‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.'
When I was 23, my boyfriend at the time in Paris invited me to the INSEAD (leading business school in Europe) gala at the Chateau de Courance. It might as well have been Les Liasons Dangereuses – it was so magnificent in everyway. Through the beau, I met his friends, and realised that Dorothy couldn’t go home to Kansas anymore…. If this was business school, count me in.
As an English literature major and Honors Humanities grad, I had never thought I would go to business school but INSEAD was different. These were people who thought about the world in a way that I had never encountered before. They also expected success without a trace of a sense of entitlement.
I was hooked.
But both this beau and the one after discouraged me from ever thinking I would get in. I knew it was competitive. The word was that 1 out of 7 applicants were chosen. My GMAT scores were good, so I thought – wait until you have the management profile, and then give it your best shot.
My twenties were all about ‘wanting to go to INSEAD’. I’ve always set long-term goals for myself. But from age 23 to age 29 when I went to INSEAD, I was pretty maniacally focused on ‘getting in’.
When I did, I called my mother and screamed, ‘Oh my god, I got in to INSEAD Mom’. ‘That’s wonderful honey; what’s INSEAD?’
INSEAD is a business school which caters to globally minded citizens. Those of us who can be dropped down anywhere, and feel at home love the place. There is no dominant culture at the school which is quite a strong differentiator compared to American business schools. And at age 29, I didn’t want to take 2 years out to go to business school.
Today INSEAD has a campus in Abu Dhabi as well as Singapore, but the heart of the school was and is the main campus of Fontainebleau, France, about 55 kilometres south of Paris. The set up is extraordinary as students live in adorable little villages such as Montigny Sur Loing where I had my flat for the year.
INSEAD was founded by visionary Harvard grads who felt that Europe needed its own management school. To set up a business school is not a small thing. To believe in learning, and that you have a unique take on how people can learn is self-belief, confidence, focus and ambition wrapped into one audacious transformational move. All of us who go to INSEAD are marked by that self-belief, confidence, focus and ambition. That is, to go to INSEAD is to not believe that marginal improvement is something you’re ever going to be involved with. INSEAD Alumni are socialised to believe that they build the world.
What I learned at INSEAD though was not what I thought I would learn. Sure I learned how to crunch numbers, strategy, organisational behaviour etc. I’d always been a high-achiever, not sure I ever got anything less than an A in school ever, but by the time I got to INSEAD, I soon realised in those amphitheatres that there were some folks who were so far ahead of me in certain subjects that I would never ever catch up. I had to accept that for the first time in my life that I wasn’t the best in my class.
But what I also saw were what my strengths were. And thank god there were some of those too. I realised over the course of 10.5 months with 220 fellow students where I had my competitive advantage. I had always from a young age been able to sit down with very senior people and build rapport. I was a natural macro thinker, inter-disciplinary in the way my mind works, and comfortable without structure. I’m a classic if extreme INTJ. Compared to my colleagues, I had hired (and fired unfortunately) many people in my twenties as I had worked for myself and run teams. For the first time in my life, I had a crystal clear view of my strengths and weaknesses.
And because the contrast was so profound put into the context or bell curve of my fellow INSEADers, I did something different for the first time too: I played to my strengths. I had all my life tried to fix my weaknesses. And even when I would have a glimmer of my strengths, I would say to myself, ‘no, not those strengths, I would rather be good at these over here….’
But INSEAD made it clear, and I changed as a result.
A rather amazing thing happens when you play to your strengths: you develop an Unfair Advantage … a competitive advantage. And once you really own that, an even more profound thing happens: You understand what your Unique Contribution to the world is.
I remember the moment it happened. I said to myself: That’s it, Julie. That’s why you are here. Only you can do that. This is why you live, and what you are meant to do. You will spend your life doing that, delivering that contribution to the world. And the best thing about knowing what your unique contribution to the world is is that you don’t want to do anything else. Ever again. Every day is about DELIVERING THAT UNIQUE CONTRIBUTION TO THE WORLD.
It’s a blessing to be underestimated
I remember sitting across from the then CEO of a major telco incumbent soon after we started advising Skype on their go to market in 2003. The BBC host asked me which start-up I was most impressed with, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve just started working with this VOIP P2P company, and …..’ Big telco man cut me off live on air, and said, ‘You’re going to lose your shift, and that company will go bust.’ I remember thinking – right back at you, and said, ‘That’s fascinating; you’ve decided to underestimate the entrepreneur who disrupted the entire music industry with Kazaa. Let me tell you – he is so happy you are underestimating him. You are giving him time to tear your industry down.’
