Skip to content
Featured image: A Toolbox for Start-up and Corporate Collaboration

A Toolbox for Start-up and Corporate Collaboration

PJ Mistry, TRANSFORM Program Manager, Global Sustainability

“In fact, I believe there is not a lack of innovative ideas out there, but a lack of rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.” 

Get ready for an inspiring episode as we welcome PJ Mistry from Unilever! PJ is one of the driving forces behind the TRANSFORM program. Brace yourself for an insightful journey as we learn how TRANSFORM, an impact accelerator led by Unilever, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and EY combines grant funding, business insight and research, in advancing the development of innovative business models to help solve global challenges. We also explore Unilever's toolbox for working with startups and gain insights into the challenges and hurdles of the exciting world of partnership between mighty giants like Unilever and agile startups.

Our personal highlight from this talk: PJ's impassioned call to finally move beyond endless conversations and never-ending meetings and prioritize action. So what are you waiting for? Grab your headphones, hit play, and let the journey begin!

Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.

A toolbox for startups and corporate collaboration

Chris: Hi and welcome back to Innovation Rockstars. My name is Chris Mühlroth and in this episode, I am very much looking forward to welcome PJ Mistry. PJ is a program manager of something that’s called “TRANSFORM”. We'll learn from that later. It's about global sustainability, and you're around in Rotterdam and London. And what's interesting is, you joined Unilever already at least a decade ago about 10 years, which is quite much. And you started, but you can tell the story yourself if you want - you started as a management trainee and then quickly transitioned into very impactful management roles across sales and marketing. So it's awesome! So thanks a lot that you give us your time to be at the show. Thanks a lot for joining us. I really appreciate having you here.

PJ: Thank you. So excited to be here.

Chris: All right, and as always we start with a short 60 seconds introduction sprint. We'll try to make sure to keep it in 60 seconds There is a clock and a timer in the background So, you know just to make sure we bought timebox it and this sprint is all about you, It's about your career your current role. So for the next 60 seconds, the virtual stage is all yours. PJ, let's go!

PJ: Awesome! So like I said before I am really excited to be here calling in from Rotterdam. And I just want to start out by saying my personal purpose is to choreograph connection collaboration and compassion for each other and mother nature. I always like to start with my purpose because I feel that I'm a very purpose-driven person. That's where my passion and my success often roots from, and I've brought this to life, this purpose, over two parallel paths over the last ten years. And one is indeed working at Unilever in the sales and marketing function. Primarily on purpose oriented brands with a really strong purpose for people and for planet. But also had this parallel journey that existed outside of Unilever where I was supporting early stage innovators through an organization that I founded called Action Accelerator which offers mentorship tools and programs to early stage innovators. And Recently about maybe eight months ago I had this ‘aha’ moment where I really realized that I wanted to bring these two worlds together. So this kind of startup environment that I had but also this background I had working in the corporate side. And I had the opportunity to do that in the role that I've stepped into on transform back in January which is an impact accelerator uniting corporates donors investors and academics to support visionary social enterprises in Africa and Asia. And it's run in partnership with Unilever the UK foreign and Commonwealth Development Office and EY plus also SAP for our digital platform that we run called the Transform Support Hub. So as you can imagine that was a great first step on the journey. And I actually start a new role in August on the foundry which is a team dedicated to choreographing a more open innovation approach for Unilever with an external ecosystem including startups and beyond. So I'm excited to continue working in the corporate startup intersection.

Chris: And as I learned you're all in for alliteration. So we have: connection - collaboration - compassion, that is with the letter “C”. People and purpose letter “P”, action and accelerator letter “A”. Interesting! And by the way, how did you come up with your personal purpose? I'm interested.

PJ: Ah, That's a great question. I think for me, it's really been a journey of little pieces along the way that when I reflect backwards, I think what were the situations I always found myself in? What was the energy that I always found? And what moment was that in? It’s really just doing a lot of personal reflection and introspection along the way to figure that out. So indeed I've kind of changed it over the years to find the sweet spot that sounded and felt right to articulate it. But yeah, I would say lots of personal introspection.

