The new Syensqo 'And is the Future' podcasts hosted by CEO Ilham Kadri will be a continuation of the former Solvay editions that concluded after the spin off of Syensqo in December 2023.
Reducing hunger, mitigating climate change and promoting inclusion - how companies can improve the world
When Feike Sijbesma became the CEO of Royal DSM, he said that he wanted to run a successful company AND improve the state of the world - and he achieved both! Ilham sat down with Feike to talk about his recipe for success in building a sustainable AND profitable company; his incredible work to reduce hunger and improve food security in Africa and Bangladesh; how to find a company’s purpose; his work on climate adaptation; his commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and more!
1:10 - Upbringing in the Netherlands
2:38 - Running a successful company AND improving the state of the world
6:01 - Finding a company’s purpose
9:17 - Work to reduce hunger, founding of Africa Improved Foods
15:35 - Climate mitigation and adaptation
20:28 - Commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion
26:06 - What makes a good leader
29:53 - Love of Motown music
Meet Feike Sijbesma
Feike Sijbesma is the former CEO of DSM. During his time as a CEO, Feike transformed DSM into a company focused on health, nutrition, and materials, and it has been considered a frontrunner in sustainability ever since. AND he did all this while tripling DSM’s value.
Feike has become a leader in fighting hunger. When he was CEO of DSM, he founded Africa Improved Foods, which is a public-private partnership that provides a scalable and sustainable solution to malnutrition via local production of highly nutritious foods. He was awarded the Humanitarian of the Year Award (United Nations) for this work. He is also heavily involved in climate issues and serves as the Co-Chair Co-Chair (with former UN SG Ban Kimoon) of the Global (Climate) Adaptation Center(s). Feike was decorated with Grand Officer in the order of Orange Nassau.
Ilham Kadri: Today, I'm delighted to be speaking with my good friend, Feike Sijbesma who is the former CEO of DSM. During his time as a CEO, Feike transformed DSM into a company focused on health, nutrition, and materials, and it has been considered a frontrunner in sustainability ever since. And by the way, he did all this while tripling DSM’s value. He's for me and for many, a great example of achieving the power of the AND and making companies profitable and sustainable. Feike, thank you so much for being here today.
Feike Sijbesma: Thank you, Ilham.
Upbringing in the Netherlands
Ilham Kadri:I know that a lot of people, Feike, see you as a highly successful CEO. But I wanted to start this podcast, getting to know more about your background, and I know you were born and raised in the beautiful land of the Netherlands, where I've also lived for many years and I loved it. Maybe to start with Feike, what were some of you know, those real experiences, intimate ones, right growing up, that really shaped you and you remember, and you want to share with our audience.
Feike Sijbesma: Well, I grew up in a, let's say, normal family. My father was an insurance agent, my mother didn't work, though later in her life, she started working, which I really liked a lot. I was not very good at school. They switched different schools for me, so I didn't think I would make any career. My parents neither by the way, because it was not simple in the beginning, but still it came later on. And it was a normal family but with strong values also. And I think what is right, what is wrong, what should we do? How should we serve society? Those kinds of things were in the family.
Running a successful company AND improving the state of the world
Ilham Kadri:Let me jump from you know your upbringing into becoming a CEO of DSM. Many people of course know and ask what you wanted to do and you gave such a great answer in one of your YouTube videos, you know, you said you wanted to run the company successfully AND improve the state of the world. And I always remember this, right? What was, you know the reaction in that time and now 15 years later, do you think Feike, people's mindsets have shifted?
