Steve Jennings lives in Malmö in the south of Sweden. He’s the Entrepreneur in Residence at Lund University Open Innovation Center, Sweden. This is the oldest university in Scandinavia. In addition to this role, Steve advises CEOs and company leadership teams inside and outside of Sweden. He mentors students enrolled on the Masters of Entrepreneurship program at Lund University, and is a keynote speaker at international conferences. More often than not, Steve is usually hands-on involved with at least one new start-up venture.
Steve talks to Dalton Koss HQ about his leadership journey, describing how his passion and excitement for creative entrepreneurship has evolved through his life journey.
“I create moments that give me a lot of freedom; physically, emotionally and creatively. The only way for me to remain relevant is to consistently help other people and companies to create value. For this to happen, I need to be out and about in the world, travelling, meeting and talking with a wide range of different and highly diverse people. It is a way of thinking, and a way of being as a person.” – Steve Jennings 2015.
I grew up in Hull in the 1960s and 70s during the golden age of pop culture and the massive explosion in consumer goods. I vividly remember the street where I grew up. No one owned a car, but then with the arrival of mass consumerism, every neighbour began to own a car. It was a time of opportunities; we began to believe that anything was possible. We even landed men on the moon. The late 60s and early 70s laid the foundation for how in many respects we define the world today. Pop culture, music, fashion and the arts saw a burst of creative entrepreneurship during this time period.
I was incredibly lucky to grow up in a home with parents who loved all genres of music. This privileged exposure to music helped to lay down my blueprint for understanding the creative process. I wasn’t academically inclined. Even though I got through school, I never felt comfortable. I always wanted to be outside playing, exploring, I had an abundance of energy, and we’d probably call it ADHD, today. I realised at quite a young age that I didn’t function well in a formal environment with a repetitive structure.
From around the age of 9, adult issues really impacted me, e.g. Martin Luther King, The Vietnam War, the hunger in Biafra. Absorbing these adult images, words and thoughts created a different worldview for me. When I was growing up I was quite lonely in some respects because the things I was interested in didn’t interest most of my friends at school. I wanted to be out discovering the world. And as soon as I got a bicycle, I was out the door. It was a revelation for me. The bike facilitated the journey of finding myself. I was getting out of Hull and riding further and further afield, exploring, experiencing and learning. This way of being has carried me forwards during my adult life.
After finishing school, I began the process of studying to be an engineer. When I was 19, I was given an opportunity to become a professional racing cyclist on a Pro team based in the Netherlands. So I left Hull and headed over to the Netherlands with a one-way ticket. This was my step from being a boy to quickly becoming an adult. I had to figure out how to bootstrap my life so that I could race my bike and support myself. This meant taking on part time jobs so I could continue to compete in bike races. And this is when I realised I could stand on my own two feet with no instant connectivity to my parents, our family home, and my friends. This experience is what set me up for my life journey.
After my pro-cycling career ended in 1984, I started to work for Lloyds TSB. Between 1984 -1990, I fell out of love with cycling for a number of reasons. I didn’t own any bikes during this period. I felt I needed to go on a new journey that resulted in me becoming a yuppie, in the world of finance and insurance. I channelled all of the energy from my cycling days into business and making money. It became something of an obsession. I was trying to prove myself. This need to prove myself is something that I’ve had to do a lot in my life, especially when the odds are stacked against me. I found myself in a highly competitive business environment where I could earn a lot of money based on my work ethic. I did this for 6 years and during this period of my life I didn’t take very good care of my body. It was an unhealthy and unsustainable lifestyle. I ended up returning to the bike in the early 1990s to reverse the impact of these 6 years of abuse.
I eventually left Lloyds TSB and started a business, the Maxim sports nutrition brand, and it turned into quite a successful company. In 1990, I was introduced to a sports nutrition technology that wasn’t commercially available. I quickly saw an opportunity to start a company, build a brand and get into the food industry. I had never started a company before Maxim. This was before the days of the internet, and I had to build the company using resources from the Chamber of Commerce and the local library. Once I laid out what I wanted to do, I received a lot of support. And I quickly built a network of advisors and mentors that enabled me to make sense of how to get a food company off the ground. Within 1 year, Maxim went from an idea to a product. And became the official energy food for the British team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. The business took off and I travelled all over the world as I set about building Maxim and establishing the brand by attending global sporting events and expos.
This was when I realised that riding my bike had created an internal toughness. Building your own company is similar in many respects to sport. There is no such thing as an overnight success. I drew on my cycling experiences to grow the business. I learnt early on to take criticism and to try and ignore self-doubt. Surrounding myself with supportive and good people helped me. Over the years, I’ve had lots of self-doubt, and at times I’ve felt as if I was on the edge of a black hole looking down at a bottomless pit.
After I sold the Maxim business, I moved into the world of technology and the internet. Innovating in the food industry is something that I really love to do. In 2002, I was presented with an opportunity to help start a new ‘good for you’ nutrition business with PepsiCo in the USA (products such as Quaker and Tropicana are owned by PepsiCo). I took all my entrepreneurial experiences to this big global food company, and once I established myself within the organisation, I felt relaxed and had the confidence to be who I am, which is not a suit wearing corporate guy.
Whilst we where living in the USA, my father passed away. He was my cycling coach, and the person who always encouraged me to stride out on new adventures. My dad gave me many of words of advice and encouragement, but what stood out for me was that you shouldn’t be afraid. If you are a good person and you do good in the world, no harm will come to you. His passing at a relatively young age was a big wake up call for me. I reappraised what I was doing with my life. It made me realise that I wanted to make the world a better place. Following his passing, I immersed myself in philanthropy, microfinance and trying to understand how NGOs function. The inefficiencies and seepage of resource from NGOs is shocking, so I started to look at new and disruptive innovation opportunities within the NGO and Corporate Social Responsibility space. This lead to me founding a youth empowerment initiative called The zyOzy Foundation.