Chris: Got it all right. And as a next set of questions what I would love to do is to just get to know you a little better. For that I have three sentence starters for you and I would like to ask you to complete those sentences and let's start with number one. It goes like this: I chose to work at Unilever because…

PJ: …I have always believed that there are three types of groups: Those that have the power to change the world but not the dream. Those that have the dream but not the power. And those that have both, the dream and the power. And I really felt that Unilever was an opportunity to find that sweet spot of the power and the dream and really work at an organization where I could make change, and it has an immediate and scalable impact.

“There are three types of groups: Those that have the power to change the world but not the dream. Those that have the dream but not the power. And those that have both, the dream and the power. And I really felt that Unilever was an opportunity to find that sweet spot of the power and the dream.”

Chris: Yeah, certainly Unilever is in a position to do that. No doubt about that. All right sentence number two. We have to talk about AI. All right, because AI is such a hype right now. So the question so the sentence is, from your perspective: AI will have an impact on my work in terms of what?...

PJ: I think really helping me focus on innovation strategies and projects more specifically while some of the things that take up a lot of my mental space today will be taken care of by the AI other that’s in the room.

Chris: Yeah, yeah, so I've heard about use cases that go like writing birthday cards and emails and things like that. So well even that can save time. Ok, interesting.

PJ: Capturing social media posts…

Chris: Yeah, that's a really big problem because most of my LinkedIn feed right now feels like it's just written by ChatGPT.

PJ: Really? That's so interesting. I need to start paying attention.

Chris: Anyway, okay sentence number three: A podcast that I want to recommend is…

PJ: …”Unlocking us” by Brene Brown. I'm a huge fan of her work overall as an author. But really listening to her podcast has helped me grow in my emotional Intelligence and the way in which I interact and support others. And it really improved my own health and well-being. And I say this in kind of multifaceted way both, the learning that I've had from the podcast but also the opportunity to listen to podcasts and build that into my routine which I used to do on my commute to work and I no longer have. So I recently started integrating it into my runs. And that's actually been really motivating to go on the run and really kind of motivating to stay going as quickly and as purposely as possible when I'm on the run because I'm really engaged in the podcast.

Being TRANSFORM Program Manager at Unilever

Chris: Great to hear. So everybody, you know, if you're interested, join the podcast, follow and see what this is all about. Thanks for the recommendation PJ really appreciated. Now let's talk about your Unilever journey. Can you share you know the journey, how you landed in your current role - starting ten years ago and now where you are today? And also what's your main responsibilities as Transform Program Manager as of today and maybe also what will be new responsibilities when you're new entering your new role in just a few weeks or months.

PJ: Yeah, absolutely. I think you know with regard to this very similar to having done the deeper introspection around my purpose, I think I've spent a lot of time over the last few years especially thinking about where I wanted to kind of exist within my career, the types of roles I wanted to have but also the responsibilities within those roles. And I really found that I enjoy a focus a bit more on the strategic operation side. So playing the part of you know really believing in the brand or the program that I'm working on but also being the one under the hood working on the engine making sure that we can go, you know as fast and efficiently as possible. And so with that in mind my transform role has been one of the first opportunities where I've been really focused on playing a bit of that strategic operation role with two key focus areas. So the first was really about how did we scale the impact that we're making on transform through exploring new models for collaboration and partnership inside and outside Unilever? And that includes the value propositions for Unilever to even really be running a program like TRANSFORM ( in the first place, and we can speak more about that later for sure. And two is really about making transform famous in order to engage more social enterprises and partners in the impact that we create. Because in the end if people don't really know about us and don't engage with us then our impact is stifled. So during this role I've had you know I've really especially enjoyed bringing my experience with the core business of Unilever to this program starting to work in the startup corporate collaboration space and really helping to create stronger links for the business to the work that transform is doing.

“One important task is about making TRANSFORM famous in order to engage more social enterprises and partners in the impact that we create. Because in the end if people don't really know about us and don't engage with us then our impact is stifled.”

Chris: I love that, and I just heard you know in the introduction you said, and also I guess I read it on LinkedIn or something that you describe yourself as an action accelerator which in itself again isn't a little alliteration. But maybe can you explain what is an action accelerator?