Feike Sijbesma: I think so. When I made that statement, when I just became CEO in 2007, so 15 years ago, people said what AND? Not AND…a successful company AND improving the state of the world? So therefore, by the way, Ilham, I like very much that you, in this podcast, address the power of the AND. Because that is exactly what I was doing and what I believe in. And I tried to give the answer. And the reason is that I said, of course, a company is not a charity foundation so we need to make our own money, otherwise we will go bankrupt and do not exist anymore. And of course we have shareholders like pension funds, which normal people who would like to see a return over 30 years to be able to get a pension, where pension funds invest in the company. So of course we need to make money. But the other thing is, as a company we have impact on the world. The world never started by making money. The economy started by barter trade. You do this, I do this, we exchange goods and we live all happily here together. So companies have a responsibility and the more impact they have, the more responsibility they have to improve the state of the world. So I said it is AND. Now some people say, well, if you say one more time AND, we believe that we can forget your stock and that the stock will go down over your period and that you focus more on improving the state of the world. So I found it a little bit of an uphill battle at that moment in time, people say those two things are mutually exclusive. I said, let me prove it is not mutually exclusive. Today, I think many people say, you arrived because you more than tripled your share price and you created great value AND you became one of the most sustainable companies and okay, you're right, they can go hand in hand together. It was not excluded; they can go hand in hand. And I think we are moving if we fast forward 15 years, they will go, they must go, they have to go hand in hand together. Otherwise the millennials won't work for you anymore, your consumers don't buy your products anymore, you lose your license to operate. So I think I see a shift, I see a shift, to be honest, not only with companies, but also on the investor side. I think they are shifting as well. So glad I see a shift, but in the beginning it was a little bit of an uphill battle.
Finding a company’s purpose
Ilham Kadri: Absolutely. And you were a pioneer, definitely. And actually I talk about investors, markets, and the external audience. What's about the internal audience? And I know as a CEO, you were one of my first role models, you know, thinking about the purpose for the company. It was the same for me, for example, when I joined Solvay, I had to repurpose even a 160 years old company. And I remember you came to the conclusion at DSM to create brighter lives for people today in generations to come. So help our audience, how did you get there? How did you embark your people to craft that purpose, and how did you get them on board? Did you run into any challenges you can share with us?
Feike Sijbesma: Yeah. In the beginning, it was difficult also transforming DSM because I wanted to make the company more future-proof. That means also that I stopped some activities, that I divested some activities, that we made the switch and that we transformed the company. And of course, some former board members, some former colleagues, some board members at that moment in time found that transition all very complicated. Some said, well, you're divesting or killing our legacy, is it? No, no, no. I'm standing on your shoulders and I build further. So it was difficult. And of course also in transforming the company, it was a bulk chemical company and cost was very important, cost leadership and efficiency, et cetera. Marketing and positioning outside, and innovation was a little bit less important and I made that change. And that means also that we need to make a change in culture, need to make a change in from people or how we deal together. We did many different things on innovation, which became a very important driver for success, but also some innovations did not succeed. So we had some failures; we organized funerals for failed projects, et cetera, to stimulate internally innovation and to get the people on board. And indeed at the end of the day, we said, well, what are we doing? In fact, we were trying here to improve the lives of many people, people today and generations to come, with the planet with society, et cetera. And to be honest, that resonated very well to our own people because of course the people work for a salary to pay the car, their mortgage, and their living. But people want to do something meaningful, also. People like it. And that brought at the certain moment when we were in this transition at DSM's name is coming from 125 years ago, Dutch State Mines, but we are not Dutch anymore, we are not owned by the state for decades anymore, and we have no mines anymore, but we kept the three letters and some younger people in DSM, you know Feika what DSM stands for? Doing something meaningful. And I felt that's true. I liked it, thank you.
Work to reduce hunger, founding of Africa Improved Foods
Ilham Kadri: I heard that story, and the one experience that was particularly moving for you when you met that mother and child living in poverty in Bangladesh, if I remember well. And I know that you know later on you've been engaging into WFP and other, you know, great initiatives. But let's come back to that experience. Can you tell our listeners more about it?
Feike Sijbesma: Well, it was building on the program we started with the World Food Program and I wanted to help the World Food Program. And I realized that a lot of the food help in the world is only carbohydrate rich. We are one of the biggest nutritional ingredients companies, so I wanted to share all our knowledge and products with them. And in one of the trips, with the World Food Program to Bangladesh, we were there at a village, which was so poor and people were really hungry. And at a certain moment, a mother gave her child and put it in my arms and I was totally confused. And I said to the translator, what is this? And she said, “you know,” in Bangladeshi and I said, “what do I know?” The mother said, “you know.” Two words. And with the translation she said, you know that she has six children and you know that when you come back in two years, she will not have six children anymore.
Ilham Kadri: Wow.
