One of my favourite extracts in WEconomy tells the story of a wonderful young social intrapreneur and how she proved through her role at Unilever, that as an individual, if you are brave and a little bold, you can achieve great things. Her strength of character inspires me daily and there is no better example of how every one of us has the power to embed purpose in our lives and companies, and change the world.
What if you are an individual with an idea that you believe will make a significant difference to people’s lives, but need the support of your workplace to make that dream a reality? How do you even begin to get in front of the people who can make that happen? Just as it takes bravery as an organization to change the way their business operates by embedding a sense of purpose at the very core of what it does – it also takes incredible bravery to send that email, pick up the phone, or knock on the door of your boss and ask them to believe in your dream. I have had the privilege of meeting one such individual. Her name is Esther Marshall. I learned a lot from her, and I hope you do, too.
Before Esther tells you her story in her own words, a little background: she graduated from the University of Leeds with a degree in Geography in 2011. One of the lucky (and bright) ones, she then successfully gained a place on the Unilever Graduate Scheme initially working and training with the HR Department. No easy feat in the current job market in the UK.
I could never do justice to Esther’s story, so I’m not even going to attempt to—instead, let me introduce you to one of the bravest young women I have ever met: Esther Marshall.
Esther: "Eight years ago I thought I had found someone who loved me. Sometimes he did seem to love me. But at other times, after the drug taking and the drinking, he became a different person. He would hurt me to the point that I was scared of him. What happened shook me and shattered my self-confidence to rock bottom. I would sit in the bathroom crying and in pain. But I never told anyone any specific details – because I was afraid. I was afraid of people thinking I was weak.
"In 2014, I went to the One Young World Conference as a UK Ambassador for Unilever. I heard the North Korean defector and human rights activist Yeonmi Park speak about the abuse she had encountered in her life. It had a deep effect on me. I couldn’t stop thinking about how other people’s journeys can be an inspiration to others. I felt that all I had done was hide from my issues. I had written down my feelings, but kept them to myself. Inspired by Yeonmi, I felt a strong desire to do something, to share my story in an attempt to help others. I went back to my room each night and started to dream of possibilities of how I could share my story with the world. I knew I wanted to make a change, but had no idea how to start. I decided to reach out to the founders of One Young World, David Jones and Kate Robertson, two people who had empowered a generation of change-makers. Their support and encouragement motivated me to keep going. I wanted to help every other girl out there in the same position that I was. This was my calling, but I didn’t know where to start.
"I needed to get my story out. David and Kate advised me that in order to be bold, you have to go big. And it doesn’t go any bigger than the CEO of Unilever and Counsellor for One Young World, Paul Polman. It was hard enough to tell my story to my closest friends and family, let alone to one of the most famous global business leaders. David Jones kindly offered to let Paul know to expect my email. Writing down my story for the first time in years, I struggled on every word. I scrutinized every sentence and imagined what his response would be. Eventually I gained the courage to just press send."
Unsurprisingly, Esther had never presented to anyone as senior as Paul – so she reached out to friends, family, and colleagues rather than falling into a blind panic in isolation. If you are facing a similar challenge, hopefully the following tips will help with that first crucial presentation.
You Aren’t the First and You Won’t Be the Last
Learn from the triumphs of others and even from their “epic” pitch fails. The people around you (whether at work or in your personal life) will have experience that is invaluable to you. Ask for their advice and talk through what you hope to achieve and what your end goal is. This often focuses your mind and helps hone your pitch.
Know your audience:
I realise this is easier said than done when you are several rungs on the career ladder below the person you are presenting to, but in an office environment you have the opportunity to pick the brains of colleagues who work with that person. Take her/his Executive Assistant, or other directors who work with them, out for a coffee, explain that you are nervous and would be very grateful for a couple of pointers when presenting to the CEO. The vast majority of people are willing to help, if you are honest and upfront, about your fears and concerns. In fact many are flattered that you chose them as a soundboard for advice.
Keep it high level:
Once you’ve gleaned the inside track on whether your boss loves or hates PowerPoint, prefers pie charts to graphs, is colour blind or not (yes Paul, your secret is out!) or has an attention span that last no more than 5 minutes – it’s time to get your pitch on. Firstly, take emotion off the table (not easy when it’s your dream!) and distil your pitch down to 10 key points. Esther was advised that 5 minutes is about the maximum time people can concentrate on a presentation without itching to interrupt and ask questions.
Know the Details
It may seem obvious but sometimes you can be too close to your dream. Practice is crucial – ask your friends and colleagues to grill you, to ask as many questions as possible. If you have no choice but to go it alone – anticipate as many questions as you can and get ready to overcome any objections you may encounter along the way. Most of the time overcoming objections is the absolute key to a successful pitch. You can never be too prepared.
I have always believed in investing in people. Yes, the idea can be great and the need obvious but it’s the passion of the individual that makes something amazing and remarkable happen. So show yourself – be yourself – ultimately it is YOU they will want to invest in...
Holly Branson, WE Day, Esther
So, back to Esther and her journey to sTandTall: "When I walked into Paul’s office, sweaty palms and racing heart, I didn’t know what to expect. I had planned a 5-minute presentation and prepared myself for the inevitable questions. It didn’t go exactly as I imagined. I went through the painfully personal nature of recounting those years of questioning my self-worth at the hands of an abusive partner. Paul listened, and desperately wanted to understand the realities of the trauma I’d experienced. I revealed more to Paul than I had ever shared with my own husband. The hour that followed changed my life. I left Paul’s office with a promise to support other girls to stand tall after abuse.
"I remember writing: One day I will sTandTall. I couldn’t have imagined it would evolve into a fully fledged project, supported by the CEO of Unilever. sTandTall aims to help women access help anonymously and safely, educate young girls on abuse, and establish holistic centers for restorative care for victims of abuse.
"A year later, I was standing behind the microphone, terrified to tell my story to 1,500 young leaders gathered at One Young World 2015. I was blinded by the lights and frozen on the stage. As soon as the first words came out, I felt a new strength rush through my body. I stood tall for the first time in 9 years. I walked off the stage to a standing ovation that was the most surreal moment of my life. This was the day I launched sTandTall and pledged to help half a million women achieve their full potential.
"The response I received was overwhelming. I hear countless stories of women and girls in similar positions, and I’ve received unprecedented media attention and heartfelt offers of support from my colleagues at Unilever. I had no idea how I would take this passion to establish sTandTall while juggling my career at Unilever. Over the next few months, I was promoted to a role where I could make a positive change in the world through business in the Sustainability team. The personal response from Paul Polman and all my Unilever colleagues has been astounding. The support I have gained from their social media outreach, to the initial investment I’ve received, has allowed me to launch sTandTall while having a meaningful career at Unilever.
"It took 9 years to build the confidence to get to where I am today. I’m grateful to work at a company like Unilever, which acknowledges the importance of employees fulfilling their potential and having purpose at work. I’ll always remember Paul’s encouraging words after that first meeting: “Esther, don’t let me down.” Those five words motivate me every day to go above and beyond with sTandTall."