PJ: Yeah, absolutely. It's a funny one because actually the organization I founded back in 2017 is indeed called Action Accelerator. And by the way, I do love an alliteration when my best friends would always say that I sign most of my emails off with “positively PJ”. So it gets a little bit too quirky at times, but you've spotted it for sure. And then I don't know again had an epiphany that actually the same name that I used to name my organization is actually one in which I feel that I embody and for me this is really about you know having been in endless meetings or events where we talk, and we talk, and we talk about the problems of the world. We even come up with all the brilliant solutions to solve all the problems in the world. But really leave a lot of time whether it's the meeting or the event, and we just don't do anything and nothing ever happens. And so I really do believe that there's not a lack of innovative ideas out there. Actually, I think probably most of the solutions are there if we just kind of go searching for them or really follow through with some of the ideas that pop up in some of these kind of catalyzing moments. But it's really a lack of rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. So you know, having identified this and or felt this tension kind of in the industry in which we operate or the environment in which we operate I've really started to focus on bringing my passion and purpose to organizing actions, prioritizing actions, achieving actions and really focusing on doing versus talking. And I think sometimes that can be a little bit like operational or tactical or silly thing to do like. You know, we all want to be in those important and big discussions, but I've really had to accept for myself that I'm going to take fewer meetings, I'm going to attend fewer events in order to do that. So that I can take the time afterward to really make sure that I do the follow-up, so that I don't just run from meeting to meeting and never really have time to do anything, and so when we talk about or when I talk about being an action accelerator for me, it's about sometimes making tougher choices to not be in the room at certain moments, but as a trade-off making sure that for the rooms that I am in, I leave them and I immediately get to work on creating action and doing something about all the great ideas that might have emerged.

"Once having identified this state of no action, I've really started to focus on bringing my passion and purpose to organizing actions, prioritizing actions, achieving actions and really focusing on doing versus talking.”

Chris: So I love that because I firmly believe that most of the meetings and many people don't want to hear that- but I think most of the meetings are just a waste of time. Sorry for that. And I think also many workshops that are being held all over the world every day are just a waste of time. Due to the reasons that you said for example, you know you have gray ideas all good and then nothing happens. That's one thing, but also you need to discuss what you discussed last week, and then you discuss what next week - right? But where's the doing? 100% belief and I also 100% support that statement that there is you know “not a lack of ideas out there”, but actually a lack of execution, and we see this too! We see this a lot and if not already I'm also convinced that having ideas will soon become an inflationary commodity. Just think of all the ChatGPT hype whatever it is barred genitive AI. Just producing ideas with some context, but action is a different animal. But unfortunately, this is exactly where innovation programs often are criticized hundreds of ideas of zero impact. Can you share any you know specific strategies or tools that you use to ensure to actually, you know turn things into action?

PJ: Yeah, it's a good question I've been thinking about it a bit lately as well, and I think very tangibly probably even just thinking about an event for instance I really make sure that the first day that I get back from that event that I block off to make sure that I've connected with everyone on LinkedIn that I met there, that I've made all the connections with the people that I met to maybe someone else that I mentioned that I would do that or that I really think about how I can work with that organization and send the follow-up emails and start booking meetings. So even if it's blocking half a day when you get back but just making sure that you hold that space, I think that's really important. Another one that I've been doing is really having more, you know identifying what part of the day I have the most energy, and it was something we were actually talking a little bit about before we even started recording the podcasts. But I really tend to wake up with the most energy. And so rather than kind of drink my coffee or have it any kind of caffeine or energy source in the morning I will save that for the afternoon where I know I tend to be a little bit like less energetic. So I schedule my meetings for the mornings, or I will block certain times to make sure that I have focus time in the morning because again, it's really that time when I'm most on and really feel energized. And so I usually block 9 to 10 a.m. And then probably around like 4 to 5 p.m. And I block like a solid amount during lunchtime to go for a walk. And so maybe it's a bit much, but I think for me, it helps make sure that my meetings are really in a block of time and that I then have blocks to really focus. And I think the last one that comes to mind is that I started recently doing no meetings Wednesdays where rather than Fridays, which I've heard people do, I find that by Friday to the point around energy you're like ready for the weekend. Like it's sometimes a little bit difficult to really stay focused on Friday And so rather than really make that my “no-meetings” day if you're doing it already. I like Wednesdays because the week sort of started, you have some things that you're already feeling a bit of hunger to do, but you also know a few things are still coming, and you get that moment to pause. And it's not to say I never have any meetings, but it's that I block it, so I choose if I want to have a meeting. So I might have a meeting with someone else, but they're not able to put that time on my calendar. Or if someone does, again, this is about sometimes being a bit yeah… needing to kind of take that risk or be a bit courageous I'll just decline it or propose a new time even though technically I'm free. For me that time is precious. So I will say “sorry, can we do this on Tuesday or Thursday or Friday morning”? So yeah, those are just a few things that come to mind