Feike Sijbesma: And that touched me and I was standing there and it was a very smart lady. Uh, I, I don't know, I don't think any education, but she's at that certain moment in Bangladeshi, you know, that if you come back, et cetera, she said, you know, I know, maybe even the world knows. And I will always remember that at the end. I was confused, should I take her baby? No, I, I cannot. But I followed her. At the end of course I handed the baby back. She was in tears, I was in tears. It was difficult, but I felt when leaving there, I will remember those two words - you know. And I do, others do, the world does, and we have a responsibility therefore to address this and that stimulates me even more.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. Thank you, Feike. We know, we know. What moving story. Yeah, I mean, thank you for sharing. You also founded Feike, the Africa Improved Foods to address hunger. And the African I am; I was born and raised in North Africa, it's so important using local manufacturing by the way. And you are given the United Nations Humanitarian of the Year Award, well deserved. I'd be interested to hear more about that. Specifically, there is a big focus lately on how we can sustainably feed the growing population. The Africa, the latest probably continent we have you know, for building more prosperity, but also with the angle of what's going on in Ukraine and the potential famine. People are really talking about crisis and food crisis coming in by next winter because they are missing, you know, a season now in Ukraine. What are your thoughts on that?
Feike Sijbesma: Well, at the end of today, we cannot see the solution of hunger and there are almost a billion people in the world who go to bed hungry, already for decades, almost every five seconds a child dies in the arms of their parents out of hunger. And food help is good as an emergency, but it's not the final solution. And discussing first with Ban Ki-moon and the head of the World Food Program at that moment, a good friend, Ertharin Cousin, how should we solve this? We help the World Food Program, but this is not the solution. They said, no, the solution is local production. I said, you are right. You know what? We will do that. And they said, yeah, sure. I said, No, No, we will really do that. So we made an analysis, we started in Rwanda, we started with 10,000 farmers, now we have 150,000 farmers. We say to the farmers, we buy all your crops, we buy everything you produce so that gives you continuity. We commit that for three years, every year, a year drops and we add a year, we really commit ourselves to you guys. And we built a big factory in Kigali. We bring your crops to Kigali, we make nutritious food out of your crops for the local population. So locally sourced, locally processed for the local population. And now as we speak, we are moving into Ethiopia and Kenya and I would like to expand this through the entire Africa. And at the end, the company, Africa Improved Foods (AIF), which has so many investors, should be handed over to collectors or farmers and they should own it. And then we get not only local stores locally processed, and for the local population, but also locally owned. And I think this is the model. So I'm working very hard with AIF to get this achieved. And I think this is the model, let's make Africa self-supporting, self-sufficient in their food production and we do it now. Also, we help the farmers, with technology et cetera, to do that in a climate resilient manner, because let's be honest. Africa, Bangladesh, island states are suffering already today from climate change. You cannot accuse them that they caused it; we caused the climate change and they are suffering, this is not fair. And I would like to contribute to that.
Climate mitigation and adaptation
Ilham Kadri: Yeah, and thank you. The African I am obviously is moved and thankful. And you're right. I mean, Africa is using less than one planet per capita while others are using 4, 5, 6, you know, whatever. So indeed there is a crisis in sustainably you know, food support and supply to those populations, but you talked about the impacts on climate. And I know you're a co-chair of the Global Center on Adaptation. You have been always a leader, you know, out there on climate action and adaptation. Is it enough? I mean, all our companies and frankly, DSM is the best in class. You left a huge legacy for any running CEO today to get there in terms of neutrality, et cetera, COP26, disappointed, excited about what's happened. I think many companies we've seen them pledging Paris Accords or SBTi, but from your vantage point, Feike, in that position as a climate leader, what actions are you seeing or are you asking companies like ours to do more that really makes a difference today.
