One Young World 2018: A festival for the heart

After a couple of days in Amsterdam, I have reflected on an intense week of fulfilment at the One Young World conference in The Hague. For those that don’t know, One Young World is an 18–30 community and once a year conference, where thought leaders, practitioners and curious minds look to discuss, tackle, and find workable solutions for the UN SDGs.

It was my first time at One Young World, having been recommended to attend by my friend and colleague, Tim Heard, Co-Founder of the Circle of Young Intrapreneurs, where I lead on all things strategy — with a bit of social media and community management on the side! I didn’t know what to expect, but what I experienced provoked new emotional responses that provide me with hope that the good in this world will prevail. I’d say that as an older (28) participant of the conference, my comments and thoughts are perhaps slightly more nuanced than if I was at the very start of my career.

As an “observer”, I got a large slice of the action, rather than everything that graced a line-up of speakers that wouldn’t look out of place at Davos. Huge thanks must go to Kate Robertson, David Jones, the organising team and volunteers for making the event run so swimmingly and for coordinating with all the respective speakers and delegates. That was a big job!

We ran three workshops at OYW 2018 as the Circle, focused on the ideation of profitably do-good initiatives, leveraging the collective brainpower and corporate representation among the delegates. As a reminder, the Circle of Young Intrapreneurs aims to drive social impact through business by creating social intrapreneurs and supporting them to deliver profitably-do-good initiatives.

The main purpose of the sessions was to introduce the concept of social intrapreneurship, while providing examples of success (Matthew O’Shea of Ticket Aid at Thomson Reuters, where employees can buy donated corporate tickets for the hottest events at face value and donate to charity at the same time!). Furthermore, we convened the delegates around 4 of the SDGs to apply what they had digested to seed profitably do-good initiatives, leveraging their collective organisations and expertise. We look forward to welcoming all of our new friends as members of the Circle!

The remainder of the OYW 2018 conference, stimulated much thinking and reflection. My key takeaways are listed below:

1.Distributed wisdom works best: I’ve rarely been a fan of the “sage on a stage”, where an individual preaches about their brilliance and shares unrelatable anecdotes. Only with the calibre of speakers that One Young World attracts, can you really say that you are learning from experts and leaders that have delivered profound change and impact. The OYW plenary sessions, that tackled the raison d’être for the SDGs, illuminated the conference in often raw and emotional ways I’ve rarely experienced.

2. Punctuating personal stories demonstrated what true courage looks like: The plenary sessions, where OYW delegates from all over the world shared the stage on an even keel as their more esteemed, but equally as important counsellors, were full of hard-hitting, and often deeply personal anecdotes. What inspired me was the unequivocal hope in the messages from victims of domestic violence, rape and other personal events — rather than anger. One such story was that of Luke Hart, whose father shot both his mother and sister. When Luke delivered his story, driving for greater media recognition of his father’s domestic violence acts, you could hear a pin drop. It was articulated with such visceral expression, that I couldn’t help but to shed a tear. With much of my life (like many others) mostly conducted online, I’d forgotten what a courageously delivered, powerful story felt like.

Luke Hart tells his story at OYW 2018 — do watch with care!

3. Local solutions, backed with global firepower: I’m a big believer in localisation, simply because problems and solutions manifest differently in diverse jurisdictions. OYW reassured me that we can collaborate across borders to leverage combined resources, knowledge, insight and expertise to ensure that we imagine local solutions to global problems, that directly benefit disadvantaged communities around the world. We saw new political leaders (Tabata Amaral de Pontes), who became Federal Deputy for São Paulo on 7th October 2018, receiving an amazing 264,450 votes! Whether it’s through the lever of political and system change or grass roots innovations that create virtuous cycles for local people, groundbreaking change is dependent on effective collaboration and governance. If we can close the link between global funds and local impact, we can hope for scale opportunities for effective interventions.

4. The birth of the rockstar leader: The golden thread between all the speakers present was a unifying sense of rockstar. Let me explain — activists received the same ovation as musicians (namely Akon!), CEOs the same as social entrepreneurs. What they all had was the ability to deliver high impact messages in deeply engaging ways. One of my highlights was Christiana Figueiras, architect of the Paris Accord. She put forward her framework for a better world: one of Deep Learning, Passionate Commitment, Radical Collaboration and Stubborn Optimism. Her rallying cry and crisp takeaways was a perfect recipe for collective momentum and impact. Tidjane Thiam,who in my view is one of the world’s most inspirational active CEOs, displayed his empowering nature by noting how Marisa Drew became CEO, Impact Advisory and Finance at Credit Suisse. He asked her: “What legacy would you like to leave!” — after that, the job was hers! Paul Polman, the CEO of Unileverand one of the trailblazers for the UN SDGs in business, noted what keeps him young: when the list of jobs to be done exceeds his achievements to-date.

5. The Nadella effect: All these leaders demonstrated what I call the “Nadella effect”, named after Microsoft’s illustrious leader. New-age leaders need to display an authentic, resonant brand that represents values that their shareholders, employees and customers can relate to. They put forward their hopes and expectations with clarity and conviction, so you know where they stand. They make commitments and pledges with radical transparency. They recognised through self-reflection that they needed to better harness the views of young people. I was amazed to see delegates of the various companies stand up and cheer their respective leaders like the fandom of a famous YouTuber. That was a totally new experience that reinforced the role that corporates can play in powering the next generations of talent to deliver social change.

For next year’s event, I think the model of OYW can even be further improved. Here are some suggestions of what I personally would do:

  1. Coloured badges for each SDG (or theme). It would have been super to have been able to easily identify delegates based on the SDG or theme they were most passionate about. Not only is that an effective icebreaker, it starts off conversations with a common ground to discuss

  2. More plenary / delivery sessions: there were so many interesting topics I would have loved to go deeper on, and to get into the detail of how we could collaborate once we each got back home

  3. Pre-work: I’m the kind of person that likes to come to events with a clear idea of what I’d like to achieve (outcome), but also to prepare where and how I could provide value to others. Perhaps some pre-engagement brief, challenge or competition could stimulate more engagement and preparedness before the event itself. For next year’s event, I’d love to see a panel that focuses directly on actions from this year’s event!

In summary, OYW truly was a festival for the heart. I wish I had been afforded this opportunity a few years ago, as I would have benefited to an even greater extent. At the very earliest stages of your career, I think it’s a prerequisite to have your horizons broadened, comfort zone challenged, and to be introduced to domains of information that are distinctly unfamiliar to you. OYW does this, and I look forward to seeing how we can broaden the access and engagement in the years to come.