“Did you hear about the 3000 people who died this afternoon?”

DSM CEO Feike Sijbesma in debate with UM students


MAASTRICHT. “First question: are you happy?” Silence. “This is a very interactive audience”, Feike Sijbesma laughs. He looks up to the balcony of the Aula at the Minderbroedersberg: “Are you happy upstairs?”

It’s Monday evening, 7 October. Sijbesma, CEO of Royal Dutch State Mines (DSM) and recipient of an honorary doctorate from UM, is clearly having fun. He has been invited to give a lecture and answer questions on the theme ‘Leading business in the 21st century: Sustainable entrepreneurship – future or dreams?’ The audience can ask questions, but it is Sijbesma himself who takes the lead. “Did you hear about the 3000 people who died this afternoon? No? Every six seconds a mother loses her child. If there’s a plane or car crash and a few people are killed – which is also very sad – it’s all over the news. But the tens of thousands in India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, who die because of hunger and poverty every day? We get used to it.”

“Are you rich? Oh no, you’re students. You want to get a job? There’s a big chance you’ll be among the one billion richest people in the world”, Sijbesma tells his audience. This stands in stark contrast to the billions who live in poverty and suffer from hunger and the effects of climate change. “Who’s responsible for all of this? In the past the answer was simple: the governments. But that doesn’t work anymore. We now have companies that have a big impact on the world – both bad and good. They’re creating these problems too. If you have impact, if you have power, you’d better show responsibility. Otherwise it’s a very dangerous combination.”

“I don’t think that only the governments and the companies are responsible”, a student replies. “It’s also the consumers. If we want change, we need to not buy certain items, for example.” Sijbesma fully agrees. But, he says, “Consumers don’t always have a choice. Can you choose real green electricity in the Netherlands?”

Sijbesma’s employer, DSM, was founded more than hundred years ago as a coal mining company and, after the mines closed in the sixties and early seventies, became a petrochemical company. “In the last fifteen years we reinvented ourselves for the second time in a hundred years.” The focus is now on life science and materials science. The emerging markets in China and India are becoming more and more important. “I grew up with Darwin, who said the fittest will survive. The fittest are those who adapt most. Dare to change, dare to stop and dare to focus.”

DSM is happy to take responsibility, the CEO argues. “Our mission is to create brighter lives for people today and generations to come. We have three primary goals: People, Planet, Profit.” DSM is joining the United Nations World Food Programme (“It’s a drop in the ocean, I know, but if only every company would join … ”); it is dealing with climate change by developing products and innovations that meet global needs; and it is making money and ranking among the leaders of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. “Here the discussion starts”, says Sijbesma. “People say the main goal is to make profit and only then to do good for the world. That’s not my philosophy. I want these three goals all at once.”

What do you want from governments? asks a student. Didn’t Sijbesma accuse them of being unwilling? “Now, don’t put words in my mouth”, he responds with a smile. “I didn’t say they’re unwilling. We have to recognise the environment they’re trying to operate in. There are voters, future elections. I’d like to see a stronger leadership with a clear vision. I’m not saying no one’s doing it. But when I look at this country I see that only 4 percent of our energy is sustainable; in China that’s 7 percent, on average in Europe 8. We can do better.”

“How do you manage to keep this vision in times of economic crisis?”, comes the question from the audience. “What did DSM sacrifice?” Not a lot, to be honest, replies Sijbesma. “If you let go of your values when it really counts, then you don’t have values.”

What can universities do, asks a student (the UM Executive Board, meanwhile, is seated in the first row). “They have three main goals: education, research and development, and making a contribution to society. Many universities do so per definition. But they could raise their voices, sell their vision with stronger arguments.” Finally, the last question from the audience: what about students? “You’re the people of tomorrow; some of you will be the future leaders. You get the best education of all, almost for free – okay, let’s say, not fully paid. There’s a big responsibility on your shoulders. I hope you take it and help to shape this world. Before you know it – and I know this from experience – you’ll be fifty and the next generation will be asking what you did for this world.”




“Did you hear about the 3000 people who died this afternoon?”
Feike Sijbesma (middle) and moderator and dean of UCM Harm Hospers
Drink afterwards
Author: Riki Janssen
Categories: News,

Add Response

Click here for our privacy statement.

Since January 2022, Observant only publishes comments of people whose name is known to the editors.