I had a couple of boyfriends who thought I’d never make it to INSEAD. I rather enjoyed sharing with them both when INSEAD asked me to join their Board of Directors IN 2009 and also named me one of their 50 Alumni who Changed the World. It’s a good thing I don’t have a chip on my shoulder….
The point being: it doesn’t matter what the world thinks you’re capable of. It matters, and it truly matters, whether you have a clue what your unique contribution to the world is.
All change happens at the individual level. The power to reshape society happens when individuals who have decided on change come together, aligned and determined. But to create sustainable interdependence, each person must first be independent. You have to own your own s__t.
In the amphitheatres and working groups of INSEAD, at the age of 30, I started to realise the outstanding talents and abilities of my business school classmates. In many respects, they were much more outstanding than me. But equally, I started to identify and measure my own strengths. As previously noted:
- I was a macro thinker.
- I was used to working in unstructured environments and creating structures that allowed teams to grow (probably through landing in Paris at the age of twenty-one without any connections).
- I had hired and fired people from an early age.
- I understood the power of communications.
- I knew how to build long-term relationships.
I came to appreciate all of these assets by virtue of the benchmarking that you inevitably do when you spend every day with 220 of your peers. (I won’t tell you about my weaknesses, but I figured them out, too!)
It’s important to understand your strengths and weaknesses because, if you don’t, you will be unable to play to those strengths and you’ll never achieve independence. Positive things start to happen in a career – and a life – when you build on your strengths rather than try to be good at everything, or allow life to carry you where it will. Once I started to internalise and focus on my strengths at INSEAD, I began the process of building my ‘unfair advantage’. This was the key to unlocking my future. It also helped me locate my true north.
Other aspects of that ‘unfair advantage’ grew specifically because of the time I spent at INSEAD, including:
- A network of friends all over Europe.
- A European perspective (partly because, in those days, before the advent of its Singapore and Abu Dhabi campuses, INSEAD was very Euro-centric).
- A consequent appreciation of the potential of a Europe-wide network of entrepreneurs to exploit the almost limitless opportunities that were being created by the internet.
- And confidence in my own ability to launch just such a network.
I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t enrolled at INSEAD in 1997, I would not have founded First Tuesday the following year. I wouldn’t have had the necessary European perspective; I wouldn’t have had the contacts; I wouldn’t have had the confidence; and I wouldn’t have seen the market potential. But I did attend INSEAD, so I was able to develop all of those ‘unfair advantages’. In turn, they allowed me to visualise the possibilities of an entirely new business network, something unique in the market place, a game-changer: First Tuesday.
So the time I spent at INSEAD was crucial in enabling me to realise my potential. But the process had actually begun several years earlier, when I first landed in Paris in 1988. As a result of making that trip, I
- met Pekka Hietala, a professor at INSEAD, which
- led me to want to attend INSEAD, which
- led me to build my business and management experience over the next few years, which
- led INSEAD to accept my application, which
- led me to identify and appreciate my strengths, which
- led me to develop my unfair advantage, which
- led me to found First Tuesday, which
- led me to make my first millions, which
- led me to launch Ariadne Capital, my current business, which
- led me to continue to play a role in the financing of entrepreneurship in Europe - working to create the gold standard for Europe’s entrepreneurs.
As I hope this timeline makes clear, it’s not enough just to gain awareness of your unfair advantage. You must use it wisely. Understanding your unfair advantage should enable you to understand what your unique contribution to the world might be.
Ask yourself two questions:
- What are you meant to give to the world?
- What can you do better than anyone else?
I believe that everyone has the potential to make a unique contribution to the world and make it a better place for all of us …
- no matter where they come from,
- no matter how much money they have in their bank account,
- no matter how many qualifications they have or what language they speak.
We shouldn’t tolerate free-riders who do nothing but take from the rest of society.
I believe there are only two types of people in the world:
- First, those who think deeply about how they can make the most of their unfair advantage in order to achieve success for themselves. Life is a game to them, and they are solely concerned with amassing as many hotels as possible on the Monopoly board. It’s zero sum: I win, you lose. And I’ll do anything I can to win.