The 5 key words I use to describe effective and successful leadership are:
- Resilience: you need to be extremely resilient and capable of bouncing back from one set back after the other.
- Belief: you need to believe in yourself, in your idea and most important in the people you choose to have around you. You need to believe that you made the right choices based on the information that you had at any given moment in time.
- Love: you have to be willing to give the best of yourself to others and not expect to get anything back in return. If something does come back to you then that’s great, but you can’t only think about ‘what’s in it for me’. The real magic happens when you give the best of yourself, share everything you know and do it unconditionally.
- Humility and Humble: This is how I was raised by my parents. When I built Maxim, and it took off, I didn’t feel worthy of what was happening. I struggled with the PR, media hype and the press. It made me feel very uncomfortable inside. It took me quite sometime to learn how to balance being humble and having humility with the confidence required to be a leader of a business and the spokesperson for a global brand.
- Privacy: It is important to acknowledge that people have a right to privacy and are not always available. The human condition necessitates the need for private moments of deep reflection.
A key challenge in anyone’s leadership journey is fear. I regularly meet people across all age groups who have really good ideas. One of their challenges is fear, that is, they are afraid and unsure about how to make the first step. The fear that holds back entrepreneurs especially those in the 40 to 50 year age bracket is that of not being able to provide for their family. This juxtaposes the need for freedom to do what makes them happy. When you conquer fear it is liberating. When you put everything on the line and you try your best to make something happen, that’s what defines you as an entrepreneur and a person. My kids know me for being someone who’s not afraid of trying new things and wanting to help others.
The foundation of my success comes from the bicycle and cycling. I am now 54 and I feel very comfortable with whom I’m becoming as I grow older. This comes from the journeys and experiences I’ve had on my bicycle. Exploring new worlds allows you to meet diverse people, opening up opportunities to share knowledge about the way you think and what you do. As a young kid, I always had a lot of confidence in completely new environments, and used to relish the opportunity to listen to conversations about subjects and topics that I knew very little about. It is these new conversations that provide new data and create new insights. I’ve always used simple tools – paper, pens, post it notes to capture new thoughts, ideas and learning’s. I like to interpret and analyse these comments and quotes, and then map this data to try and find things that connect conversations that can range from biotechnology to sustainable fabrics to urban farming to packaging design. From these insights I connect new people, create new moments and start new conversations that in turn creates new value. For me it’s about a way of thinking. But there is always the risk that these new conversations can turn out very different to the way you envisaged. And sometimes that’s not such a bad thing. I liken it to free form jazz.
I approach my physical health and mental wellbeing from a holistic perspective. I ride my bike, meditate and run in the sand at my local beach. These activities keep me grounded while maintaining my physical health and mental wellbeing. I like getting lost in my thoughts when I’m out exploring the forests here in Sweden on my bicycle. I like having the opportunity to meditate in the outdoors, this is becoming increasingly important for me. I place a lot of importance on the food I choose to eat and its origins. Nutrition is becoming more important as I become older. I tend to compromise on my sleep so I need to look after other aspects of my life. I also drink a lot of water.
My sense of curiosity is what keeps me ahead of the game. What is around the corner? How does that work? What is under that rock? The human creative process truly fascinates me. For me, science is an art form and art is science. Humans have a need to express themselves creatively. We do it naturally as children and it is part of our DNA. I like to meet and have in depth conversations with people who create art (music, literature, painting, poetry, dance, sculpting). I feel very comfortable in the company of highly creative people and left-field thinkers. If I had a little bit more confidence and self-awareness as I was growing up I would probably have pursued something where the creative arts meets the worlds of fashion and music.
Entrepreneurship is an art form, a way to express yourself. I’m not really that interested in business; it actually leaves me cold. It is creating art and going out on the edge and discovering new revelations that interests me. I just happen to be doing this most of the time in a business context.
I need my private space. Privacy is important to me, especially in an era of the always connected society. Our privacy is rapidly being eroded and that is something that gives me concerns for the future.
There’s beauty to be found in most aspects of everyday life. Life is the most beautiful thing. Beauty is everywhere. Everyone with a little bit of help, encouragement and luck has the capacity to unlock his or her own potential. I truly believe we are becoming overly dependent on technology. I’m deeply passionate about developing solutions, tools and safe spaces that enable people to reveal their vulnerabilities, share their ideas and thoughts, and realise their potential. We don’t create enough opportunities for people to seek out others who can help them in times of need. We’re going to see a lot of growth in the creation of safe spaces, where people are able to share their emotional intelligence. People are feeling more isolation and loneliness, and this is when we are supposedly more connected as humans than ever before. This change in our social fabric has occurred very quickly. The internet isn’t the answer to everything, but it is an enabler for new kinds of solutions that would previously have been impossible to bring to life.
Creativity tends to happen in very diverse and unusual places. For anyone wanting to connect with other creative entrepreneurs, I suggest joining a Fab Lab, which provides a physical hacking space to create new ideas. Attend events such as weekend hack-a-thons, find out about what’s happening in your local start-up scene, make contact with start-up incubators, and find out what’s going on at your local university campus.
“Art is the set of wings to carry you out of your own entanglement.” – Joseph Campbell
For more information about Steve’s work in creative entrepreneurship and what inspires him, please follow these links:
Crowd Expedition talks to Steve Jennings at the Crowdsourcing Week Europe 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXKd-5Q9GV4
Steve Jennings talking about trust, privacy and data at Oredev 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnCO_f4Zaus