Feike Sijbesma: Yeah, I think it's a great question, Ilham. I think we have the responsibility to decrease our emissions and to work hard on technologies to decrease our emissions by roughly half in 2030 to net zero by 2050. And I set up also next to the culture of the Global Center with Ban Ki-Moon, we have also this CEO Climate Leaders Alliance, which I founded and they have CEOs and companies commit themselves to this 2030 / 2050 targets aligned with SBTi aligned with the Paris Treaty. Therefore I like also to put a price on carbon to stimulate people even, uh, to do more on that. We stimulate to use the TCFD framework for the reporting and the transparency, et cetera on all of this. So I think companies need to take a responsibility for their own company, but also for what we call scope three for your customers, but of course also for your supplier, for the whole supply chain. Also, if you discuss circularity, I know you interviewed also my good friend, Ellen MacArthur, if you discuss circularity, also, you need to discuss the whole supply chain. So companies need to take that responsibility and they can help also their own supply chain with their own innovations and our own steps. On top of climate mitigation, companies can contribute also to climate adaptation, with the innovations and their technology. On adaptation companies do very little at this moment, it's more governments who work on that, but I stimulate companies also to work on this and it has all to do with the beginning of our interview. Yeah, it is what I call: you need to do well financially by doing good for the world. And you need to use the SDGs, you need to use the problems of the world to make your money and to contribute to a better world, which I think served its purpose, but it's little bit outdated is all the corporate social responsibility, because that feels a little bit, we have company, but on the side, we do some great things. No. I would like companies to do great things in the core of the business, which are core competencies in our own business model. Make your company future-proof, change your company, contribute to a better world like climate, like hunger, like other SDGs. And I think companies have the technologies to do that. It means also that sometimes you need to change your company and that is scary. You need to dare things to do that.
Feike Sijbesma: We did it at DSM, and I know myself, it's very scary because if you want move your boat and fish somewhere else, then you need to lift your anchors, otherwise your boat is not moving and lifting your anchors, that is scary. But you need to have the guts to do that and to adjust and adapt. And as a biologist, I always quote Darwin, that at the end of this, the fittest will survive and not the biggest, not the strongest, not the fastest, but the ones who adapt the most. I think companies need to adapt as a society, we need to adapt because the old models will not be applicable in the future.
Commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion
Ilham Kadri:Yeah. What took us here will not bring us there. What a testimonial, thank you. Well, I cannot let you go. And this is a great conversation without talking about diversity, equality, and inclusion. You are a big advocate, you are a catalyst, champion. You say the diversity is invited to the party, but let's dance together and diversity's what you see. Inclusion, equality is what you do. And you rightly said, I think, I didn't hear it from many to be honest with you. I heard you saying I don't want to live in a world that is dominated and dictated by men. It was just straight to the point as usual, Feike. And you said as well, and we know it, there is a real clear business case for diversity, equality, and inclusion. How did you work to improve that at DSM? And is there any tip for many of us, frankly? I mean, I could you know, gain and score in financials, nonfinancial, et cetera in my career, but I always find that DE&I is more difficult to write really because getting women to follow STEM careers, getting it sticky inside the organization, in the middle management, you may have blockers, you don't see them. Give us some tips, give us some secrets, how do you see improvements across the board and across the industry?
Feike Sijbesma:Well we started by the way, our whole journey 15 years ago with diversity. And then we said, no, it's not only diversity. It's diversity and inclusion, D and I. And then we said, no, no, no, no it's inclusion and diversity, I and D. And then we said, basically it is inclusion. And if you do inclusion, well, diversity obviously will follow. So that's one thing, because it has to do something with inclusion, it has to do something with unconscious bias, with not realizing things, et cetera. And therefore the inclusion part is a very important element to get diversity in your company, with every topic that I addressed in my journey, I tried to spend some time on the why. People go to fast over the why and say, yeah, we know why we need to transform or why we need to do good for the world or why we need diversity. And I always say, no, no, no, let's spend a few more seconds on the why, because if we are aligned on the why, we will find the how. If we are not aligned to the why, we will have confusion in the how. And the why like you said, for me, why inclusion and diversity, because I don't want, I just don't want to live or my boys growing up two boys, I don't want them to grow up in a world that's dominated by men. That's one. Secondly, it's also not smart, it's not smart as companies, as society to neglect 50% of the talents in the world, females, women. And certainly there is a clear business case that diversity helps in a company if you look to innovation or whatever, and people need to realize the benefit of the party when I call off surprises and not always enjoy only the party of recognition, of things you already knew. If you only have men around 50, white, coming from the same university, it is the party of confirmation. It's great. They confirm each other the whole day because they came from the same school, same salts and et cetera. That feels comfortable, but it's not helpful in innovation, it creates myopia so better enjoy the party of surprises than the party of reconfirmation. Having done so, we got so much commitment on the why we should come with commitment that we need to stay on inclusion. And then based on that we develop programs, we asked a lot of questions and we went, for example, into questions. We stopped talent, promotions. Why is this woman not promoted? And we took a couple of examples and it was funny that some man said, well, I want to promote him and not her. And I said why? Well, she is not ready. I said, why is she not ready? Well, I don't know whether she's ready, but she indicates also that she's not ready. What? Well, the guy is much more aggressive indicating that he's ready for the step. So I said, so your female candidate wants to explore the context before she goes for it, where the guy wants to go for it and figures out the context later on. This is a different approach, but they both do the same. Context and going for it, but in different order. Don't let yourself be misled by behavior, which you don't recognize because you are man, but, which is very good and we need that desperately in our company. Those kinds of insights help people. He said, yeah, you're right. Maybe she's ready, but she expresses it in a different way. So yeah, and therefore, look in a less biased way and I cannot prevent, I mean everybody, including myself is biased. But we should realize that and try, therefore, to make the right step.