- Second, those who challenge themselves to build a better system, irrespective of the environment in which they find themselves. They want a more inclusive world, where it’s not about how much you can amass for yourself but about how much you can contribute and build for the benefit of everyone.
I call these two groups ‘net takers’ and ‘net contributors’.
Over the years, I’ve found that focusing on what you can provide for others, as opposed to what you can get them to do for you, pays dividends for both of you in the long run. But you can’t be a net contributor for that reason. You have to go into it with the right attitude.
Focus on something bigger than yourself.
For example, when I left INSEAD, I wanted to get into venture capital. That was no easy task at the time, because it was still very much an old boys’ club. My tactic at job interviews was to focus on what I could tell London’s venture capital firms about the emerging internet scene. I would always begin by reeling off a list of those companies that had already secured funding, before moving on to which entrepreneurs were particularly interesting and why. I ended up with half a dozen job offers because I brought these firms information, rather than merely presented myself as a supplicant. Of course, I was delighted that one of those offers was from NewMedia Investors because it really was my dream job, with the promise of working on a lot of the early internet deals that would be taking place in London in 1998 and 1999. But I got that offer because I focused on what I could do for NewMedia, not what they could do for me. Admittedly, at first, my contribution was very small, but I never undervalued myself – I never let myself believe that I had no contribution to make.
That job at NewMedia meant that I was in the right place at the right time to found First Tuesday. In turn, creating that entrepreneurial network across Europe enabled me to build relationships with thousands of entrepreneurs and investors. Much more importantly, though, it also gave me the opportunity to help thousands of entrepreneurs secure funding, find partners and promote their ventures. First Tuesday was hugely significant for me personally, and its success certainly helped my career. But the role it played in building the ecosystem for Europe’s entrepreneurs gave me even greater satisfaction because it helped a lot of other people, too. Just the other week in Poland, one of leading entrepreneurs confided in me that he found his original funding at First Tuesday Poland in 1999.
If you aim to build something bigger than your own career, or your own business, you must be more focused, more hard-working, more committed, more insightful and probably smarter than the rest of the crowd. Think about how you would like the world to work, then figure out what you – and you alone – can do to make that dream come true. Life is about the execution of that contribution. Once you’ve decided where your true north lays, make sure you look in that direction once a day, keep reconnecting with it. Stay focused on your ultimate goal.
Of course, that can be hard to do. No matter who you are or what you do, you’ll have good days and bad days. There will be highs and lows, and sometimes you’ll find it hard to focus on anything other than keeping your own head above water. You’ll be tempted to leave ‘making the world a better place’ to someone else – someone with more time on their hands and more money in their bank account.
But there's a problem with that. That's not what leaders do.
Leaders persist in making a contribution beyond making money.
- Even when they have no money, they care about more than themselves.
- They are resolutely net contributors, confident that they will be able to deliver their unique contribution in the fullness of time.
- They believe in more than just money.
Most of the world loves their own – their own children, their own families, their own companies, their own nations. Most people will do everything in their power to protect their own self-interest. Leaders are different. They have the vision to see that others’ self-interest is their self-interest.
There is a tension between standing out and fitting in in every environment.
If you are someone who tries to improve, include, create - beyond your self-interest, you will stand out unbelievably in the world. Be the change you want to see in the world, but don't expect to have a dozen friends encouraging you along the way.
Changing the world is lonely. Leadership is lonely. Opportunity is lonely.
- Many people told me I’d never get into INSEAD, get a job in venture capital, never do this or that.
- Many people said that First Tuesday would never be successful.
- Many people doubted that Ariadne would become important.
I could have listened to them, but I listened to myself instead.
If you travel with the pack, and wait until the rest of your class, or your family, or the market, or the company, your nation - starts to do something or gives you praise, you will almost always be just that - part of the pack, one of the wolves, in the middle of the bell curve, one of many. No one will criticise you, but no one really will admire you for being - well, part of the pack. And most importantly, the world won't really notice that you came and went.
What's my unique contribution to the world? That's for another article ... wink... but in the meantime, I'm just here to help you think about your unique contribution …. Perhaps you’d like to start telling your story and share your thoughts on how we should build Entrepreneur Country .... www.entrepreneurcountry.com ...