Chris: And do you just, you know, also walk out of meetings? Or would that be considered rude?

PJ: That's a great question. I have heard a few people who do that. I don’t. I think I'm still not courageous enough to you know leave mid-meeting. But I try to be like very clear going into the meeting. Why are we having this meeting? What are we trying to get out of it? So I think that's maybe the balance of doing it in advance rather than showing up and realizing, “Okay, maybe this isn't the right, you know place to be.”.

Startup collaboration at Unilever

Chris: That's the thing. Got it. Okay. Okay. Just a question. Just curious. Okay. So let's go back to Unilever and also to what you mentioned before the collaboration with startups. So can you maybe walk us through and talk us through some of that for example what? What criteria you use to identify and select startups to work with like the scouting part, the evaluation part and so on? How does that go?

PJ: Yep, absolutely. So at Unilever we have a few different models on how we engage with our external ecosystem. So that can be startups, but it can also extend out to academics, government, investors, different parties that we believe could be relevant partners for some of the business initiatives that we're driving. And this you know overall kind of leads to a few different like specific programs that we have. So the first is the Unilever Ventures, which is a venture capital and private equity arm for Unilever. We also then have more accelerator programs where we're supporting startups and scale-ups that maybe aren't quite at the scale yet to partner with Unilever. But through a bit of business support, through a bit of initial funding whether that's grant funding or a bit of like seed capital investment dollars then, they can kind of get to the stage that they're ready to really work with Unilever as a supplier or perhaps as an innovation partner. And then we also have another program called the Foundry and this is the team that I'm moving to in August in fact from TRANSFORM. And so TRANSFORM really sits in the accelerator space. I would say along with 100+ accelerators, which is another program we have. But the foundry is about really choreographing the end-to-end strategy for collaboration with our external ecosystem. So really how can we have taken a bit more of an open innovation approach and look at every element of that journey instead of just building relationships with startups and the things you mentioned around, you know sourcing, scouting and choosing them. But actually we start with step one, which also answers part of your question, which is to identify the areas within Unilever where it makes sense to work with the external ecosystem at all.

"Engaging with the external ecosystem is essential for innovation and growth in the startup world."

There are a lot of internal capabilities that we have already. But there are places where we want to innovate and places we want to work in a different way. And so really helping the business see that this is the part where we know a lot about today, or we have a lot of capabilities and this is an area where we're willing to work with someone more externally. So helping to kind of identify that strategy element. Then going out to build the relationships and do the scouting and bring the relevant organizations into Unilever. And then the last stage of really fast tracking those partnerships because of course with any big company there's these procurement processes, these long vendor, you know onboarding processes… so how do we overcome some of that to create a bit of an agile approach to really kind of meet startups and scale ups in the culture that they have as well that works a lot more in a fast-paced way. So we are really looking at that full journey. So I think that's quite exciting to me because I do think, and it's again something I think we can talk about later, there are some challenges to partnering between startups and corporates. You can't just find a startup solve a business challenge and boom you know, there are things that need to be enabled in order to really make that happen successfully.

“You can't just find a startup, solve a business challenge and boom you have it. You know, there are things that need to be enabled in order to really make that happen successfully.”

