Paul Polman

Business leader, climate and equalities campaigner

My Story

I was one of six children born in the Netherlands. My mother was a teacher and my father had an administrative job in a tyre factory. They taught us the importance of working hard and the basic values of dignity, respect, equity and compassion.

I finished my graduate studies in America at the University of Cincinnati, which I left with dual degrees in economics and business studies. It’s where I had the good fortune to meet Kim, my wife and the mother of our three boys.

I worked for three great companies in the years that followed: Procter & Gamble, Nestle and Unilever – all built to last. I learnt the power of creating value through different business models driven by clear values, and I learnt that serving all your stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers, local communities, the planet and even future generations – is the best way to also serve your shareholders and build a thriving company over the long-term.

I was CEO of Unilever between 2009-19. Working with a tremendous team, we showed that responsible business models can go hand-in-hand with strong performance, raising top and bottom line growth and increasing shareholder returns by 290% while the company consistently ranked first in the world for sustainability, and one of the best places to work.

You either make the dust, or you eat the dust.

Today I work at the intersection of global business, government and civil society, where I try to accelerate action on our shared global challenges, and none more burning than the twin challenges of climate change and inequality. I was honoured to sit on the high-level United Nations panel which originally developed the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. They are the best blueprint we have for a more inclusive, more resilient and more prosperous global economy, and they are the business opportunity of a generation.

I co-wrote a book, “Net Positive: how courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take”, to help support a mindset shift in business. We need to reimagine what good looks like. Collectively, we need to think beyond traditional “Corporate Social Responsibility” and making our companies “less bad”, instead embracing business models which repair, restore and regenerate our world, and which build great companies in the process. When business leaders swap timidity for ambition and collaborate with others – their peers, their critics, governments and civil society – we can fix broken systems and help find solutions to humanity’s biggest problems. We need leadership and courage, and we need to remember the human element in all this. This is also why we co-founded IMAGINE, to drive transformative leadership and partnership. Transforming systems always starts with transforming ourselves.

With Kim I’m learning to be a farmer; we bought a farm in the south of England that we are rewilding. It’s a place to house the steadily growing number of grandchildren.

Sometimes I’m asked what I would tell young execs who are coming up, based on what I’ve learnt over the years. Simply, my motto is that it’s better to make the dust than eat the dust. Take risks. Be bold. And never give up. Be human and be humble enough to seek out partners and allies in your endeavours. Don’t waste time on things you don’t believe in. In fact, don’t waste time at all.

More on Net Positive

Photo credits: David Yeo and Justin Wu.

Our Team

Kelsey Finkelstein

Kelsey has built impact investing programmes across the world, including to increase access to higher education in East Africa. She oversees our partnerships and strategic engagements, and will be on maternity leave with her baby boy until early 2025.

Jeff Seabright

Jeff previously served as Unilever’s Chief Sustainability Officer, and at Coca Cola and for the US Government, including as a climate advisor to President Clinton. He drives high-level impact across all five accelerators.

Meryl McMillan

Meryl puts her years of top PR experience towards systems change. She oversees public engagements and gets volume and impact behind the message.

Zena Creed

Zena is a former Downing Street Advisor and speechwriter, and has worked at the heart of European politics. She oversees communications and campaigns.

Joseph Confino

Joseph has spent the last decade driving communications and international coalitions aimed at transforming our natural, social and economic systems. While Kelsey is on maternity leave, he will oversee our partnerships and strategic engagements.

Our priorities

We need urgent collective action. Five accelerators can transform the systems by which we live, work and play.