn’t showing up for work. And he was right, to a large extent I was overwhelmed by the technical nature of the job as I had no IT and systems background.
I was also in awe of all the fast talking, fast thinking managers around me. From my perspective it seemed like they had everything figured out. I was not up to par - at least that was the story I was telling myself. This left me feeling isolated and incompetent. The performance review therefore came as a wakeup call. I better break out of the funk fast or else my days there would be over soon.
So, I stepped out of my cocoon and started doing what I do best - thinking out of the box. So much of what I saw could be improved. It was as if the pendulum had swung completely the other way. I was envisioning all sorts of new ways we could use digital technologies to build relationships between the large portfolio of well-respected brands and their consumers. I was having lots of fun in this creative space, but it didn’t do much to improve my standing within the company. To most people I had stepped way beyond my area of responsibility and expertise. Brand building and concept development was “owned” by the marketing function so who was I as a young IT manager to come and offer my ideas. It didn’t matter if they were good or bad, I simply didn’t have the credibility to play in that league.
One conversation in particular will always stay with me. My boss at the time, trying to put me back in my well defined area of responsibility, sat me down one day to offer the following piece of advice: “Whatever idea you can think of, no matter how great you think it is, believe me, we already thought about it or it’s already been done”. That was a huge blow and still today brings me to tears when I think about it. It was becoming clear to my bosses that I was an inadequate fit for the IT function and most probably also for the company.
What followed was a couple of months of nothing. There were no projects for me to work on but there was also no compelling reason to fire me. This place in between was very strange as I remember staying home or coming into work only for a few hours per day, and still getting paid. Nobody was missing me, and nothing was expected of me. In hindsight I realize that it may have been a deliberate tactic to help me move on. The more frustrated and isolated I felt, the more likely I would decide to leave on my own. Sure enough, I was slowly getting to the point where writing this short stint off felt like the only option. My belief of being a fraud was reinforced by the day.
Then, one day, out of the blue I got a call from an IT boss who I hadn’t worked with directly but apparently had been observing me from a distance. He had seen something in me that others didn’t and rather than try to reshape the IT job to make me fit a bit better, he had the idea of moving me to another function within the company where my skills would be more valued. It was such a simple idea, but it took a deep level of care and courage by that person to put me, as a human being, at the center of the job matching process.
What unfolded from there is a fulfilling 10-year career in the CMK (Consumer and Market Knowledge) function. In hindsight I can see how this one person helped open a door that led me down an incredibly adventurous path, eventually bringing me to where I am today. I hope one day I can find this person again and share the profound impact that his compassion and care had on the rest of my life.