Chris: Yes, yes, of course totally true. Could you just dive a little deeper into the Foundry program? I'm interested in transforming because that's kind of what you've been, you know doing for quite some time. But you said one thing that's really interesting to me about the Foundry, is that you start with strategy, with you know, strategic action fields, strategic priorities strategic imperatives whatsoever. How do you connect to that? I mean Unilever is such a big organization with tons of strategies. Sure you have a corporate strategy, but there are tons of, you know, smaller strategies and then also tactics. So how could you tap into this vast sea of strategies and find the missing connections?

PJ: Yeah, I think that this one is definitely in that list of challenges so to speak and that's why I think in that first space of trying to identify the strategies one of the things we have to overcome is the organizational structures of Unilever, and where is the source of the right - or where's the right place to start when you're trying to identify those strategies? So for now one thing we're trying to do is really the way Unilever is organized. We have these business groups that are focused for instance around home care or around ice cream and those business groups really operate as their own mini businesses with the finance team, the supply chain team, the R&D teams. And so we're going directly to the business group leaders and asking them, “What's going on with your strategy?”, “Where do you feel strong?”, “What are the opportunities you're still really struggling with?”. And I think a second part to that is then bringing together the various programs and groups that are at Unilever such as the 100+ accelerator, TRANSFORM, the Foundry the ventures team. We also have a nutrition and ice cream ecosystems team really bringing them all together in the room to say “How can we look at this business strategy and work together or complement each other to solve it?”. So rather than kind of operating as in silos even since anyway, we're all quite small teams. It's nice to really work together as one force of really partnering with external ecosystem and addressing some of those strategic elements. So we are starting that with a few pilots, and we'll see how that works. Maybe we need to start a bit smaller, but we're starting there for now.

Chris: Well, why not the ambition can be big and bold and then take it from there. Okay, cool and now about the TRANSFORM program which is actually transitioning from two than the foundry understood. But you know, tell me more about TRANSFORM because that's really interesting. About accelerators, about of course making an impact and providing an accelerator. Yeah, so what do you have like goals? Are there for example hard quantitative goals or is this more qualitative? Is it more purpose driven? What's the approach like you just mentioned something like scouting, sourcing, onboarding, vendor onboarding all that stuff… But yeah, how do you actually do that?

PJ: Yeah, absolutely. So I think for TRANSFORM, let’s start with a little bit of context on how do we build those external relationships, what are the criteria that we leverage… There are two key intersections to that. So one is our impact priority that we have. So these are really oriented around the sustainable development goals because in the end we are working on how we can improve the lives of low-income consumers and so only think about that in Africa or Asia, there is a huge intersection around the sustainable development goals and the areas in which people are innovating, simply because it’s all an interconnected challenge. The day-to-day challenge are people and planet and the kind of day-to-day physical goods and services that are needed in those communities and so looking at that through the impact lens we have six kinds of focus areas for instance protecting and regenerating nature looking at how we can also work across water, sensation, hygiene programs for instance, you know being another example. So these are kind of our impact pillars. And then we also have our geographic pillars. So our geographical focus is, as I said, around Asia and Africa, but it's more specifically sub-Saharan, Africa, South Asia, but also expanding into Southeast Asia and Colombia. And so with those kinds of two intersections, we're able to think, "Okay, what's happening in these spaces? Where are the start-ups and scale-ups working in this space that need the most acceleration support and then really relevant to the business challenges that Unilever is focused on, but also the impact priorities of the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (GOV.UK), and EY as a partnership model, we're looking across the group to say, "What are the needs and "What does our portfolio of social enterprises that we support look like today?", "Where are the gaps?", "How can we bring more into these areas?". So there are some overlaps, but that's how we're approaching it. And then from there we look at how we can create really three types of impact. And so when you talk about whether that's qualitative or quantitative I'd say it's a bit of a mix of both, and so I would focus on just what are those three impact areas and really think about some examples there. So the first type of impact is really around the social and environmental impact. So when we talk about the sustainable development goals, when we talk about how that translates into our six impact priorities. This means for us to really ask “Are we making a tangible impact to people and planet?”. That is of course our number one priority. So looking at that from an example for instance of TrashCon which is one of the social enterprises we work with which mechanically segregates mixed waste and then turns it into building materials unlocking a more sustainable model for waste processing. The second area that's really important from an impact perspective is the business impact. So of course you know partners like Unilever wouldn't be involved if there wasn't also the, you know,  “the give and the get” so to speak about how we create impact for the work that we're also trying to do and so a project such as Kidame Mart in Ethiopia where they've actually given women in rural Ethiopia the opportunity to become female entrepreneurs and distribute Unilever products in door-to-door throughout these rural markets which really extends our distribution lines. But also creates new income generating opportunities for women. So really a win-win across the board and so it still has that element of social and environmental impact. But now we're also talking here “How can we create that business impact for Unilever?” and for the other partners involved, of course. Finally, we also focus on employee impact – how we can provide mentoring and coaching opportunities for professionals seeking to connect with impact projects and get on the front line of innovation. So I mentioned the TRANSFORM Support Hub earlier, which is a digital on-demand platformer you can access from any enterprise anywhere in the world. So not just limited to our current geographic scope and really focussing on any impact pillar, not just the six we talked about. So the broad full 17 SDGs can join and get access to opportunities to make matches with, for example, employees who work at Unilever, and the employee at Unilever will say I've got 30 minutes a month to support a social enterprise and create impact, but also to really be at the forefront of what's happening and learn about innovation. And the social enterprise will say I really need support on, you know the sales side, and they'll be matched based on the experience and the time available. And then go through that journey together perhaps over a few months maybe it could be longer as well. So that's a really nice example of how we really think about employee impact as well.