What makes a good leader
Ilham Kadri: And I loved what you said, Feike, about the why and that we need to pause. You made me when you were talking, thinking about Mark Twain, you know, quote about the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. And we need to continuously pause on the why, including in our organization. You spoke about your two sons, right? And you care very deeply also about young people. What leadership advice would you give to our next generation of leaders? What's your recipe of success for becoming a leader in your opinion, Feike?
Feike Sijbesma: A couple of things. What I think, which makes a leader a good leader. Of course, there are many elements you need to be decisive, you need to do this, et cetera, you need to develop a vision, you need to connect with people, you need to deliver, you need to develop other people, et cetera. But for me, it starts with insight. If you as a leader have no insights, insight in yourself, your own strengths, your own weaknesses, your own habits, your own impact, your own shadow, insights in people you work with and insight in the world you operate in. If you have no insights, you will not become a good leader, how decisive or whatever you are, develop your insight. And the interesting thing with insights is insights come with listening, observing, reading, talking with people and listening to them. And leaders, when the leadership development trajectory and become leaders even, are sometimes more onstage talking, presenting, telling, and you don't develop a lot of insight by doing that. You develop more insights by what I said. So insight is an important thing and I hope my sons and I hope all leaders in the world will work on their insight. I hope the second thing is that they work on the power when you call and I embraced that very much, what you call the power of AND. Be successful AND create a better world, not instead of, but AND. You need to do both. And that means per definition, you need to be caring. You need to be caring for your own organization for your own people, for your own family, caring for society also. I mean, imagine that you will be very successful in your job, et cetera, but your kids are not doing well, your wife is ill or whatever. And if you meet somebody and that somebody asks you, how are you doing? You most likely will not say excellent. You will say, well, so, so. And that's sort of like, oh, something with your job, no job is excellent. Your health, no it’s excellent. Why? Because the people I care about are not doing well and therefore I don't feel well. And we live increasingly in a global village globally, and therefore we need to have that caring feeling, not only for our own people, we are so interlinked, you see it down the current crisis in Ukraine, how interrelated, interconnected we are in the world. So we live in a kind of global village and I hope we will be caring. And like I often say, Ilham, I mean at the end of the day, you cannot be successful or if you can, don't even call yourself successful if you live in a world that fails. Try to repair that world and make that world a better place, in your interest, but also your moral compass interest. And that is what drives me.
Love of Motown music
Ilham Kadri:Fabulous. So last question, a bit more lighter, I heard that you love Motown music. What's your favorite song?
Feike Sijbesma: I like very much Motown music. I grew up with that, I liked it, I liked all of them of Motown. But I had one, I don't want to call it secret love because she was unreachable. And let my wife not hear this, but Diana Ross.
Ilham Kadri: Oh, wow. Well, I know her.
Feike Sijbesma:The Supremes and later on her single career, I mean, I was such a fan of the Supremes, such a fan of Diana Ross. And the music really is. I loved it, and still do by the way.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah, one of my favorites, because in Morocco, in my generation, we were listening to Diana Ross. So thank you. Thank you so much Feike for joining me today. This has been a fascinating conversation and discussion. Obviously, you are a true leader, a catalyst who is inspiring me and many business leaders around the world to actually do well and do good. And thank you for everything you do.
Feike Sijbesma: Thank you very much, Ilham. And very nice you do this podcast, The Power of AND, and you are a living example as well.
Ilham Kadri: Thank you. Bye bye.