Paul Lindley, Founder and Chairman, Ella’s Kitchen (Credit: Ella’s Kitchen)
Paul Lindley is Founder and Chairman of Ella’s Kitchen, a UK based company that is a leader in organic foods for babies and toddlers. Ashoka’s Ross Hall caught up with Paul this week to discuss the changing business landscape and what it means for education and young people today.
Ashoka: In many ways, children are at the heart of your business. What was your own childhood like and what early experiences most shaped you?
Paul Lindley: I’ve lived in the UK for many years now, but I grew up in Zambia where I knew and interacted with people from a wide array of backgrounds and countries. There was also a war along our border with Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and that, coupled with South Africa’s transitions to the south, meant that I was very aware of rights issues and discrimination from an early age. Another thread was that my family led an outdoor life in which nature was very important. All these things gave me a different kind of worldview and led me to believe that we should always try to be good to each other, help improve the lives of the people around us, and care for our environment.
Ashoka: You started Ella’s in 2006 following a stint in accounting and nearly a decade leading Nickelodeon UK. What skills do you credit with your entrepreneurial success?
Lindley: I’d put passion, tenacity, and creativity at the top of the list and they are all linked. For me, passion comes from the real belief in your product or the change you are introducing, a deep trust in your customer, and the skill to make it infectious for others to join you. Tenacity is this feeling that you are not going to give up – you’re trying to create something brand new and it’s not going to be easy. So you’ve got to keep going and accept ‘no, no, no’ until you get a ‘maybe’ or, if you’re lucky, a ‘yes.’ When we were starting Ella’s, I must have made 500 phone calls to retailers in order to get a first meeting.
As for creativity, entrepreneurs who are truly changemakers must be highly creative and able to look at a problem or opportunity from a completely new angle. This is summed up by something Robert Kennedy, one of my political heroes, said: “Some men see things as they are and ask ‘why?’ I see the things that never were and ask ‘why not?’” This kind of questioning sets transformative entrepreneurs apart.
In fact, my daughter Ella taught me a great deal about creativity. She was little when I was starting my first company, and from her I learned that there’s nothing like the creativity of young children and their ability to interpret things in a fresh way, ask fundamental questions, and use different ways to get to a solution. I came to see that toddlers and three-, four- and five-year-olds have a way of looking at and interacting with the world that is shared by the best entrepreneurs – and at present, these are things that our education system and growing up knocks out of us. These are among the topics I’m excited to explore in a book I’ve been commissioned to write on how to think like a toddler.
Ashoka: Interesting insight – does it factor into how you think about your company’s culture and how you hire?
Lindley: Yes. My journey as an entrepreneur has shown me that business isn’t really about money – it’s about people. Your company is at essence a group of people, of human beings, who have come together because they are trying to achieve a common goal. These people are going to do some functional things that are in their job description, and they are going to do some emotional things because they are human. So the trick is to find people whose gut feeling leads them to do the right thing, to make sound judgment calls according to how they feel and not necessarily what they’ve been taught.
So at Ella’s we hire for mindset, not skillset. Clearly there are requisite skills and experiences, but our interviews are really around mindset. Does this person like to think differently? Will they be good to others? Will they be business-minded? And finally, will they give themselves permission to be child-like? For us, this means being creative, honest, loving what you’re doing, playing with others, never giving up. It’s a state of mind that’s powerful. When your team has it and sees the journey you’re on, that’s when the business succeeds. On the flip side, bringing on someone who doesn’t fit with the mindset can actually disrupt the whole team.
Ashoka: What does this mean for the changing climate of business, and its potential to increase value for society?
Lindley: I strongly believe that business should be, and increasingly will be, a force for good. It will continue to create wealth, but it will do more with that wealth to relieve problems within the broader society. I believe this because a number of things have fundamentally changed, even in the span of a generation.
The fact that our scarce resources are running out means that business must address society’s issues even from a purely economic standpoint. Layer onto this massive changes in technology, social media, and instant communications – it no longer matters what a brand says about itself, it matters what consumers say about a brand. So genuinely interacting with customers, conveying human-ness, and encouraging transparency and feedback are all key. Finally, opportunities for companies and organizations to collaborate exist more and more, where more deals are done as win-wins rather than win-lose, where even competitors will want to work together for the greater good.
Indeed, the first real step towards a radical new approach to business strategy has just come to the UK shores in the concept of Benefit (“B”) Corporations. B Corps bring a new way for business to operate that exactly fits the expectations and requirements of capitalism in the 21st century. I’m really proud that this very week Ella’s Kitchen certified as a B Corp, joining 1,600 other pioneering businesses in 43 countries and 130 industries to redefine success in business and lead business to be a better force for good in the world.
In this new capitalism, we won’t be talking about work-life balance – we’ll be talking about work-life integration. We are blending values across work and society. The new generation of Millennials, and in fact all of us, expect a certain humanity to emerge in business, making it unimaginable for people to make decisions at work based on a different set of ethics than they would use while teaching their kids how to help others or say thank you.
Ashoka: How does the future of work square with young people’s expectations and our priorities in education?
Lindley: I started my career with the idea that I might have two or three employers across a 40-year period. Young people leaving school today expect to have 10 to 15 different work experiences across that same period – that means a change every three to four years. And what’s more, they may be entrepreneurs, self-employed, or have other arrangements.
So this is a radically different environment and it requires new skills, new approaches to learning, and updated priorities in education. Right now, we focus on teaching our kids to pass their exams when in fact they need to practice navigating and contributing in a world that is increasingly defined by change.
We’re working on this through an initiative I co-founded called The Key Is Ethat is helping to unlock Africa’s entrepreneurial talent. And here in England, schools like School 21 in East London are showing the way forward by teaching critical skills like empathy, creativity, and collaborative problem solving alongside traditional academic subjects. We need to look to these emerging models, many of them introduced by entrepreneurs who see the new reality, and translate them quickly into broad education reform.