Chris: So pretty broad initiative might say how many people are, you know, running the transform program?

PJ: So it's interesting with TRANSFORM because we have about four people four or five people who work full time on transform. But we have an interesting model where at Unilever there's an opportunity that we call “Flex” where you can say that you'd like to develop further skills or have access to new opportunities, so you can work like 20% on a project. So we actually have like three or four people additionally who are working 50% on TRANSFORM or 20% on TRANSFORM, so it depends on what the project or the opportunity is, but it's a mix. So that's quite nice too because it creates new lenses to the team and not just all of us working in a bubble, so to speak.

Chris: Yeah, that's good. So you have this element of rotation in there. How long do they stay? Is it like a fixed term, like half a year or something, or is it more flexible?

PJ: Well, the four people that I mentioned are always on the TRANSFORM team. Those are permanent roles. So those are ongoing and just like a similar career journey they can decide when it's time for them to take the next step in their career. But actually, I would say, a kind of pillar of pride for the team is that we've had quite a few people stay on the team since it first started in 2015. So it really shows that it's giving them, you know challenging opportunities, new opportunities, but really that they're getting to operate in their passion and purpose space. So that's quite nice to see for the Flex roles it's more project oriented. So maybe it's something like a year or half a year. It just depends on what the opportunity is.

Chris: Yeah project. Okay. That's what I was looking for. Okay, cool interesting All right, since you've been doing this for quite some time I would like to also, you know pick your brain on lessons learned and also challenges, but before we do that, I would like to play a quick game a rapid fire round. A super simple game. This is how it works: I will ask you a question and the whole idea of this is to answer fast; like speed is key. All right number one: What's the one book that has profoundly influenced your personal life?

PJ: I would say “The first 90 days”. I love how it sets you up for success in any new role, and it's the book that I've gone back to over and over again as I start any new role. It really helps me get started, define my relationship with my manager and start getting to outcomes sooner rather than later.

Chris: First 90 days. All right, I hear this from quite some time. So this must be a really good. All right. Okay number two… This is going to be interesting: Imagine you have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it. What would it say and why?

PJ: Very simply “Follow your passion and success will follow you”. Why? For me because time and time again, this has been my strategy, and it has worked both, to redefine superficial ideas of success and to create new ones as I change and evolve. In fact, it's really funny because when I was in university I used to have these little business cards that were like for networking that said my name and email. But on the back of the card, along with the sunflower which you can see behind me, there was exactly this quote and even to this day - 10 years later - I would really say that, as long as I've been following my passion it seems that success is coming my way in new ways and new definitions.

“Follow your passion and success will follow you.”

Chris: That's very deep. So next question will not be that deep but equally interesting. Talk about travel. What's the next country you'd love to travel to and why?

PJ: So my partner and I have been talking about Indonesia. And we couldn't make it work this year because I was starting out this whole new career journey and I wanted to really focus on that. And if we go, we really want to spend three weeks there, but I think for us, it's really because there's this perfect mix - so we've heard of sunshine beaches and nature to explore, and so we're really excited just to get out there and reconnect with nature. So we're thinking about it for early next year.

Chris: Wonderful. All right. So early the year is a better time to go there than later the year? I don't know.

PJ: That's a good question. Maybe that's some research we need to validate that works with our calendar.

Making collaboration happen - challenges & lessons learned

Chris: Just taking guesses. All right. Okay, cool. Okay. So picking your brain and your experience, because I think that's also very interesting and valuable for all the listeners - whether it's the voice or even the video podcast... But maybe you can talk about some of the biggest challenges to actually making collaboration happen during your time at Unilever, because you know, I agree there is a certain process to sourcing new startups or vendors. I mean, it obviously takes time in large organizations to bring new startups on board or to make collaborations happen, so let's talk about the biggest challenges in making collaboration happen. Maybe there are some insights that you can share with the audience.

“The real challenge is to find the sweet spot where these two cultures - that of a start-up and that of a large and regulated organization like Unilever - can work together.”

PJ: Absolutely and as promised, you know, I mean I alluded to some of them earlier, and I'm really happy to dig into them because I think if we don't think about these challenges and then actually try to think about what the solutions are to overcome them, then it's just going to get stuck in a place where startup enterprise collaboration just seen as a kind of "gimmick". And that doesn't really work, you know, there's not enough bright sparks to prove it. So I think the first one is an element of culture and that's one that I spoke about a bit earlier.  When you look at culture across these two types of organizations, they're extremely different You know, I've alluded to Unilever being a bigger company having processes in place, having a lot of existing capabilities that we have which is great, and it works. And when you're at this scale, that's obviously what you need, but you do have both, people and processes, that can hold you back sometimes from moving at the speed or moving in the way that a startup in a scale it might have where it tends to be a little bit more of this culture of “moving quickly”, of “okay, we have failed at this, but let's move on and just keep going” whereas sometimes maybe at a bigger company you'll then need to do a whole report on it and maybe there's like a lot of insecurities that get involved. But I think there really is this culture at a startup of you know “moving quickly”, “needing to kind of adjust the approach”. So the real challenge is to find the sweet spot where these two cultures can work together because you also don't want to bog down a partnership with “you need to fill out this template and this document” and “we need to work on this - six months NDA process”. So how does that look, and how do we overcome some of the cultural barriers? I think that's one challenge. Another one is then maybe related to that is around measurement and KPI misalignment. So I think you know, we're looking at two different sets of what success looks like? And so how do you make sure that you can align those KPIs? And not just align them but then also think about how you're going to measure them, and what will that process, so to speak, look like in order to measure and make sure that you can show and illustrate the impact to others. So that you can do more of it in the future. Because of course that's always one of the first questions that come up when I'm talking to colleagues at Unilever about the work that we're doing Is you know, “what does the impact look like show me some numbers”. So that's the second one. And I think the third one is for me scale. And when I talk about scaling, I mean working even more with an external ecosystem to address some of the business challenges that we talk about within Unilever. Well, we still need them to reach the scale that we need to supply our products. And with that in mind, how do you get a startup or scale up who has a maybe really innovative approach or technology? And how do you get them to the place where they're able to partner? And that's where some of the models around acceleration like TRANSFORM and the 100+ Accelerator for me really come into play. And so I think it's important in the suite of programs and approaches you have to start up corporate collaboration that there is an accelerator in there somewhere and definitely always opportunities, of course to collaborate with accelerators that already exist. Because both, TRANSFORM, and the 100+ Accelerator, are partnerships between a few different companies. So you also don't have to go out and create it yourself. Those are the three main challenges that immediately come to mind, but I do think one more that you actually identified earlier is around linking to the strategy. So really navigating your own organization to think about where the right strategies are that you could leverage startup thinking.

“I think it's important in the suite of programs and approaches you have to start up corporate collaboration that there is an accelerator in there somewhere.”

Chris: Yeah, got it. Okay, that's super helpful and I guess great advice for basically anybody out there in a similar position. Now when we look to the future, you know, let's talk about the big idea, right? So the vision for the evolution of startup collaboration with large enterprises. What do you see this going in the next few years?

PJ: I would like to see more of that, not just in isolation or with your name on the screen, if you like, but really in partnerships. I would like to see a lot of the spirit of collaboration, putting aside our egos and our competitive elements to really think about some of the world's biggest challenges and take an open approach to innovation. That's how we will solve the world's biggest challenges. I really believe that we cannot do this in silos or with a competitive approach.

Chris: Yeah, so it's open without becoming too complex. Yeah, that's the thing. Yes, I totally understand. Okay PJ, we're kind of close to the end of this episode, but let's maybe take some time to summarize. What I like to do is, ask you for three recommendations like actionable recommendations you want listeners to take away from this episode like a summary. Like, you know, what's the one, two, three PJ’s super secret ways of being successful in that area.

PJ: They're definitely not super secret. I'm happy to share more of them with anyone. And I would say that the first is really about being clear on the problem statement that you're solving for the business. So we've talked about that multiple times throughout the conversation so far but really start with the problem statement. What are the challenges you're trying to overcome, and then you can identify the solutions and the relationships that are out there to address it. But don't just grab on to the idea of startup collaboration for the sake of working with these very innovative organizations. Really think about that problem first and fall in love with that problem that you're trying to solve. The second would be about being really focused on impact. So making sure that you're linking the value for all the organizations that are involved both, the companies, that are wanting to engage with the startups, and for the startups. So really thinking about that “give-get” or “win-win” - whatever you want to call it. But really making sure that impact is at the heart of what you're creating for everyone involved. And I would say then this naturally leads to also really having senior leadership support within your organization to make sure that you have the right stakeholders and an ongoing support that when you want to take a little bit more of a different direction or more of an innovative approach. So make sure that you have those senior leaders who are really behind you and who are going to help you to navigate specifically those cultural shifts that we've talked about. That doesn't just happen overnight. And you're going to need that support in order to navigate through the organization and again create that impact.

“Always make sure that impact is at the heart of what you're creating for everyone involved.”

Chris: Yes, wow. Okay. Brilliant. I guess maybe we can use some of them as a quote for the podcast episode. So super, super visionary. Thanks for that. So that was the future and now let's look at the past. Finally, if you look at your professional career so far at Unilever: Tell me about your greatest Innovation Rockstar moment that you had so far.

PJ: So for me, and I think this really alludes to what I said earlier around really enjoying kind of working on the engine and being a bit more on the strategic operations side: So for me, and also just generally loving being a connector and a bridge builder, I would say my Innovation Rockstar moment was when I was able to bring together the various teams at Unilever that were working on corporate startup collaboration in order to address the needs of Unilever together. And we're only at the beginning of that journey. But I really believe that we can tap into our collective resources and unlock more impact for the collaborators of Unilever and the external ecosystem all for the benefit of people and planet if we do it together. People and planet here we go with alliteration.

Chris: This is a wonderful rockstar moment, PJ. Thank you very much. Yeah, that's it for this episode. Thanks again for being my guest. It was my pleasure. And thanks for all your actionable recommendations and insights from your current role and mission at Unilever. I'm pretty sure it's going to be an exciting few years. And thank you for being here.

PJ: Thank you for having me.

Chris: And to everybody listening or watching: If you enjoyed this episode simply leave us a comment on this episode or just drop us an email our email address is That's it. Thanks for listening. Take care, everybody. See you. Bye-bye!

Show notes 

Learn more about the Unilever TRANSFORM program.

About the authors

Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. PJ Mistry is TRANSFORM Program Manager, Global Sustainability at Unilever.

The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy or growth? Then shoot us a note!



See the ITONICS Innovation OS in action

Book Your Free Demo